Pandemic sinks sea cruise dream holiday

Allen Lang had visions of relaxing on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth, sailing to Vancouver where he would be reunited with his daughter where she and her family relocated, which is why the holiday he booked with Imagine Cruises included an additional two weeks in the West Coast seaport city of British Columbia.

Then came Covid-19 and the Rondebosch resident saw his dream holiday and the R116 998 go up in smoke.

What annoyed him most, he said, was the lack of communication from Imagine Cruises and their agents, Imagine Holidays in Century City.

Mr Lang’s departure date was May 11 2020 but he only found out that the cruise was cancelled when he went on to the Cunard shipping line website before March 6 (in South Africa, the lockdown started on March 26).

“Holiday Cruises only informed me by email on April 22 that ‘due to the unprecedented volume of Covid-19 related cancellations, refunds have come to a virtual halt. Suppliers are not allowing us to apply cash refunds, but instead you will be issued with a future credit voucher. Unfortunately, due to the enormity of the situation it is completely impossible for suppliers to continue to issue cash refunds. With your full credit voucher, we will discuss options for a future travel option and when it needs to be used by. With regard to interest, we do not accrue interest on your money as it’s all sitting with the suppliers, so your voucher will be for the value of your holiday paid, R116 998, and due to the current volumes the refunds may take several months to process’,” Mr Lang said.

According to the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) travel agents can offer clients a refund or a voucher to be used at another time.

The Consumer Goods Ombudsman also recommended that people should accept the voucher.

However, if it was not acceptable then they should ask for their money back.

Mr Lang told Imagine Holidays that he did not want a voucher.

Quoting Imagine Cruises’ terms and conditions, Mr Lang said, “You are contractually obliged to give me a refund and if Imagine Cruises has to cancel the holiday before the date of departure then the client has the option of taking an alternative holiday or accepting a full refund.”

The bulk of the 19-night holiday was on the Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth.

Mr Lang told Imagine Holidays, “As I am almost 70, it is possible that there would be severe restrictions on overseas travel for years to come for people in my age group. The fact that the clause contains the words ‘when it needs to be used by’ implies that there will be a time limit on the use of the credit voucher. So unless the credit voucher also states that ‘if a holiday cannot be undertaken by the end of the validity period of the voucher, the customer will be entitled to a full refund’, then my having to accept a credit voucher with a time limit could render it worthless for people in my age category.

“While I sympathise with the dilemma that your company finds itself in, I believe that you are in flagrant breach of your contract and as such, it is not legal for Imagine Cruises to take my not insubstantial amount of money that I paid for the holiday and provide no value nor refund.”

There was no response but Sandy Alvos of Imagine Holidays told me that they “understand customers’ frustration in these unprecedented and changing times, and we apologise that the process of resolving each booking is taking longer than we would like.

“Each booking has its own detail and components, often cruise, hotel, flight and tours, and our team are working hard to discuss these individually as quickly as possible and to process the solution agreed. As we work through each booking, we are applying ASATA’s guidelines and the CPA regulations to ensure our customers’ rights are protected while we work with our airline and cruise line partners to understand options available.

“We had discussed our approach to the crisis with Mr Lang and began the process for his refund and it should be with him by mid-August 2020,” Ms Alvos said.

Mr Lang said, “Bottom line: communicate with your clients. It makes such a difference to the overall customer experience if you pro-actively keep them in the picture. I believe that at the outset of the crisis a client communication strategy should have been put in place so that clients were individually contacted and their minds put at rest, instead of just being referred to the website and sending out what seems like general ‘form’ emails. It would have been worth the extra expense of hiring some temps to help with this. You can see there is no mention of the refund process, let alone an August date in the correspondence.

“As an aside I gather that considering Covid-19 as an act of God is highly debatable. An act of God is defined as something that ‘generally describes an event that can’t be predicted or prevented with reasonable care’. I would argue that the viral corona pandemic was predicted at least five years ago by Bill Gates (and probably earlier by others). I’m not sure whether a force majeure has a different definition, although I do see (on Google) they often tend to be lumped together.”

Mr Lang confirmed that he was refunded in full on Friday August 14. “Thank you for your intervention,” he said.