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This 3-year cruise around the world is called off, leaving passengers in the lurch

When the Life at Sea cruise line failed to purchase the German cruise ship AIDAaura, seen here in 2020, its plans for a worldwide cruise embarking in November began to unravel.
Marit Hommedal
NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images
When the Life at Sea cruise line failed to purchase the German cruise ship AIDAaura, seen here in 2020, its plans for a worldwide cruise embarking in November began to unravel.

Updated November 29, 2023 at 11:31 AM ET

They were promised the world. But cruise company Life at Sea recently told customers who bought passage on a three-year voyage that rather than visiting 140 countries, their trip was called off.

Those customers are now scrambling to make new plans for where they will live for the next three years — and to extract refunds from the cruise line. The intense fallout is drawing comparisons to infamous debacles such as the Fyre Festival — the "luxury" music festival that was more like a "disaster relief area."

Here's what to know about the cruise around the world that was called off

What was promised? The world.

The original itinerary mapped 1,095 days of travel, heading from Istanbul to Europe and then to South America and the Caribbean. Passengers would then pass through the Panama Canal before seeing the U.S. West Coast, Hawaii and Alaska and then head west across the Pacific.

"We are going to be following summer the entire time that we go around the world," then-Life at Sea CEO Kendra Holmes told prospective passengers in a Zoom webinar in September.

Voyagers were to see seven continents, visiting 140 countries. They would spend roughly 300 days at sea, 795 days at port and have 413 overnight port stays, Chief Operating Officer Ethem Bayramoglu of Miray Cruises, the Turkish parent company of Life at Sea, said in that online session.

Along the way, they would explore wonders of the world, visit UNESCO World Heritage sites and have plentiful chances to go diving and snorkeling, the company said.

The three-year voyage was to begin on Nov. 1, departing from Istanbul. Some passengers reportedly only learned of the cancellation after arriving in Turkey.

What are customers saying?

"Some people read the headlines and think, 'Oh, that was a scam,' but I really did my homework before I put a deposit down," Keri Witman of Cincinnati told NPR. She had attorneys check the company's background, for instance.

Witman, who owns a marketing agency named Clever Lucy, was planning to work remotely aboard the ship, using its Starlink internet service. And as a single woman, she had been looking forward to exploring the world with a group.

"Having a like-minded community of people that all were interested in travel at the ready was really appealing to me," she said.

When the cruise missed its planned departure date, the company promised to resolve lingering issues. But after further delays, the trip was canceled.

Witman says the company has begun the refund process, accepting her requests for other expenses to be paid, from airfare to the costs of foreign visas. But some of her fellow customers seem more frustrated.

"Still waiting for my refund. And now you've gone belly up?" a woman who identified herself as a Life at Sea customer said recently on the company's Instagram account. The woman, a retired educator, did not respond to NPR's message seeking further comment.

Former flight attendant Meredith Shay was looking forward to the trip as a centerpiece of her retirement.

"How did I feel about it?" Shay said in an interview on ABC's Good Morning America. "Devastated, disappointed, sad. I packed up my belongings, put them in storage, sent four boxes to Miray Cruises."

Witman says she also shipped boxes to have on the cruise, back in early October.

"I'm following them along on my AirTags today," she said. "They're on their way back."

How much did the Life at Sea cruise cost?

The cheapest packages started at $196,000 for a single traveler, and $231,000 for couples, according to the company's website. Costs ranged much higher for guests staying in premium rooms.

In exchange, passengers — or residents, as the company called them — were promised a long list of amenities, including an onboard hospital and doctor. Some cabins could host cats; travelers were also promised high-speed internet, free dining, alcohol and laundry service, and "enrichment seminars."

Terms of the deal help illuminate the would-be passengers' financial and logistical plight. Life at Sea set initial deposits at 30% of the overall cost. Under its 12-month payment plan, the first draw came due one month ahead of the sail date.

And rather than portioning the cruise for sale in smaller stages, the company required customers to commit to the full three years.

"Our residents are changing their lives for this opportunity, and we are honored to be a part of their personal journeys," Holmes said in June.

A wide range of passengers had booked cabins.

"The age group is split pretty much between 35 and 85" years old, and the passengers included a large number of Americans, Holmes said.

Did the cruise line actually have a ship?

"In two days' time, we own this vessel," Life at Sea itinerary planner Robert Dixon said in late September, speaking in a promotional video from the bridge of a ship he called the "MV Lara."

But the company wasn't able to close that deal, and the ship in question — the 20-year-old AIDAaurawas instead sold in November to Celestyal, which specializes in Mediterranean cruises.

Miray's attempts to purchase the ship dragged on for weeks, and it eventually stalled after investors balked, according to a company message obtained by CNN and other outlets.

"If you're focused on the ship, this is not the journey for you," Holmes said in the September webinar. But two months later, she would leave her leadership post at Life at Sea and Miray, as plans for the ambitious cruise unraveled.

Holmes was trying to allay concerns about the quality of the vessel. But it seems that it was the company's focus, not the public's, that was the problem.

Warning flags went up earlier this year, when the company changed course from its initial plan to refit one of its ships, the MV Gemini. For the lengthy worldwide voyage, it planned to deploy the larger "MV Lara" — a ship that never materialized.

What does the cruise company say now?

It's complicated. On Sunday, Miray Cruises issued a statement in Turkish, denying that the cruise is canceled. Instead, the company said the voyage is postponed — and it blamed a lack of enough passenger bookings, rather than problems finding an appropriate ship.

But responding to a social media comment about that same statement, the company sought to clarify that its other operations are unaffected — and in doing so, it stated, "The cancellation in question is related to our 3-year world tour project."

The company said that anyone requesting a refund will get one, and that it will reimburse travel expenses related to the cruise. Miray also says it plans to mount a similar trip next year.

Witman, for one, says she's still interested in a worldwide cruise.

"There are two other companies that have been working on a similar concept" that have also run into delays, she said.

"I think one of them will make it happen in 2024," Witman said. "And I'm hopeful that it will, because I'd like to be on it. I still believe in the concept. I think it's a really perfect opportunity for me."

Despite the setback, Witman says she's been able to form connections with other would-be passengers, who have been keeping in touch via apps and group texts. Some of them are even making plans to travel together this winter.

"I don't regret at all going down this path," Witman said. "It moved me forward in a way that I wouldn't have done without this instigation. And I'm really thankful for it. I'm disappointed, but I'm ready to go for whatever opportunity comes up next."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.