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Cruise lines discriminate against single travelers

Rene A. Henry,  Mar 29, 2009

Seattle, WA – For years I never took a cruise because I resented being discriminated against as a single traveler. The cruise lines don’t like to hear anyone use the words “penalty” or “discrimination” so they call the overcharge a “single supplement.” This way they charge a single passenger anywhere from 125 to 200 percent more than the basic fare.

Hotels and motels do not discriminate in room rates. In fact, the basic charge is for single occupancy, and a double when two people occupy the room is generally more. Airlines do not discriminate against single travelers. While there are scores of airline fares depending on the route, stopovers, days and times of flight and the discount of the day, no penalties are assessed for individuals flying alone. Single travelers on Amtrak are not penalized. The same is true for car rentals.

One of the basics I learned in Econ 101 was the lost sale. With me, and a number of my single traveler friends, cruise lines have had scores of lost sales because of their single penalty pricing policy. Many single travelers hesitate booking ocean cruises or river boat tours depending on the size of the overcharge penalty.

I’ve sailed on ships with less than 50 percent capacity and one river boat cruise that was only 15 percent filled. However, that didn’t stop the company from assessing me the penalty.

I contacted the CEOs of many of the cruise lines and Tim Gallagher, vice president of public relations for Carnival Corporation, responded for CEO and Chairman Micky Arison. Miami-based Carnival owns and operates under its name as well as Cunard Line, Costa Cruises, Holland America, Princess Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line. “A cruise line differs significantly from an airline seat, rental car or hotel room,” says Gallagher. “A cruise is an all-inclusive vacation, that includes not just transportation and accommodations, but all of your food and entertainment packaged together. As such, we have a much different business model than those other segments.”

Gallagher says Carnival’s business model is based on 100 percent capacity and that the public company reported fleet wide occupancy for the fiscal year ended November 2008 of 105.7 percent, up slightly 0.1 percent from the previous year. I’ve never heard of any company in any business having in excess of 100 percent occupancy, except for so-called “hot bed” motels in red light districts.

Based on the industry’s business model, if you are at or near capacity, I can understand a surcharge. However, if a ship is only at 60, 70, or 80 percent capacity, I have to question why, in today’s economy, would a company risk a lost sale by discriminating against a single traveler?

Holland American Line has a unique Single Partners Share Program that matches up single travelers who are willing to share a stateroom. “This program matches non-smoking roommates of the same sex with others who want to share and guarantees the double occupancy price even if no partner can be found,” says Erik Elvejord, HAL’s director of public relations. “We operate with one berth essentially being the commodity, and not the entire room, as the hotel business is structured,” he adds, reaffirming the industry’s business model.

I tried several times unsuccessfully to get a statement from Terry Dale, president and CEO of Cruise Line International Association, Inc. My questions obviously left the industry’s spokesperson speechless.

The only CEO who responded directly was Gregg L. Michel, president of Crystal Cruises. This probably is why Crystal is consistently rated number one in customer service and the best cruise line in its class. “The costs of our accommodations are based on double occupancy, therefore the total cost of the room equals the offered rate times two,” says Michel reiterating the industry’s philosophy.

“It is hard to apply simple logic to the single supplement premise,” says Anastasia Mann, chair and CEO of the Corniche Group, West Hollywood, California. “Even with food and beverage and all-inclusive pricing, it doesn’t work trying to use common sense. One individual may consume as much as six people while light eaters never overindulge.”

Mrs. Mann cites as an example, her pricing for Corniche’s Anastasia’s Africa division. “All prices are per person whether sharing accommodations or traveling as a single. In the bush everything has to be brought in and done on site including the rooms, food, beverages, wine, game drives, and laundry. We have no single supplements so why does a ship have to charge it?

“People are living longer today and traveling more,” she adds. “Many women and men feel very comfortable traveling alone on a cruise, as they do on our African safaris, and a per person, flat rate pricing would undoubtedly end up being a plus for the cruise business.”

Almost all cruise lines offer pre- and post-cruise packages at hotels and include taxes, airport and pier transfers, and gratuities. While I understand the business model for the ship, no one has given me any logical reason as to why the cruise lines discriminate against single travelers for such a package with a single supplement penalty.

This is when I turned to Corniche, my travel agent, to book the same hotels and make arrangements for all airport and dock transfers. I not only saved more than $1,000, but in hotels where I am a frequent traveler received a complimentary upgrade, reward points, and other perks. The cruise line wanted payment months in advance. My credit card now will not be charged until after the stay. The cruise line not only wanted the surcharge markup penalty, but a float on my money.

In fact, I’ve found it is always best to work with a good, professional travel agent like Corniche Travel. When you look at tour packages, generally someone like Corniche can get you a better room for a better price at a hotel with no pre-payments and make arrangements with the hotel’s concierge for airport pickup and local tours. The cruise line and other tour operators not only do their customers a disservice, but the hotels as well, by not letting the front desk know of frequent travelers. And there are no rewards points through the package operators.

I learned this the hard way several years ago when I booked a package with Maupintour for Rome. When I checked in the hotel, I showed my rewards card and was immediately upgraded. Later, I wrote Bill Kerby, CEO of Maupintour and asked what his company did for me that I could not do myself through my travel agent and why I should ever book another tour through his company. He never responded to several requests.

Trying to contact Torstein Hagen, CEO of Viking River Cruises was another matter. Viking’s response to me was “… at this time, and in perpetuity, he will not accept direct contact from passengers.” Perpetuity can be a long time to wait for an answer. Dale, Kerby and Hagen need to take a page out of Crystal’s Michel’s customer service book.

Package tour operators often discriminate against single travelers not only with added charges. My cousin and I took a trip several years ago to Copper Canyon, Mexico, and the travel was by bus and train, which, like hotels and motels, have no penalty surcharges for single travelers. However, even though we were paying more per person than others on the tour, at the hotels and motels where we stayed, we were given the least desirable of accommodations with preference going to those in double rooms.

Travel and tourism is one of the world’s largest industries. Last year it accounted for $3.3 trillion or more than 10 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product and approximately eight percent of all jobs worldwide. The industry also has examples of some of the best and worst cases of how to deal with crises and customer service.

More or more people are taking cruises, up from 11 million in 2006. Cruise ship crises are ever increasing as people fall overboard; there are outbreaks of Norwalk Virus or Norovirus and other illnesses; on-board fires; reported instances of rape, robbery and assault; engine and mechanical failures; pollution of the waterways and environment; ships running aground, hitting icebergs and even sinking in the Antarctic; and passengers killed in accidents on shore excursions.

If all single travelers united and refused to pay the discriminatory single supplement surcharge, another crisis category could be added to the list.

Cruise lines discriminate against single travelers
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