Summary: Victoria Cruises Line, a would-be Residential Cruising ship operator, is becoming well known in various Facebook groups, including one called Victoria Cruise Residents, for not refunding customer deposits in a timely manner, even as provided by their own contract.
First, Full Disclosure
Kit and I have a $10,000 deposit in with Victoria Cruises Line (aka VCL), of Budapest, Hungary, which we placed in August after meeting in person with their Brand Ambassador, Valerie “Lyn” Alspaugh.
We sold our house in a hurry and exhausted ourselves getting out so we could sail with VCL on December 1. But on October 1 — after we sold and vacated our home — VCL announced that they were delaying their departure. They didn’t say “until when.” It wasn’t until Friday, October 13, that another passenger posted on Facebook that he had found the delay was until July 26 — nearly eight months later — by looking at a newly posted itinerary.
The company didn’t bother to send us a notification until after we complained to Ms. Alspaugh. After waiting for “official” word from VCL (and then getting an email with a demonstrable lie included), we asked for a refund.
According to their contract, they have until January 21 to get it to us, so as far as all parties are concerned, we are “within contract” (not counting that they didn’t sail as promised on December 1). We Shall See if they meet that deadline, and this article will be updated. [Oops: that was before this article was published. See February Update.]
Lanette and Johan from Hawaii
Lanette and Johan got interested in residential cruising after taking a 16-day cruise through the Norwegian Fjords. They loved it, and then heard about Storylines shortly after coming home — but the cost was out of reach. They booked on Life At Sea, paying a $5,000 deposit, but then there was a big kerfuffle there, as described in the article Life at Sea: Can You Really Live for $30,000?
Life At Sea “refunded us our money back without us having to ask for it,” and they paid a $10,000 deposit in to Victoria Cruises Line on June 5, 2023, facilitated by the company’s Brand Ambassador, Ms. Alspaugh.
It didn’t last long: “When we heard Villa Vie had come out with their new product, we reached out to them on June 17th and immediately wanted to jump ships because we felt we could trust this American team from previous communications with [their leadership team, which had previously been at LAS]. I put in officially for the VCL refund on 07/28/23.”
They’re still waiting. According to Victoria Cruises’ 90-day refund policy, they should have received it in November. “I am hopeful since I should be the next in line to receive a refund but at this point I think it is a scam.”
I asked if their feeling that maybe it’s a scam made them think twice about signing up with, now, their third ship, on Villa Vie Residences. “The VVR team has been fully transparent and the CEO lives in America and saw the red flags of LAS and did not want to have his/their name behind it. They refunded my LAS deposit of $5K.”
One thing that’s, well, alarming about Lanette’s experience with Victoria Cruises is the exchange in emails she has had with them, which she provided to ResidentialCruising.com. Despite them not meeting their own contractual 90-day deadline in refunding her deposit, it actually got worse.
First, VCL notified her that she didn’t put the SWIFT code which is needed for wire transfers, on their refund “application.” Lanette sent it immediately, so that shouldn’t cause any delay. Lanette told them they were on Maui and were affected by the wildfires, and really needed their money back. VCL responded, “You will receive your refund within the contractual deadline.”
Once the deadline arrived, VCL advised, “Lanette, the deposit fee was refunded yesterday. It is expected to be credited to your bank account within 2-3 days.” Lanette sent several more requests for info, and only then did VCL respond that “I find that the bank account number is very difficult to read.” What, in three-plus months, they never looked at the form to confirm they had everything they needed?!
“If your form didn’t have the ship in the background it would be easier to read,” Lanette responded, and gave it all to them again. The form can certainly be hard to read thanks to VCL including a graphic behind the form (see photo).
Meanwhile, two months later, they still don’t have the refund. So is it “really” an unreadable form?
Then there’s this chilling response: “[S]everal social media posts have been published where you and other people have made statements against VCL that do not reflect the truth. Our firm will take immediate legal action in the US and in Hungary.”
The only thing Lanette says she posted on Facebook was that she was not getting her refund as promised. She can hardly be liable for anything “other people have made,” and their not getting their refund is a demonstratable truth. So a legal threat is laughable at best, but should still give any would-be Victoria Cruises Line customers pause. Lanette and Johan have still not received their refund.
But wait: it gets worse.
