Princess Cruises and Cunard Line will begin enforcing booking deadlines in earnest, effective Dec. 1, automatically canceling bookings as soon as the final payment is past due.
Jan Swartz, Princess' executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer service, wrote in a notice to travel agents that there would be "no grace periods or extensions allowed for receipt of final payment. All Electronic Fund Transfers must be submitted and payments by check must be posted by the final payment date. This final payment policy will also apply to group bookings."
The new policies will be in effect for all cruises sailing March 1, 2011, and after.
Swartz told Travel Weekly that few consumers or agents were missing their deadlines but that Princess was getting queries from agents about bookings that remained active online despite the line telling them it would cancel.
"We were spending our own internal teams' and the agents' time explaining that there were invisible grace periods," she said.
"As a courtesy to our agent partners, and just in case some rare agents were consistently relying on this grace, we thought it was better to warn agents that the unpromised grace period would be going away with systems changes we are making."
In her notice to agents, Swartz wrote that the new policy was a response to new buying trends, such as the use of online tools by travel agents, which "has grown substantially, particularly for making payments online, as consumers have transitioned to using credit cards as their form of payment on the vast majority of bookings."
The automatic cancellation is being implemented, she said, "in response to these trends, and in order to provide you with consistent and predictable final payment schedules."
Swartz said that the lines had discussed the new policy with their top 100 accounts during the Presidential Summit.
"It was a nonissue," she said. "They said most of them collect the money in advance of our dates anyway. ... It's not a big change in consumer behavior, particularly since both agents and consumers will have been reminded several times of the due date in advance of the final payment date."
Mickey McDaniel, owner of Houston-based VIP Travel, said that while the new policy was fair, he questioned why Princess was doing it now.
"I don't understand the genesis of this policy," he said. "It doesn't appear to be favorable to clients. It doesn't appear to be agent-friendly, and more importantly, I don't think it does the cruise line any favors."
He added: "That being said, I applaud Princess for warning agents in advance. And I'm grateful they plan to notify us twice before canceling the booking. It just becomes a bloody mess when the booking is canceled, never mind the financial loss. Hopefully, cooler minds will prevail."
One issue that McDaniel and other agents noted was that the growth of home-based agents makes the policy more of a concern to some agents.
"There are flood days or snow days when your final payment is due, and if my electricity is out, I can't make a phone call or make final payment," he said. He also noted that in the 30 years he's been in the business, he only missed a final payment once.
"I think agents don't want to miss it, but they will goof up from time to time when they get busy. ... One-third of this business is home-based. Someone could be in the hospital, in a car wreck, and they don't have backup. What happens then?"