More Cancellation Policies Relaxed

Seven cruise lines join in an industry trend towards creating peace of mind when booking

By: R. Scott Macintosh

More companies in the travel industry are relaxing cancellation policies as a way to keep people traveling in a climate of economic and geopolitical uncertainty and cruise lines are leading the way.

While Six Continents’ InterContinental Hotels and Virgin Atlantic airlines have recently announced cancellation policy changes, other major hotel and airline companies have yet not eased cancellation penalties.

It’s a different story with cruise liners. Seven cruise companies have now relaxed their cancellation policies by offering full refunds on canceled trips or by giving customers the option of buying cancellation protection.

SeaDream Yacht Club and Uniworld were the first cruise lines to waive cancellation fees as a means of keeping people on board ships. Costa Cruises, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, and Royal Olympia have since revised their policies to allow for refunds on vacations canceled up to a day before departure.

Oceania Cruises and Crystal Cruises are both offering cancellation insurance.

General uneasiness about a potential war with Iraq is driving changes in the European market. Radisson, Oceania, Costa and Royal Olympia have used the policy changes to drive bookings on their European cruises. Europe is a high concern for cruise lines, should the U.S. lead a war against Iraq.

“We don’t want people to feel that they would be penalized,” said Darren Oster, a spokesman for Costa Cruise Lines. “We want people to continue to go about life as usual.”

When a cruise is canceled, most companies generally offer partial refunds for cancellations made 90 days before departure. The refund amount gets proportionately lesser, as you get closer to the departure date; and many cruise liners will not refund anything if the trip is canceled within a month of departure.

The prospect of losing a sizable chunk of their vacation money has driven customers and travel agents alike to pressure the cruise lines on easing their policies.

“We’ve received a lot of phone calls and e-mails from people who are concerned about penalties,” said Tim Rubacky, a spokesman for Oceania Cruises. “Part of this has to do with what we’ve been hearing from our guests. Peace of mind is a good thing to offer now.”

The relaxation of cancellation policies was rare before 9/11. At that time, many hotels eased their policies for people who were inconvenienced or hesitant to travel. Now the changes to cancellation policies are a tool that travel suppliers have adopted as a way of selling their products during troubled times.

“Before 9/11, no one had to do this before,” said Bob Sharak, executive director of the Cruise Line International Association. “It’s not very common whatsoever. But a lot of cruise lines are putting a step forward to make the decision process easier for people. It’s a marketing tool now.”

Outside of the cruise industry, InterContinental Hotels (see related story, page 1) has waived cancellation fees for business meetings, and Virgin Atlantic is allowing travelers to cancel bookings or change flight dates without penalties, through March 17.

The tour operator, Island Destinations, has a policy that guarantees agent commissions, even when a trip is cancelled; and the Parker Company, the largest U.S. supplier of vacation rental properties in Italy, is offering cancellation insurance. Eighty percent of those booking vacation villas in Italy are taking that option.