Cruise passengers struggle refunds amid the pandemic; federal agency report recommends changes

Morgan Hines, USA TODAY

A Federal Maritime Commission official is recommending amending the agency's regulations for cruise lines pertaining to their refund policies.

On Monday, FMC Commissioner Louis E. Sola released an interim report containing recommendations to create a uniform standard that is clear for passengers to understand how to obtain refunds.

“Our analysis revealed that, for the most part, consumers are satisfied with the responses they have received from the PVOs (passenger vessel operators or cruise lines) concerning the cruises canceled due to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) no sail order,” Sola said in an FMC news release. “That said, we discovered some places where we, as a regulator, could improve our ability to protect the consumer; that is why I propose amending the Commission’s rules related to non-performance and refunds.”

The FMC is a federal agency responsible for the regulation of U.S. international ocean transportation.

Sola found that ticket refund policies were an area of concern amid a fact-finding investigation to look at COVID-19's impact on the cruise industry, which was initiated in April, according to the release. During the investigation, the FMC conducted an "in-depth review" of cruise lines' policies and practices for passenger ticket refunds.

"Among the more significant observations was the lack of consistency among thePVOs (cruise lines) when it came to their ticket refund practices," the report reads.

Some passengers haven't been able to get refunds, while others have been stuck waiting for months for refunds after they were promised.

The FMC wrote that its investigation came after thousands of passengers were put in the position of having to try to figure out how to get a refund after their cruises were canceled as a result of cruise line suspensions along with the CDC's no-sail order as the novel coronavirus spread around the world. Some lines have issued suspensions past the CDC's order – and one has already canceled most of its cruises into December.

"In many cases, accommodations were made to the satisfaction of the customer, however, in other circumstances complaints were filed with various governmental agencies," Sola wrote in the FMC investigation.

The investigation found a range of variances between cruise line policies concerning the length of wait times for cruisers to receive a refund, eligibility for a full refund and the application process. The FMC also found that some cruise lines' refund policies had changed multiple times since the start of the pandemic; one line that was not identified had issued 200 separate communications to customers about travel changes and options available.

Due to the findings, Sola proposed that the FMC amend its regulations to provide consistency and clarity on how passengers can obtain refunds from cruise lines.

The report outlined proposed regulations to cruise lines' refund policies, including:

  • When a sailing is canceled or boarding is delayed by 24 hours for reasons other than government orders or declarations, refunds must be paid within 60 days of a passenger's refund request.

  • When a sailing is canceled or boarding is delayed because of a government order or declaration, refunds must be paid within 180 days of a passenger request.

  • If a passenger cancels a cruise that could be affected by a declared public health emergency but the sailing hasn't canceled, the cruise line must provide a future cruise credit equal to the consumer's deposit. In other cases in which a passenger cancels and sailing does occur, the cruise line's rules will still apply.

  • A cruise line is allowed to set a "reasonable deadline" for a cruiser to request a refund, but that deadline must not be less than six months after the scheduled sailing.

  • Refunds should include all fees paid by the passenger.

  • Refunds should be provided in the same way that money was paid to the cruise line.

“This proposal benefits both the consumer and the industry,” Sola said in the release.

This kind of regulation would be new to the cruise industry.

"Cruise lines generally are a dramatically under-regulated industry," Michael Winkleman, a Miami-based maritime attorney, told USA TODAY. "Any step towards greater regulation is a real positive for the cruising public."

Winkleman added that his firm has received "hundreds of calls" from passengers about refunds.

"Hopefully, the FMC’s actions will work to fix, or at least help, this issue," he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruise refund challenges abound; FMC report recommends changes