A working Midwest couple — non-retirees who asked to remain anonymous — told me they first got interested in Residential Cruising when they saw an article about Life At Sea. Spooked by LAS’s “payment in full up front structure,” which they considered “too risky,” they searched out alternatives on Google and found Victoria Cruises Line. They were “sold” by the company’s itinerary, liked its “navigable website,” and were attracted by their relatively low deposit and monthly rental structure “to limit risk if the thing went bankrupt.”
The Midwests were heartened that they did receive their refund from Life At Sea, which had only asked for $5,000. They paid a $10,000 deposit to Victoria Cruises in spring 2023.
But “Repeated delays in the promised marketing campaign led me to question VCL’s honesty,” they told me. They asked for a refund, got the reply that they would get it in 90 days, and waited. Their 90 days will be up on in March 2024. Since that’s still in the future, I asked whether they are confident they will receive it. “No. The fact that VCL has stopped making timely refund payments to others with a variety of excuses suggests to me that VCL will disappear soon.”
Do they still want to be residential cruisers? “Not at this time. We would certainly never sign up with another ‘startup’ residential cruise company, and would wait until a company had a ship successfully at sea for over a year before even considering it. For now we will go back to traveling on our own and/or with reputable tour companies we have used in the past.”
They have not received their refund. And apparently, VCL still has not started their saturation marketing campaign as promised again and again and again by their Brand Ambassador, Valerie Alspaugh, originally to start in September. We have not yet seen evidence of such a campaign starting, let alone being seen “everywhere” on social media as she promised.
All of this is, of course, the real shame. This is an infant industry that is bound to have some hiccups even in the best of circumstances. So would-be Residential Cruising companies must work extra hard to be above-board, professional, and transparent when they’re asking for large amounts of up-front money.
We certainly haven’t seen those best practices here. Yet again, it gets worse.
How Could This “Get Worse”?!
While I was putting this article together from the interview questions I sent to the several people involved, this post popped up on Victoria Cruises Line LLC’s official Facebook page:
Let’s Break This Down
VCL claims that they need customers to send them copies of the contracts VCL issued, and the “cancellation documents” they demanded from us in order to get refunds, due to a “data loss” from a “system error in Google Drive”.
What does this mean? Well, as someone who has worked online full time for 30 years now, it means to me that they didn’t keep the original emails from customers. That they put all of these business-critical documents into one place — the “cloud” of a different company in a different country — and didn’t keep copies on their own computers/file systems. And that they have no backups whatever of these business-critical documents.
Many of the folks waiting for refunds have come to a different conclusion: “scam.” I don’t relay this charge lightly. I searched a public Victoria Cruise Lines group on Facebook for the word “scam”. Even limiting it to 2024 posts, I found quite a few instances. Here are just a few, with the posters’ names blurred out since I didn’t speak to them directly about their comments:
Neither option is palatable: criminals using excuse after excuse as a delay tactic? Or completely incompetent when it comes to doing business?
The best-case scenario is incompetence, and I truly hope that’s what it is. The way the company can prove they’re not criminals is to refund the money of dozens to scores of customers who have been waiting for VCL to deliver on their promises.
Breaking It Down, Part 2
VCL’s plea has a detail that’s chilling: they need copies of refund requests from customers “who canceled their contracts between May and December 2023”. That seems to indicate that they have not yet returned money to customers who asked for such refunds as far back as May!
That’s from VCL-drawn contracts which, depending on when they were issued, had in their fine print that it would take “14 days” (according to passengers with older contracts that I have not seen) to “90 days” (newer contracts such as mine) to send the refunds.
Forget that it’s ridiculous for it to take 90 days to make a refund in this day and age. I can sit in my home and wire $10,000 overnight to a bank in another country — and I did. But a business can’t? Really? See “would-be Residential Cruising companies must work extra hard to be above-board, professional, and transparent,” above!
Yet they’re still not meeting those 90-day self-imposed deadlines according to both formal and informal interviews, and multiple posts in online groups. How can anyone trust them when there are literally dozens of people (maybe many dozens: I can only count the folks who came forward so that I could see them) who have been let down?
Since we asked for our own refund, I’ve seen exactly one person say they got theirs. One. That is, at least, a point for it not being a scam.
Meanwhile, quite a few others say VCL has claimed to have sent wires to them, yet they mysteriously have not arrived. The company occasionally sends “proof” of a wire (just a form anyone could fill out and scan), at least one of which is dated on a Sunday. Hungarian banks are open Sundays?
