170 days and counting: Cruisers cry foul as Crystal Cruises refunds fail to arrive

Sep 23, 2020

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Dozens of cruisers have contacted TPG recently to let us know that they’ve been waiting indefinitely on refunds for cruises that were canceled or postponed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, thousands of travelers across all branches of the industry have spent the better part of 2020 battling for refunds on trips that had to be pushed back or canceled altogether.

Cruisers are among the travelers whose wallets have been hit hardest by coronavirus disruptions this year. Long known as some of the most loyal travelers in the industry, the cruise community was devastated by the impact of COVID-19 in many ways.

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Some cruise refunds are still pending

While the issue has been relatively widespread over several cruise lines, certain brands have been particularly slow at processing refunds.

“We canceled our cruise… over 170 days ago, and still have not received a refund,” TPG reader Chuck Breitenstein wrote to TPG’s tips email inbox regarding a Crystal Cruises sailing booked early in the year

Debbie Kurzweil had a similar experience for a Crystal river cruise that was canceled in April. “We are out over $26,000 with no recourse,” she told TPG in an email. “I don’t think I will ever book a cruise again based on this refund experience. I understand that it is difficult for the industry, but how they behave now will impact their recovery.”

While several major cruise lines have been named once or twice in complaints to TPG, Crystal in particular has repeatedly been mentioned, often in conjunction with five-figure outstanding refunds.

TPG reached out to Crystal for information about its refund process and received this acknowledgment of the delay.

“While we have processed tens of millions of dollars in refunds thus far, we know that many guests have not received their refund by our original good faith estimate in March of up to 90 days,” said Susan Robison, Director of Global Public Relations.

“We recognize and understand our guests’ frustration, and we know we have come up short in our standards to provide six-star service to our guests. We truly appreciate our guests’ continued patience and understanding during this challenging time.”

No transparency from Crystal Cruises

One of the world’s best-known luxury cruise lines, Crystal historically has boasted a strong reputation with its customers. The cruising equivalent of such upscale hotel brands as Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, it is known for flawless onboard service, sumptuous accommodations and elegant meals. It offers exotic itineraries around the world.

But, at least in the eyes of many TPG readers, its reputation has been severely damaged in recent months due to its poor response — or lack of response — to coronavirus-related cancellations. Many customers who had their voyages canceled have told us they’ve been waiting on refunds for as long a five months and have been met with evasiveness by the line at every turn.

Your favorite cruise line probably isn’t going belly-up, despite COVID

The complaints come as the line’s parent company, Genting Hong Kong, struggles financially. In late August, the company said it had stopped making payments to creditors as it contended with a sharp loss of revenue due to the coronavirus crisis. Genting Hong Kong now is trying to renegotiate its debt — around $3.4 billion — with its creditors.

In addition to Crystal, the company owns two Asia-based cruise lines, Dream Cruises and Star Cruises, as well as a shipyard complex in Germany. It’s also a joint venture partner in Philippines-based Resorts World Manila.

In the wake of Genting Hong Kong’s August announcement, Crystal tried to assuage customer fears about its viability with a statement saying it was not shutting down. It said it continued to issue refunds.

“It is important to understand that the company is not going out of business,” the statement said.  ‘Whatever option our parent company pursues, it will allow Crystal to operate its business.”

Justifiably, plenty of angry customers have reached the end of their patience. TPG reader Allie Cantonis told TPG’s Gene Sloan that, while she had yet to receive her money back, her travel agent claimed that Crystal sends multiple emails each day “hawking” new sailings. “Perhaps they could redirect some of their marketing people to doing refunds?” Cantonis asked in an email. “I am convinced they have no cash and must book new cruises in order to pay refunds. This pyramid scheme will come crashing down eventually.”

Another reader, Pamela Warnken, echoed Cantonis’s sentiment. “Crystal keeps selling cruises, but there is a growing mistrust in me and my fellow cruisers still awaiting refunds,” Warnken told Sloan via email in early September. “The refund ‘workload’ excuse from Crystal is hitting a nerve.”

