Surprise flight changes separate cruising family

by Anita Dunham-Potter on May 29, 2009

Steve Simmons and his family booked the trip of a lifetime – a South American sailing from Buenos Aires onboard Celebrity Cruises Infinity. The trip was meticulously planned two years in advance and included custom air arrangements for all four family members to make sure they were on the same flights. One month prior to sailing Steve Simmons received the cruise documents and airline schedule. To his dismay, it had changed dramatically.

South American air samba
The flights to Buenos Aires had remained the same. However, the flights home had separated family members – of most concern was Simmons’ elderly mother whom he did not want traveling alone. “We paid a total of $1,039 for custom air fees to Celebrity Cruises to get exactly what we wanted. We are all extremely upset that Celebrity has changed them at the last moment,” said Simmons.

Simmons immediately contacted his travel agent to find out why the flight had been changed and to demand that Celebrity fix the situation. Unfortunately, the agent and Simmons were unable to resolve the problem despite speaking with Celebrity numerous times. Completely frustrated Simmons contacted Tripso for help.

Celebrity Cruises responds
I spoke with Michael Sheehan, associate vice president of corporate communications at Royal Caribbean, Celebrity’s parent company, about the Simmons’ issue. Sheehan told me that the company had a difficult time pinpointing what exactly happened with the family’s flight itinerary. Over a period of a week, cruise line managers mined data from the Amadeus reservation system to pinpoint the problem. Sheehan deemed it a “CSI” type of investigation.

What they uncovered was a flight schedule change on Simmons’ mother’s return flight home to Kansas City. When that flight change occurred, the reservations system automatically generated new reservations for the entire family that were different from what they originally booked.

Celebrity says there was also an issue with the Simmons’ travel agent, in that, after the company had notified the travel agency of the flight change, another travel agent from the agency confirmed the flights with the cruise line without notifying the Simmons. Steve Simmons only found out about the flight change when he received his final documents one month prior to the cruise. “Due to the passage of one month, and the fact that the flights were during the busy holiday season, very few options were available,” said Sheehan.

Sheehan noted that Celebrity isn’t responsible for the airline or schedule changes that may occur, but the company prides itself on being customer service oriented and wanted to be fair and reasonable to help resolve the situation. “As a gesture of goodwill we have waived the fees for the flight changes, custom air fees, and we have offered each family member a $100 future cruise credit.” Overall Celebrity provided the family with $1,000 in compensation. “We hope our gestures of goodwill demonstrate our desire to assist the family with this difficult situation,” said Sheehan. Steve Simmons is happy with the arrangement and told me the family appreciated Celebrity’s assistance in the matter.

Cruise air
Most cruises offer a complete package including airfare to and from a passenger’s home city. When the cruise line books the airfare they pick the airline, flight times, and number of connections. Guests wanting more control over their flight plans like the Simmons can pick their airline and flight connections — it is called a custom air arrangement. While such a package offers the convenience of not having to book your own flight or worry about how to get from the airport to the cruise ship, that convenience comes at a cost.

Cruise lines buy their airfare packages in bulk from the airlines in advance so the price quoted by the cruise line doesn’t vary throughout the year like normal airline pricing does. Sometimes the fares are lower than the open market, but for someone keeping a good eye on airfares and checking the discount sites it will generally be higher. Many travel agents advise their clients to book air travel with the cruise line since booking a la carte can be risky if one doesn’t know what they are doing.

On the plus side to booking air through the cruise line – if you do miss the ship, the cruise line has a responsibility to get you to the ship. If you book on your own, you are literally on your own.

If you book your own flight, leave a big cushion between when your flight arrives in your port city and when the cruise actually embarks so you can get to the ship. In some locales, such as Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the port is a quick ride from the airport. But in other places, such as Civitavecchia, Italy (Rome’s port city) the airport is a good two hours away from the port.

Lastly, if you do book your flight on your own, seriously consider purchasing a travel insurance policy that will reimburse you for your costs if you have to catch up with your ship once it has left port.

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  • Naoyuki Saito

    “On the plus side to booking air through the cruise line – if you do miss the ship, the cruise line has a responsibility to get you to the ship. ”

    I find this comment from various sources, but is this really true? My understanding is that the cruise line does not really have any responsibility to “get you to the ship,” even if the flight was purchased as a package from the cruise line.

    Please clarify.

  • DCTA

    It is not true. they will not go out of their way to make it work for you and many people have missed their cruise – BUT they have been refunded.

