Tour’s cruise itinerary switched

This item appears on page 26 of the April 2011 issue.

My husband, Neal, and I booked a trip with Elderhos­tel that was to begin in Berlin. Following a few days of touring there, the group would be bused to Potsdam, then board the Peter Deilmann Cruises ship Katharina von Bora for a cruise through Saxony to Prague.

We arrived in Berlin on Sept. 22, 2009. At the end of our four days there, our tour leader called the group together late at night and told us that the Elbe River was low and so our cruise had to be rerouted north to the Oder River.

She gave us a list of cities that we would visit. None of them was familiar, and only one was in any travel book we could find.

In the morning we expressed our concern to our leader, who said it was not her problem, as she was turning us over to our next leader.

All 19 in our group plus an escort were bused from Berlin to Potsdam. We weren’t able to speak to our new leader until we boarded the Katharina von Bora, then my husband and I told him clearly that we did not wish to go to the Baltic Sea. To no avail, we asked him to find us alternatives so that we could return to our chosen itinerary.

We sailed with our group and a couple dozen other passengers. We soon learned from the members of another tour that their company had been offered by Peter Deilmann Cruises the opportunity for its tour members to take this alternative cruise or cancel. The tour members had been notified at their homes on Sept. 23, and a number of passengers had canceled.

We now know that, due to insolvency in its river cruise division, this was one of Peter Deilmann Cruises’ very last river trips. Because there were so few passengers on board, the ship’s staff was greatly reduced, as were their services. The crew worked hard to keep up, but they were really under the gun.

We had booked the original cruise because, for us, the study element was crucial. The reality is that we were hustled onto an itinerary that had nothing to do with our course of study, and the rerouting cost us the loss of one lecture in Dresden, two lectures in other cities of Saxony and a full day in Prague (featuring an included performance of the opera “Don Giovanni” at the Estates Theatre, something I have been trying to see for years).

We had studied and prepared for the stops, mostly cities, of the former itinerary. Due to physical limitations, my husband could have taken each shore excursion only to a certain point but then gotten himself back to the ship while I finished the tour.

The included excursions offered on our new itinerary involved long bus rides and weather conditions for which we were not prepared. Because of the busing and walking, my husband and I could not participate in all but two of the excursions. I asked our tour leader to remove us from the excursions and offer a rebate, but he said it was not possible.

Getting from our new disembarkation point of Stralsund, Germany, to Prague, Czech Republic, required us to spend nine hours on a bus, with a stop in Dresden for lunch and a city tour.

When we returned home, we immediately called Elderhostel (which had recently changed its name to Exploritas) and were told we would have to write. We received a letter from them (which had gone to all the tour members) apologizing for our inconvenience and offering $250 off a future Exploritas program. We wrote again and again did not receive an acknowledgement of our letter.

At that point, I wrote to Capital One Visa, through which we had charged $10,912 for this trip, and asked for half of the money back because we did not receive the services promised. Elderhostel told Capital One that the circumstances were out of their control, and Capital One told me that I would have to be able to prove that Elderhostel had had an option to fulfill our itinerary.

By the way, Elderhostel has since changed its name from Exploritas to Road Scholar.

We believe that Elderhostel/Road Scholar should have presented us with the problem up front and given us options.


Seattle, WA

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to Elderhostel/Road Scholar (11 Avenue de Lafayette, Boston, MA 02111-1746) in September 2010 and received the following reply in October.

Road Scholar is the program name for the not-for-profit leader in adult educational travel, Elderhostel… . We make every effort to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information featured in all of our publications, and while the vast majority of our programs operate exactly as described, very occasionally, weather or political or other external circumstances may require a change to an expected itinerary.

On our program “Berlin to Prague: Central Europe’s History and Modern Renaissance,” in October 2009, Road Scholar did not have the option of canceling the remaining portion of the program… a cruise-based component that was affected by the low water level of the Elbe River. We created an alternative itinerary in order to provide a high-quality educational experience for participants who were in the middle of a two-week program and were already in Berlin.

Given the circumstances, we believed the revised itinerary provided participants with a rich and rewarding experience. We acknowledged that many participants were disappointed that they did not visit all the places on the original itinerary, and as a gesture of our goodwill we issued every participant a $250 voucher to be used on any of our programs worldwide within two years.

We have looked again at this program — and have decided that the reimbursement was not adequate — and are reaching out individually to those who attended the program and offering each a refund of $1,000.

JoANN BELL, Vice President of Programs, Road Scholar

Barbara Porter reported in late October 2010 that the $1,000 had been credited to her card account by Road Scholar.

Wondering what the Porters should have done when they learned of the altered itinerary and what could have been done for them, ITN asked Road Scholar several specific questions. Despina Gakopoulos, in Public Relations, answered with the following:

The Porters correctly expressed to the group leader their concerns about the new itinerary. Finding the assistance unsatisfactory, they could have called the Program Provider (the organization that we work with to offer the program) or Road Scholar Registration Services (phone numbers are provided to participants prior to their departure) and spoken to one of our advisors, who would have escalated the call to Road Scholar headquarters (this number is also staffed on weekends via a messaging system).

Our main office would have reviewed, with the Porters, the new itinerary and answered any questions to see if, with a little more information and specific accommodations for their situation, the alternative may have been more acceptable.

Another option — if we had another program operating in the area and they preferred that alternative, even though it might have been a land program, we could have done our best to move them to that.

Had they still opted to forgo the cruise and come home, the Porters would likely not have gotten a refund for the entire cruise portion, as the cruise was still operating. We would have worked with them as much as possible to see what credit we could secure for them for the unused portion of the program. — DG

Lastly, Road Scholar’s JoAnn Bell added these observations.

Unfortunately, circumstances beyond the operator’s control are just that and not necessarily predictable.

It would be difficult to find companies that could afford to refund participants who did not desire the alternative, as each company would still be responsible to pay the cruise line. It would also be difficult for cruise companies, themselves, to refund participants, as they would receive no revenue — and the alternative of coaching and staying at hotels is often more expensive. Very seldom would anyone be compensated, other than, in recognition that there were unfortunate circumstances, having future-travel credits issued.

If an itinerary substitution happens while en route, we would hope that travelers would try to make the most of it and experience the alternative, which most responsible companies would try to make as exceptional as they could. — JB

See also this month's Boarding Pass and Eye on Travel Insurance column.