By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 4/30/2008 2:59:08 PM ET 2008-04-30T18:59:08

Richard Schulman and his girlfriend were looking forward to their February Caribbean cruise aboard the Carnival Destiny. But as the couple walked down the hallway to their stateroom they knew immediately that something was horribly wrong. The hallway smelled like a sewer.

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Upon entering the stateroom and removing his shoes, Schulman discovered the carpet was sopping wet. Almost immediately the cabin stewardess arrived, apologizing profusely and explaining that the carpets were wet from being cleaned; there had been a plumbing problem, she said, in the hallway. She assured the couple that everything would be back to normal before they turned in for the night. Satisfied with the explanation, Schulman and his girlfriend went to dinner. But when they returned after midnight, the situation was worse.

Stinky stateroom
“There was a foul odor in the room that was much worse than when we left earlier,” Schulman says. It was now clear to the couple that the wet carpets were the result of a toilet overflow in their stateroom. “We were in the middle of a health hazard,” Schulman says.

Schulman called the purser to complain, but after 10 minutes on hold, he hung up and went up to the Purser’s Desk, where he encountered a stressed-out desk staff. He soon found himself butting heads with an unsympathetic Ukrainian named Diana. “She was rude and unhelpful, insisting that other guests had bigger problems than mine,” Schulman says, but she said she would try to send someone down to help. After waiting in his stateroom for 35 minutes, a heated Schulman returned to the Purser’s Desk, where he again butted heads with Diana.

After some additional waiting, the assistant head of housekeeping came to Schulman’s stateroom and acknowledged that the room smelled bad, but when a plumber arrived a few minutes later, he was unable to diagnose the problem. The housekeeper apologized and said the staff would “refresh” the cabin in the morning. By then it was 1:45 a.m., and the couple decided to turn in for the night. That’s when Schulman discovered that the toilet no longer flushed. Frustrated, Schulman put on some clothes and made another visit to the Purser’s Desk.

Another plumber, more tinkering, no resolution. Exhausted, the couple gave up and went to bed for the night, but slept fitfully because of the overpowering odors.

Down the YouTube
The next day the couple asked to be moved to another stateroom, but Carnival refused the request, saying that the plumbing problem would be fixed. After a second sleepless night, the couple was told the problem would definitely be resolved before they returned from their shore excursion on the third day of the cruise. No such thing. A third sleepless night resulted in the couple oversleeping and missing their planned snorkeling trip in Barbados. By now, Schulman was livid, and the couple was finally given a new stateroom.

“The staff was completely unable to do anything to rectify the situation,” Schulman says. “We were never once treated with respect or empathy.”

After his return home, Schulman wrote to Carnival demanding his $1,173.92 cruise fare back. He even uploaded videos of the toilet problem on YouTube. When he got no response from the cruise line, Schulman contacted Tripso for help.

Flush with problems
Toilet plumbing problems are nothing new on cruise ships. Go on the forums on CruiseCritic.com or CruiseMates.com and you’ll find hundreds of posts dedicated to this issue. I had my own plumbing problem on the Carnival Destiny 10 years ago after I accidentally flushed a tampon, which plugged up the toilet. Fortunately, the plumber was able to fix the toilet quickly.

I’ve spoken to many cruise professionals over the years who’ve said you wouldn’t believe the things people try to flush down the toilet. “We’ve even found bananas flushed down toilets,” one engineer told me. The problem isn’t limited to Carnival ships, either. On a Windstar cruise last year I noticed fliers in the bathrooms warning guests that they could be charged for any repairs if they flushed unauthorized objects down the toilet.

The problem is that the vacuum flush systems on cruise ships are very sensitive and easily clogged; moreover, a clogged toilet in one stateroom can cause problems in several adjoining staterooms. I have no doubt that Richard Schulman’s stateroom on the Carnival Destiny was marred by a previous guest’s flushing faux pas. That being said, no cruise traveler should ever be subjected to conditions like those that Schulman and his girlfriend endured.

Carnival responds
Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen told me the company is truly sorry for the couple’s inconvenience. “The shipboard technicians attempted to correct the plumbing situation but were unable to identify the nature of the problem, so Mr. Schulman and his guest were relocated to another stateroom,” Gulliksen says.

As a gesture of goodwill, Carnival has provided Mr. Schulman and his guest a refund of $680, representing the entire cruise fare (but not the taxes, port fees and other charges that brought Schulman’s bill to $1,173.92), as well as with a 20 percent discount off a future Carnival cruise.

“We sincerely apologize for the situation surrounding the cruise of Mr. Schulman and his guest and we hope to have the opportunity to welcome them aboard Carnival soon,” Gulliksen says.

Schulman says he is pleased with the resolution but wishes the shipboard staff had been as helpful. I agree. While I commend Carnival for doing the right thing by reimbursing the cruise fare, I think it is unfortunate that shipboard staff didn’t take the initiative sooner.

As for the plumbing problem, Gulliksen says it has been fixed.

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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