By Travel columnist
updated 3/21/2006 1:56:21 PM ET 2006-03-21T18:56:21

His family's cruise on the Norwegian "Dream" misses two ports of call. But is the cruise line giving him a full refund for the port taxes that he now doesn't have to pay? Find out how the pursuit of a refund turns into a bad dream for Dennis Andrist - and how you can prevent it from happening to you.

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Q: My family and I sailed on Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Dream” from Houston recently. The Dream had been scheduled to stop at four ports of call: Cozumel, Roatan, Belize City and Cancun.

Norwegian contacted me before we left to let us know that because of the terrible damage done by Hurricane Wilma in Cozumel and Cancun, the ship would stop only in Roatan and Belize City.

We certainly understand the need to change the itinerary. But when I called Norwegian to inquire about a partial refund of the $197.98 per person we had paid for port taxes, I got one of the most incredible runarounds I have ever experienced.

In my initial inquiry about the refund, I was told each passenger would receive an onboard credit of $29.98. When I asked why the refund wasn’t more like half of what we had paid for port taxes, I was told I would need to talk to a supervisor, which I agreed to do.

After waiting on hold for half an hour, someone finally took my call. After several minutes discussing the issue, it was obvious we were getting nowhere. The supervisor could tell me only that I had paid $57.98 in government taxes and that the cruise line would refund half that amount.

I called back later and was told that the rest of the money — about $140 — was a “non-commissionable fee.” When I asked what that fee was for — and for a breakdown of the $57.98 in taxes to learn how much applied to each port — the agent stated that she could not answer those questions. Can you help me get to the bottom of this?

— Dennis Andrist, Faribault, Minn.

A: My hat’s off to you for pursuing this as far as you did. Other travelers would have been content to spend two days at sea, oblivious to the port taxes they had already paid.

According to their contracts, cruise lines can skip a port of call for any reason. In fact, theoretically, you could sail around the open ocean for seven days, stopping at none of your scheduled ports, and the cruise line would have met its contractual obligations.

However, you would be owed the port taxes that you paid.

Norwegian Cruise Line didn’t do a very good job explaining the breakdown of your fare. There is no excuse for getting the runaround. But I wouldn’t go too hard on Norwegian. If you booked your vacation through a travel agent — and you had indicated to me that you did — then that person should have been able to explain all of this to you. Indeed, a competent travel counselor would have secured an appropriate refund or credit without your even asking.

It helps to understand the way in which cruises are bought today. Most floating vacations are still sold by travel agents, so Norwegian, like other cruise lines, has set up its customer support system to work with travel agents to resolve problems like yours.

I checked with Norwegian, and it turns out you paid $57.98 per person in government taxes and fees on your reservation. Paula Ponder, as company spokeswoman, said that you received a refund of $28.98 per person on your onboard account for the two missed ports. “This includes $16.17 per person for Cozumel and $12.81 per person for Cancun,” she said.

So what about the “non-commissionable fee” that one of the representatives mentioned? According to Ponder, that part of the fare doesn’t include any port taxes or government fees, so no part of it is refundable.

Norwegian should have offered the option of a cash refund for those port taxes. It could also have done a better job explaining the difference between your fare and the other fees you had to pay.

Your travel agent missed the boat on this one. An agent’s job does not end when the commission is in his pocket; it ends when you arrive safely at your home port, eager to book your next cruise.

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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