Aussies’ $15,000 fight over Victoria Cruises Line residential cruise that ‘doesn’t exist’

A group of Australians claim they signed up for a new residential cruise that “doesn’t exist” after struggling to have their $15,000 ($US10,000) deposits refunded.

European-based Victoria Cruises Line (VCL) was due to set sail from Port Everglades in Florida in July last year for its heavily promoted 29-month voyage around the world.

However, after failing to reach the “required 80 per cent occupancy”, it was rescheduled four times, with a new departure date of July 26 this year.

Passengers from around the world, including four Australians and a pair who sold their home to go on the trip, have expressed their concerns over the validity of the service following the year-long delay, coupled with what they say are company “excuses” to obtain a refund.

This includes “missing or incorrect” information on the refund request form and a Google drive error deleting both the contract and refund requests.

According to the terms and conditions of their contracts and as stated on their website under ‘booking conditions’, those who applied for a refund should have had it in their accounts within 90 days of cancellation.

“If the client cancels the contract before the start of the trip, the Company will refund the deposit paid to the client within 90 days of the cancellation date,” it reads.

However, this has not been the case with two Australian couples still fighting “tooth and nail” to see their hard-earned cash hit their accounts.

The company, which promotes itself to retirees, says on its website it is headquartered in Limassol in Cyprus, Greece, although it’s registered to an address in Budapest, Hungary, where it asks customers to wire the money.

Garda Hemming, 71, a recently retired healthcare worker and her partner Graham Whittaker, 76, a former journalist and Royal Navy sailor, from Coffs Harbour, dropped the $15,000 deposit on the residential cruise as one last-ditch effort to travel the world.

The pair were originally leaning towards a different residential ship run by Life at Sea, however, it eventually got cancelled for having no ship.

They then opted for Victoria Cruises Line after seeing coverage, various ads and social media posts. But following multiple delays and their “declining health”, they re-evaluated whether a years’ long cruise was feasible.

They pulled the plug and as per their contract applied for a refund.

“We asked for our money on September 17 and we still haven’t seen it,” Ms Hemming told news.com.au.

“They told us we had to fill out a specific form, which we did – they got the details on the wire transfer wrong,” she alleged.

“We sent the form again and they said there was a Google drive problem where all data had been lost. We sent it all again and were due for a refund 90 days after on December 16. They maintained it wasn’t until December 29, but either way we still haven’t seen the money.”

“I should have taken note of the adage I lived by which is it ‘seemed too good to be true’.”

Taryna Wawn, from Perth, and her partner Dennis put down a deposit on April 13 last year and applied for a refund in October after growing “sick of waiting” for the cruise to set sail.

“Now we’re retired, we want to live life and see more of the world while we’re still able,” she said.

“[But] I still haven’t got my money and they are now claiming I attempted to blackmail them and are refusing to pay the refund.”

It’s the same situation for Ms Hemming and Mr Whitakker who claim the company is withholding their deposit “because we said if they didn’t pay us by the due date, we want interest for pain and suffering”.

She claims an extra clause to the online contract appeared following the debacle that “in the event of legal proceedings it can withhold the deposit until proceedings have concluded”.

“I feel pretty annoyed at myself because usually I am pretty careful,” she said.

Ms Hemming alleges fellow passengers who have also asked for a refund have had similar experiences.

“We are still sitting in limbo waiting for the $15,000 and we don’t seem to be making much progress,” adding they have sent a legal letter of demand to the company through a Hungarian lawyer.

Ms Wawn, a recently retired primary school teacher, said she started the “heavy emails” to the company before her refund was due because she was “aware of 15 people at that stage who hadn’t received their refunds”.

“I feel angry and a bit silly. But we are not going to let this stop us (from living our lives) – we want our money, it belongs to us.”

Adam Glezer, from Consumer Champion, who has been advocating for both the Aussie couples is shocked the company still hasn’t honoured the refunds.

“Their time has expired – the 90 days are up and they should simply be honouring their side of the agreement,” Mr Glezer told news.com.au.

He said customers are rightfully frustrated and all they want is their money back.

“They are well within their rights to say they’re going to expose them if they’re not going to get what is rightfully theirs.”

Passengers who are also waiting for refunds have vented their anger online in various Facebook groups, including ‘A cruise with no ship’ and ‘Victoria Cruise Residents’, where Ms Wawn is one of the administrators.

“Hey VCL, if you really want to fill the ‘mystery ship’ to 80%, I’d suggest you buy more inviting stock photos,” one frustrated person wrote on their Facebook page where comments have been set to ‘limited’.

Others pointed out the company has been running ads with a real-life walk-through video of the ship, but have since learned there’s no formal lease in place.

According to its website, Victoria Cruises has a ship called the Victoria Majestic (formerly Veendam) which “offers an unusually large amount of space per passenger for 1350 guests”.

It also has the deck plan, as well as cabin rooms where passengers can put down a deposit for a minimum six-month lease.

However, a company representative told news.com.au they are yet to sign a contract.

“Due to a Covid that occurred in 2020 during the planning phase, the project was put on hold and was not revisited until 2021 (sic),” he said in a statement.

“VCL never wanted to buy a ship for this project and we have stated in all our press releases that we are only thinking about charters, because the purchase of a ship costs about 40-50 million USD.

“For that amount of money you can buy a 30 year old ship and we did not see any potential advantage in that. That is why we decided that charter was the only option. It is stated on our website, in the booking conditions and in the charter contract that the departure date may be subject to change due to changes in occupancy levels.”

He said the minimum booking for departure must be 80 per cent and they can only sign a charter contract “for any vessel” if this level is reached, “as charter fees are payable from the date of contract signature”.

“This is a pretty high amount if you are informed monthly, so we do not sail. You don’t think that a company starts by immediately chartering or buying a ship for a residential ship project,” he argued. “It’s a financial expense that will bankrupt any company by default. There are several projects underway that have started or are planning to start with a similar residential ship character (sic).”

The company did not answer news.com.au’s questions around why it hasn’t refunded the Australians couples’ deposits. Instead the spokesperson said: “We also informed the Australian customer that the solution to the problem is not extortion and threats, as in all such cases our lawyers will take the necessary legal and criminal action.”

As to why the ship hasn’t set sail – he explained it’s because they’re currently at 53 per cent occupancy, and not the required 80 per cent.

“In 2022 and 2023, the booking levels have been continuously changed (sic),” he said, adding that because most of their clients are above the age of 65, cancellations have occurred due to “illness and death”.

“Therefore our maximum occupancy rate has been 71 per cent. Due to the current cancellations, the occupancy level today is 53 per cent.”

“We have very few Australian customers, as Australia was not specified as the main destination country, because preliminary surveys indicate that few Australian customers aged 65+ are interested in the residential ship scheme. We currently have one Australian client with an active booking.”

Janie Coffey, from Florida, was successful at obtaining a refund but she said it was a “nightmare”.

“I signed up for VCL back in Sep 2022. By July 2023, I asked to cancel for various reasons, she wrote in the comments section of a blog.

“By November when my funds were due, they said it was sent, but it had not arrived.

“When confronted with this, they told me they couldn’t read a number so they GUESSED! Guessed on a $10K international wire. GUESSED!”

“They said they tried to reach me, but I had no emails, missed calls or voicemails in the time it was sent.”

She said “finally” after 37 days, she received her money, but “short with a few dollars”.

She described what fellow customers have been going through as “unbelievable”.

“All VCL has done has been 1) nonchalant 2) non-responsive 3) blame the passengers 4) threaten the passengers with lawsuits and 5) blame the Google (data bug).”

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