Danube cruise interrupted

My husband and I booked a “Grand European River Cruise” with Vantage Deluxe World Travel which offered a voyage from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Our departure date of Aug. 15, ’03, coincided with the hottest and driest summer in Europe in the past 150 years.

As time for our departure approached, we became concerned about the situation after reading that the Danube River in Eastern Europe was at its lowest level in years. The story appeared in several newspapers and magazines. Two days before our scheduled flight, we called the Vantage office in Boston expressing our concerns. We were told, “We fully expect the ship to complete the cruise.”

Feeling reassured, we flew to Amsterdam and boarded the River Explorer for a 21-day cruise on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers. The ship was beautiful, and our cabin (category A at $5,799 per person, double occupancy) was comfortable and tastefully decorated. We enjoyed the first few days and found interesting excursions, elegant food and compatible passengers.

On Aug. 20 we were handed a memo from the Boston office of Vantage informing us that the ship could not travel beyond Regensburg, Germany, because of the extremely low level of water in the Danube River. We were offered two options:

1) stay on board and return to Amsterdam with a $500-per-person travel credit and a voucher for a free extension on a 2004 riverboat cruise, or

2) fly home and receive a $1,000-per-person travel credit and the free extension on a 2004 cruise.

The options were offered across the board, not taking into consideration that passengers had paid different amounts for different accommodations. The options also did not begin to compensate for our losses.

Since the group of passengers voiced a strong objection to these options, Vantage sent their European vice president to talk to us. She presented the same options with minor adjustments, listened to us and agreed that we had a logical complaint.

The vice president agreed that Vantage had known about the low water level before the cruise began; however, she was given no authority by Vantage and could not make any changes in the options offered.

My husband and I decided to stay on the ship and return to Amsterdam. The ship stopped at the same ports we had visited on the way to Regensburg, but the program directors planned different activities for us.

Not being able to visit Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania was not the fault of Vantage and we could accept that. However, their not informing us of the known condition of the Danube before we left home and the inequitable compensation offered made us want to tell other travelers about their duplicity.

Oceanside, CA

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to Vantage Deluxe World Travel and received the following reply.

In reference to the letter received from Mrs. Kathryn L. Blix regarding the low-water situation on the waterways of Europe, all of the tour companies ran the tours, as the rivers can change quickly. At one point in the early fall, the rivers went from low water to high water, making it impossible for some vessels to pass under bridges.

The Blixes had booked our 21-day “Grand European Cruise.” They were able to cruise to Regensburg from Amsterdam and completed approximately 50% of the cruise. At that time, the ship could no longer continue on the Danube.

The offers were as follows.

1. Continue with the cruise by returning to Amsterdam and making stops en route but allowing people to enjoy a riverboat cruise vacation. The compensation was $500 in a credit voucher with $250 cash per person. Originally, they were told they could have a voucher for an extension in 2004. Vantage Senior Management felt the cash was a better compensation. Therefore, the Blixes received $1,000 in future trip credits and $500 cash from Vantage.

2. If the passengers elected to, they could fly home and receive a $1,000-per-person voucher and the $250 cash per person.

Since the Blixes elected to stay on, they did use the cabin the entire length of stay, ate all included meals (usually three per day), participated in all tours and entertainment, etc. Of course, they flew to and from Europe and used their air tickets.

Our competitors encountered the same situation, and often compensation was not as generous as that from Vantage. We feel that the Blixes were well taken care of, and we provided excellent services under the conditions.

GEORGE A. AREES, Post-Trip Quality Assurance, Vantage Deluxe World Travel, 90 Canal St., Boston, MA 02114-2031