By Laura Del Rosso
When Jeanne Burnham and her mother, Mary, sailed from Fort Lauderdale on a 128-day around-the-world cruise in early 2020 they imagined a memorable trip. They looked forward to seeing New Zealand, one of the countries high on their list of places the well-traveled pair looked forward to visiting.
What they could not have imagined was getting caught in a global pandemic that left them at sea for days without knowing how or when they would return home. Even with no one aboard Holland America Line’s Amsterdam exhibiting symptoms or diagnosed with coronavirus, the ship was turned away from ports in Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia.
After days of uncertainty, the captain was finally able to announce that they would be allowed to dock in Perth, Australia. Jeanne scrambled to rebook their trip home as Australia moved to halt flights in and out of the country. When her carrier cancelled its flights, the possibility of being left stranded and abandoned in Australia indefinitely became a worry.
Both Jeanne and Mary are veterans of many long cruises to far-flung corners of the world, and those experiences helped them weather the predicament.
“We tend to take things in stride and we knew we’d get home eventually,” shares Jeanne. “We watched the news but it wasn’t like on other ships where they had cases and were confined to the cabins. We were having nice dinners and seeing shows, and the captain kept us well informed.”
Supporting them was their AAA Travel Agent Dawn Gibson who was in contact with Jeanne and Mary around-the-clock as ports refused the Amsterdam. The Fayetteville AAA Travel office, where Gibson is the general manager, also had another set of clients from North Carolina on the ship. Jeanne was relieved when Gibson insisted on taking over flight arrangements.
“Dawn worked tirelessly trying to find a flight ideal to our wants and needs,” says Jeanne, who credits Gibson’s “hard work and dedication” for getting her and her mother safely home. Gibson was able to book flights from Perth without a layover that would have required a hotel stay. At the age of 93, Jeanne’s mother could be vulnerable traveling amid the pandemic.
Gibson used her contacts with Holland America and her skills honed after 35 years as a AAA Travel Agent. She found first-class seats on four flights — from Perth to Brisbane to Los Angeles to Raleigh. It was a 38-hour trip. An Uber driver met the Burnhams at the Raleigh airport for their ride to Fayetteville, also arranged by Gibson. They arrived home exhausted and relieved.
Having worked for decades in the travel industry, Gibson has navigated many such crises. She’s assisted clients through hurricanes and other natural disasters, as well as the aftermath of 9/11. Working around-the-clock to get clients home from far-flung destinations wasn’t new to her. However, this time, she said it was especially difficult because it wasn’t clear where the ship would dock or whether flights would be available for the Burnhams.
The pandemic travel experience hasn’t soured Jeanne on seeing the world. A retired school teacher who taught for 39 years — 14 of them on U.S. military bases in Germany and Spain, she loves to travel and learn about cultures and history.
“My mother loves days at sea and we always get a veranda because she likes to look out over the ocean. I like seeing different cultures and practicing my Spanish,” Jeanne says.
Both are members of Holland America’s Five Star Mariner Club for those who have sailed more than 500 days with the company. Both are loyal to the cruise line because they enjoy what they regard as its excellent service and shipboard amenities.
Their luggage is flown to Holland America ships ahead of their cruises and they receive extra perks such as reservations at onboard specialty restaurants. AAA Travel’s close partnership with Holland America also helps make everything go smoothly.
“The crew is so nice and friendly,” says Jeanne. “They bend over backwards to help. If you ask someone to polish your shoes, they take them and have them back to you before you know it. And they cater to older people, helping us on and off the ship.”
Jeanne was satisfied with how Holland American handled the difficult situation, refunding 50 percent of the cruise base price (they sailed 70 days out of the 128 that were scheduled) and offering 50 percent off toward a future cruise.
While it may rank as the most memorable cruise of their lives for not the best of reasons, the Burnhams can look back on many more smooth-sailing trips over the years.
One Holland America cruise included a Panama Canal crossing that was special because Mary’s father worked in Panama as a clerk during the building of the canal. Another treasured memory were the three different 35-day Voyage of the Vikings cruises that the pair took, visiting Iceland, Greenland, Norway and Ireland, where they reconnected with Irish relatives. At a port call at Dublin, Holland America allowed the Burnhams to invite their local cousins on board for an afternoon visit that was a special time for both sides of the family.
Jeanne hopes to sail again within the next two years, with cruises to the Galapagos and Africa high on her list, and she remains devoted to working with Gibson, who “has become like family.”
As she’s done in the past, Jeanne researches future sailing itineraries and then schedules an appointment for in-person meetings with Gibson at her office.
“I really don’t enjoy using the computer for booking a cruise and like to go in and talk to Dawn face to face and talk to her as a person,” Jeanne explains.
For Gibson, the experience of flying the Burnhams home from Australia during a crisis again demonstrates the value of using a AAA Travel Agent.
“They would have been floundering around trying to figure out how to get home if they didn’t have us,” says Gibson. “It’s all about having a personal relationship and service that you can count on.”
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(Traveler Fall 2020)