How did a cruise agent make this type of mistake?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Who is responsible when an agent of a cruise line makes a giant mistake that causes a passenger to miss their voyage? That’s what Linda Combs wants to know.

Her unpleasant experience included not just one but three errors by a Norwegian Cruise Line consultant. And it ended with Linda and her husband standing on the dock as they watched their ship sail away — and the cruise agent ignoring her pleas for help.

So why did Norwegian Cruise Line reject Linda’s refund request?

This tale is one that underscores the importance of concise and polite communication when attempting to resolve a problem. If you forget this basic foundation of problem-solving, even the most resolution-worthy request can get rejected. Linda’s case was almost one of those.

Planning a cruise aboard the Norwegian Gem

Several months before this missed-cruise fiasco, the couple had been busy planning an adventure to commemorate their 52nd wedding anniversary. They decided that a cruise to New England and Canada would be the perfect way to celebrate this happy event.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s 10-day cruise from New York City to Quebec City on the Norwegian Gem fit the bill. Once they made their decision, the couple finalized the plans with an NCL-approved agent called a Personal Cruise Consultant. This consultant put all the finishing touches on their itinerary, including arranging airport transfers, trip insurance and shore excursions.

The couple booked their own flights into New York, and everything was in order.

Or so they thought.

Discovering the cruise consultant’s mistake #1

On the day of the cruise, the couple excitedly boarded their flight bound for New York City’s JFK airport. They were particularly pleased that no delays were on the horizon. And they landed right on time.

They had three hours to make it to the cruise terminal on the west side of Manhattan. In typical traffic, this 17-mile journey can take 1 to 1 ½ hours. But anyone who has lived in New York City knows that this is a tricky traffic corridor. And the couple was cutting it a little too close for comfort.

However, Linda and her husband had never been to New York City before, and they weren’t familiar with the risky nature of their flight schedule. And besides, they had booked the NCL transfers to the cruise terminal. So as they gathered their luggage and started searching for the NCL transfer station, no alarm bells were going off.

Yet.

It soon became quite apparent that something was very wrong. The couple couldn’t find the NCL transfer area at JFK. Linda called her cruise agent and asked for further information.

When their cruise consultant returned her call, he expressed surprise that the couple was at JFK. And that’s when he broke the news to Linda that NCL does not provide transfers from that airport. Shocked, she asked him why he had charged her and given her a transfer voucher if no NCL transfer possibility existed from JFK.

Now he told me that NCL does not pick up at JFK. He said he had told me NCL does not pick up at JFK. NOT TRUE! I state again when making the reservation, he said it was further out than the other airport and there would be an additional charge. Think about it! Why would I choose to fly into the incorrect airport into a city that I do not know???

Now the couple had two hours to make it to the cruise terminal or they would miss the cruise. So they asked their agent what to do next. And that’s when this cruise consultant’s mistake was compounded by a new error.

This confused cruise agent makes mistake #2

The couple still had a chance of making it to the cruise terminal in time to avoid missing the cruise. But they needed to act fast.

Their agent should have recommended that they take an NYC taxi straight to the cruise terminal. From JFK there is a flat rate of $52 into Manhattan (plus tolls and tips) — they could sort out the refund later.

If all went well, in about an hour, they could have made it to the Norwegian Gem.

The taxi ride from JFK to the cruise terminal in Manhattan should be a little over an hour and cost $52.
The direct route from JFK to the Manhattan Cruise Terminal takes a little over an hour by taxi.

But that isn’t what their Personal Cruise Consultant recommended. He advised the couple to take a NYC taxi to LaGuardia Airport, on the other side of Queens. There he said the couple could find the official NCL transfer to the cruise terminal. As the couple was completely unfamiliar with Queens traffic or the logistics of what the cruise agent was suggesting, they took his bad advice.

While a taxi into Manhattan from JFK is a flat rate, the 10-mile ride from JFK to LGA is not. So that fare can end up costing more than the trip directly to the cruise terminal. This route also covers congested areas, and it’s not unusual for this trip to take upwards of an hour.

JFK to LGA is not what the NCL cruise consultant should have advised the couple to do. These instructions caused the couple to miss their cruise.
The heavy-traffic journey from the JFK airport to the LGA airport.

Mistake #3 sealed the fate for this couple’s cruise chances

Now the elderly couple felt the full impact of their situation. The clock was ticking. It was almost 2 p.m. as Linda and her husband pulled up to the LaGuardia Airport with all their suitcases in tow.

The two made their way to the official transfer area for NCL as quickly as possible. And a wave of relief hit the couple when they saw the familiar Norwegian Cruise Line logo. They presented themselves to the representative who was making the final boarding call for the transfer bus.

