It was supposed to be the vacation of a lifetime for Pat and James Frost — a river cruise in France on the Viking Europe, from Avignon to Chalon-sur-Saône. The retired couple from Concord, Ohio, even added three days in Paris to round off their bucket-list getaway.
But when they arrived at the port, a cruise line representative informed them of a change in plans. Flooding along the Rhône and Saône rivers had made the waterways impassable, and their cruise tour had turned into a bus tour.
“I understand that an act of God causing rain and the rising river isn’t Viking’s fault,” said a disappointed Pat Frost. “But they’ve been cruising this river for years, and I expected that they would have an idea when the river would be navigable.”
All she’d expected was a call to her or her travel agent before she left for France, offering her a chance to re-book the $12,000 cruise.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the Frosts felt that they had no choice but to take the modified motorcoach tour, which wasn’t quite the same experience.
The Frosts aren’t alone. Thousands of other passengers on river cruises were also affected by the worst flooding in recent memory on Europe’s waterways, including the Rhine and the Danube. The high water levels and resulting cancellations and re-bookings reportedly cost the major river cruise companies millions of dollars, and some of the complaints resulting from those rerouted vacations are far from resolved.
Like scores of other unhappy customers, Frost turned to her travel agency and travel insurance company for help. Viking apologized for the improvised road trip and offered the couple a 50 percent discount off a future cruise. Frost says she wanted a $2,000 refund to make up for some of the amenities she didn’t receive with a bus tour.
“The flooding this spring in Central Europe was the worst seen in the region in centuries,” says Ian Jeffries, a spokesman for Viking River Cruises. “It is extremely rare that we need to modify an itinerary to the point where passengers do not experience any river cruising.”
Instead, in most of the cases where a cruise had to be rescheduled, Viking would reroute the tour, swapping passengers with a sister ship sailing in the opposite direction. By using that strategy, only “a handful” of cruisers weren’t able to experience any river tours, Jeffries said.
Viking, like other river cruise operators, doesn’t accept liability for “delay or inability to perform,” according to its terms and conditions. But passengers like the Frosts expected that the cruise they booked would actually be a cruise, not a bus trip. They also thought that the travel insurance they’d purchased would protect them.
It doesn’t, say experts. Priscilla O’Reilly, a spokeswoman for Grand Circle Travel, a tour operator that sells riverboat cruises, says she’s unaware of any travel insurance policy that would cover flooding. A “cancel for any reason” policy would cover a cruise, but only if a claim is made before the voyage begins. A Grand Circle policy would give you a voucher for a future cruise, but not a refund.