Last June, Jeff and Jennifer Welliver heard about a cruise around the Mediterranean to be hosted by conservative radio host Glenn Beck and featuring other right-wing luminaries like Bill O’Reilly. Jeff, 68, a retired pharmacist, and Jennifer, 66, had never been on a cruise before. But they’re conservatives, and “this was Glenn Beck– and Bill O'Reilly–sponsored. And we thought it would be nice to be around like-minded people and not have to worry about political conversation or any innuendos.”
“This was going to be our big fling,” Jeff said. “And then it turned out to be a nightmare.”
The Wellivers are among the roughly 2,000 people who registered for Beck’s “Cruise Thru History” that was scheduled to take place this spring. The cruise was to stop in Italy, Croatia, Israel, and Greece, with tours along the way. “What better way could there be to let your family embrace the faith, culture and values that you cherish than to let them experience it for themselves in the places where it actually happened: Jerusalem, Athens or Venice?” reads the website for the cruise. Guests were to disembark from Venice on March 25, and the cruise would return on April 5. The ship, Costa Cruise Lines’ Costa Luminosa, had space for 2,260 guests and “every creature comfort imaginable.” The most basic cabins started at $5,395 with airfare and going up to $9,395 for a “Grand Suite.” Guests could pay an extra $4,999 per person for the “Inner Circle” package with access to a cocktail hour with Beck and other hosts, exclusive onstage access to a show with Beck and O’Reilly, and “2 nights dining with Glenn Beck.”
But the cruise is now indefinitely postponed because of the coronavirus, and people who booked it say they’ve been unable to get their money back even while other cruise customers around the world have been refunded for virus-impeded trips. Multiple passengers told BuzzFeed News they have begged CruiseBuilder, the Utah-based travel agency that handled the bookings, to give them information as far back as February, when the coronavirus outbreak in Italy was becoming severe and as cruise ships were in the news as major vectors of the virus. But they've struggled to get a clear answer on what was to become of the cruise. They’ve since been left in limbo as the company insists the cruise is not canceled, only postponed to sometime in late fall or next spring — and thus refunds aren’t available. A Facebook Group set up by the company to discuss the cruise has become a hotbed of discontent as angry customers have demanded answers. And through it all, Beck has remained almost totally silent about the cruise apart from a short video message in March — until BuzzFeed News reached out to his spokesperson this week.
“My position is that anyone who wants a refund in these uncertain times should receive one, and I've strongly encouraged the cruise line, airlines, and the hotels to accommodate,” Beck said in an emailed statement on Thursday. “I look forward to going on this Cruise Through History when the circumstances surrounding this global pandemic allow us to do so."
The Wellivers, who are from Montoursville, Pennsylvania, spent over $10,000 on their cruise; after weeks of haggling with anyone he could think of, including complaining to the Utah and Pennsylvania attorneys general, the Better Business Bureau, and CruiseBuilder, Jeff finally got the couple’s credit card company to give them a temporary credit for the bulk of the expenses, though he said they are awaiting a final ruling. Others are in an even worse position; some couples spent $20,000 or more on the postponed trip.
Beth Wolak and her husband, Stephen, 67 and 70, from Willow Spring, North Carolina, had fully paid for their cruise by Nov. 30 last year. But when news of the coronavirus made them nervous about what was going to happen with the trip, Beth began emailing the travel agency.
“We are booked on the Glenn Beck Cruise but are concerned about our safety from the Corona virus,” the Wolaks wrote to CruiseBuilder customer support on Feb. 20. “What have you been instructed to tell customers? What is the time limit to cancel and get full refund if we decide to go that way? Please be honest.”
A customer support representative replied, saying the company was “taking precautions” and that the trip was moving forward. “I understand your concern, and we are doing everything we can, your trip is important to us. In saying that, you are welcome to cancel but there would be no refund at this time.”