But wait, it still gets worse!
More on the Google Drive Data Loss
It is a fact that there was a problem with data loss on Google Drive: that made headlines in November/early December. But here’s the thing: those headlines were about the data loss and the fact that Google had “released a fix for users who have been reporting in official support forums that six months worth of files have gone missing from their Google Drive folders.” (Forbes)
“After a bug caused files to disappear on Drive for desktop,” The Verge reported on December 6, “Google has outlined the steps users can take to recover them.”
Yes, it’s possible that Google really did screw up and that not everyone got their data back. Yet VCL “should have known” this in early December at the latest, not 8–11 days into January.
But even if they did lose data in the Google Drive fiasco and have not been able to get it back, they ask us to believe they deleted the original emails sent to them with refund forms? They don’t have copies of our contracts? Really?! That’s what I mean by incompetent: a truly competent business does not have only one copy of business-critical files …which are kept on someone else’s server somewhere in the “cloud.”
So, do they even know who their passengers are who really do still want to sail? Or do they claim to have only “lost” the documents of those who don’t want to?
Sure, keep backup copies in the cloud, preferably on two or three different cloud sites. But those should be backups, not the only copies that exist.
So of course when dozens of folks have been trying for months to get their money back, such an excuse falls flat — especially when, as one of the folks pointed out in the attached graphic, Victoria Cruises readily jumps from excuse to excuse as to why they haven’t processed promised refunds.
But wait, there’s more!
To add another interesting twist, one of the folks waiting for a refund told me of this interesting bit: on LinkedIn there’s a profile of someone who purports to be the CEO of Victoria Cruises Line (starting in Apr 2019), Olavs Zvinelis. There’s even a nice profile of the smiling executive:
In fact, that’s the name of the CEO who “signed” (it is presumably electronic) our contract:
The problem? The very profile photo itself. The reader said that it is a “stock” photo available from a variety of sources. I did my own search at TinEye.com and found indeed that is so, as shown here.
While it’s ever-so-slightly possible that Victoria’s CEO is also a stock-photo fashion model, the more logical Occam’s razor conclusion is, the man pictured on LinkedIn is certainly not the CEO of the company. Is their CEO an actual person named Olavs Zvinelis? Hard to say: the evidence is not compelling.
Sure enough, VCL sent that reader an email saying they were going to sue him for posting this truthful fact on Facebook. They of course would be laughed out of court if they tried, but seriously: can anyone argue that a “above-board, professional, and transparent” company would send such an email?!
So is there really someone named Olavs Zvinelis who is the CEO of the company? A Google search finds no mention of him on their web site. However, according to the company’s GDPR General Policy Document, he at least was:
Why is the company CEO no longer to be found? Well, except on LinkedIn, where he is not who he seems. Curiouser and curiouser.
VCL’s Statement to Residential Cruising
Now, of course I informed VCL’s corporate office in late December that I was writing this article and requested a statement from them. The only thing I got directly was an auto-responder that confirmed receipt of my message — until that damning statement issued on Facebook on January 11. On that day I again sent them a request for a statement, reminding them this would be published by January 15.
They responded overnight (read: reasonably quickly) to my second request, which is included here in its unedited entirety:
Dear Customer, we are aware of the refund problems and we are trying to resolve these issues as soon as possible. The errors are due to incorrect document completion by the customer on the one hand, and the other big problem is the loss of data on Google drive storage. This is a mistake made by Google and to date we have not received a solution from Google. We are trying to retrieve our lost data, but they are not going quickly.
The contract states where the customer can lodge a complaint in case of a dispute.
It is not a solution for customers to threaten VCL employees with the police. In all such cases that come to our attention, we take the necessary legal action.
VCL is a law-abiding company and we are not afraid of any police report.
The company has never disappeared and will not disappear again.
Furthermore, if any customer has a problem, the platform for resolving perceived or real problems is not social media. In such cases we will also take the necessary legal action and for these clients the deposit fee will be withheld pending the outcome of the legal proceedings. You can read about this in the booking conditions.
A Few Responses
How could anyone not get a chuckle out of “The company has never disappeared and will not disappear again.”?
