Cruise line customers left high and dry

Overbooking by Carnival forces cancellations

`Ruined these people's vacation'

August 04, 2004|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

After months of rehabilitation from injuries suffered in a racing accident at Pimlico Race Course in May, veteran jockey Rick Wilson and his family were looking forward to a seven-day cruise on Carnival Cruise Lines' recently minted ship, Miracle.

It was to be the family's big vacation after an awful spring and summer spent in hospitals.

But yesterday, the family members found out they are among a large number of would-be vacationers who have seen their plans disrupted in recent weeks because of overbooking on Carnival cruises from Baltimore.

Travel agents said they fear the cancellations are souring passengers and endangering Baltimore's booming cruise business.

Though they couldn't disclose exact figures, Carnival officials said yesterday that hundreds of passengers who had hoped to sail on one of the line's eight cruises from Baltimore this summer have been "bumped" because of overbooking.

"After what we've been through this year, we were really, really looking forward to it," said Jean Wilson, Rick's wife. The family was part of a group of 57 people -- about half of them horse racing enthusiasts -- bumped from the cruise.

"This was going to be our good vacation at a time when it's well needed," Wilson said.

Several Baltimore-area travel agents said their customers have been among those disappointed by Carnival as the city's years-long efforts to attract more cruise ships is finally bearing fruit.

Port of Baltimore officials said they anticipate handling 240,000 cruise passengers this year, more than double the 115,813 last year and far more than the 5,103 it saw in 1999, before cruise lines started to give Baltimore a second look. Several lines began sailing directly from Baltimore after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to attract passengers who were reluctant to fly.

Committed customers

The problem, a Carnival spokeswoman said, is that the cruise line hasn't been getting nearly as many cancellations in Baltimore as it does at its other ports.

Cruise patrons in the mid-Atlantic, it turns out, are more committed than the average passenger. As a result, the complex computer algorithms that Carnival employs to figure out how many passengers are likely to back out failed to anticipate the region's pent-up passion for cruising. Similar systems are used by airlines to predict passenger behavior.

"We have a formula, if you will, that is pretty reliable in terms of estimating the amount of attrition that we're going to have," said Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival. "But we didn't have nearly the attrition [in Baltimore] that we normally see."

The problem is remarkable given that Carnival, which transports nearly 2 million passengers a year, is a new entrant in the Baltimore market. Often, cruise lines find it takes a few years before vacationers warm up to a new service, which leads to light bookings in the beginning. Not so in Baltimore.

"They didn't realize the strength of the Baltimore market, I guess," said Patty Sroka, a travel agent who booked the Wilsons and dozens of others on the Sept. 26 cruise out of Baltimore. She said several groups, including hers, were bumped from the sailing.

"Since 9/11, people don't want to fly, and if there's something local and they can avoid flying, they would prefer to do that," she said.

Sroka, who operates a small travel agency out of her Woodbine home, booked the cruises almost a year ago on behalf of her uncle, John Divver, who organizes a large trip every few years for a growing number of family members and friends. Divver, owner of B&B Auto Sales in Gaithersburg, raises horses on the side and is well connected in the racing world. Many group members, who have vacationed together for years, are horse trainers, jockeys and owners.

"It's ludicrous," Divver said. "It basically ruined these people's vacation."

The situation poses particular problems for the horse trainers, who must arrange months in advance for others to care for their animals while they are away on vacation.

"For trainers to be gone a week is big time," Divver said.

Carnival offered to send the group on an alternative cruise out of New York with more luxurious accommodations and some spending money thrown in.

But the new dates are unworkable, and the group was set on cruising out of Baltimore. The cruise line will refund the group's money and offer incentives on future cruises, but it's little consolation for the disappointed members.

"I think Carnival is out of our vocabulary now," said Shirleyan Benham, a retired Salisbury nursing instructor who, along with her husband, planned to join the group. "People have lost a lot of money and time."

Agents frustrated

Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Holland America also sail out of Baltimore.

A spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean, which began extensive service in Baltimore this year, said the cruise line has not had to involuntarily bump passengers from its voyages.

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