Finally in March, the travel agency announced the trip would be rescheduled. But this wasn’t going to work for the Wolaks; Beth needed back surgery, which she had in April and is still recovering from. On April 27, the Wolaks emailed CruiseBuilder again, asking for a refund. “That money was very hard to save but we were willing to spend on [the] trip of a lifetime but now we need it for medical issues.”
CruiseBuilder again declined to issue a refund, saying that the money had already been spent on vendors for the cruise. “As of now, we are unable to issue any refunds simply because we have already used the money you paid to pay for everything in your cruise package,” the customer support representative wrote.
The Wolaks have now hired a lawyer, who sent a letter to CruiseBuilder demanding their refund within 14 days on June 16.
Despite CruiseBuilder's insistence that the cruise has only been postponed, not canceled, the cruise line itself referred to the situation as a cancellation in an automated email to the Wellivers on March 11. “We write to inform you that due to the cancellation of your cruise, all related optional bookings made on MyCosta have also been canceled,” Costa Cruise Lines wrote.
In a comment responding to a customer seeking answers on the cruise Facebook Group last week, CruiseBuilder wrote that the company had not received its money back from the cruise line and that it was looking at two potential new dates for the cruise, one in the last quarter of this year and one next spring.
In a statement Saturday evening, Cruisebuilder said the company is "evaluating ongoing transportation restrictions and pending port openings with the goal of setting a new departure date within the next two weeks."
The company said because the cruise was postponed and not canceled, guests booked on the cruise have not received refunds. "Refund options will be clarified once a date is set," according to the statement.
Scott Knutson, vice president of sales and marketing for Costa Cruises North America, said, “Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic created new and unprecedented challenges that have continued to complicate our efforts to fix an alternative departure date. Cruisebuilder and Costa are working with the relevant authorities and ports to set a replacement date, and we anticipate making an announcement in the coming weeks relative to providing an identical package to the one guests originally purchased.”
Beck’s only public comments on the subject before this week came in a YouTube video shot selfie-style and uploaded on March 6. He sounded apologetic to the cruisers while telling them the trip was being postponed. “I really want to go see the Holy Land and have these experiences and have them with you when we’re all relaxed and not freaking out about the coronavirus,” he said. Beck has encouraged older Americans to go back to work on his radio show, saying in May, “I would rather have my children stay home and have all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working. Even if we all get sick, I’d rather die than kill the country. Because it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.”
Beck in the March video thanked CruiseBuilder, which “have been remarkable partners for us" and promised that the cruise organizers would “get back to you next week with all of the details on when this is happening.”
O’Reilly did not reply to a request for comment about the trip.
CruiseBuilder is based in South Jordan, Utah, and was launched in 2017. According to a source familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity, CruiseBuilder approached Beck to do the cruise. The source also said Beck hadn’t yet received any compensation for the cruise.
In a phone call with BuzzFeed News, two CruiseBuilder executives, President Wes Cobos and Jason Burgess, vice president for marketing, confirmed they had been the ones to retain Beck and the other talent for the trip, and the company was now looking at a spring 2021 date.
“Overwhelmingly, the large majority of our guests are super excited about this trip,” Burgess said. But, he added, “we totally understand that there are some who simply won’t be able to make the new dates work” and that “options” would be provided to people in that category when the new dates are finalized. He said the “options” would include a refund. The pair said the future cruise would feature the same itinerary as the original one.
Cobos and Burgess said the cruise had involved dealing with dozens of different vendors in various countries, and “very few of them have offered refunds.” Cobos said some of the vendors had offered travel credits, but because the postponement had taken place within 20 days of the scheduled departure date, they weren’t “contractually obligated to do anything.” He blamed “multiple factors that are beyond our control” for the continuing uncertainty around the dates, adding, “patience is one thing we’ve asked of our customers.”
When asked about Beck’s statement that refunds should be offered to anyone who wants one, Cobos said, “We're an advocate for our customer. That's why we'll have options for them that they'll be able to be reimbursed if they're unable to make those new dates, and we'll continue to do that.”