More seriously, it is irresponsible for a company to not have any copies of critical business information available for its immediate use in processing important contractual tasks, period. If they don’t, they’re incompetent. If they do, it’s nothing but a stall tactic. Yet notice their first step is to blame the customer for not doing it right. They had three months to ask for any needed clarifications.
And if “VCL is a law-abiding company and we are not afraid of any police report,” why do they feel it is necessary to “take the necessary legal action” if a customer does make such a report?
While “The contract states where the customer can lodge a complaint in case of a dispute.” sounds good, that place is the company itself. On the other hand, the address shown in the contract, as shown below, is an office in Limasol, Cyprus. Yet in part of a response to someone asking for a refund, the company said, “There is an office building at 25 Queen Berengaria in Limasol, where our company rents temporary office space for meetings. … The company is based in Budapest, we do not do any business in Limasol that would affect passengers or residents.” So does the company have staff in Cyprus to process “complaints,” or is it just a rented “temporary office space for meetings” where they do not do any business regarding passengers?
Many customers have made it clear to VCL that they are not getting satisfactory responses from the company, so the only possible solution is to try again, sending something to an address used as “temporary office space for meetings”? That doesn’t sound particularly helpful.
When frustrated customers don’t get satisfactory responses when large amounts of money is involved and complain in online forums with the company’s name on them, they expect a helpful response from company representatives, not threats for not using a demonstratably ineffective complaint procedure.
To then claim that “for these clients the deposit fee will be withheld pending the outcome of the legal proceedings” is outrageous: their contract has no such provision to do this. The customers would have no complaint if they simply gave them their refunds as their contract provides. For VCL to unilaterally punish them for complaining that VCL has not performed their contractual obligations by withholding their money is absurd, and (in my opinion) cause for legal action on their part.
So why not just refund their money in a timely manner and not have any complaints to deal with?! Problem solved. Instead, they cause problems and then blame customers for “incorrect document completion” …when the contract doesn’t even require “documents” to be completed for refunds.
But 90 days from when? Well, according to their all-important contract they say we need to rely on, from the time that you request it, including by email, as shown directly above.
February Update: I sent that email on October 23, 2023. Add 90 days to that and that refund was due to us on January 21, 2024. Am I surprised that we have not received it? No. That’s a point for it being a scam.
The Bottom Line: I don’t know for sure if it’s a scam or not, but I sure can’t blame the many, many folks for believing it is. There isn’t just a red flag here, there is a bucket-full of red flags. Our decision: like Lanette and Johan, we are committed to living a Residential Cruising lifestyle, and will be sailing with Villa Vie Residences. We will write more about them soon.
Comments are open below, but must relate to the topic at hand on this page to be approved. For instance, complaints about Life At Sea or other companies will not be approved as comments on this page. Instead, use the contact form linked above to volunteer to be interviewed for a separate story. If you have direct experience with VCL, you are definitely welcome to briefly relate your story. Thank you.
Since this article was published the story has been picked up by cruise industry media, as well as regular news media, including:
- Is Retiring at Sea Just a Pipe Dream? Here’s What You Need to Know at Cruise Passenger Australia, February 9, 2024. “‘Victoria Majestic’ or ‘Victoria Majesty’ is not yet a reality. And neither are many of the refunds that passengers have been requesting.”
- Aussies’ $15,000 Fight over Residential Cruise That ‘Doesn’t Exist’ at the mainstream news.com.au, February 14, 2024. “The company did not answer news.com.au’s questions around why it hasn’t refunded the Australians couples’ deposits.”
- More, I’m sure, to come, and very likely from even larger-population countries.
Life At Sea customers are seeking fraud charges against that company, the New York Times reported on January 17, with 78 passengers joining together to petition the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida to ask for an investigation of Miray, LAS’s parent company. They note that a month after the cruise failed, they have not received refunds.
On January 18, ABC’s Good Morning America show covered the fraud angle. You can bet there will be more.
But it makes me wonder: all this after just a month of no refunds? This ought to have VCL, with its huge backlog of refund requests, sweating bullets.
Last Updated February 13, 2024
Originally Published January 15, 2024
- About the Author
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Randy is the co-founder of Residential Cruising, and is best known as the founder of the oldest entertainment feature on the Internet, This is True. He and his wife, Kit, are actively working toward moving to a full-time Residential Cruising ship, where they intend to be “Digital Nomads” — continuing their work while aboard the ship.