And that’s when their Personal Cruise Consultant’s mistake #3 revealed itself. And this one ultimately sealed the fate of this couple’s chances of sailing on the Norwegian Gem that day.

The NCL representative at LGA told Linda that their agent had not added their name on the list for transfers to the cruise terminal. The transportation was completely full.

Linda says that she showed the NCL employee proof of their paid airport transfers. But the representative said she would have to call a supervisor. Linda called their cruise agent again, who now refused to pick up the phone or return her call.

The exhausted couple watched in desperation as the NCL bus left and headed to the cruise terminal without them.

“We were in so much distress,” Linda recalled. “We couldn’t believe what was happening. Now, this agent told us she would call us a new taxi to go straight to the cruise terminal.”

By now it was already 3:15 p.m.

NCL requires all cruise ship passengers to be checked in and on board the ship one hour before departure. At this point, the missed cruise was a foregone conclusion. But when the NCL representative recommended they take a cab to the cruise terminal, Linda says she thought that the ship had been instructed to wait for them.

As they braved the NYC traffic one more time, they hoped they would soon be relaxing onboard the Norwegian Gem.

The couple ended up missing their cruise because of all of the unusual instructions from the Norwegian's cruise consultant.
A missed cruise is a real possibility. More traffic: The route from LGA to the Manhattan cruise terminal.

It wasn’t to be.

Fact: The cruise line will not hold the ship for you

In about 45 minutes the duo arrived at the cruise ship terminal. Their hopes soared.

There was the Norwegian Gem!

But it was too late. Linda describes that moment:

We arrived at the cruise terminal at 4 p.m. We ran inside. They told us it was too late. The captain had already pulled the gangplank. We could not board the ship. We were just sick!!!!!!!!! The ship sat there for about 15-20 minutes before it ever left!

Airlines will hold planes for a late passenger! Why can’t a captain wait 10-15 minutes?

After they watched the Norwegian Gem sail away without them, they called NCL to find out what to do about the missed cruise.

At that time they were told that they could fly at their own expense to Halifax and catch up with ship there. Not wanting to spend any more money on this cruise fiasco, the couple finally threw in the towel.

“We were just so disappointed that we decided to fly back home,” Linda recalled. “Then once we got back to the airport, we had to spend the night in the terminal because our flight was at 6:45 a.m. We didn’t know what else to do.”

Asking NCL to refund this missed cruise

As soon as the couple returned from their ill-fated anniversary trip, Linda composed a novel-length complaint letter. And then she sent it as a blast email to multiple executives at Norwegian Cruise Line — including the CEO. She requested a replacement cruise plus airfare.

FYI: The office of the CEO of any company is not the most efficient place to send your initial complaint letter. In general, a CEO does not handle customer service. And once your complaint has hit the top of the executive chain — there’s nowhere else to go with it. If your letter is unsuccessful, you can’t escalate your problem anywhere further in the company.

A well-executed self-advocacy mission can often be accomplished by following the steps in Consumer Rescue’s guide to getting excellent customer service. Linda definitely had not checked it out before creating her appeal for a refund to NCL.

NCL quickly answered her blast email and rejected her refund request. In its response to Linda, NCL made it clear that her missed cruise was not the responsibility of the cruise line even though its agent had created the problem. She would not be receiving a refund nor a replacement cruise.

The letter from NCL reminded her that it is the passengers’ responsibility to get to the terminal on time.

To comply with new Government regulations governing guest departure

manifests, our Port Operations and Port Clearance Administration, along with

U.S. Customs and Border Protection requires that all guests complete check-in at

the cruise terminal at least two hours prior and be onboard the ship no later

then one hour prior to the departure time as noted on their cruise documents or

they will not be permitted to sail.

Norwegian Cruise Line explaining why it wasn’t responsible for the couple’s missed voyage.

Given this information and the information contained on NCL’s website about check-in cutoff times, it seems that the couple should never have been sent from LGA to the cruise terminal. By the time they left LGA, they had already missed the cruise check-in cutoff time. That journey was an exercise in futility.

The response from NCL infuriated Linda. So she sent more emails to NCL which similarly did not endear her to any of the executives on her list.

“I just cannot believe that your company would not compensate us with another trip of equal value!” Linda complained. “What in heaven’s name does it cost NCL? Nothing but good PR for you to comply.”

This email did not lead to the favorable response that Linda hoped for. In fact, there was no further response. Her complaint had reached the top of NCL, and now there was nowhere else to go.

Or was there?

Asking our advocacy team to help get a refund for this missed cruise

Not sure where else to turn, Linda sent a plea for help to our advocacy team.