Asked if they felt certain that the rescheduled cruise would take place, Burgess said, “We're excited and looking ahead to 2021, and like the majority of our customers, they're excited, too. We’re aware of those who are excited to go, and we’re aware of those who have questions and are trying to address those and help those individually.”
The comments piling up on CruiseBuilder’s Yelp page, the “Come Sail Away” page on Facebook built for the Beck cruise, the Facebook Group it’s hosting for cruisers, and complaints to the Better Business Bureau indicate a different customer experience.
“Why do you refuse to issue a refund,” wrote one angry customer, Chris D. Connell, on the "Come Sail Away" Facebook page.
“These people are criminals and are not to be trusted,” wrote “Jon M.” in a review on CruiseBuilder’s Better Business Bureau page in February.
It’s unclear how many people are demanding their money back, and there are indications that some interest in the trip continues; apart from the “Glenn Beck Cruise Thru History: Book Club” Facebook Group, which now features weekly complaints from disgruntled passengers, a separate group has sprung up “for only those who are going on Glenn's Cruise. If you have decided you can not go forward and commit to the new dates, please no angry/disrespectful commentary will be allowed. Comments will be deleted and you will be blocked from the page. We want to keep the excitement of the cruise to continue.”
Even people who bought travel insurance have found that their policies don’t cover this situation, since CruiseBuilder is continuing to say that the trip is not canceled, merely postponed.
Bess Foster and Jon Mabry, 52 and 49, who live just outside the Grand Canyon in Arizona, bought travel insurance through American Express after the news about the coronavirus in February raised doubts about the trip.
Like everyone else, the couple spent weeks in suspense about the status of the trip before learning it was being “rescheduled.”
“It seems like they were very careful to never use the word 'canceled,'” Foster said. Foster compiled all the information they would need to file a claim through their travel insurance, but the claim was denied because the trip has not been officially canceled. Foster and Mabry spent $22,000 on their trip.
Nancy Lee Clark, a travel insurance agent who has two customers in this situation, said it was highly unusual that cruise companies would refuse to issue refunds in the current environment.
“It's extremely unusual right now,” Clark said. “These are older Americans who are just being told, ‘you're basically out of luck until we feel like doing this.’”
Kelly Stevenson, 39, an author of teen romance novels who lives in the Dallas area with her husband, said that going through CruiseBuilder had been the only way to book the trip. That fact has ended up preventing the couple from getting back the $13,000 they spent booking the trip; Stevenson spoke with Costa Cruise Lines and was told that although they had issued refunds to people on other cruises, they could not do so for people on Beck’s cruise because they had booked through CruiseBuilder.
Stevenson said her and her husband’s experience with CruiseBuilder has been “awful.” She said they have had to badger the company almost daily with phone calls and emails, only to be either ignored or told they won’t be getting a refund — or in one case, she said, mocked for expressing reservations about going to Italy.
“The way we’ve been treated by this company, and the silence from Glenn Beck, has been beyond disappointing,” Stevenson wrote. “When all the cruise lines (and airlines) are offering refunds and Glenn Beck is silent on the matter... it’s downright disgusting.”
Asked about the Stevensons' experience, CruiseBuilder's Burgess on Friday said, "This is concerning because it is not typical at all. As was mentioned yesterday, our goal is 100% customer satisfaction" and that the company would "look into the matter further."
Even if the cruise does take place in the fall, some who signed up are now wary of getting on a cruise at any point, like Jeff Welliver, who has preexisting conditions that make him especially vulnerable to the virus.
“It is almost laughable to listen to Glenn Beck on the radio right now knowing what I know now,” he said. “His crusade for righteousness is the biggest hypocrisy I have ever encountered. He knows what the right thing is to do. It's just a matter of: Is he gonna sacrifice us rather than refund our money?”