Filled with sweet anticipation, Bernie and Dolly Wax joined a sea of excited folks edging through a cavernous maritime terminal in Los Angeles toward the gangplank of the majestic Norwegian Star cruise ship.
When they finally reached the registration desk, a Norwegian Cruise Line representative asked to see their passports. They’re in our luggage, Bernie Wax explained, which had been taken from them and piled on a cart headed for the ship the moment they arrived at the terminal 45 minutes earlier.
“They said, ‘No problem. We’ll send someone to get your luggage,’ ” recalled Wax, an 87-year-old retired historian from Brookline. “They said, ‘Go sit down and wait. The ship doesn’t sail for three hours. It shouldn’t be a problem.’ ”
After the terminal had emptied and the ship was loaded with almost 2,500 passengers, Bernie and Dolly Wax, 85, remained behind, crestfallen and confused. Norwegian had three hours to find their luggage but could not.
A Norwegian representative appeared, handed Bernie Wax a “Dear Valued Guest” form letter, and disappeared.
“Unfortunately, we are unable to allow you to board the vessel” without documentation, it began. Call the cruise line’s customers relations department if you have “any questions or concerns,” it said.
“We appreciate your understanding in this,” the letter concluded.
What understanding? Wax had no understanding. He had only anger and concern for himself and his wife, who both have major health issues and had hugely looked forward to the cruise as one last great adventure, a way to celebrate, in style, their 64 years together.
The form letter contained nothing about a refund of the $2,300 they had paid for the cruise they were now not taking. It said nothing about how to get their luggage back. Nothing about what they should do or where they should go except an 800-number. The Waxes looked around the pier and almost everyone was gone.
They had missed the boat.
“We felt abandoned,” Wax said. “Norwegian was totally without sympathy. Here we were, an elderly couple, 3,000 miles away from home, no clothing, no medicines, no nothing. And they just walked away without a word.”
The Waxes had planned and saved for more than a year to fly to LA and take a seven-day cruise down the Mexican coast. They had counted down the days to Dec. 22, when they would board a gleaming white vessel run by a reputable cruise line they had previously taken on enjoyable cruises out of Boston and New York.
They had greatly looked forward to time spent sunning themselves on the promenade gazing out to sea and to fine dining and music and meeting other guests. They had planned to go ashore for shopping in the Mexican ports of call.
“This was to be our last trip together,” Wax would later write to Norwegian asking for a refund and citing the serious health considerations of a couple, both pushing 90, with four children, 10 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.
“We were incredibly distressed when we were not allowed to board the ship because our passports were not available,” he wrote in the letter.
Part of the sting Wax felt came from realizing he should have known better. Norwegian had made it clear passports were needed to board. The Waxes had stayed with a granddaughter who lives in LA the night before their planned voyage. She had helped them carefully secure their passports in an outside pocket of one of their three suitcases.
But when they arrived at the terminal, the Waxes faced a somewhat chaotic scene as Norwegian luggage handlers swept through the crowd. A small fleet of carts piled high with luggage sped away to the ship, where suitcases would be sorted and delivered to each passenger’s cabin.
It all happened in a flash. “He grabbed our bags, tagged them, and he was gone,” said Wax. “I didn’t have a moment to think about it.”
Looking back, Wax asked, “How could I have been so stupid?”
As he waited in line, Wax realized the problem. But he figured the couple would be able to board because they did have their passports, which would be inside one of the suitcases delivered to their cabin.
The representative never asked for a driver’s license instead — which the cruise line’s own policy says can be an acceptable substitute for a passport. Cruise ship passengers are not required to have a passport to leave an American port if the destination is Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, or Bermuda, even if they go ashore on a day trip.
After watching the ship leave port, Wax dialed the number for Norwegian customer service, as the form letter advised. He got a recording. The office had closed for the day and would not reopen until the day after Christmas.
Kathleen Grasso works for the operator of the Los Angeles maritime terminal used by Norwegian and other cruise lines. Her job is lend a hand to anyone who needs it. When she came across the Waxes, “it broke my heart,” she said.
“Here was this lovely, older couple, and they were just devastated,” she said. “They had come all the way from the east coast, and now they were stuck.”
Grasso said it is rare for guests to be left behind because luggage could not be found in time to retrieve passports.
“I found that unusual and very sad,” said Grasso, who helped calm the Waxes and gave them her telephone number.
The couple bunked in with their granddaughter and her husband for a week (and had a great time sightseeing with them). They bought the clothing, medications, and toiletries they needed. When the customer service department reopened on Dec. 26, Wax called. The luggage would be delivered to their granddaughter’s house on Dec. 30, the day after the Norwegian Star returned, he was told.
But nothing arrived and Wax called again. The Norwegian representative realized while on the phone with Wax that she had forgotten there was no shipping service that day because it was a Saturday.
“Oh, great, that does us a lot of good,” Wax said sarcastically.
The representative responded with an angry tirade.
“She just flew off the handle, berating me for not realizing how hard she was working,” Wax recalled.
The luggage finally arrived — on Jan. 2.
Weeks passed without Norwegian responding to Wax’s firm but polite request for a refund. Last week, I called and e-mailed Norwegian (which isn’t Norwegian at all; it is a publicly-traded company, incorporated in Bermuda, and headquartered in Miami). I attached copies of the form letter handed to Wax and Wax’s letter to Norwegian, and asked to discuss the matter.
Norwegian did not respond, but within a couple hours of my inquiry, Wax received a letter from Norwegian, his first communication from the company in more than a month. There would be no refund, the company said, citing a clause in its terms and conditions that says guests are not entitled to a refund or credit when they are denied boarding for lack of proper documentation.
“It would be inconsistent for us to make exceptions to our cancelation policies for some guests, when many others in similar situations have accepted these terms,” the letter said.
Wax responded in a letter to Norwegian: “The manner in which we were treated and abandoned in the terminal in LA was truly despicable and disheartening. And frankly not wise from a business standpoint.”
All companies have a culture. Apparently, Norwegian’s is stingy, unfeeling, and inflexible. Is this the kind of company you want to book a vacation with?