Tipped off – computer glitch stiffs couple

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Utah residents Kris and Steve Johnson had always dreamed of an Alaska cruise. Earlier this year, the Johnsons began scouring online cruise sites and agencies for their 2008 itineraries and prices. They came upon the perfect itinerary at the right price on Cruise.com, the largest Web site specializing in cruises on the Internet.

The cruise was a 7-day Inside Passage aboard the Celebrity Infinity from Seattle. The total cost for the Johnsons was $2,075, which also included a promotion with prepaid gratuities. The prepaid gratuities amounted to $147 that would be paid in advance and apply to the normal gratuity left for the room steward, head waiter and assistant waiter.

The Johnsons made their payments, received booking numbers via e-mail and then printed out all the details for the reservation including the prepaid gratuities. Everything seemed perfect, or so they thought.

Missing gratuities

On most cruise lines today, tips are “automatic” and charged to one’s account. The practice became the norm when set dining times were relaxed and specialty restaurants were introduced. This meant that passengers might not have the same dining room waiter more than once or twice during a cruise. To make the tipping process easier, cruise lines implemented tipping guidelines with suggested amounts per day, per passenger that can be added to a guest’s onboard account. At the end of the cruise the tips are pooled and distributed among many different crewmembers.

The Johnsons were having a great time until midway through the cruise when Steve Johnson inquired about the gratuities. The Purser’s Desk informed him that Cruise.com had not prepaid the gratuities. A flustered Johnson then called Cruise.com from an Alaskan port where he was told there was no record on the reservation about prepaid gratuities. “I told them I had an e-mail receipt from them showing the tips were to be included,” says Johnson. The representative told Johnson to fax the document, which he did from the ship. An optimistic Johnson hoped Cruise.com would clear up the mess before the cruise disembarked in Seattle. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

When the Johnsons returned home to Utah they again contacted Cruise.com. A few days later they received an e-mail from a supervisor. The supervisor admitted that there had been a technical problem when the Johnsons booked their cruise reservation online as the system did not place the gratuities on the invoice. Then the supervisor said they would reimburse the Johnsons only if they could provide proof they tipped the crew.

Steve Johnson was livid since he was not informed that he needed to get receipts for all his tips. “I paid cash tips according to the ships published guidelines. How does one get a receipt for cash tips paid?”

He told the supervisor that he did not have receipts and the supervisor stated that Cruise.com would not reimburse him for the tips. After getting nowhere with Cruise.com the Johnsons contacted Tripso for help.

Cruise.com speaks

The whole situation seemed wrong since the Johnsons had paid for a cruise that included tips. I contacted Cruise.com on the Johnson’s behalf and spoke with Jeanne Wyndrum, a senior vice president with the company.

Wyndrum acknowledged that there was indeed a “glitch” in Cruise.com’s Web site reservation system at the time the Johnsons booked their stateroom. “The gratuities showed as being applied on our side but the ship did not show it,” says Wyndrum. She noted it is company policy to ask for receipts from customers for reimbursement as it helps to satisfy the auditors. “In this case, while it was requested out of normal procedure, we then realized that we promised the Johnsons the gratuities regardless of how they paid and verified with Celebrity that they were not automatically applied. At that time the check request was submitted.”

The Johnsons were elated to finally receive a check for $147 from Cruise.com last week.

Protect yourself

Reservation mistakes are nothing new in the cruise industry, but such errors seldom turn out in the customer’s favor. In the Johnson’s case, Cruise.com admitted its mistake and honored the fare with prepaid gratuities.

So, how can you protect yourself against online reservation glitches? Follow the Johnson’s example: Document the advertised fare and your booking information by keeping track of e-mails and taking screen shots from the Web site and then printing them out for your records.

Clearly, this is one case where vigilance and persistence really paid off.