    The other myth is that if the cruiseline did your air and “knows” you are coming, they will hold the ship for you – again, not true though more likely if there are say 100+ people late because of flight issues.

    Celebrity was paid additional fund to do “custome air” to ensure everyone was on the same flights – the schedule change that broke the family up should never have got out of Celebrity’s air Department and to the Travel Agency in the first place.

  • Bill

    It is good that Celebrity got it fixed.

    This is one of the instances where “use a professional travel agent” certainly didn’t help.

    My point is, you can run into problems no matter how you book your travel, and need to be prepared to escalate it. Certainly, the saving grace in this case was Tripso and their helpful people.

    I think websites like tripso are an excellant resource and I truly appreciate the efforts people put towards keeping them a viable and current place to obtain information and help. I’m sure countless hours are put in, likely with no compensation or little compensation.

    I think a big “thank you” is in order for all of these people.

  • http://n/a Tony Azpeitia

    Another great article from Tripso. DCTA comment about Celebrity’s custom air dept mistake was “right on”.
    The mistake was compounded by the Travel Agent/agency who FAILED to review the Simmons’ air arrangements when they received their cruise documents. Reason: The booking travel agent/agency should have identified the problem and contacted Celebrity to resolve it prior to document delivery to the Simmons.
    I take exception to Bill’s comment regarding the “use a professional travel agent”.
    Given the information in this article, I could not agree that this travel agent/agency was “professional”. If I were the Simmons. I would “fire” the travel agent/ agency because they FAILED to deliver an expected / “professional” level of service.
    I take a dim view of a “travel agent” who FAILS their client.

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  • Matt

    I always book my own air for cruises. I don’t trust travel agents (have screwed up before) and the cruiseline itineraries are BS–especially the “custom air” fee.

  • The man who notices things

    The travel agent represents the travel company, in this case, Celebrity. Thus, the cruise company’s agent failed to inform the customer – thus – the cruise company dropped the ball here – not the customer.

    Further, charging a customer a custom air fee means that the cruise company now is responsible for changes to airline schedules – they were PAID for the shifting of responsbility. There was not ‘gesture of good will’ here – they did what they were legally required to do – coordinate custom airfare. The fact that the options were poor later on did not relieve the cruise company of the obligation to find them appropriate tickets since their own agent, the travel agent, screwed up the confirmation of the information to the ultimate customer.

    The ‘compensation offered’ was nothing – they ‘waived the change fees.’ Those are obviously THEIR OWN FEES since they cannot waive the airline change fees. Moreover, they simply gave BACK the custom air fee since they did not provide the custom air fee service – pure and simple. NO ONE checked to make sure the passenger got what they asked for which is what the customer paid for. And the $100 future cruise credit is always laughable since if you try to use it there are so many terms and conditions they usually are worthless since you can always find a cabin fare that is cheaper than the cheapest fare you would pay to use to the cabin credit.

    As for looking at it from the cruise company perspective – they were paid $1000 for a special service – that they utterly failed to provide – and the issue that arose from the travel agent failing to confirm – who paid the travel agent? Not Mr. Simmons – the agent had a commissionable agreement with the TA – and if the cruise company wants to charge off the fees to the agent – they can do so most likely under their agreement – but the problem was with THEIR agent.

    As for the last comment – these folks are flying to Brazil in December it seems for a cruise . . . and are apparently arriving the day the cruise leaves. Are they nuts? This once in a lifetime family cruise can be ruined by 3 inches of snow. By a mechanical problem in the airplane. By a medical problem of another passenger. If this is cruise which they must be on – given where they are flying, and how far – and the utter impossibility of traveling by road, I’d plan on arriving there at least 2 days before the cruise leaves . . . .

  • The man who notices things

    Oh, and read the disclaimer in every single cruise – air contract – if you miss the cruise using their air service – they are NOT responsible for anything – - while often they will get you to the first port – well – they do not have to and most times – will not.

  • laura

    I’m sure Anita would agree that the passenger performed exactly as he should have – he read through all the documentation he received as soon as he got it and discovered the error.

    Too many folks only scan the stuff and rely on their TAs or their cruiseline to have gotten it right. A typo, a slip of the finger – there are many even innocuous reasons why your cruise/flight/hotel can be messd up, not to mention the occasional carelessness, inattentiveness, system error, or other reason the booker might not have gotten it right

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