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Tipline Investigation: Before you travel, read the fine print very carefully

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - COVID-19 has decimated the travel industry since the start of the pandemic and cruise lines may have gotten the worst of it. Their loyal customers have suffered as well.

As you'll see in our NewsChannel 3-12 Tipline report, many of them had cruises planned to exotic ports of call before the world shutdown. Even worse, they paid in full and in advance.

Michael Setka and his wife Marilynn Lang are seasoned travelers. Santa Barbara is their home, but the world is where they live.

“I’m to the point now, it’s hard to even talk about it,” said Michael Setka.

In February 2020, they were looking forward to their 10-night Italy and Best of Greek Islands Cruise onboard the Celebrity Edge cruise ship. Everything was paid for, the cost just for the cruise – $11,200.

However, by early March the coronavirus was sweeping across Italy and the rest of the world.

“My wife had sarcoidosis when she was younger and so she has diminished lung capacity for the rest of her life,” said Setka.

They saw her doctor to find out more about COVID-19.

“And the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘This coronavirus could kill you. So you need to completely eliminate all travel, probably for the next couple of years,'" Setka said.

Setka immediately contacted their travel agent and cancelled the cruise scheduled for May. About the same time, President Trump issued a travel ban to Italy and the Italian government put the entire country on lockdown.

Setka said Celebrity Cruises refused to refund their money.

“They came back and said we’d either give you a $9,200 travel credit from an original sum of $11,200 or we’ll give you $4,800 cash, that’s it. You get nothing else back,” said Setka.

At this point, Celebrity still hadn’t cancelled its cruises even though customers like Setka and Lang and no way to get to Italy. Their tickets on Alitalia were no good and even if they could get to Italy, the country was shut down.

“If I cancelled on a whim, because we take a lot of cruises, I could understand if the boat went and they couldn’t sell our cabin, I can understand. But, that cruise never happened," said Setka.

Within weeks, Celebrity suspended all of it’s cruises including the cruise Setka and Lang had paid for. Yet Setka said he still couldn’t get his money back. That’s when he contacted the NewsChannel 3 Tipline for help.

We contacted Celebrity Cruises, which is owned by Royal Caribbean. A spokesman said it boiled down to a clause in the purchase agreement that Setka and Lang agreed to that basically says, since they cancelled their trip before Celebrity cancelled the cruise they’re out of luck. Celebrity did offer a 50% refund and a travel voucher good six months until January 2021.

“What about the other people who saved their whole life for the cruise of their life. Are they getting the same treatment? Have they been told, ah, you’re not getting any of your money back?” asked Setka.

In case you're wondering, Setka disputed the charges on his Citi bank credit card. But, Setka said Citi refused to help him claiming he had to show proof that he cancelled the cruise according to the merchant’s policy.

Setka said they did eventually get almost all of their money back, but only after fighting tooth and nail for 15 months. He believes calls from NewsChannel 3 and assistance from their travel agent, Cyndi Bugbee at Travel Edge in La Jolla helped.

If you're planning to travel, read the agreement very carefully and understand that the merchant will follow those terms to the letter. Anything pandemic related, might not be covered and that goes for travel insurance as well, which Setka and Lang had.

Finally, if you've already purchased your ticket and circumstances change, check with the merchant first before cancelling to find out what you're entitled to.

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C.J. Ward

C.J. Ward is the evening anchor for KEYT NewsChannel 3 and the station’s lead investigative reporter. To learn more about C.J., click here

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