Dear Tripped Up,
My travel companion and I booked a river cruise and tour to Portugal and Spain for this past July with Vantage Deluxe World Travel. We paid in full, and bought insurance against trip interruption or cancellation through Vantage from TripMate. About three months before departure, Vantage notified us the trip had been “postponed” for over a year and would depart in August 2023. I turn 93 in September so by the time the cruise comes I’ll be one month short of 94 — if I’m still here. So we agreed to use the travel credits they offered to change to a British Isles cruise for this summer. Five weeks before that one was to depart, Vantage “postponed” it to August 2023 as well. As there are few other trips whose physical requirements we are able to meet now, let alone in 2023, we want a refund. They say we are stuck with the credits — in my case worth nearly $20,000. Can you help? — Bernice, New York
I’m not a doctor or a palm reader, but after our long, entertaining phone conversation and the dozen emails we’ve exchanged since you wrote in, I suspect the only reason you wouldn’t be available to board that cruise next August is if you finagled a last-minute spot to climb Mount Everest.
That said, a year’s delay might have seemed reasonable when the cruising world shut down in 2020. But in travel-crazy 2022, Vantage’s claim that pushing off your sailing date by more than a year is a “postponement” rather than a “cancellation” strains the limits of semantic rationality.
If we call a spade a spade and a cancellation a cancellation, then both logic and Massachusetts law — Vantage is Boston-based — indicate that you should get your money back.
If only it were that easy. I tried to reach Vantage — and by that I mean I sent emails to the C.E.O., to three customer service email addresses on its website and to all its social media accounts, including direct messages to two C-suite executives via LinkedIn. Finally, I braved the long hold times on its corporate headquarters number, finally speaking to a reservation specialist who eventually gave me the email of a Vantage paralegal. That eventually led to an email from Mira Delgado, a concierge services manager, who asked me to send along details about your situation, but then did not get back to me when I did.
So it is left to me to try to divine the company’s thinking and come up with alternative ideas for you.
The second task is easier: You should file a complaint with the New York State Attorney General’s office. That might just work: The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office has received nearly 600 complaints about Vantage, most related to Covid-era cancellations, and recovered $1.1 million for consumers. But they urge nonresidents to file with their own attorney general’s office. Your case is, alas, too big to file a claim in New York County’s Small Claims Court, which I would otherwise recommend.
So, what is Vantage thinking? According to its current policy, updated in October 2021, Vantage reserves the right to “cancel a cruise” or “change the date or time of sailing or arrival” and then to either substitute another cruise or “provide a full refund of the fare actually paid by you for such cruise.”
In a maddening bit of irony, in the same policy document, Vantage notes that if passengers substitute one product for another, they are “considered reservation cancellations and are subject to cancellation fees.”
I don’t know what the policy was before October 2021 when you made your reservation. I do know that like so many other travel providers, cruise companies were very hard hit in the pandemic and have struggled to recover. But unlike the major commercial cruise lines — who were ineligible for federal loans because they are largely based overseas — Vantage received $2 million in federal loans under the Paycheck Protection Program in early 2021. (Like most companies, it did not repay the loan.) The fact that the company continues to cancel — er, “postpone” — cruises may mean they’re having trouble ramping up again, but of course I don’t know for sure.
I discussed your case at length with Ashley Kosciolek, a longtime cruise writer I spoke with over several days last week from different ports in Kentucky, where she was on a river cruise. (She is currently the senior cruise writer for The Points Guy.)
“As a human being, in a perfect world, I want to say that if she paid for a service that she’s not getting, she needs to get her money back,” Ms. Kosciolek told me. “It’s a drastic change in the sale dates. It’s not like it’s a week later, it’s a year later.”
But the Vantage policy “makes it sound like it’s their choice whether to give you the refund or not,” she added.
And there’s one more confounding factor, she said. Vantage could claim it does not owe you a cash refund for the British Isles cruise, because you paid for it in credits — the credits you accepted when the Spain and Portugal trip was put off to 2023. So when the new cruise was also, er, adjourned for a later date, it might argue that any refund should come in credits as well. Ms. Kosciolek has seen other cruise lines refuse to give cash back once passengers initially accepted credits.
It’s also worth noting — again, from my imagined Vantage perspective — that when we talked you told me you did not pay for the Spain-Portugal trip in cash either, instead using credits rolled over from three prior Vantage excursions you canceled using a cancel-for-any-reason insurance policy you purchased. Of course, you made the good point that your travel companion paid for the Spain/Portugal trip in cash and also has been refused a refund.
Still, Ms. Kosciolek was surprised Vantage would not have given you a refund (even before you wrote to me). “Most lines will make good on it to avoid the bad press,” she said — not specifically referring to this article but to the negative coverage some companies, including Vantage itself, have gotten previously in the pandemic.
As you noted, you bought travel insurance from TripMate. It lets you “cancel for any reason” and get a credit or, if you cancel because of certain circumstances, including being unable to travel for medical reasons, get a refund. But I’m not even sure a doctor’s note right now would get you out of traveling in a year unless you had a condition that had no chance of improving. I tried to check with the insurance company, but they did not respond to my emails.
Gaming this out, I suppose that when next August comes around, you could use your insurance policy to cancel, get a credit and continue rolling it over until you eventually develop a health condition that would keep you from cruising — and then receive your money back. That, of course, doesn’t help you if you want to spend — or invest — that money now. Ms. Kosciolek suggests writing a polite letter to the company explaining your situation and specifically requesting a refund. We both agree, though, that this may not do much good. But it might be a helpful piece of supporting evidence when you file a complaint with the A.G.