(12:30 p.m. EDT) -- With cruise lines around the world canceling sailings into the summer and beyond as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many cruisers are wondering why the process of issuing Future Cruise Credits, also known as FCCs, and refunds for affected voyages is taking so long.
While there's no one reason, the answer primarily comes down to volume. Under normal circumstances, receiving a refund from a canceled cruise can take several days to a few weeks to process.
But with the pandemic forcing cruise lines to cancel voyages well into the summer and beyond, hundreds of thousands of people are affected at the same time -- often on the same day.
These cancellations are on a scale that has never been seen before in the history of the industry; the equivalent of back-to-back-to-back hurricane seasons of disruption, cancellations and indecision. Couple that with layoffs, technical issues created from social distancing regulations requiring staff to work from home, and increased processing time for credit card transactions, and a perfect storm has developed.
"When my clients first inquire about what their options are, I let them know that if they choose the refund that it can take at least 90 days to get it back," Lori Foster, Dream Vacations Franchise Owner and Vacation Specialist in San Clemente, California, tells Cruise Critic. "This is something they should consider as they make their decision about what to do, as some people need the money right away."
A quick read over Cruise Critic's message boards over the past two months shows that readers aren't just upset about the length of time it is taking to process these credits and refunds; they're downright angry.
Tensions have run high, with members commenting that conflicting information, ill-informed call center agents and constantly changing policies have made the process even more difficult to navigate. Some are so upset by the process that they are hesitant to book another voyage, fearing the worst.
"This is why we are not booking any cruise for the future until we see what happens to the industry in the future," writes member hladygirl.
Others have struck a more understanding tone, recognizing that cruise lines are in an unprecedented scenario.
"The cruise lines are facing an extreme situation and appear to be doing the best they can," writes member RocketMan275.
In the case of refunds, all items on the bill -- shore excursions, pre-purchased items like drink or dining packages and stateroom gifts -- tend to be processed separately. Most cruisers will see a series of charges returned to their credit cards, rather than a single lump sum.
"Cruise refunds have taken so long to disburse because of the thousands and thousands of transactions a day, compared to maybe a hundred a day before," Foster said. "Pair this with most of the accounting departments working from home, limited staff due to layoffs and you have a created a backlog of work."
"They then send this information to the credit card companies, and the same situation is happening there," Foster says.
Travel advisors say delays are being further exacerbated by backlogged credit card companies.
"The cruise lines are handling a high volume of credits and refunds right now, and it seems to take five to six weeks to process these requests and that can vary by cruise line," Paris Taylor, owner of Timeless Travel Adventures, LLC, told Cruise Critic. "In addition to the time the vendors need to get through the transactions, travelers waiting on a refund also must wait for their credit card companies to process the refund."
Even those choosing FCCs still might see delays in processing, as the cruise line delivers these minus the taxes, fees and port charges that have to be refunded to the original form of payment. Shore excursions and any pre-purchased items that travelers may have already bought also have to be removed from the FCC amount and refunded to the original form of payment. In most cases, FCC's cannot be used to pay for items like taxes, fees, port charges and optional shipboard pre-purchases.
Other members report that FCCs aren't being applied in a timely manner, further limiting their options to rebook.
"Today's May 7 Princess webinar stated that all cruises canceled during the first pause have had FCCs completed as of April 30th. I know that I do not have mine, neither does my client," writes member ceilidh1 on a 64-page thread discussing refunds and FCCs.
Posters write that difficulties in receiving the promised email with the FCC can sometimes be resolved by calling the company's call center to confirm the FCC has been applied to their account. Others suggest hanging on to the original booking number, which could be sufficient.
First, cruisers with canceled voyages should always visit their cruise line's updated sailings or COVID-19 information page for the latest information. Because of the rapidly changing situation, emails and letters can be out of date by the time they're sent to their recipients. Cruise lines say the latest policies and procedures are always found online.
Second, if you want a refund and not an FCC, you'll almost always have to tell the cruise line this, either through an electronic form or via your travel advisor or the cruise line's call center. By default, most cruise lines will issue an FCC with a bonus credit to entice you to stay and rebook another voyage.
Some, but not all, cruise lines have now made this process of requesting a refund available on their respective websites. Cruise Critic has a link to most cruise line's policy pages on our Ship Policies and Cancellations article.
Third, anticipate that this will all take time, likely more than lines are currently estimating. Many posters have commented that cruise lines can take thousands of dollars off your credit card in a second; the fact that refunds take up to three months causes frustration. This, unfortunately, isn't so dissimilar with how other travel-related providers function. It is important to remember the scale of these cancellations and refunds is unprecedented.
Finally, hang on to all documentation from your original cruise, including your voyage and payment summary, cabin category and assignment, and booking code and place this together with your FCC confirmation or refund confirmation. Having this information as part of your records is always a good idea in case future calls to travel professionals or the cruise line is required.
While being understanding that cruisers are eager to rebook affected voyages or see monies returned to the original form of payment during this time of economic hardship, many agents advise patience when dealing with cruise lines, travel professionals and other individuals.
"Every cruise line is made up of people that are all affected by COVID-19," Foster says. "We need to be kind to each other, and we will get through this and be stronger as an industry."