Tourism & Cruises

Their cruise was canceled to offer hurricane relief. So why didn’t they get a refund?

The Grand Celebration, a ship that is being chartered by FEMA for humanitarian efforts in St. Thomas, leading to the cancellation of three months worth of sailings. Some passengers who booked a sailing on a ship through a travel agency, Royal Seas Cruises, claim the agency is denying them refunds on the canceled sailings.
The Grand Celebration, a ship that is being chartered by FEMA for humanitarian efforts in St. Thomas, leading to the cancellation of three months worth of sailings. Some passengers who booked a sailing on a ship through a travel agency, Royal Seas Cruises, claim the agency is denying them refunds on the canceled sailings. Grand Bahamas Cruise Line

Native-born Montanan Mindy Bausch thought the cruise she booked after a random political survey call might be the ticket to getting her nature-loving husband out of Montana and to the Bahamas for a warm Caribbean vacation.

“We don’t travel,” she explained via email. “My husband’s idea of a vacation is sleeping in a tent in 20 degree temperatures ... which I have done more than once.”

What Bausch didn’t know at the time was that she hadn’t booked with Deerfield Beach-based Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line. Instead, she booked with Royal Seas Cruises, a travel agency that has been called a “scam” by numerous online commenters for offering free or discounted cruises, then disclosing additional fees, and failing to refund passengers when they seek to cancel or, in Bausch’s case, when their sailings are canceled.

For Bausch, the salesman quickly turned the political survey call into an offer for a vacation package. He had her hooked: a two-day cruise for two would cost the couple just $268. Bausch ultimately booked the trip for Dec. 9.

To Bausch’s dismay, that voyage was canceled Friday, less than a month before her sailing date. She only found out because of a text indicating a change in her itinerary, and asking her to call a number for more information, she said.

As it turned out, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s Grand Celebration, the cruise line’s only ship, was being chartered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency through mid-December to house hurricane relief workers in St. Thomas. Voyages on the 1,900-passenger ship, which sails from Palm Beach to Grand Bahama Island, were canceled after Sept. 15 and will resume Dec. 23.

What was strange, Bausch said, was that although the cruise line had publicly said it would offer refunds for the canceled sailings, the booking agency through which she made the reservation refused to do so. Royal Seas Cruises, a Fort Lauderdale-based booking agency, told her she could take a ferry to the Bahamas instead, or stay at a hotel, or rebook for a later date — but not get a refund.

“[An agent at Royal Seas] said, ‘Ma’am you’ve got a discounted cruise, I don’t have to refund you anything. There are people with nothing and you are concerned about your stupid cruise,’ ” Bausch claimed, via a phone interview. “She said, ‘We don’t have to refund anything,’ and hung up.”

The incident was not isolated.

Royal Seas Cruises, a 17-month-old company based in Fort Lauderdale, has an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau and 171 complaints dating back to May 2016 that detail a similar pattern. Sixteen of those complaints were logged after September, when the Grand Celebration ship began its FEMA charter.

In some cases, the booking agency called potential customers offering a “free” cruise, then later disclosed additional fees or requirements, such as sitting through a time-share presentation, the Better Business Bureau found.

“Consumers informed BBB they canceled the cruise and requested a refund but they did not receive a refund from Royal Seas Cruises,” the bureau wrote in its profile of the company.

Paul Heyden, president of Royal Seas Cruises, said the company learned last-minute that the ship would be chartered by FEMA, leaving them scrambling to contact more than 20,000 customers on affected voyages.

“It was a very big endeavor and our phones lit up with thousands of customers trying to figure out what was going on,” Heyden said in an interview Tuesday. “If one or two or three of them accidentally got told misinformation, that’s a mistake by our part. [Due to the hurricanes, we] had to hire a bunch of new customer service agents and maybe one or two of them actually didn’t state the company policies correctly.”

Heyden said that to his knowledge, all cases have been resolved. The Better Business Bureau also said that only one of its 171 complaints with the company has been closed as unresolved. About $1.5 million in refunds have been processed in the last six weeks, Heyden said.

“We will continue to do our very best to please all of our customers,” Heyden said.

But in complaints across multiple platforms, consumers call the company a “scam” that ropes customers in for a discounted vacation and then denies them refunds when they want to back out. An August 2016 story on KNOE-TV, a CBS-affiliated television station in Monroe, Louisiana, listed Royal Seas Cruises as the “BBB Scam of the Week.” The company has been sued by a consumer in California for allegedly violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which restricts telephone solicitations. The case is ongoing.

In the case of the chartered FEMA cruise, customers told the Herald they were not canceling by choice but because the ship was not available, and they felt that is more cause for a refund.

“[I’m] not breaking the contract. I’m ready to go, but you don’t have a boat to put me on,” said Rebecca Wood, of Savannah, Georgia, who was booked for an early October cruise to the Bahamas. “They said, ‘You paid a discounted rate.’ I said, ‘What I paid shouldn’t matter. I’m not the one that is canceling the trip.’ 

Wood, who said she paid about $428 for a two-day trip with her fiancé, said she got a call about a possible cruise vacation too, with the caveat that she had to sit through a time-share presentation, which she agreed to.

Royal Seas rates 1.5 stars on Yelp, which is peppered with largely negative reviews of the service and claims that the company has denied refunds or misled consumers.

In a post from Oct. 25, Yelp user Nicara N. writes, “DO NOT book this SCAM! The customer service reps are rude and pretend to be supervisors. The sales people are extremely pushy. They canceled my trip at the last minute and have refused to give a refund. They should be sued.”

The company replied on Yelp by saying, in part, “I am disappointed that you made and have not retracted a bad yelp review against us knowing we are not the company that charged your credit card.” It was not clear from the posting what company charged the customer’s card.

Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line said the cruise line is offering full refunds or rebooking passengers with an additional $100 in future cruise credit for other sailings. The line is only aware of a “few” complaints in reference to Royal Seas Cruises. The agency is one of more than 100 travel partners, said Glenn Ryerson, executive vice president for sales and marketing at Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line.

Claims of cruise scams are not new. A class-action lawsuit against Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Resort Marketing Group alleging customers were the victims of robocalls settled earlier this year. Customers who were affected by robocalls from either of those four companies can receive $300 to $900 in compensation.

As for Bausch, she’s having a hard time convincing her husband to take a cruise again after their endeavor. The couple purchased a sailing on another cruise line to try to salvage the $873 they paid in airfare tickets.

“How do people do business like this and stay in business?” she said.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH