Boston-based luxury cruise company Vantage Travel made headlines this week for a spate of last-minute trip cancellations, spoiling travel plans for customers who were given a wide range of explanations for the disruptions.
In the case of this week’s cancellation of a 10-day European “spring tulips” cruise, which begins and ends in Amsterdam, the company blamed a “possible ransomware attack.” Two other tulips cruises have been abruptly scrapped in the last month: A customer on one said Vantage told her the ship was in drydock for repairs and wouldn’t be ready in time for the trip, and a ticketholder on the other said she was told “the boat had some damage issues on the river.” Another cruise, this one along the Nile River in Egypt, was cancelled because “people on the ground were seeing signs of unrest,” a customer said.
Answers about refunds, meanwhile, are in short supply. All travelers really know at this point is that Vantage’s website and call center are down, and many of them are, for the moment, out thousands of dollars.
Here are five things to know about the embattled cruise ship operator, its history in Boston, and what may be on the horizon.
1. The company has been in Boston for four decades
Vantage Travel launched in 1983, starting with tours to Australia and New Zealand, according to an archived version of the company’s website. Initially based in Brookline, the company later moved its headquarters to Bulfinch Triangle in Boston and currently has an office on Canal Street. Its fleet of about 20 ships — a combination of owned and leased vessels — sail to all seven continents.
The company advertises an all-inclusive experience, pledging on its website to handle everything “from airline tickets to hotel reservations, transfers and baggage handling,” with some bookings costing tens of thousands of dollars.
Most of the ships are relatively small: The $70 million Ocean Explorer, which debuted in 2021, accommodates about 160 passengers. To date, Vantage has sent half a million travelers around the world, according to the company’s Linkedin profile.
2. Vantage’s owner has had run-ins with the law before
Vantage Travel founder and CEO Henry Lewis is no stranger to controversy and has been named as both a plaintiff and a defendant in a number of lawsuits over the years, according to court records.
One high-profile case involved Lewis and his brother, Alan Lewis, who ran another travel agency, Grand Circle Travel, before his death last year at 74.
In 2007, the brothers donated some of their shares of the Paul Gauguin, a cruise liner, to the Boston Foundation, a local philanthropy. But about a year later, Henry Lewis “devised a scheme intended to force TBF into selling its shares ... at a discounted price” to a corporation he was operating under, according to a 2011 court ruling. In the end, the court ruled against Henry and ordered him to pay the Boston Foundation $29.2 million for its shares.
Also during this time period, a planned merger of Grand Circle and Vantage fell through, with Henry Lewis accusing his brother of shady business practices. The brothers stopped speaking and filed competing lawsuits.
“I had a lot of faith in his word,” Henry said in a 2009 interview with the Globe. “Now, I learned not to trust anybody. Not even your brother.”
3. Both employee and customers have criticized the company
Besides the jilted customers who have spoken out recently about the canceled trips, the company’s digital footprint is littered with grievances stretching back years. On TripAdvisor, a website where people can leave reviews of companies, Vantage has racked up more than 50 one-star reviews. Many users warn people not to book with the company, describing protracted wait times for refunds for canceled trips and difficult customer service experiences.
“If you book with this company you might as well throw your money down the toilet,” wrote one user last year.
Many former workers also condemn the company, according to the anonymous employee review website GlassDoor. A number of people who said they used to work there described a “toxic” work environment.
“The owner is belligerent and regularly yells and is rude and dismissive to employees,” wrote one user in 2018.
“‘Do you have any sense of self worth?’ If yes, do not work at Vantage,” wrote another in 2019.
4. The Massachusetts Attorney General has gotten involved
On Tuesday, the state Attorney General’s office released updated data about Vantage. The number of complaints filed against the company from Massachusetts residents? More than 700, mostly for trips canceled due to the pandemic. The office said it has secured more than $1.2 million in refunds for more than 80 customers,
“We encourage Massachusetts residents having trouble seeking refunds from Vantage to file a complaint with our office online,” Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office said. “Out-of-state consumers are encouraged to file with their state attorney general.”
5. Some trips are still “expected to embark as scheduled.”
Despite the controversy, three upcoming trips are still “expected to embark as scheduled,” according to a temporary website Vantage set up. This includes a trip scheduled to embark Thursday from Boston to Montreal, a cruise from Greece to Italy on Friday, and a Holland to Switzerland voyage early next month.
The page, which points to “a data security incident” as the cause of the cancellations, asks customers to email email@example.com for additional information.
“We will update this site daily with additional information on future trips,” the page says.
Sean P. Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.