When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a No Sail Order last year, effective March 14, 2020, many saw their vacation plans suddenly canceled -- including Holly and Ben Kietzman, of Springfield.
“We were originally taking a cruise in March of 2020 for our 15th wedding anniversary, and it was canceled two weeks before we were supposed to leave,” said Kietzman, who had booked a seven-day cruise down the Rhine River in Europe with Viking Cruises.
Cruise lines immediately amended their refund policies, many offering the choice of a “future cruise voucher“ valued at 125% of all monies paid, valid for 24 months or a refund equal to the amount paid.
At that time, with so much still unknown about coronavirus, many customers, including the Kietzmans, chose a voucher, rather than a refund of $8,985.36.
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“We took the option of the voucher and we rescheduled for March of 2021, and it was cancelled for a second time in December. And at that time, we decided we would rather have a refund than take vouchers," said Kietzman, adding, "we feel like it's kind of scary to travel abroad. And we're crossing multiple countries’ borders. And we don't want to be stranded in another country or confined to our cabin."
But Viking’s refund policy states: "For additional flexibility, if you are unable to use your voucher, we will automatically send you a refund equal to the original amount paid to Viking after the voucher expires."
In the Kietzmans’ case, the rescheduled cruise, in 2021, reset the voucher expiration date to Dec. 9, 2022.
"All in all, they would have had our money for three and a half years” said Kietzman, adding, “We were told that the reason we couldn't get a refund was that the vouchers have no cash value, but to us, they do."
"If they have this large chunk of money of ours, then it's nothing that's working for us anymore," said Ben Kietzman.
NBC Responds consumer units around the country have heard from other cruise passengers in the same situation, many wanting refunds over vouchers.
"A lot of them are these very passionate cruisers who said, ‘You know what? I'm going to be doing it anyway so I want to get that extra perk, that extra incentive,'" Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief for Cruise Critic, told NBC 5 Responds.
"If passengers initially accepted that future cruise credit, a number of cruise lines are saying, that is the offer you accepted and so this is what, you know, we're going to work with, and that does put people in a little bit of a difficult situation," McDaniel said.
But McDaniel believes the cruise industry will have no trouble rebounding in 2021.
"When somebody cruises, it often becomes their preferred type of vacation and they will evangelize -- they'll talk about all the wonderful reasons they'd love to cruise. So it's not surprising that so many people want to get back doing the thing they love the most,” McDaniel said.
While U.S. waters are still closed to cruise ships, in October the CDC issued a “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order,” which includes limited capacity on ships, coronavirus safety precautions and possibly even requiring PCR tests.
"Cruising is going to come back. It's just a matter of when. It will come back probably different and better," said McDaniel.
Despite those precautions, it’s still a risk the Kietzmans aren’t willing to take, so they spent months trying to get a cash refund. Finally their travel agent suggested they reach out to NBC 5 Responds for help.
So they did. And three days after NBC 5 Responds contacted Viking about their case, the Kietzmans received a refund for the full amount, $8,985.36.
“I was shocked," said Kietzman. "I was shocked that it took one phone call from NBC to get them to react, because this was months in the making of just hitting a wall over and over. And one phone call from NBC got us a refund. We got our deposit back yesterday."
NBC 5 Responds reached out to Viking Cruises for further response, but did not receive a statement. Letters sent to their customers last year stated: “We will stand by our guests, employees and partners in these challenging times and hope that they in turn will stand by us.