Thousands of cruisers' plans were dashed earlier this year when coronavirus shut down the cruise industry.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued – and later extended – a no-sail order, which is now set to expire on July 24, though many lines have extended their sailing suspensions past that date. In fact, on Friday, Cruise Lines International Association, the leading trade organization for the global ocean-going cruise industry, said its member cruise lines are voluntarily extending the suspension of U.S. cruise operations until Sept. 15.
Cruisers from Seattle were "trying to be good citizens" by canceling their voyage, another canceled less than an hour before refunds became an option and another was unable to board due to health issues, but cruise lines aren't budging on many refund cases.
No cruises until Sept. 15: Cruise industry announces voluntariUS sailing suspension
Seattle family was 'trying to be good citizens' by canceling cruise
Akshay Ahooja had planned a reunion sailing for 14 family members leaving from Florida on Celebrity Cruises with immediate and extended family and was set to embark on March 15. Then, on March 6, King County, Washington, which includes Seattle (one of the early hot spots in the U.S.), published a message supporting guidance recommending that workers stay at home. Gov. Jay Inslee had already declared a state of emergency on Feb. 29.
When the call to stay home came, Ahooja reached out to Celebrity about canceling his cruise and asked about his options, he told USA TODAY.
"They inform(ed) us that the cruise is still on, and the only option at the moment is to cancel and get credit," he said. "If we don't do this, we were at the risk of losing all our money when it sets sail."
Ahooja and his family decided to cancel and take the credit, though it's unlikely they'll use it.
They spent over $20,000 on staterooms alone, he said. And with the rest of the payments for onboard services, flights and hotels, the total amounted to about $31,000.
A refund was not an option on March 6. But less than a week later on March 13, it was. Ahooja noticed that Celebrity Cruises issued a voluntary sailing suspension and was offering refunds. His cruise was scheduled to sail two days later. "It feels very unfair."
Jonathon Fishman, spokesperson for Royal Caribbean, the parent company to Celebrity, told USA TODAY, that Ahooja received his future cruise credit on May 2, after everything was processed.
But Ahooja would have preferred a refund.
"I think if they have canceled the cruise, then any passenger should get their money back," Ahooja said. "They promised us a service for that cruise and they were not able to fulfill it, so they should return us the money."
"We were trying to be good citizens (by canceling)," Ahooja explained. He said it would have been risky to leave a hot spot and potentially take the virus onto a cruise, especially coming from an apparent hotspot like Seattle.
"It wasn't only that it wouldn’t be safe for us," he added, noting that his father and mother-in-law, who would have been sailing with them, are immunocompromised. "It would not be safe for the whole ship."
Ahooja thinks that Celebrity's cancellation policy, which allows them to refuse a refund based on the timing of the request, no longer makes sense given the pandemic.
"They just are hiding behind this technicality that you decided to cancel on your own," he said.
No exceptions for seniors or people with disabilities
Debbie Deland, from Oviedo, Florida, who had been booked on a Norwegian Cruise Line sailing, canceled in advance of that company's sailing suspension and won't get back the more than $5,000 she spent on the trip.
She had been planning on taking a Caribbean cruise March 23 with her 25-year-old daughter and her 80-year-old mother, a two-time cancer survivor.
Deland told USA TODAY that they canceled on March 10, just days before Norwegian issued a formal sailing suspension on March 13.
"Debbie canceled on March 10, 2020, under the Peace of Mind policy and received a 100% future cruise credit," Christine Da Silva, vice president of communications for Norwegian, told USA TODAY.
On March 11, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) submitted a plan to Vice President Michael Pence proposing enhanced measures across the industry as ships were confronted with coronavirus. One proposal suggested boarding be denied to any person over the age of 70 years unless they were able to present a doctor's note verifying their fitness for travel on a cruise ship.
Norwegian adopted that proposal shortly after it was publicized.
Deland reached out to a doctor and received a written note that said her mother was not fit to cruise in hopes of bolstering her chances for a refund. Deland's mother's doctor issued a note on May 21, the letter obtained by USA TODAY showed. Despite the later issuance of the letter, Deland had told Norwegian about her mother's cancer and her age prior to when she canceled.
"In speaking with my team, I am told we did not ask Debbie or her mother for a certification of medical fitness," Da Silva said. "The need for a form came after her cancellation."
Thirteen days after canceling, she put in a refund request and was told she was not eligible for a refund since she canceled before the cruise line did.
"If guests cancel under the Peace of Mind policy prior to us suspending a sailing, they will receive a future cruise credit," Da Silva said.
The policy doesn't leave room for exceptions.
"We were driving to New Orleans from Iowa with a young adult in a wheelchair with a compromised immune system," Jamie Nelson told USA TODAY via Facebook.
Nelson's son was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. He also has a seizure disorder and is prone to upper respiratory issues because of his lack of mobility.
"That was the week that COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and the CDC issued a warning about cruise travel," his wife, Jennifer, told USA TODAY.
The couple said they didn't want to expose their son to "one of the biggest hot spots" only to find out that their cruise had been canceled. Plus, their employers would have required a 14-day quarantine without the option to telework upon their return.
Their deadline to cancel was at noon on March 13 under Norwegian's Peace of Mind policy. Since it wasn't a "safe option," they made the call to contact the cruise line.
When the deadline neared, they canceled. Norwegian suspended all cruises through April 11 less than an hour later, she added.
In a copy of an email the Nelsons received from Norwegian Cruise Line's guest relations team obtained by USA TODAY, a representative told Jamie that the cruise line understands the "complexity" of the situation but no consideration would be given for special cases.
"You chose to cancel, which we respect, the others were forced to cancel," the email reads. "That is why the compensation is different."
"Jennifer and Jamie canceled on March 13, two days before the sailing and prior to our suspension of voyages," said Da Silva. "They did not have travel protection, and as such, the standard cancellation policy applied."
Da Silva added that the cruise line has a number of refund requests coming in. "(We) are striving to do all we can to put our guests first while being fair and equitable to all."
Is the 'technicality' legal?
The short answer? Yes.
"From a customer relations perspective, offering a refund would be the appropriate response," said Jeff Ment, a travel attorney based in Connecticut. "Legally, however, there is no requirement to offer someone a refund if none was owed at the time of cancellation."
Despite the legality, Miami-based maritime attorney Michael Winkleman told USA TODAY that he thinks cruise lines are handling the situation poorly. "It’s very common for the cruise lines to be very draconian in their approach to handling refunds."
When you purchase a ticket for a cruise, you are essentially agreeing to a legal contract, Winkleman explained. There are details in the fine print about when you can cancel, how much money you can get back, etc. But coronavirus took the industry, like many others, into uncharted territory.
Winkleman said he's had about 100 calls and emails from cruisers about how cruise lines are handling refunds and refund policies.
It is possible, Winkleman thinks, to bring an arbitration against a cruise line – in which an arbitrator would be brought in to settle a dispute between an unhappy customer and a cruise line – but it's likely the arbitrator would be more friendly to the company, he said.
"I think the repercussions will come primarily from customer complaints, losing customers, things of that nature," Winkleman said.
If frustrated customers are looking to bring lawsuits against cruise lines using technicalities, it will be an "uphill battle," he added.
My cruise was canceled due to coronavirus: Here's how experts say you should navigate refunds, credits
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruise cancellations: Refunds elusive for some claiming 'technicality'