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Customer bytes back at online fare ‘glitch’

Dave Tomasso had been saving for two years to take his family on a European cruise in 2008. While scanning Royal Caribbean's Web site in March he found a "spectacular deal" on a 12-night Mediterranean cruise. He immediately booked two balcony staterooms. But a few days later, he learned the fare was a "glitch" and the cruise line was charging him $4,200 more. Frustrated, he contacted Tripso for help.
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Rhode Island resident Dave Tomasso had been saving for two years to take his family on a European cruise in 2008. In early March of this year, he began scouring cruise line Web sites for their 2008 itineraries and prices. He checked all the major lines — Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Norwegian Cruise Line — and some had some good fares, but Tomasso held off booking. One cruise line, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, had not yet posted its fares. He would wait to see what they had to offer.

Royal jackpot
Tomasso checked Royal Caribbean's site daily, and on March 14 his patience was rewarded. Royal Caribbean's 2008 fares were posted and he found a "spectacular deal" for July 2008. The itinerary was for a 12-night western Mediterranean cruise round-trip from Civitavecchia (Rome) on Legend of the Seas. The price for four passengers in a category D2 balcony stateroom, including round-trip airfare from Boston, transfers to and from the ship, and all taxes was a phenomenal $8,500 — or just $2,125 per person. Similar European itineraries with airfare generally cost more than $3,000 per person; indeed, airfare alone can run anywhere between $1,200 and $2,500.

Just as Tomasso booked the trip, his in-laws decided to join the cruise, so Tomasso booked a second D2 stateroom for three people. Again, the fare displayed as $2,125 per person. Tomasso paid the down payment, received his reservation numbers and then printed all the details showing stateroom category, airfare, transfers and tax information for both reservations.

Tomasso was delighted — until a few days later, when he logged on to Royal Caribbean's Web site to review his reservations.

At some point after booking, Royal Caribbean added $4,200 to the price of the second cruise package, the one for Tomasso's in-laws. A new line in the details section of the bill indicated that the $4,200 was for airfare.

"I was never sent any type of e-mail, letter or phone call indicating that they had changed the price of that cruise," Tomasso says. "Interestingly, they never changed the price of my first cruise package, which still shows the round-trip air as included. There was no new line showing a charge for airfare."

Tomasso was upset by the huge price increase, and having seen my story about a different cruise line pricing error, he contacted me for assistance.

Royal mistake
I contacted Royal Caribbean on the Tomassos' behalf and spoke with Royal Caribbean's spokeswoman, Lyan Sierra-Caro. Sierra-Caro acknowledged that there was indeed a "glitch" in Royal Caribbean's Web site reservation system at the time Tomasso booked his staterooms.

"When Mr. Tomasso made his original booking, the price and airfare were coded," she said. "When he went back and made a change to the second reservation, the new price code was picked up. This was not changed on the first reservation because he did not make any changes to that one."

Shortly after I spoke with Sierra-Caro, a Royal Caribbean representative contacted Tomasso to let him know that the cruise line would honor his original price. The representative told him that all seven in his party were essentially "getting airfare free" since someone at the cruise line had entered the wrong price for the cruise package on category D2 staterooms for that sailing - forgetting to add $1,400 per person for airfare. All told, Royal Caribbean's "glitch" cost the cruise line $9,800 on the Tomassos' reservation.

Royal gift
Reservation mistakes are nothing new in the cruise industry, but such errors seldom turn out in the customer's favor. In September 2006, Holland America Line accidentally sold staterooms on one of its ships well below cost over a four-day period. Staterooms that usually cost $1,399 per person showed up in reservations systems for $849. But instead of honoring that price, Holland America made passengers pay the difference.

In the Tomassos' case, Royal Caribbean admitted its mistake and honored the fare — at significant cost to the cruise line. I commend Royal Caribbean for going above and beyond for the Tomasso family.

So, how can you protect yourself against online reservation glitches? Follow Tomasso's example: Document the advertised fare and your booking information by taking screen shots from the Web site and then printing them out for your records.

Clearly, this is one case where vigilance and persistence really paid off.

Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006."