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Expecting a refund for a canceled cruise? Here's how long it could take

May 18, 2020
10 min read
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Editor's Note

This story has been updated with new information. Some comments may refer to an earlier version of the story. 

Are you waiting for a refund for a canceled cruise? You're not alone.

Cruise lines have canceled thousands of departures in recent weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak, and they're in the midst of processing full or partial refunds for several million customers.

Cruise giant Carnival alone says it has been working on getting money back to more than 1 million people.

That's an unprecedented number of refunds for the industry to process in a short period, and it isn't always going smoothly. Here at TPG, we've been getting a steady stream of emails from readers about issues surrounding cruise refunds and the "future cruise credits" lines are offering as an alternative.

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

Some readers are unsure about how the refund process works, and others are describing a lack of communication about refunds from their lines or the travel agencies that sold them their cruise. But, for the most part, the big question they have is simple: When is my refund coming?

The quick answer to the latter question: It depends on the cruise line.

You could wait up to 90 days

Some big cruise operators are processing refunds in just a few weeks. Others are taking up to three months to get money back to customers.

At cruise giant Royal Caribbean and sister line Celebrity Cruises, for instance, the staff that handles refund requests is trying to get them processed in 30 business days (which works out to about 45 days).

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At a number of smaller lines such as Crystal Cruises, Silversea and Oceania Cruises, refunds are taking up to 90 days to process. Norwegian Cruise Line says refunds are being processed 90 days after a request is made.

Related: Norwegian CEO shares his plan for a cruising comeback

"We are working hard to help our guests," Jonathon Fishman, a spokesperson for the parent company of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, told TPG. "It takes 30 business days from the cancellation date. It may take a couple of days for the cancellation to take effect."

Spokespeople for a number of cruise lines contacted by TPG said they were trying to process refunds as fast as they could. But they're struggling under a deluge of requests. They're also hampered by stay-at-home orders that have refund processors trying to handle their work from home offices instead of company sites.

Some lines also have laid off a large number of employees in recent weeks or have employees working on reduced hours. Carnival, Princess Cruises and Holland America in recent days have laid off or furloughed nearly 50% of their U.S.-based staff -- several thousand people in all.

At Miami-based Crystal, all employees -- not just refund processors -- have been working at home for weeks due to stay-at-home orders, spokesperson Susan Robison told TPG. They're also dealing with an extraordinary volume of refund requests due to simultaneous cancellations of sailings on all ocean, river and yacht vessels around the world into June.

"It is our intent to issue applicable refunds as quickly as possible," Robison said. "I can tell you that many of our guests are seeing refunds issued faster than our original estimate of up to 90 days."

Individual policies aren't always clear

Some cruise lines are posting the number of days it will take to receive a refund on their websites. Others only will tell you if you ask. But that's if you can get through to them. Many cruise lines report unprecedented call volume and have been asking customers for patience as they work through requests.

TPG contacted major cruise lines catering to North Americans about the topic and was given a wide range of estimates as to how long refunds would take. Most fell into one of four estimated timelines: 30, 45, 60 or 90 days.

A handful of lines did not respond to TPG's request for information.

Carnival, which accounts for nearly 20% of all cruises taken worldwide, only would say it is "committed to issuing refunds as soon as possible."

Carnival has canceled nearly all its cruises through September, with the exception of August sailings on eight of the line's 27 ships that remain on the schedule for now.

The situation "dwarfs any disruption we’ve experienced in even the worst hurricane season," Carnival said in a statement. "We can confirm that refunds are being issued to those guests that requested one."

Related: A line-by-line guide to cruise line cancellation and refund policies

Refunds even for people taking credits

Most cruise lines have offered customers on canceled sailings a full cash refund.

As an alternative, cruise lines will give customers on canceled cruises a future cruise credit for the amount they paid, often with a "bonus credit" added to make the credit more enticing.

Cruise lines want you to take the credit. With revenues plummeting, they're eager to preserve as much cash as they can on their balance sheets.

Still, whether you ask for the refund or take the credit, you'll likely be getting at least some money back from your line as a cash payment. Even for those taking the credit, many lines are refunding taxes, fees, port charges and other prepaid items in cash.

