A week before Carolynne James’ Rhine river cruise last spring, she got bad news: Uniworld had canceled her sailing and issued a future cruise credit.
But James, a retired office administrator from Columbia, Missouri, didn’t want the cruise line’s voucher. Prices for the same cruise the following summer were double what they were during the heavily discounted 2021 season.
“I have to spend another $10,000 – not including airfare – just to go on the same trip,” she said. “I really don’t want the coupons.”
It was bad enough that she would never be able to enjoy the postcard-perfect view of Germany’s Rhine Valley. Now she faced the real possibility that her cruise line would want the $10,174 she had paid.
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What should you do with a cruise voucher?
Cruise lines loved issuing credits for sailings canceled during the pandemic, which allowed them to keep your money — and may have saved them from bankruptcy. But sometimes the credits only last a year or two, and the cost of a new cruise is often significantly higher than the original, making it unaffordable for some passengers.
So, what do you do with your cruise credits?
James was in a pinch. She had a limited time to use her vouchers, but the prices for her European river cruise, which was supposed to be a 40th birthday present for her husband, were prohibitive. She tried to submit a claim to her travel insurance company, but it said she was ineligible because her insurance did not cover a cancellation by the cruise line.
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What do you do with a credit you can’t use? I asked Uniworld. A representative contacted her and agreed to refund her vouchers and travel insurance, following my intervention. (I have a free cruise booking guide that will help you avoid a problem like this in the future.)
So far, only about 60% of pandemic cruise vouchers have been redeemed, according to estimates from Internova Travel Group. Many passengers don’t fully understand the terms of these coupons, according to John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group, a division of Internova.
Not only that, but some cruise lines increased their credits to 125% of the cruise’s value, Internova estimates. And, as Lovell explains, while the base credit has no expiration date, the extra 25% does.
“Generally, future cruise credits do not have an expiration date,” he explained. “Only the bonus portion of the extra 25% expires on the specified date.”
Are cruise lines allowed to keep your money when they cancel?
Cruise passengers used to be unlucky when it came to refunds. During the pandemic, some cruise lines arbitrarily converted their money into future cruise credits without even asking. Reason? The cruise line’s ticket contract allowed them to do so, and no law prevented them from keeping a customer’s money indefinitely. Or so they claimed.
But that wasn’t entirely true. Some states, such as Massachusetts, had laws that required a cruise line to offer a refund after a canceled cruise or trip. And last year, a new federal rule went into effect requiring a cruise line to offer a full refund for a cruise that begins in the United States and is canceled or delayed by at least three days. The law also allows cruise companies to refund any pre-paid fees.
Of course, none of these laws should have been necessary. If a cruise line cancels your cruise, it should offer a prompt refund regardless of what the law says. If your cruise line canceled your vacation during the pandemic and kept your money, you are dealing with an unethical business.
How long do I have to use my cruise credits?
Most cruise credits issued during the pandemic last for at least two years. However, many cruise lines routinely extend the validity of these future cruise credits when passengers ask. And some go even further.
“Your cruise line may not advertise it openly,” said Narendra Khatri, principal of Insubuy, a travel insurance company. “However, some have offered to convert cruise credits into cash refunds this year if the credit was due to a cruise cancellation.”
For example, NCL will allow customers to convert an existing credit into a cash refund if they have been affected by two or more cruise suspensions. You can also get a cash refund if you canceled through NCL’s Peace of Mind policy and were then affected by at least one additional suspension, according to the company.
“The actual amount you’ll get back will depend on the cruise line and the circumstances, but it’s worth contacting them if you can’t negotiate an extension or get time to take another cruise before the credit expires,” Khatri said.
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Cruise passengers need more protection
The question of future cruise credits is endlessly frustrating, not only for passengers, but also for travel advisors and consumer advocates. It is noteworthy that until recently the law allowed cruise lines to cancel a sailing and keep your money. Clearly, much more needs to be done to protect cruise purchases.
A cruise line should always offer the choice of a full refund or a future cruise credit when canceling a sailing – no matter where it’s going. The federal law only applies to cruises departing from US ports. If you buy a cruise and can’t get that promise in writing, don’t give the company your business. And no waiting for three days. If it cancels, it should refund you right away.
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Professional tips for managing cruise credits
► Know your rights: You have some rights – but not many. Check the ticket contract for the cruise line, the legal agreement between you and the cruise line. There is also a Passenger Bill of Rights with some limited consumer protections. The Federal Maritime Commission also has information about your passenger rights, limited as they are, on its website.
► Negotiate a better deal: Pandemic credits are uncharted waters for the cruise industry. They made up the policy of offering 125% credit on the fly and then adjusted the policy as the pandemic continued to develop. Travel agents have privately told me that when it comes to future cruise credits, cruise lines are often far more flexible in practice than they are on paper. You may be able to negotiate an extension of your entire voucher – or a full refund.
► Check your account often: Cruise lines change policies occasionally and don’t always announce it. “Check your account periodically,” said James Hills, owner of the website CruiseWestCoast.com. A new credit may appear – or disappear – depending on the cruise line’s new rules. “Don’t be neurotic,” Hills said, “but you never know what you might find.”
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a non-profit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and Elliott Report, a customer service news website. If you need help with a consumer issue, you can reach him here or email him at [email protected]