Related: When will cruises resume? A line-by-line guide

Warnken said that she fell in love with the cruise line on a “magical” voyage between Rome and Dubrovnik in 2019. “I immediately arranged two more voyages with the company for this year.” But Warnken said that Crystal’s non-response to the 2020 crisis “is hurting more than just my pocketbook. It’s tarnishing my own idea that I can make sound decisions with my travel budget. I don’t know that I can feel confident in booking Crystal again.”

Even worse, Warnken had recommended the cruise line to her friends, who also booked excursions with Crystal. Altogether, Warnken said, she and her friends are waiting on a combined $20,000 back from the cruise line.

“I realize no one could anticipate the deep injury of a deadly pandemic,” Warnken said, “but Crystal is hurting the reputation of cruising as a whole by stonewalling clients.”

Travelers aren’t the only ones who no longer trust Crystal’s words over its actions: Some travel insurance companies are now specifically limiting coverage on voyages operated by Crystal Cruises.

Related: Will independent travel insurance cover coronavirus in the future?

Did credit card trip insurance help cruisers?

Many TPG readers are savvy travelers who understand the value of booking travel on premium credit cards that offer trip protection as an additional layer of insurance against unavoidable circumstances such as coronavirus-related cancellations. Credit card companies issue customer credit for charges that are eligible for trip protection benefits, essentially shouldering the burden of negotiating the refund directly with the travel companies.

Related: Your guide to Chase’s trip insurance benefits

Unfortunately in some cases, credit card issuers have been less than helpful. In early September, Pamela Warnken told TPG’s Gene Sloan that disputing her cruise charge with American Express has been “rough seas”: Although Warnken’s travel buddy received her money back via American Express’s protection benefits “right away,” Warnken said she’s still been left high and dry.

Warnken first attempted to claim reimbursement from American Express in August, after futilely waiting on a refund from Crystal for five months. However, Warnken’s cruise payment had been made in late 2019 for a Dubai cruise departing May 8, so Amex told her that the charge fell outside of its chargeback policy limits.

She pushed back, pointing out that cruises are always paid in advance, and that she should get her money back under the Fair Credit Billing Act because the service had been canceled by the merchant — not by Warnken herself. She also emphasized the number of times she had attempted to contact Crystal Cruises to get her money back, to no avail.

Related: Your guide to Amex’s trip insurance benefits

“After numerous phone calls and disappearing displays of my dispute on Amex’s online portal, I believe my disputes are finally registered with Amex,” Warnken said. “But only time will tell.”

Warnken finally received her money back from Crystal once American Express accepted the disputes she filed; unfortunately, a friend who paid with a Barclays card has not yet received her money back as of the time of this publication.

Another traveler, Phyllis Sims, had a happier story ending with The Platinum Card® from American Express. “Thank goodness for Amex Platinum!” Sims gushed to TPG’s Gene Sloan in an email. “We can’t say enough good things about them. I can’t imagine that we would have received any funds from Crystal by now without Amex.” Sims’s cruise was canceled on March 25, and she filed a dispute with Amex on Aug. 8 after months of stalling from Crystal. Amex immediately issued a credit for two separate charges: Sims’s initial deposit amount, as well as the final balance total. While Sims is still waiting on confirmation that Crystal issued a refund for her final balance, she has already gotten her money back via Amex.

If you’re stuck in refund limbo and want to learn more about potential credit card protections, read TPG’s guide to credit card trip protection and travel insurance benefits.

What’s next for Crystal cruisers?

Unfortunately, 2020’s unofficial motto seems to be “wait and see.” TPG’s Sloan said the way Crystal had handled customer refunds surprised him, but he expects the company to be true to its word and eventually make customers whole. It may just take time.

That said, he’s not recommending cruisers book additional trips with Crystal until it’s clear the company is on an even keel.

“It’s a wonderful line with a great product,” Sloan said. “But it has really let its customers down in recent months. It’s going to have to work hard to earn back trust.”

Warnken agrees and told TPG that she only wants to patronize travel companies that are “good stewards of my money, my anticipated trips and their reputation.”

Additional reporting contributed by TPG senior cruise reporter Gene Sloan.

Featured photo courtesy of Crystal Cruises.

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