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‘Computer glitch’ sinks cruise

Gregg Samson just wanted to find a great cruise vacation deal for his family. He thought he had booked the perfect fares on Royal Caribbean's Web site, but the cruise line declared a "computer glitch" and nullified the fare. Do the Samsons have any recourse?
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Last October, Gregg Samson was surfing Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Web site in search of a cruise vacation for his family of four. A longtime customer of the cruise line, he says he came upon one of those "magical deals" for a Caribbean cruise: For a mere $139 each, a third and fourth person could share a cabin on a cruise this spring. Being the father of two teenagers, Samson jumped at the opportunity and immediately booked the cruise, which cost $969 for him and his wife. Samson was quite pleased with his booking — until he received the e-mail confirmation from the cruise line. Somehow the $139 fare for the third and fourth person had morphed into a $499 fare. What happened?

Travel agent attempts rescue
After receiving his confirmation e-mail, Samson contacted his longtime travel agent, who offered to look into the situation even though she had not booked the cruise. The agent pulled up the same $139 fare on her agency reservation system, so she couldn't figure out why Samson's booking confirmation showed the $499 fare. The agent contacted the Royal Caribbean travel agent help desk and was given the "runaround." When the agent finally reached Royal Caribbean's Web site team, she was told they would look into it and get back to her. Curiously, a few moments after her conversation with the Web team, the deal vanished — and the Web team never contacted her again.

Fortunately, Samson had made screen shots of the advertised fares, as well as printed copies. Samson and his travel agent continued to place phone calls and fax documents to the cruise line over the course of several weeks. Royal Caribbean came back with an offer of $100 off per person for the cruise. The Samsons refused; they wanted their original fare.

Royal Caribbean speaks
I contacted Royal Caribbean about the Samsons' case. According to spokeswoman Lyan Sierra-Caro, there had been a computer glitch.

"Apparently, there was a glitch in the system, which is why it never let the guest confirm his reservation for the $139 fare," said Sierra-Caro, who confirmed that Royal Caribbean has records of all Samson's calls and faxes. "We explained the situation to the travel agent. The travel agent confirmed that yes, this was the case. As a gesture of goodwill, since the guest made the good-faith effort of trying to book, we offered the travel agent the opportunity for everyone in the party to book with a discount of $100 per person. We have not heard back from the travel agent since then, and the booking was canceled on October 25."

The booking was canceled? When Samson contacted me in February, he didn't mention he had canceled the cruise. As an ombudsman, it is imperative that I know all the facts before approaching a cruise line. Had I known the Samsons had canceled the cruise without penalty, I would not have pursued the incident with Royal Caribbean, because there was no harm done. But the problem of "computer glitches" is an interesting one, and consumers need to know what to do to avoid getting burned in one.

Glitches happen
Booking errors are nothing new, but computerized booking systems can certainly compound the trouble. Last September, Holland America accidentally sold cabins well below cost on one of its vessels over a four-day period. Cabins that usually cost $1,399 a person showed up in some reservation systems for $849. Instead of honoring the erroneous fare, Holland America required passengers to pay the $550 difference.

In the Samsons' case, Royal Caribbean admitted its error and, unlike Holland America, offered some compensation. Still, it would have cost the Samsons $320 more than the (erroneously) published fare. Should Royal Caribbean have honored that fare? Given all the facts, I believe they should have.

So, how can you protect yourself against glitches? Samson was careful to document the fare by taking screen shots of the Royal Caribbean Web site and printing them for his records. Calling in a travel agent as an advocate was also a good move. But he contacted me too late. Had he contacted me sooner, I am confident the outcome would have been different.

In the end, Royal Caribbean didn't budge from its original offer. The Samsons were disappointed, but they haven't stopped cruising. They are slated to sail on Royal Caribbean's newest ship, Liberty of the Seas, in August. I wish them a good trip.