Linda’ complaint landed in my inbox on the same day I had just finished writing about the somewhat similar mishap of Earl Wentz and his missed cruise.

That case was the West Coast version of the race to the cruise terminal — fighting against the clock and heavy traffic. Unfortunately, Earl and his family didn’t make it in time either. And they also watched as their cruise ship sailed off into the sunset without them.

Earl had contributed to his problem by scheduling his flights with virtually no room for error. So when his plane was delayed by just 50 minutes, his family’s cruise prospects were doomed.

But Linda had allowed a slightly wider margin with her flight, and it had landed on time. The NCL-branded Personal Cruise Consultant’s mistakes — the initial one and then the cascade of additional ones the agent made after the couple landed — caused their missed cruise.

So I was surprised to see Linda’s paper trail included NCL’s swift rejection of her refund request for the missed cruise.

Consumer alert: Keep your complaints short and sweet

Cruise lines (and consumer advocates) receive hundreds of complaint letters per week. To give yourself the very best chance at getting your complaint received favorably, it’s critical to keep it short and sweet. Get the facts out immediately — and don’t add extraneous details.

Linda’s email to the executives told a long, drawn-out story that I suspected no one had read in its entirety. It also focused on the wrong part of her story. She was angry that the NCL agent at LaGuardia wouldn’t let her board the filled-to-capacity bus to the cruise terminal.

But the most important part of this case was that Linda had paid NCL for a transfer from the airport to the cruise terminal. The transfer voucher sent to the couple from her cruise agent confirmed their transportation. The couple had every reason to believe they had a secure and efficient way to make it to the ship in time. But the consultant’s mistake was that he never made any transfer arrangements for the couple. And then he sent them on wild goose chase from airport to airport and again didn’t confirm their transfer.

After all that, the cruise agent refused to answer the couple’s calls for help and explain himself.

Asking NCL to refund this missed cruise

Since this missed cruise was caused by NCL’s Personal Cruise Consultant’s mistakes, I was certain that Linda and her husband were owed a refund.

So I reached out to NCL. I know the NCL resolution team to be helpful and reasonable — especially when one of their team member’s makes a mistake (See: This family got left at the dock. Is the cruise line responsible?). I sent the Norwegian team a very condensed version of this cruise fiasco. And I included a copy of their transfer voucher to the cruise terminal sent to them by their agent.

Good news from NCL!

And the next day came excellent news for Linda and her husband.

Linda had asked to be provided a new cruise with airfare so that she and her husband could celebrate their anniversary properly. The NCL resolution team went above and beyond what Linda had initially requested.

Linda was thrilled to receive an apology and a refund of all fees associated with the missed cruise.

We sincerely apologize for the confusion regarding the airport ground transfer which caused you to miss your cruise aboard Norwegian Gem, and assure you that this situation is a rare occurrence. As a company, we are committed to continuously improving customer satisfaction. Recognizing the inconvenience and disappointment you experienced, we have requested a refund in the amount of $3,348.00 to your Visa. This represents your voyage fare and ground transfers. On September 30, a refund in the amount of $1,890, representing your shore excursions, service charges and government taxes was also processed.

And finally, to show that NCL was genuinely committed to making this right, the cruise line gave the couple $3,200 in cruise credits to be used in the next two years.

Linda and her husband say that this resolution more than makes up for their inconvenience and they are busy planning their replacement anniversary cruise. And despite this fiasco, the end resolution from NCL has secured lifelong fans in Linda and her husband.

How to avoid a missed cruise — even if your agent makes a mistake

Here are a few tips that could help you avoid missing your cruise.

  • DO NOT BOOK A FLIGHT THAT ARRIVES ON THE SAME DAY AS YOUR CRUISE SAILS! I repeat — don’t do that. If you need more evidence why this is a bad idea, you can read about the Bautista family’s cruise fiasco in Alaska. You can dramatically cut back on the chances of missing your cruise by giving yourself at least a one day buffer. Always fly into your cruise departure city the night before.
  • When flying into an unfamiliar city that has multiple airports, check Google Maps. Familiarize yourself with the route from the airport to the cruise terminal. Make sure you have a backup plan in case you miss the cruise line’s transportation (or a travel consultant’s mistake leaves you with no transportation at all).
  • If you’re booking your own flights, make sure your travel agent or cruise consultant has your information. Your voucher should mention the specific airport where you’ll be picked up. Many major cities have multiple airports so to avoid confusion — confirm, confirm, confirm. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)
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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer reporter and advocate, author, mediator, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on tv helping fix a situation. :) Michelle is also an Ombudsman Columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.