By Travel columnist
updated 6/9/2005 2:29:24 PM ET 2005-06-09T18:29:24

When Miriam Lehrer disembarks from her Mexican cruise, she's given bad news: her luggage has been “dumped” overboard. Even though Princess Cruises sends divers to retrieve her valuables, it is unable to find her belongings. The company promises her a free cruise and cuts her a $500 check, but that’s doesn’t even begin to cover her losses. Is the lost luggage a lost cause? Find out how you can prevent this from happening to you on your next vacation.

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Q: My husband and I recently took a cruise on the Star Princess to the Mexican Riviera. When we disembarked in Long Beach, Calif., we were advised that our luggage had been “dumped” into the ocean.

Princess representatives assured us they would take care of everything. They sent divers to retrieve our luggage and noted our contact information at the hotel where we had planned an extension of our vacation

When we checked into our hotel, we anxiously waited for a call or for the luggage to arrive. However, despite their promises, we heard from no one from Princess Cruises. We spent the rest or our vacation with only the clothes on our back.

What started out as a wonderful vacation turned out to be a nightmare. Princess eventually told us it wasn’t responsible for the luggage. It sent us to a company called Metro Risk Management for compensation. The company didn’t respond to any of our inquiries, so we went back to Princess.

Finally, we reached someone at Princess who said he would be in charge of our claim and that Princess Cruises along with Metro Risk Management were going to compensate us for all our losses and aggravation. Part of the compensation, he said, would be a free cruise.

Months later, my husband and I received checks for $500 from Metro Risk Management. That didn’t even come close to covering our losses, which were in excess of $5,000. Princess never made good on the free cruise. Can you help us?

— Miriam LehrerBoynton Beach, Fla.

A: This is the first time I’ve heard of luggage being “dumped” into the ocean. The cruise lines, unlike the airlines, are not required to report mishandled luggage to the federal government, so I can’t tell you how common this problem is. But if I had to make an educated guess, I’d say the amount of bags that go swimming is statistically insignificant.

Still, after looking into your claim, it’s obvious that your luggage did indeed go overboard.

That’s an unfortunate thing, and Princess Cruises should take full responsibility for it. Instead, it appears as if you were sucked into a bureaucratic vortex, bounced between the cruise line and its insurance company in your search for compensation.

I’ve always found it curious that travel companies are constantly coming up with innovative ways to take your money from you quickly. For example, I just read about a new Internet-based system for car rental companies that handles a credit-card transaction in just five seconds. But when it comes to paying you back, travel companies tend to be painfully slow.

Princess should have worked with you to secure a prompt refund for your lost luggage. Instead, by your account, it dragged its feet. (I asked Princess to respond to your complaint, and it didn’t contradict that aspect of your account.)

The company representative also erred when he offered you a free cruise. As a matter of policy, Princess doesn’t offer free cruises as compensation for luggage loss.

How could you have prevented this from happening? In one sense, you couldn’t. Your bags went into the water by accident. But you could have – and should have – bought your own travel insurance, which would have covered your loss. Also, you should consider carrying all valuables with you when you board the ship. Better yet, don’t bring anything valuable on the ship.

And if someone offers you a free cruise, remember to ask for it in writing.

Princess spokeswoman Karen Tetherow acknowledged that the cruise line referred you to Metro Risk Management and confirmed that the company paid you the $500. But she said that amount was “the highest compensation” and could find no record of a free cruise being offered.

In other words, Princess is unwilling to give you anything else for your trouble.

Although Princess is technically correct, I’m disappointed by the outcome of this case. Errors were made by both parties, and to me it seems as if you’re paying more for your mistakes than Princess.

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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