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A planned cruise around the Mediterranean with Glenn Beck that was postponed because of the coronavirus is causing further uproar among some already-unhappy customers who had been waiting for a refund — and are now being told they may only be able to get their money back if someone else buys their ticket.
Instead, CruiseBuilder, the travel company that arranged the cruise that was planned for earlier this spring, is giving customers three options: Do nothing and remain booked on the cruise, find someone else to buy their tickets, or give their tickets back to the company and allow them to try and resell them either partially or in full — and only get a refund if the company is successful.
Customers received a DocuSign contract outlining the deal when the new May 2021 dates for the cruise were announced on July 14. Upon signing, customers would agree that “if another traveler is not able to acquire my package, I will not receive reimbursement from CruiseBuilder, Glenn Beck or any affiliated party.” CruiseBuilder is offering them either an “exact match release,” “cabin match release,” or “à la carte release,” making them eligible for different levels of refunds based on CruiseBuilder’s ability to sell either their identical package or parts thereof. In all cases, a $250 processing fee will be charged.
The bloodless details of the offer are a far cry from the grand vision presented for the cruise, marketed as a “Cruise Thru History” hosted by Beck with stops in Italy, Greece, Croatia, and Israel and originally announced last May. Several other prominent conservatives were to join the trip, most notably former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. Guests were slated to sail on Costa Cruises’ Costa Luminosa and enjoy sightseeing trips and on-board entertainment for a trip that was scheduled for the end of March and beginning of April. “This isn’t just another eastern Mediterranean cruise, as wonderful as they are. This is even WONDERFULLER!” the website promised.
But the coronavirus pandemic caused a total shutdown of the cruise industry this spring, and while the cruise industry has promised other customers refunds, Beck’s would-be cruisers, many of whom are of retirement age and especially susceptible to the virus, have been unable to get any money back after the cruise was postponed just weeks before its scheduled departure amid a worsening global outbreak. In June, Beck told BuzzFeed News for a previous story about the trip, “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.” At the time, CruiseBuilder promised that “options” would become available once new dates were set, and CruiseBuilder executives told BuzzFeed News that these options would include refunds.
A source close to Beck said last week that “when he said refunds he meant refunds with no strings attached.” In a statement, Scott Knutson, vice president of sales and marketing for Costa Cruises North America, said the cruise line could not comment on CruiseBuilder’s “process.” “As a sold charter, the voyage belongs to Cruise Builder, which means Cruise Builder sets the policies for payment and cancellation terms,” Knutson said. “Costa confirms that the planned itinerary is identical to the original charter’s itinerary.”
“We have been receiving release forms from customers who are unable to go on the new dates,” CruiseBuilder president Wes Cobos said in an email. “We have started reselling those cabins making reimbursements available.”
Beck has seeded skepticism about the seriousness of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 155,000 people in the United States. He revealed last month that his children had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and described their symptoms as a “wussy little fever and a headache.”
“I’m just assuming I’m going to get it, I guess,” Beck said, adding that his doctor told him he had immune issues. “Really it was like a bad cold — if that’s it, I want it. I want it right now so I have the antibodies.” In March, Beck said everyone over 50 should go back to work and that he would rather die from the virus than “kill the country.”
CruiseBuilder executives told BuzzFeed News in June that they were unable to offer refunds at that time because the cruise involved a large array of vendors who had not all agreed to refund the money used to book their services. Because the cruise was being rescheduled and not canceled, even those who bought travel insurance couldn’t get their money back. Costa Cruises, the cruise line conducting the cruise, promised that the rescheduled cruise would be identical to the original.
With the coronavirus outbreak not under control, no guarantee of a vaccine before next year, and economic hardship on the rise, it’s difficult to square the promise of an “identical” cruise with what will be offered more than a year later and organized amid a pandemic and recession.
Suzanne Cheney, 69, is a fan of Beck’s and initially heard about the cruise on his radio show. Cheney, a retired Pennsylvania state worker who is divorced and lives with her adult son in Pittsburgh, doesn’t have much money but figured the cruise would be her “last hurrah.” She dipped into her retirement savings to pay for it, using a debit card and finding another woman traveling alone to split a cabin with. The trip cost her over $5,000, not counting the new clothes she bought after losing weight for the trip. As the coronavirus spread, Cheney became increasingly concerned, and was alarmed when she read about the ship that was supposed to take the Beck cruise, the Costa Luminosa. (The rescheduled cruise will be on a different ship, the Costa Deliziosa.) A New York Times story in March described how the ship’s crew was slow to act after passengers became sick with coronavirus on board. Some passengers subsequently sued Costa Cruise Lines in April.
Now, even with new dates next year, “I'm sick to my stomach about it,” Cheney said. She’s too worried about the coronavirus to want to go on the rescheduled cruise. “I don’t want to go then,” Cheney said of the cruise next year. “I wanted to go when I wanted to go.”
Cheney hasn’t signed the contract. “I’d just as soon have my money back, because I don’t trust them,” Cheney said. “I wish there was a way I could get ahold of Glenn Beck.”
Some customers, like Cheney, are so far declining to sign the document, not giving up hope that they will eventually get reimbursed. As months have gone by with no refunds, some angry customers formed a Facebook group called "Glenn Beck Cruise: Want My Money Back" where they have been commiserating about their experiences and discussing strategies to get a refund. But others are settling for one of the offers, figuring that it is their best chance of getting money back at all.
Beth Wolak and her husband, a couple in their sixties and seventies in Willow Spring, North Carolina, chose to give their package to CruiseBuilder and let CruiseBuilder sell pieces of it, hoping to be reimbursed for whatever is sold. “A little is better than none at all,” Wolak said in an email. The Wolaks haven’t gotten word yet if any part of their package was resold.
Julie Edwards, 45, and her 52-year-old husband, Scott, of Kaysville, Utah, spent over $34,000 booking the cruise for themselves and six of their relatives, including Scott’s elderly parents who both have health issues. They and their six children had previously traveled to Beck’s “Restoring Love” rally and had a good experience. The Edwardses doubted that another group of eight would come along and try to buy their package, so they decided to go through their credit card company to get a refund. To do so they had to cancel their trip with CruiseBuilder and are waiting to hear within the next 30 days if they’ve won the dispute.
Their airline tickets were booked through CruiseBuilder, and when Julie Edwards called Delta to find out if they could be refunded directly, the representative told her that the amount had already been refunded to a corporate MasterCard. “As mentioned during our call, some contracted vendors have issued cash refunds, but the majority have only offered credits,” Cobos said in an email.
Edwards wrote directly to Beck, explaining the tight spot her family had been put in and describing CruiseBuilder’s actions. “I'm not sure if you actually had the chance to vet them or not, but they represent you and they have lost the trust of many people,” Edwards wrote. “Please help them to understand.” Beck hasn’t written back.
“I hope he gets ahold of me and answers me,” Edwards said. “I’d really like to hear his voice on this.”