By Travel columnist

Lee Askern put down a deposit for a cruise next spring, and agreed on a price. But now American West Steamboat is imposing a $40 fuel surcharge on Askern's floating vacation. Can it do that? And what recourse does anyone have when prices change?

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Q: I’m quite upset that American West Steamboat has recently imposed a $40 fuel surcharge on customers who have already made a deposit for a cruise next spring.

The company did not reserve the right to do so in any of the documents I received before I got the surcharge announcement in August. In that letter, the president said he “appreciates our understanding” of the company’s need to impose the surcharge, since its costs had escalated.

My point is this: If my costs were to escalate, or if I lost my job and needed to cancel my cruise, American West’s understanding would be expressed by slapping me with a hefty cancellation charge.

How is it that you can offer a product at a price, accept a deposit on that product, and then raise the price on that product? It’s unfair, unethical and it shouldn’t happen.

— Lee Askern,Phoenix, Ariz.

A: You’re right, it does not seem fair to add a fuel surcharge to the price of your vacation. If a cruise line is taking reservations for a cruise next year, it should be the company’s responsibility to make sure it can cover its costs. (I mean, when costs go down, do you see a cruise line — or any other travel business — offering its customers a refund?)

But this being the travel industry, things don’t always go the way they are supposed to. As it turns out, American West did notify customers in its latest brochure of a possible fuel surcharge.

In the section on fare, policy and program changes, it states that the company reserves the right to amend its reservations policies, “increase the cruise or tour fare, impose or pass through fuel, security or similar charges, and further reserves the right not to honor any published prices, programs or features that are determined to be erroneous due to printing, electronic or clerical error.”

In other words, the price isn’t final until the ship sails.

I asked MaryJane Kolassa, a spokeswoman for American West Steamboat, for the story behind the surcharge. She said the cruise line has seen its expenses go up, but that it is absorbing most of the increases. American West’s higher fuel costs add up to between $15 and $20 per passenger a day, but it is passing along only a $5-a-day surcharge. “Management felt that in order to be fair to all passengers aboard each cruise, it should pass along the surcharges split evenly among everyone, not just to charge those who had yet to book by a certain date,” she said.

I disagree. If you had made a reservation after October, when the disclosure was added to the company brochures, you should be prepared to pay for a surcharge. But you made your reservation before then, and American West should not bill you. The reason: It did not advise you that your cruise price could be changed because of rising fuel costs.

I don’t know if you remember hotel “energy surcharges” that were widespread a few years ago. Those fees purportedly offset higher power costs, although many guests speculated that the charges went straight to the bottom line. What made hotels drop the fees? Several lawsuits brought by consumers who had the common-sense conviction that the price you’re quoted for a hotel room should be the rate you pay.

American West won’t back down from its decision. But maybe a complaint to the Arizona Attorney General’s office will help it see things differently.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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