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Cruise lines to angry customers: ‘Tough luck’

The rights you give up by accepting the fine print that accompanies many travel purchases is nothing short of an outrage. Before you buy their services, all too many suppliers try to take away virtually any reasonable rights you might have in the event of a dispute. As long as everything goes according to plan, you’re likely to be OK. But if anything goes wrong, the suppliers try their best to make sure you have little or no redress. The only bright element of this dismal picture is that—at least as far as I can see—some of the most egregious conditions are probably not enforceable in a court of law.

Readers have recently reported on several such situations; here are two typical examples:

  • “When I booked a cruise, the booking engine mistakenly quoted a lower price than the cruise line really intended and is refusing to honor the price at which my cruise was confirmed. I have contacted both the cruise agency and cruise line, but neither will honor the price.”
  • “I paid the balance of my cruise early in November and was astounded when I received the cruise documents in January that the line had deleted Acapulco and Ixtapa from the itinerary. We chose this cruise specifically because of those ports. I know the fine print says that the cruise line has the option of changing itineraries; however, it doesn’t seem fair that the line knew of this change shortly after we paid our final payment and will not give me the opportunity to cancel—or even to rebook on a future sailing that resumes stops at Acapulco and Ixtapa. What can I do?”

What can these people do? Not much, short of hiring lawyers. The fine print in the typical cruise contract is, at a minimum, incredibly intimidating to consumers seeking redress for even the most egregious treatment; at worst, it gives suppliers almost complete immunity to do as they please.

A license to steal

It’s hard to believe how totally anti-consumer much of the fine print in cruise and tour contracts really is. Here, for example, is a verbatim excerpt of the provisions established by the website the first reader used to book the cruise:

“In addition, all Suppliers retain certain rights to increase fares (including but not limited to taxes, services charges, handling fees, port charges and government fees), modify itineraries, change availability, and change and/or discontinue promotions and/or special offers, at anytime for any reason. Any increase in price imposed by the cruise line or other supplier for any reason will be passed on to the customer and the customer agrees to any such increase. The Companies retain the right to correct data entry and/or printing errors.”

In effect, the fine print—which you necessarily accept as part of the purchase—allows the cruise agency and cruise line to change the fundamental nature of the cruise or raise prices, without limits, and without your right to cancel the contract and receive a refund. And they don’t even have to honor a firm purchase price they can claim to be the result of a “data entry error.”

Don’t think this sort of language is limited to cruises. You find similar demands in contract terms for package tours and other travel services. The situation is even worse with commercial software you buy for your computer, but it’s bad enough in travel.

Two particularly nasty limitations are peculiar to cruises. Cruise lines are governed by maritime law rather than ordinary civil law, so your legal recourse is more limited. Moreover, most big cruise ships are registered in countries of convenience, such as the Bahamas or Panama, and your fine print probably includes the provision that any legal remedies you attempt must be pursued in the country of ship registration rather than in the U.S.

Can you find help?

I ran some of the above contract past a lawyer friend, who told me his initial impression was many of its provisions would not be enforceable in a U.S. court. He called it a “contract of adhesion.” And he noted that enforcement of such one-sided and anti-consumer language might well run afoul of the concept of equity that applies to such instances.

Regardless of the ultimate enforceability, however, that fine print gives any supplier the ammunition it uses to stonewall any ordinary complaints. When you complain, the supplier simply parrots back the fine print you accepted and refuses any sort of compensation.

The only way to penetrate that stonewall is to bring an actual legal action, either through an attorney or in small claims court. And any such action would be both time-consuming and potentially costly, with no guarantee of success.

What consumers desperately need is a modicum of protection. One example is the current federal law governing charter flights and package tours that include charter flights. In those cases, in the event of any “major changes,” buyers have the right to a full refund. Major changes are defined as significant itinerary changes (other than altering the order of visits) and a price increase of 10 percent or more. But don’t hold your breath until we see any fundamental improvements in consumer protections that cover other travel issues more broadly.

Meanwhile, if you get caught in a problem such as either of my readers faced, you’ll probably receive the same initial response they did: “Tough luck.” When that happens, I suggest you check with a lawyer—but be prepared for an answer that you’re out of luck.

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