Update, 6:07 p.m. EDT: A company spokeswoman tells us that now anyone is eligible for the Best Price Guarantee, not just those who book inside the penalty period. We have adjusted the Q&A below, originally printed on May 18, to reflect this addition to the policy.
(May 18) -- Is May murky policy change month? Just a week after Carnival Cruise Lines cleared up the confusion surrounding its new policy on banned items, Royal Caribbean has made a series of not-very-clear changes to its Best Price Guarantee policy -- sending Cruise Critic members into a state of bewilderment.
On May 17, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. notified travel agents of the company's new Best Price Guarantee and updated the Web sites of its three brands -- Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International -- to reflect the changes. By 10 a.m. on May 18, Cruise Critic members had generated a 17-page thread expressing confusion and frustration over the changes.
So we decided to go to the source for more clarity. We asked Carol Cabezas, Celebrity's director of sales strategy and automation, to explain the new policy -- and raised your, and our, questions. Here's what you need to know:
Q: What is RCCL's new Best Price Guarantee?
A: If you book a cruise and you see a cheaper price on your cruise within 48 hours after you've put down a deposit, Royal Caribbean will offer 110 percent of the difference in onboard credit. Eligible price drops include publicly available pricing and not special discounts, such as agency or employee rates. So if you book a cruise for $499, and then see it advertised for $449, you'll get $55 in onboard credit.
Q: Who can take advantage of the new Best Price Guarantee?
A: The new Best Price Guarantee is aimed at travelers who book their cruises either in advance (outside the penalty period) or at the last minute (within the penalty period). What is the penalty period? This is the period of time between when final payment is due (typically 60 to 90 days before sailing, depending on the cruise) and sail date. So if you are booking a month before you cruise, this is within the penalty period, which means you pay the entire amount up front. If you book six months in advance, this is outside the penalty period, which means you pay a deposit followed by the remainder later.
Due to the various consumer protection laws in other countries, for the time being, the Best Price Guarantee is only available to U.S. and Canadian residents.
Q: How strict is the 48-hour time window?
A: Cabezas tells us that the cruise lines will not be sticklers to the 48-hour time window as a good faith effort. For example, if you make your payment Monday at 9 a.m. and file your claim by Wednesday at 11 a.m., it will likely be honored -- Thursday, however, would be too late. She also adds that though the cruise line will try to process the claims as quickly as possible, customers will be protected as long as the fare was valid when they made their claim -- even if by the time their claim is read, the fare is gone or the 48-hour period has expired.
Q: What if I book within the penalty period and the price drops after 48 hours?
A: If you book within the penalty period and the price drops after 48 hours, you will not receive the difference in onboard credit. However, if the price you paid is now equal to the rate for a higher-category cabin, you can request an upgrade and the line will try to accommodate you if a cabin is available.
Q: What if I book prior to the penalty period and the price drops after 48 hours?
A: You actually have several options. If you book before final payment and the price drops on your itinerary, cabin category and sail date, you can request a fare adjustment or an upgrade if applicable, and the line will accommodate you. If you see a price drop on a different cabin category or sailing and you'd like to take advantage of that offer, you can cancel without penalty and rebook at the lower fare.
Once final payment is made, you are locked into the rate you paid and have no more opportunities to receive a price differential in onboard credit. However, as mentioned above, if the price drops such that a higher-category cabin now costs the same as what you paid, you can request an upgrade, if a cabin is available.
Q: What if I book far in advance, take advantage of the Best Price Guarantee to get 110% onboard credit, and the price drops again before my final payment is due? Can I still get a price reduction?
A: Yes! There's no limit to the number of times the cruise line will adjust your cruise fare prior to final payment. Plus, you'll get to keep your 110 percent credit, even if your fare is lowered later.
Q: How does this differ from the old policy?
A: The old price protection policy states that if the price of your cruise drops up to 72 hours prior to departure, you can receive the difference in onboard credit. Those who had not paid in full at the time of the price drop could also opt for a cash refund or reduction to their outstanding balance.
The new policy is different in a few ways. The actual Best Price Guarantee only applies to a fare drop 48 hours after booking, shortening the amount of time you have to find a lower rate. Eligible price drops net you more credit -- 110 percent of the difference rather than 100 percent in the original policy -- but there is no option for a cash refund or fare reduction at 110 percent of the price difference. The greatest impact will be felt by people who book inside the penalty period, who now have far less time in which to take advantage of price drops. People who book outside the penalty period still have adjustment options prior to final payment, as outlined above.
Cruise travelers who booked their RCCL cruise prior to May 17 are grandfathered into the previous policy. You can find more details in our archived news item, Best Price Guarantees: Good or Bad for Cruisers?
Q: Why was the price protection policy changed?
A: "When we looked at our existing policy, we saw that we were very much out of line with our cruise competition," Cabezas said. "The new policy brings us more in line with the rest of the lines." She also noted that RCCL had heard from its travel agent partners that they were frustrated at losing commission every time a cruise fare dropped, so this new policy further benefits them by preserving their compensation.
Cabezas says the cruise line will be re-evaluating the text on its consumer and agent Web sites to see if the language can be improved and clarified.
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--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
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Update: Royal Caribbean's New Best Price Guarantee: Your Questions Answered
May 19, 2010