When Michelle Rothstein tries to arrange a special side-trip for her husband before a Seine river cruise, their company nixes the idea. It insists the family arrive when everyone else does -- no exceptions. What's more, it won't communicate with their travel agent. Can't it bend a little rule?
Q: My husband and I are taking a Viking River Cruise down the Seine this summer. We are redeeming frequent flier miles for the flight for a surprise 70th birthday present for my husband, and since he loves World War II history.
We planned to fly into Paris early. But now Viking is saying that we must arrive on the day the tour begins, as they are meeting us in the baggage area. We are terribly upset that they are refusing not only to take us the two plus hours to the starting point for the cruise, but they have ignored over and over again attempts to communicate through our travel agent. We would appreciate any help you can give us. -- Michelle Rothstein, Furlong, Pa.
A: Viking River Cruises seems like it's being needlessly rigid. So I asked Joost Ouendag, the company's vice president of marketing, why they weren't accommodating your requests. "We do not, as a rule, allow diversions from our scheduled itineraries," he told me. "This is not the result of an inflexible approach on our side, but rather an inescapable reality of organized group travel."
When you're traveling with a large group, says Ouendag, having everyone where they're supposed to be -- "adhering to stringent quality and cost control guidelines," in his words -- helps keep things running smoothly.
"This is not to say that we cannot bend the rules a little on occasion," he added.
So why didn't Viking bend the rules for you -- or at least answer your travel agent? I reviewed the correspondence between your agent and Viking, and it appears that you did everything right. You worked with a travel agent (good job) she was polite and realistic with her requests (also good) and when she was stonewalled, she didn't turn hostile (very good).
I'm left to conclude that Viking River Cruises believed you would just give up and reschedule your flight to arrive on the approved day. But they didn't know you, and you were not about to take "no" for an answer.
Your options at that point were limited. You could have kept pestering your agent and the cruise line, or you could have asked for a full refund and found another way of traveling through Europe.
I'm glad you decided to press on. I took a Viking River Cruise along the Danube a few years ago, and it was a blast.
After I contacted Viking River Cruises, Ouendag apologized to you for the way in which your request was handled. He promised to bend a rule for you to make sure you have a transfer from Paris to Le Havre.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2010 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.