Cruise industry advertising: Smoke & mirrors?

Perhaps it's time the ultra-luxury cruise lines started rolling out the red carpet before booking.
Perhaps it’s time the ultra-luxury cruise lines started rolling out the red carpet before booking.

Only occasionally do we find ourselves in the position of feeling a travel rant coming on.  This week is one of those weeks.

For many years we’ve been dividing our travel time among various adventures: resorts, road trips, private touring, and often cruising.  Since we’ve both been very busy in in our work lives, when we are choosing a cruise we have to book far in advance at whatever price is on offer for the itinerary and suite that we know will make us happy.  Notwithstanding the exorbitant prices that we’ve often found ourselves paying over the years, we have been completely happy with our choices after the fact.  Unlike many people we know who search for bargains, we have never returned home complaining about accommodation, service or overall experience.  You get what you pay for, we’ve often opined.  So why are we complaining now?

We have moved into a phase of our lives when we don’t need to plan so far in advance.  This means that we’d like to be able to take advantage of at least a few of the copious numbers of offers that find their way into our real and virtual mailboxes every week.  God love the cruise industry: if it weren’t for them, we’d hardly have any real mail!

We have often wondered if the cruise lines really think that we’re dumb enough to believe that what we are paying are two-for-one prices.  For example, every single piece of material that comes to us from our favorite lines (ultra-luxury Silversea, Seabourn, Regent and recently Oceania) tells us that we will be paying essentially half fare.  The fare is always listed in two columns: “brochure fares” and “savings fares.”  Brochure fares are always (at least) double the savings fares.  Indeed, they never seem to be charging brochure fares at all which leads us to believe that they don’t have to adhere to the usual advertising laws that force retailers to actually offer the merchandise at the full price for a minimum period of time before they can advertise it as being on sale.  And, just who in their right mind would pay some of those fares anyway?

DSC00628Two recent examples:  Just over month ago, we tied to book a Regent cruise from Athens to Turkey for the fall on the day we received in the mail a brochure indicating special past-guest savings for the itinerary we wanted.  We immediately emailed our travel agent who, within minutes went to work on the booking.  When she contacted Regent to book it, the offer was not being made available to us.  Sorry, they said, they should have booked earlier.  We had the brochure right in front of us.  According to our travel agent, Regent told her that the offer had changed and referred her to the asterisk that indicated subject to change without notice.  We could only conclude that that would kick in about one minute before a past-guest actually called to book.  We even attached a screen shot of the newly-arrived brochure to a return email to our travel agent.  Regent would not budge.  We are now booked for almost the same itinerary on a different cruise line and are feeling very sour about Regent on which we have sailed three times before.   So much for perks of being a past guest.

The second example was just this past week and was what set us off on the rant.  We received another tempting offer last Friday and contemplated taking advantage of this advertised fare in a Seabourn brochure.  We were considering booking a veranda suite aboard the Quest for 35 days in South America this coming winter.  We were delighted to see that this category of suite was on a promotion: a savings fare from $10,999 down from a brochure fare from $36,500.  Let’s ignore for a moment that we wouldn’t even look at such a fare for this small suite even on a Seabourn ship (and the fact that they never really offer it at that fare because no one would pay it) and concentrate on the asterisk that followed the word from.  Yes, of course we see the asterisk and expect that if we are not planning to sail on the asterisked date (October 25) we will pay more for February 24.  However, given that this is being promoted as a great saving, we expect a reasonable sum more.  We would be wrong.

When our travel agent tried to book this for us, she found that indeed the price we would have to pay would be $14,999 per person not including taxes which would bring it up over $16,000 per person.  We called Seabourn to inquire ourselves with the brochure in front of us.  They simply reiterated what she told us and pointed to the asterisk. This is a difference of over 25% and is unacceptable as a hidden piece of information.  The cruise line may believe that the asterisk protects them from liability for false advertising, but as a customer (and past guest of this cruise line) we think it is disingenuous and this kind of advertising needs to stop.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection of the US American Trade Commission’s guidelines for truth in advertising are contained in a document titled: Big Print. Little Print. What’s the Deal?[1]  which clearly lays out the expectations for truthful advertising as follows:

Your ads should clearly and conspicuously disclose all the information about an offer that is likely to affect a consumer’s purchasing decision. Disclose the most important information – like the terms affecting the basic cost of the offer – near the advertised price.

Print advertisers should not attempt to hide the real cost or the critical terms or conditions by:

  • Putting them in obscure locations, such as the border area on a print ad;
  • Burying them in numerous, densely packed lines of fine print; or
  • Including them in small-type footnotes.”[2]

 

The Advertising Standards Council of Canada is equally clear in the first clause of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards as follows:

“…(b) Advertisements must not omit relevant information in a manner that, in the result, is deceptive.

(c) All pertinent details of an advertised offer must be clearly and understandably stated.

(d) Disclaimers and asterisked or footnoted information must not contradict more prominent aspects of the message and should be located and presented in such a manner as to be clearly visible and/or audible…”[3]

As far as we are concerned, these advertisements are misleading doing more than putting pertinent information in “obscure locations” and contain “disclaimers and asterisked footnoted information” that contradicts the main message.  The cruise line may believe that the asterisk provides legal protection (which is arguable), but it certainly doesn’t provide them with moral protection.  Shame on them.

Our bottom line is that we are a bit sour on Seabourn now and will reconsider our winter cruise plans.

 

[1] http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus44-big-print-little-print-whats-deal

[2] Don’t bury the details, http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus44-big-print-little-print-whats-deal

[3] Accuracy & clarity, http://www.adstandards.com/en/Standards/the14Clauses.aspx

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