Johannesburg - Marketed online as having undergone a “bow-to-stern” refurbishment, the Jewel of the Seas promised luxury on a par with the best.
Except, that refurb wasn’t as extensive as it sounded, the customer’s expectations were not met - and the local agents say their hands are tied
Many people have romanticised notions of cruising - visiting distant lands, sun-tanning on the deck, tucking into sinful seafood buffets and dancing the night away under the stars.
But nothing’s perfect and if you look for fault with a critical eye, you’ll find it.
Just how much is that upset worth though?
Jeffrey Shankman is not new to cruising - he knows what to expect on a trip; so the cruise he took earlier this year with Royal Caribbean rankled.
He had asked a local agent, Just Cruising, to give him a few quotes and did his research online. Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas stood out because it had just undergone a $30-million (about R410m) refurbishment, which would make it “one of the most luxurious to sail out of Rome in 2016”.
However, that “bow-to-stern” refurb translated into a new mattress and curtains in his stateroom, but the furniture was scuffed.
Had he known, Shankman said he wouldn’t have chosen that cruise - the ship was a 2004 model in need of TLC.
Shankman explained: “(Royal Caribbean’s) claim that the ’bow-to-stern renovation will give guests new staterooms is not only misleading, it is false, possibly even fraudulent’. It certainly induced me to consider this cruise.
“Royal Caribbean’s website advertises new staterooms on the Jewel of the Seas due to a refurbishment programme. The staterooms are not new and I have pictures to show it.”
Shankman complained on board but there wasn’t other accommodation available - instead, Royal Caribbean offered him a 20 percent discount on his next cruise.
He’s not appeased: “I would like to request they refer the matter to their own in-house attorneys for an opinion and only thereafter decide if their 20 percent offer is reasonable let alone acceptable. In place of a refund I would consider 50 percent discount, valid for three years and extended to their Celebrity Line as fair.”
“I spoke to Les Reisnik (a partner) of Just Cruising and he claims that since they are an agent, the transaction falls outside the CPA, but that he would assist in facilitating my claim. Les has taken this up with Royal Caribbean via emails and I am not sure where this process will end up.
“I'm not seeking compensation for poor service or bad food but for using misleading information resulting in the accommodation offered not being as stated and what a reasonable person believed he would receive.
“For clarity: Just Cruising at no stage committed to writing that the liner had undergone a refurb. Any information in this regard would have been given orally and then corroborated by Royal Caribbean’s internet site. While their misrepresentation may have been unintentional, the lack of effort in correcting it and addressing my concern will clearly result in any success they achieve being similarly unintentional.”
Royal Caribbean hadn’t responded to my requests for comment but Jerson Aldana, a “corporate guest relations advocate” for them, told Just Cruising and Shankman in a mail: “I would like to clarify something for them; on our website it says: 'In April 2016, Jewel of the Seas will complete a bow-to-stern renovation that will give guests new staterooms including a two-bedroom family suite, three new restaurants, poolside movie screen, tech upgrades and more.' It never specifies all of the staterooms will be new, it mentions we will have new staterooms; it does not mean all of the staterooms are new. The publicity we are providing on our website that refers to new staterooms is not misleading and dishonest or fraudulent. I apologise for any inconvenience this may cause to our guests.”
The impression was created that there was a “bow-to-stern” renovation, which constitutes false advertising. So, who is to blame? Royal Caribbean is an international company and marketed the cruise online.
Rose Norton Fulbright CPA specialist Rosalind Lake clarified the issue of liability: “In terms of the Consumer Protection Act, a supplier is prohibited from making false, misleading or deceptive misrepresentations regarding a material fact: a material fact being that had the consumer been aware of it, they would not have gone ahead with the transaction.
“An agent is not excluded from the CPA because they are an agent of the supplier. If the agent made the representations to the customer regarding the quality/upgrade of the staterooms that induced the customer to enter into the agreement, the agent is just as guilty as the supplier.”
However, Just Cruising merely made the booking: Shankman wanted four quotes, searched online and then asked to be booked on the Jewel, Raymond Liebman of Just Cruising told me. “We did not market the cruise to Mr Shankman: he requested the Jewel and wanted to use his 22 percent discount with Discovery,” Liebman said.
Shankman took the cruise and wasn’t unhappy with the rest of it - he wasn’t asking for a full refund, but he felt 20 percent didn’t quite cut it.
Lake agreed: “Although the newly refurbished ship may have enticed him to choose one provider over another, he did receive the benefit of the trip, including food and entertainment.ÂThe quality of the rooms is one aspect of the total service.”
And George Argyropoulos, managing director of Cruises International - Royal Caribbean’s South African representative, said for a three-and-a-half/four-star liner aimed at the mass market: “Royal Caribbean’s standards are very high.”
“It’s a good, all-round family holiday that offers amazing value at $100 a day. They have thousands of passengers. Wear and tear happens. If you look with a critical eye, you’ll find things. They offered him $300 - three days of cruising free because of scuffed furniture - I think that’s generous. They’re not going to better that.
“The complaints we get from customers is that the cruise is too short. We do 10 000 cruises a year: we get maybe five, 10 complaints. Some are genuine, others are just out to get a discount.”
Liebman added: “The rooms didn’t diminish his enjoyment of the ship or the experience. The cruise lines have strict terms and conditions, and they’re not going to give a bigger discount than they already have. It has become almost fashionable for people to complain about small things to get big discounts. The cruise liners don’t make it easy and can’t be overly generous with these types of complaints because they might be setting a precedent which they’ll battle to stem.”
Argyropoulos said this was a prime example of what could go wrong with online bookings. The local agents simply cannot review each ship whenever there’s a refurbishment, nor can they be held liable for claims on websites.
“There are various degrees of refurbishments. They happen on a daily basis for maintenance but every two to three years, the ships go into dry dock and undergo a massive overhaul, with new amenities to update the ship to latest standards because people expect new dining options, activities, entertainment.”
Shankman maintains it’s not about the scuffed furniture; it’s about false advertising. You’d think though, considering the litigious nature of American society, someone would have taken it up with Royal Caribbean in the US.
In South Africa, the promised “bow-to-stern” refurbishment would certainly qualify as false advertising. But unless you are prepared to fight it in courts overseas to prove a point, you’re not going to get further than a token discount.
What to do
Try the association: The Association of South African Travel Agents (Asata) is able to mediate in disputes involving their members.
However, it advises that only once all avenues with the travel agency or tour operator have been exhausted should it be contacted.
Consult the oracle: Berlitz is widely considered to be the “bible” of cruising. They produce travel guides, maps, phrase books, language-learning courses, dictionaries and kids’ language products. Visit www.berlitzpublishing.com for details or find their guides in a good bookshop.
** Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected]
** Follow on Georgina Crouth on Twitter: @askgeorgie