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Cruise Travel: Effective Complaining

by Linda Coffman

Sadly, there’s no such thing as a perfect vacation and things can go just as wrong at sea as they do on land. Minor quibbles can be brought to the attention of the crewmembers you come in contact with on a regular basis—your waiter (if your dinner is cold), cabin steward (you need extra hangers), or the Purser' (there's an unexplained charge on your account). For slightly more serious matters, the headwaiter or housekeeping supervisor should be able to work things out—your dinner partners have dreadful table manners and you want to move, or your cabin steward consistently forgets to leave enough clean towels.

However, for the really big problems, you should go to the top. See the hotel director immediately when a situation occurs that you feel needs to be addressed. For instance, his assistance will most assuredly be needed if a pipe breaks and floods your stateroom, but he should also be informed if lower management is unable to solve simple problems. The most important thing to remember is that you should deal with problem situations on the ship when they occur; there's not much that can be done after the cruise is over.

When you have a major problem, you'll usually get more satisfaction if you tell the hotel director what you feel would be a satisfactory solution, but it's important to be reasonable. For instance, if your cabin is flooded, you should expect to be moved to a dry one. If comparable accommodations are unavailable and you are downgraded in category, you should expect some compensation, perhaps in the form of an onboard credit. And you should expect to have wet clothing cleaned at no cost to you. If any of your belongings are ruined, you should expect them to be replaced; you should not expect a refund of your entire cruise fare.

Post-Cruise Problem Solving
Keep your travel agent in the loop if something major went wrong and you need post-cruise assistance. Travel agents have the inside track on solving problems by using channels not available to their clients. Getting better service after your cruise (as well as before it) is just one reason why it's a good plan to use a travel agent. In fact, with the availability of email at sea, you can fill your travel agent in as soon as you encounter a problem and the agent might be able to fix it quickly before it escalates further.

If you don’t have a travel agent to act as your advocate, there are definite dos and don’ts to complaining. Customer Service reps who field complaint letters have heard it all and your problems are not likely unique.

Before you go any further, first determine if what you experienced is really worth the time it takes to write a complaint letter. When you get home, allow yourself some time to think it over—did the waiter’s poor command of English really “ruin” your cruise, or was it just an annoyance?

When you decide your complaint is serious enough to bring to the cruise line’s attention, be concise. Outline the problem in a one-page letter, or an email with no more than three or four brief paragraphs. Anything longer will have the recipient’s eyes glazing over—I’ve been sent copies of readers’ complaints to cruise lines that have run on for ten pages or more. Laundry lists of complaints seldom produce results; they simply label you as a whiner. Trust me, no one wants to listen to, or read, rambling rants about every little thing you found unsatisfactory.

If it’s a big enough problem to write about, you probably have a solution in mind. Don’t keep Customer Service in the dark—outline your solution as well as the problem. Again, keep it concise and don’t be greedy. You won’t receive a full refund of your fare if the ship had to skip a port and your trip was less than perfect as a result. The cruise lines’ Contract of Carriage spells out what happens in that event. The most you can hope for is a refund of the port charges.

Be patient and give the cruise line time to respond. Follow up is fine if you haven’t heard anything in a month, but allow Customer Service time to do their job. If you receive an unsatisfactory response and feel it’s necessary to bring your complaint to the next level, by all means do so. However, the next level isn’t necessarily the President or CEO of the cruise line. A phone call to determine who the decision maker is can be effective. What isn’t effective is sending a letter to every executive whose name is listed on the line’s website.

Personal situations that would be covered by insurance are never the responsibility of the cruise lines if you failed to purchase insurance. While anyone with a heart will sympathize with you if your spouse dies unexpectedly a week before your sailing, cruise lines are a business and operate as such. You aren’t qualified for a full fare refund unless you were insured. Sure, you might be able to get some consumer advocate to intercede on your behalf—and sometimes that works—but don’t count on it. As Alan Wilson, publisher of Cruise News Daily, points out, “The insurance industry has a term for people who don’t buy insurance. They call it ‘self-insuring.’ It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Instead of paying the insurance company a premium for the small possibility you’ll have to cancel your cruise, you’re essentially paying yourself. Ideally, you should be banking this amount, just as the insurance company does for that inevitable time when you need to collect.”

Lastly, one of the least successful things to do is state that if the cruise line doesn’t do as you wish, you “will never sail with them again” or even worse, threaten to sue them. At that point they will wait to hear from your lawyer.

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