Carnival, for instance, has been sending cash refunds for all taxes, fees and port expenses that customers paid for cruises, even when the customer chooses the credit option. The result is that every one of the more than 1 million Carnival customers who had a cruise canceled are receiving some sort of refund that needs to be processed.

Related: The bizarre story of the last 8 cruise passengers at sea

It's a task so daunting, Carnival has pulled in management to help.

"Our customer service team has been approved for overtime, and we have trained other management employees to help as well," the line said in its statement to TPG.

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Frustration from some cruisers

The good news for those who are worried about their refunds is that refunds are happening. TPG has heard from readers on a number of canceled sailings who already have received their money back.

Still, TPG also has heard from readers who report trouble getting a confirmation that their request for a refund has been registered or is coming. Often, these complaints come from readers who booked through discount online travel agencies.

TPG also has heard from readers who booked with cruise companies that are not offering refunds for canceled trips. A handful of small companies that mostly operate river cruises, including Grand Circle Cruise Line and Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours, only will give passengers on canceled sailings a voucher for a future cruise -- at least initially. Scenic says passengers can get a refund, but only after the voucher expires in 2023.

In at least one case, a cruise-selling company initially offered customers on a canceled cruise a refund and then didn't follow through on the offer.

TPG reader Kim Johnson, 64, of Tucson, Arizona, said Grand Circle initially offered her and a group of her friends a refund for a canceled Holland and Belgium river cruise. But two weeks later, Grand Circle pulled back the offer, she said.

"Grand Circle emailed us saying that we had been rebooked on the same cruise next year, with no mention of the refund," Johnson told TPG. "We had a new reservation number and were supposed to go online to accept the terms and conditions."

Related: Can I get my deposit back if I cancel a cruise?

Johnson said calls to the company "resulted in us being told that refunds were no longer an option." Johnson said her group doesn't want to switch their cruise to next year. They just want their money back.

Johnson was one of several members of her group who reached out to TPG and provided documentation of the initial offer of a refund from Grand Circle.

Asked about the group's complaint, a spokesperson for Grand Circle did not address the issue of the withdrawn offer of a refund but said the company was "committed to delivering the excellent travel experiences for which [they have] become known" over six decades in business.

"As soon as it is safe to do so, we will resume our regular departure schedule," spokesperson Ann Shannon said in an email to TPG. "In the meantime, in an effort to ensure that our travelers will be able to enjoy their planned trips, Grand Circle has rebooked their reservations for future available departure dates in 2021 and implemented generous policies providing additional savings."

While Grand Circle has rebooked passengers on canceled sailings for next year, passengers will be able to change the dates that the company has chosen for them, Shannon added.

Soon after TPG contacted Grand Circle, one member of Johnson's group, Barbara Ballard, 64, of Tucson, unexpectedly received the refund she had been seeking from Grand Circle. The refund came with no explanation, but TPG had mentioned Ballard's case specifically when inquiring about Grand Circle's policy. Johnson did not receive a refund at that time. But within 24 hours of this story originally posting, she said the company called to promise her entire group a full refund.

Related: How to refund a nonrefundable airline ticket

Here's a look at refund timelines for major lines catering to North Americans:

Azamara: 45 days

Carnival Cruise Line: Carnival has not issued an estimate for customers as to how long refunds will take to process.

Celebrity Cruises: 30 business days

Crystal Cruises: Up to 90 days

Disney Cruise Line: Did not respond to a request for information

Holland America: Approximately 60 days

MSC Cruises: 60 to 90 days

Norwegian Cruise Line: 90 days

Oceania Cruises: Up to 90 days

Princess Cruises: Up to 60 days (note: TPG has heard from several Princess customers who have said their refunds were taking longer than 60 days; in a statement sent to TPG, the line said it was "working to expedite the process as quickly as possible")

Regent Seven Seas Cruises: Up to 90 days

Royal Caribbean: 30 business days

Seabourn: Up to 60 days

Silversea: Up to 90 days

Windstar Cruises: Six to eight weeks

Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:

Featured image by Carnival Panorama (Photo courtesy of Carnival)