Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

No Smooth Sailing over Lines' Port Charges

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

No Smooth Sailing over Lines' Port Charges

Article excerpt

IT WAS ON April 19, as the U.S. cruise industry was laying plans to reposition its ships for the summer season, that a New York law firm and six passengers decided to rock some boats. Big boats, and a lot of them.

In a batch of lawsuits against seven major cruise companies, the passengers challenged the industrywide practice of tacking port charges onto passenger bills.

Most passengers may think those fees go directly to paying government levies, but in fact, the lawsuits alleged, most of that money is actually "profit that ends up on the bottom line." The plaintiffs - two New Yorkers, two Floridians and two Californians - called for a refund of every dollar overcharged through the last four years and are seeking to have the suits accorded class-action status. Plaintiffs' attorney Joseph Lipofsky of New York-based Zwerling, Schachter, Zwerling & Koppell, estimated that the overcharge could reach $600 million. Cruise lines immediately denied the allegation. While it is true that port charges are usually listed separately from the "all-inclusive" base price of a cruise, they noted, passengers are informed of the charges in writing and well in advance. Several cruise-line representatives added, "It's the way we've always done it," and said that providing passengers with a breakdown of the various expenses involved would be impractically complicated. Four months later: Has the legal action won any victories for cruise customers? Has it prompted any changes in practice among cruise lines? Has it revealed exactly which expenses are reflected in port charges? Not so far, not at all and not quite. But consumers may still profit from the hubbub. Port charges, a tradition on passenger ships, usually range from $65 to $250, depending on the ship, the ports of call (Alaska and Europe tend to be more costly than Mexico and the Caribbean) and the length of the itinerary. Sometimes, two companies will cruise the same itinerary and set port charges that differ by more than 10 percent. And on the shortest, least costly cruises, such as Carnival's three-day Los Angeles-Ensenada-Los Angeles route, the port charges of $84.50 (including customs fees and international departure taxes) boost the total cost by more than 35 percent beyond the discounted base price of $249 a person. …

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