In 2019, Dave Russell finished 40 years in the army, and he and his wife Christine were ready to celebrate the best way they know how – by going on a series of cruises.

The couple booked three Carnival cruises through travel agent Defence Escapes, an agency that promotes itself as offering the best deals for serving and non-serving service personnel.  

“We booked a whole heap of voyages during 2019, to cruise from August of 2020, to celebrate my husband finishing his service in the army after 40 years. This was our celebratory, ‘lets go and do a big trip’,” Christine Russell told Cruise Passenger.

However, the celebrations did not unfold as planned.

The couple booked a number of cruises, accommodation and internal flights in America. But when the pandemic hit, like hundreds of thousands of cruisers, their plans were put on the back burner.

“Then obviously, the world got a cold – it all got cancelled.”

Mrs Russell understood her refund might not come straight away, but did not anticipate the upcoming struggle that she faced two years from when they booked their dream holiday.

“We got formal confirmation in May of 2020 that everything had been cancelled, so I sent the travel agent an email asking ‘Can you cancel everything, we’d like our money back, we don’t know when we’ll be able to get to the States’ and so on.

“I remember my very first email to her, I said ‘I understand it’s going to take a bit of time for the refunds to come back, that’s all good’.”

“It was back and forth, back and forth, back and forth and now we have radio silence. She will not respond to any emails, calls, texts, nothing. We haven’t even heard from her since late 2020 or early 2021.”

Currently, the Russells are $25,000 out of pocket. 

“The one big trip was about $23,000 and we also had deposits for another cruise, which are also lost.

“The three cruises she booked alone were about $18,000. We have written confirmation from Carnival that a deposit of $250 was the only money paid to them and that was reimbursed to her in October of 2020.

“I’ve also contacted the two hotels we were meant to stay at in America and neither of them had been paid either.”

Mrs Russell has not taken the situation lightly, fighting through multiple avenues to try and get her money back.

“I’ve gone to Fair Trading, I’ve contacted the ACCC, I’ve contacted the consumer law centre here in Canberra. The Fair Trading in Canberra contacted her on our behalf early this year and she told them that she hadn’t got any of the money back.

“After she told Fair Trading she hadn’t got the money back, they told us they couldn’t go any further and couldn’t help us.”

The missing money has also had repercussions on the pair’s broader financial circumstances, with the couple being forced to draw down on their mortgage and seek additional work.

“It’s horrendous. You can’t help that the trip got cancelled, the world got sick, we couldn’t do anything that’s fine. Not long ago we had bought a house (in early 2020), so we decided to do some renovations, thinking that money would come back. But because we’ve never seen a cent of our refund, we’ve had to withdraw money from our mortgage to pay for the renovations.

“Dave, now in the army reserves, has had to go and look for work, doing extra days to try and recoup some of these funds, because we haven’t got it back.

“The stress is just, you can’t even explain it.”

For now, Mrs Russell is left to keep following up with government agencies and consult with consumer advocate Adam Glezer, and heartbreakingly, has been left doubting her and her husbands future with cruise and travelling.

“We love cruising. We’ve done it for a number of years, it’s our time when we’re together, we’re relaxed and it’s fun. It’s time away from reality.

“Now I don’t know if it’ll ever be the same. Until we get our money back, that’ll always be in the back of our minds. 

I work full-time, because I have to. But Dave should be able to enjoy his pension, which he can’t. We just want to know what’s happening and get our money back.”

It has destroyed Mrs Russell’s trust in travel agents. “I will never ever use a travel agent again. How am I going to trust anybody booking a trip again, it’s hurt a lot. If we want to travel, we need to save really damn hard.

“I’ve left her voice messages effectively in tears, begging for her to give us our money back. I’ve said we are not going to be unreasonable, we know you’ll be struggling as well. Pay in instalments, tell us what’s going, be transparent and let us know what you’re planning on doing. Not telling us what you’re doing isn’t getting anyone anywhere.

“I’m at a loss that somebody could do that to somebody.”

Mrs Russell had also previously recommended her travel agent to friends, who have now suffered the same fate as her.

“We’re not the only people in this. I know at least four or five other people, if not more, who the travel agent has done this too as well.

“I feel guilty because we recommended her as a great travel agent to other people. I think that’s why I’m fighting so hard for all of us, I guess I feel like I need to. To try and get their money back as well.

“That on top of everything else, hurts a lot.”

Cruise Passenger has reached out to Defence Escapes but has yet to receive a response.

According to the Defence Escapes website: “We have been tirelessly working on getting refunds for our clients without any income to the business, $0. We thank our clients for their patience as it has not been easy for them.

“As we are all aware, travel was the first effected by the pandemic and will be the last to recover. Refunds from suppliers around the world have been extremely slow and still a lot to come. Australian travellers had at least 4 billion dollars invested in forward booked holidays when our borders were closed. We understand at least a billion is still outstanding.

“We are in process of rebuilding a new website with up to date tours along with new Ts & Cs to reflect this new era of post COVID 19 travel.”

And it adds: “If you have confidence in committing your hard earned to a holiday in the future and your booked travel is cancelled due to COVID 19 border rule changes domestically or internationally, you must be prepared to, at minimum, to expect those funds spent to go into credit or a very long wait for a refund.”

Adam Glezer from Consumer Champion said: “What I find particularly disappointing is that the agent blamed Carnival for not returning Christine’s funds when it appears they were holding the majority of them the entire time.

“Travel agents should never deceive their customers. Customers should be able to trust that their travel agent is always going to do the best by them.
“It’s situations like these that give travel agents a bad name.
“The travel agent industry desperately needs regulation. This has been proven by the amount of issues exposed over COVID”.