By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 2/5/2010 7:23:50 PM ET 2010-02-06T00:23:50

The DeBorde family of Galveston, Texas had high hopes for their first-ever cruise vacation — a four-day sailing on the Carnival Ecstasy from their hometown to Mexico. According to the DeBordes the cruise didn’t live up to what was promised in Carnival’s brochure or Web site and they wanted the line to own up to its “Vacation Guarantee” so they could get off the ship and get their money back. There was just one big problem — they didn’t tell Carnival they wanted to leave.

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Finding the perfect getaway
The DeBordes have been through a lot as their 10-year-old son has endured a chronic health condition that has required over thirty-five surgeries in his short life. Kristi DeBorde told me that she promised her son when he was healthy enough to travel the family would go away on a special vacation. When the doctors finally gave the go ahead for the family to travel she scoured the Internet for two months searching for the perfect getaway within their budget.

The family decided on a cruise aboard the Carnival Ecstasy from Galveston since it offered everything they wanted in a vacation including a children’s area with many activities to suit their son. The DeBordes had never been on a cruise and Kristi wasn’t completely sure if it was the best option for her son. Before booking she called Carnival for reassurance to confirm that all the activities listed in the brochure and online would be onboard during the cruise, she was told yes. She was sold and booked the cruise.

This is not like the brochure!
When the family boarded the Ecstasy they were not happy because the virtual tour on Carnival’s Web site did not match the actual ship. “The queen bed that was promised by phone from the Carnival representative was actually two twin beds pushed together, our window was cloudy, dirty, and could hardly see out of it,” said Kristi DeBorde.

She complained that the food was “horrendous” and was upset that the laser tag that was on the Camp Carnival children’s program was cancelled and that there was only coloring and finger-painting. Additionally, there was no basketball court on the Ecstasy as depicted on the Web site and the miniature golf course was impossible to use because it was too windy. The aforementioned activities were important to DeBorde’s son because he is not allowed to swim since he has a stomach catheter. On the second day of the cruise she says her son wanted to go to the 12-14 year old room to play X-Box, however, he wasn’t allowed because he was only 10.

By this time Kristi DeBorde had had enough and went to Guest Services after noticing Carnival’s Vacation Guarantee. The guarantee states if a guest isn’t completely satisfied with their cruise experience Carnival will refund the unused portion of the cruise fare and pay for the flight back to the embarkation port. There was one stipulation — a guest must notify onboard managers before arrival of the first non-U.S. port of call. Since the following day the ship was docking in Cozumel the family met the criteria.

Kristi DeBorde says she was in tears when speaking with personnel at Guest Services and stated that she wanted to go home. The crew member told her that the hotel director would call her in the morning. The following day when the ship docked in Mexico there was no call. Upset, DeBorde returned to Guest Services only to be told that Camp Carnival was going to have a party for her son. She advised them that this was not good enough and demanded to speak with a manager. Later in the evening, while the ship was headed back to Galveston, the hotel director called the family and invited them to come to his office.

The best cruise deals around the worldSince Kristi DeBorde believed Carnival’s Web site was full of “false advertising” the hotel director went over the Web site with her. In regards to her complaint that the pictures did not match the ship he told her that the online pictures were just general photos and that information about the Ecstasy wasn’t up to date in regards to basketball court. He tried to reassure DeBorde that the dining and other activities onboard for her son would be better. Still, she was not satisfied, and the hotel director typed a letter with a reference number and advised DeBorde to call Carnival headquarters in Miami when the family returned home.

When the DeBordes returned home they immediately called Carnival to vent their complaints. A guest relations supervisor stated it wasn’t the line’s fault because her son couldn’t find something to do and that food complaints were subjective. When she asked why she wasn’t allowed to use Carnival’s Vacation Guarantee the supervisor told her since she didn’t specifically state “I want to disembark the ship” she did not qualify. “I am not sure how they could misunderstand what it was I wanted as I was crying and telling them we wanted to go home,” said DeBorde.

After getting nowhere with Carnival, the DeBordes contacted Consumer Traveler for help.

Carnival’s Vacation Guarantee
In an industry that sells fun, sun, fine dining, and adventure, glossy brochures and spiffy Web sites can raise some very high expectations. Clearly, the DeBordes cruise to Mexico didn’t live up to what they expected from Carnival’s Web site. Were their expectations reasonable? Could Carnival have done more?

Top 10 short cruise vacationsI contacted Carnival to get their side of the story and spoke with Carnival spokesperson, Vance Gulliksen. While researching the family’s complaint Gulliksen told me the DeBordes complaints and meetings with ship personnel were logged through a tracking system that is tied to guest relations. The report confirmed Kristi DeBordes account regarding food and activities, but she never requested to leave the ship in Cozumel. “On Carnival ships, if you invoke the Vacation Guarantee, you are absolutely allowed to do so and disembark the ship and get a partial refund as long as you follow the parameters,” said Gulliksen.

Cruising isn’t for everyone
Kristi DeBorde is very disappointed in Carnival’s stance. “I would have gone to Disney World had I known the only thing for my son to do was watch a couple of 200-pound women dirty dancing on each other or watch other sweaty people get belligerently drunk for four days. There are many different ways I could have spent our $1,600,” she said.

While I sympathize with the DeBordes all of this could have been prevented if they had consulted with a knowledgeable travel agent, especially since it was their first cruise. An agent would have briefed them on what cruising is really like from accommodations (all cruise ship staterooms have convertible beds) to amenities, facilities, and clientele to make sure it met their requirements. Most importantly for the DeBordes, a travel agent would have gone to bat for them when they weren’t happy with their cruise and would have told them to invoke Carnival’s Vacation Guarantee.

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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