By January 13, 2005 column
Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/13/2005 2:51:57 PM ET 2005-01-13T19:51:57

He did everything he could to make sure his cruise went smoothly. He booked the entire vacation through Royal Caribbean’s Web site, and even bought cancellation insurance. But when Richard Milazzo’s flight is canceled, the company offers him credit that he can’t use – and on a ship he doesn’t want to sail on. Is he entitled to more? And how can you prevent this from happening to your next vacation?

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Q: My family and I were scheduled to take a western Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody from Galveston, Texas. I had booked the entire vacation, including air fare, directly through the Royal Caribbean Web site. I even bought trip insurance.

My family and I arrived at Buffalo Niagara International Airport to learn that our flight on Delta was really a Comair flight to Atlanta and that it had been canceled. I tried to make alternate arrangements to fly out of Buffalo to get to any hub, but everything was booked.

It was impossible to catch up with the cruise at its next port of call, so we had no choice but to cancel our vacation.

I called Royal Caribbean and was told that there would be no refund for the cruise and that our trip insurance didn’t apply because we hadn’t started our trip. As a customer courtesy, a representative agreed to my family a credit for another cruise, but it was only good for a year and couldn’t be used on Celebrity, Royal Caribbean’s sister company.

I was given only a few days to accept the offer, and if I didn’t, I was told it would be withdrawn.

I’m not happy with that resolution. My family’s schedule does not permit us to take another cruise this year. We would like to use our credit on a Celebrity cruise, too. After all that we’ve been through, why won’t they allow that?

— Richard Milazzo Clarence, NY

A: Royal Caribbean is being a royal pain, isn’t it? And especially after you missed your entire vacation, you’d expect it to be a little more understanding.

I think you did everything you could to prevent this from happening. You booked your cruise directly with the cruise line. You purchased your airfare through the company. You even bought insurance.

Royal Caribbean, on the other hand, seems to be doing everything it can to prevent you from salvaging your vacation. I especially like the part about the expiring offer. Please!

As it turns out, your grievance was still in the company’s “active” file, meaning that Royal Caribbean was working on finding a resolution. (So ignore that whole expiring offer – that was just an idle threat.)

When you booked your cruise through the Web site, you accepted Royal Caribbean’s terms of service. By now, you’re aware of the fine print, since you’ve spent lots of quality time on the phone with the cruise line’s customer-service representatives. “We would not be able to offer a refund,” Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Jaye Hilton told me.

Under your cancellation policy, you are entitled to 75 percent of your money back. Typically, the credit is issued for the cruise line you were on, so you wouldn’t be able to take your credit to Celebrity.

I think this is a case where a good travel agent might have been able to help. A well-connected travel advisor can pull some strings and straighten this mess out for you (and in fact, might have been able to save your vacation in the first place).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of direct booking. Dealing directly with a travel company works great when you’re buying an airline ticket or reserving a hotel room. But for a vacation at sea – which tends to be a more complex itinerary — a competent travel agent might have served you far better.

Royal Caribbean acknowledged the frustrations you and your family have experienced in not being able to take the cruise you had planned for. The cruise line has issued a refund for your airfare. It also offered your 100 percent cruise credit, transferable to Celebrity, for up to two years. That should give you enough time to plan another vacation.

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 noteor visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story.

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