Image: Pride of Aloha
Tim Wright  /  AP file
The Cruise ship Pride of Aloha sits docked at the Port of Hilo in Hilo, Hawaii, in this file photo.
By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 3/24/2008 11:09:07 AM ET 2008-03-24T15:09:07

Milwaukee resident Anne Rindfleisch just wanted to go on a Hawaiian cruise vacation with her four friends. Last summer, the Wisconsin native scoured cruise brochures and found the perfect cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) Pride of Aloha. The group’s August 2008 voyage was all set — or so Rindfleisch thought. But in February she received a phone call from NCL telling her that her voyage was canceled because the Pride of Aloha was leaving the fleet. Rindfleisch was stunned.

Sayonara, Pride of Aloha
On February 11, NCL announced it was withdrawing the Pride of Aloha from the Hawaii market, effective May 11. The ship is set to be transferred to sister line Star Cruises, where it will be reflagged and deployed in Asia. The announcement came just one week after another NCL ship, Pride of Hawaii, sailed its last inter-island cruise before being deployed to Europe and renamed Norwegian Jade. The moves leave NCL’s U.S.-flagged operations in Hawaii with just one ship, the Pride of America — which means a lot of displaced passengers like Rindfleisch and her friends.

NCL announced that passengers booked on the Pride of Aloha after May 11 could get space on the Pride of America if they cruised during the week of their original booking; however, the embarkation and debarkation dates would be slightly different. To compensate for any inconvenience, NCL offered customers a $100-per-person shipboard credit, up to $200 per stateroom. NCL also protected the airfares and hotel rates of those customers who had made air and hotel arrangements through the cruise line. For those who had made their own air arrangements, NCL offered $100 per ticket to cover any fare increase and an additional $75 per person to cover change fees. NCL said it would also cover any hotel change fees up to $25 per person.

Frustration and fees
When Rindfleisch called NCL to inquire about her cruise, she was put on hold for four hours. “The on-hold recording said to stay on the line and they would not hang up on anyone,” Rindfleisch remembers. Nevertheless, her call was disconnected at the close of office hours. When Rindfleisch called back the following day, she was told that her party could be rebooked on Pride of America, but since the group had made its own air arrangements, NCL would pay only $75 to help with rebooking all five tickets. This was contrary to the announced compensation policy, which had promised $75 in change fees per person, but Rindfleisch was unaware of that policy. Though she pleaded with the representative for more compensation, the agent remained “unhelpful.”

The total cost for rebooking all five air tickets was a whopping $3,000 — $600 per ticket. Happily, Rindfleisch learned that if the group stayed in Hawaii for a day after the cruise the change fees would be only $125 per ticket, so she rebooked the flights and bought a hotel room for a total cost of $1,011.95, plus transfers. Rindfleisch was pleased to have salvaged the vacation, but she still felt NCL’s compensation was inadequate. Indeed, she thought the ship change was illegal. After getting nowhere with NCL, she contacted Tripso for help.

NCL makes amends
Is it legal for cruise lines to change ships after booking?

Yes. Buried deep in the fine print of most cruise lines’ passenger contracts is a provision for ship substitutions. An entire paragraph in NCL’s Guest Ticket Contract covers the company for “substitute vessel” changes.

I spoke with AnneMarie Mathews, director of public relations for NCL, to see what the cruise line could do for Rindfleisch’s party. After looking into the situation, NCL’s reservations department contacted Rindfleisch to work out the details.

NCL provided the group with the announced $100-per-person air differentials, along with $75 per person in change fees. On the back end of the trip, NCL accommodated the group by providing a complimentary post-cruise hotel stay. The cruise line is also providing transfers from the ship to the hotel. “Overall, we are doing our best to accommodate all guests and to make their transition to Pride of America sailings as smooth as possible,” Mathews told me.

Rindfleisch says is she grateful for the compensation, and I commend NCL for righting its agent’s wrongs.

Protect yourself
Anne Rindfleisch should not have had to go through all this frustration. When cruise lines make sweeping changes like this, they should also make sure their customer service agents know how to deal with them.

But booking a cruise directly with the cruise line is always a tricky business. In fact, 90 percent of cruises are booked through travel agents, and there is good reason to do so. Agents do all the legwork with the cruise lines and often find the most up-to-date deals and special discounts. While booking your own cruise can sometimes save you money, you can also lose money — as Rindfleisch and her friends nearly did in a big way.

My advice: Unless you are an experienced cruise traveler, it is best to book your cruise through a travel agent.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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