Celebrity vs. Cunard? Cruisers Weigh Lines' Actions in Wake of Ash Travel Chaos

April 20, 2010
Icelandic Volcano (7:50 p.m. EDT) -- In the wake of air cancellations following the volcano eruption in Iceland, two cruise lines have risen to the top of the collective cruise consciousness for their actions.

One is Celebrity Cruises, which announced yesterday to many accolades that it would send its soon-to-debut Celebrity Eclipse from Southampton to Spain to repatriate travelers on package holidays. On the other end of the spectrum, Cunard is being vilified by Cruise Critic members and Facebook fans for charging regular cancellation fees -- while boasting about the 1,000 people on wait lists willing to pay full price for cabins on QM2's transatlantic cruises.

While this may seem like a battle of good and evil, the issue is not as cut and dry as it appears, and it's certainly not an apples-to-apples comparison. Cruise Critic investigates:

Celebrity's Move

Celebrity Eclipse, Celebrity's newest ship, was originally scheduled to offer a two-night, invitation-only, pre-inaugural cruise on April 22, prior to its naming ceremony on April 24. Instead, the ship will head to Bilbao, Spain, to pick up stranded travelers booked on holiday packages with tour operators Thomson, First Choice, Thomas Cook and The Co-operative Travel Group (CTTG).

Passengers will be given free accommodations; Celebrity spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez says the line is in the process of finalizing the rest of the details about the onboard programming. "I am glad to see the cruise lines helping out those stranded passengers," posts member BroncosFan2010. "I cannot imagine being stuck for so long, and being GOUGED by the hotels, rental car places, and other things that these people need."

It's important to note that Celebrity is in a unique position to be magnanimous because Eclipse has not yet run a revenue cruise (i.e. a regular sailing with paying passengers), and had not accepted any payments for the scheduled April 22 cruise. The line is working to accommodate local invitees from the canceled sailing on the ship's April 24 two-night sailing -- a task made easier by the number of guests unable to fly to the U.K. from the U.S. and Europe.

It would seem the line does not have much lose by canceling a nonrevenue cruise to nowhere but has much to gain by its show of generosity.

Cunard's Move

Meanwhile, Cunard's April and May transatlantic sailings on Queen Mary 2 have attracted extra attention from travelers desperate to get back to the U.K. from the U.S. -- and vice versa. The next three crossings are sold out, and the wait list for the April 22 transatlantic cruise is already 1,000 names strong.

Booked passengers who can't reach Southampton this week because of flight cancellations have expressed frustration with Cunard -- specifically with a policy that was printed on its Web site: "if guests have booked flights independently and are unable to travel, then standard cancellation charges apply." (That amounts to 100 percent of cruise fare when you cancel just days prior to sailing).

"I would be happy to get a refund or even credit to be used on a future trip and let them resell the cabins to someone on their wait list," Cruise Critic member lewmar posted yesterday, "but at this point it appears they are taking the ash as a windfall (pun intended) opportunity to increase revenue... I can't believe Cunard is being so greedy when they have passengers lining up to buy the tickets; it seems very short sighted."

Well, complaints like lewmar's didn't go unnoticed; when we contacted Cunard this afternoon, spokeswoman Jackie Chase told us that, with regard to the April 22 cruise, "as a one-off exception to our Booking Conditions, Cunard will offer a Future Cruise Credit (FCC) for the fare booked to those guests who have specifically been unable to fly to the United Kingdom and are therefore unable to embark the ship due to the recent air travel disruptions." This change in policy has just now been posted on Cunard's online News Room.

Unlike Celebrity, Cunard doesn't have the flexibility to cancel its sailings or un-invite guests to help other travelers in need -- its transatlantic cruises have been booked for months by paying passengers expecting to go from point A to point B. However, Cunard is charging travelers lucky enough to snag a cabin off the wait list full brochure fares for the transatlantic crossings. Prices start at $1,595 for an inside cabin; the same cabin only last week was going for $850 on the May 22 cruise.

Bottom line: Cunard is taking a lot of heat -- and, theoretically, could be using empty cabins to repatriate consumers and countrymen rather than pad pockets -- even though its policies aren't all that different from that of lines like Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean, whose Web sites also state that travelers with independently booked flights who can't reach their departure port will have to pay standard cancellation charges.

Other cruise lines are also doing what they can to help stranded passengers. For example, Thomson Cruises' Island Escape is bringing 300 noncruise Thomson customers back to the U.K. from Madeira. For more information on cruise line policies and actions in the face of airport closures, see our news item Ash Chaos: Cruise Cancellations, Disruptions and Repatriation.

How do you think cruise lines should be accommodating passengers who can't make their cruises because of the U.K. and Europe airport closures? Share your thoughts here.

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor

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