Confirmed on tour, then bumped to another

On May 22, ’04, I called Grand Circle Travel to see about reserving the “Great Rivers of Europe” trip taking place Aug. 29-Sept. 16. I spoke to Robert in Customer Service and told him we wanted to reserve that date and the extension to Brussels. He checked and informed me that there was one cabin still available, cabin 101. I made the reservation and gave him my Visa number for the deposit of $1,000. He told me to call the company to initiate the final payment when the invoice and information packet arrived. I did this and the final payment was made in June.

The Cruise Confirmation Notice, invoice and information packet arrived a few days after I made the reservation. All documents were dated May 24. The notice stated, “We are pleased to confirm the following information regarding your cruise: Great Rivers of Europe, Departure 8/29/2004, Cruise Ship M/s River Concerto, Cabin PRE, Cabin Number 101.” On the invoice was stated, “Status: CONFIRMED.”

I made plans for our other travel in the fall based on this confirmation. Plans included nonrefundable air reservations to our next destination, with the departure date Sept. 28.

On July 26, I found a message on my telephone answering machine from Helen Benton at Grand Circle stating that they were changing the date of our trip to Sept. 7, with return on Sept. 25, and asking that we call to confirm the change. No apology or explanation was given. It was too late to call back that day.

I called Grand Circle early on July 27 and after seven minutes on hold was connected with Carol Scott. She checked our reservation, confirmed that it had been changed and said it probably had been overbooked. She didn’t know why this had happened since we had a confirmed reservation including a cabin number.

Carol said there were no options for us other than to cancel and lose half of what we had paid, that the company offered no compensation because in the Terms and Conditions shown in every catalog they reserved the right to change the departure date of any trip. She said the only compensation was that we didn’t have to pay the extra $200 the trip would have cost if we had reserved the Sept. 7 date in the first place. She said she would send an e-mail to Helen Benton asking her to call me to explain what had caused the change. I received no call.

I called Grand Circle again early on July 28 and after 12 minutes on hold was connected with a woman named Terry. She checked our account and saw the e-mail that had been sent to Helen the day before. She spoke to a supervisor in her department and told me that he said not enough information had been provided to me and she should have Helen Benton call me to explain.

A few minutes later Helen called and indicated that the trip we were booked on had been overbooked and so our date of travel had been changed. I said that Robert, who made the reservation, had checked and double-checked to make sure cabin 101 was available and that the Cruise Confirmation Notice and invoice we received dated May 24, 2004, both stated that the trip and cabin number were confirmed.

She said that Robert would not have known that the cabin was already reserved and that if records indicated it was available he would have made the reservation for us. She said the company always overbooks their cruises and then waits to see if people cancel. If the cruise remains overbooked, they move people to other dates.

I told her I was shocked and amazed at how this had been done — that no one had informed us of this possibility and that no one had asked if it was convenient or even possible for us to go on the trip on Sept. 7. She replied that she had to leave the message on the answering machine because no one answered the phone when she called. I asked if we would have been asked if it was convenient if we had answered the phone. She said, “No,” that the call was just to inform us of the change.

I asked about compensation and she said none was offered since the company reserved the right to change the date and our only option was to cancel the trip with penalties.

I told her this change represented a huge inconvenience for us since we had reservations to leave for our next trip on Sept. 28 and these reservations had been made based on the confirmed status of our Grand Circle cruise, which was scheduled to return to the U.S. on Sept. 16. This new return date meant that we would be away from home for a month with only two days in between trips to do laundry, check mail and recover from jet lag.

I asked her what cabin we would have on the new date. She gave me three choices: 110, 111 and 112. I chose No. 112. I asked when the air information would be posted on the website. She said it was already there. This was not true; I had just checked. She said she would see that it was posted.

Later that morning I received a call from Carol Scott wanting to see if Helen Benton had called and explained things. It became evident that she already knew the answer since she knew what cabin I had selected and said she understood that Helen had assured me that the cabin was not double-booked.

We discussed the meaning of the word “confirmed,” which she looked up as we spoke. Basically, the meaning was that an agreement had been reached; an implied contract existed. But Carol stated that in this case it meant a contract subject to the Terms and Conditions in the brochure.

I read her the first two sentences of the paragraph I had printed off the company’s Internet site: “Grand Circle reserves the right to change the departure date of any trip, as well as cancel any trip or optional extension that does not reach a minimal level of participation. If Grand Circle changes a departure date for any Ocean Cruise Tour to another departure date that departs within 7 days from the original departure, cancellation penalties as described in this document still apply should you subsequently decide to cancel.”

Carol said I must have taken that from the section titled “Ocean Cruise and Cruise Tour Terms and Conditions.” She said the river cruise did not fall under that section and that the river cruise rules were under the general Terms and Conditions which used a 14-day rule rather than a 7-day rule!

I suggested that she and other Customer Service Representatives let customers know about the possibility of the dates’ being changed on their trip even when it is confirmed. She answered, “If I were spending that much money, I would read the Terms and Conditions before I made the reservation.”

I said it did not indicate anywhere in the Terms and Conditions that Grand Circle double-books (or at least overbooks) these tours and that being moved to a different date is a definite possibility. It is one thing to assume that if an emergency were to strike (such as a terrorist attack) that a trip might be moved but another to be unaware that the cabin you have been told is confirmed has also been confirmed for someone else, not to mention keeping their customer service reps in the dark as to whether a cabin they are assuring someone is available has already been reserved for someone else.

I also question whether what has happened falls under the definition of Grand Circle’s reserving “the right to change the departure date of any trip.” The company did not change the departure date of the trip we had a reservation for — that trip departed on Aug. 29 as scheduled. What they did was move us to another trip. Does that fall within the meaning of that sentence?

At least airlines let the public know that they overbook and they provide compensation to customers who are disadvantaged by this policy. Grand Circle has shown nothing but arrogance and disdain for us.

Encinitas, CA

ITN mailed a copy of the above letter to Grand Circle Corporation and received a copy of the reply they sent to the Kohlers, as follows.

We received an inquiry from International Travel News regarding the change of your departure date from Aug. 29 to Sept. 7 on our “Great Rivers of Europe” cruise, and I would like to take a moment to respond to you directly.

First, I would like to apologize for any inconvenience the move may have caused and for any misunderstanding from the information we provided. Although I cannot speak to your conversations with various associates, I regret your dissatisfaction with those interactions. However, the information these associates conveyed to you was correct: even confirmed reservations are subject to change according to the Terms and Conditions in our literature.

We do make every effort to honor confirmed reservations, and ideally we would like to accommodate all our travelers on every trip. However, there are occasions when it is necessary to cancel passengers’ reservations due to lack of participation, overbooking or other reasons. In such cases, we do not offer compensation.

However, your letter to ITN raises a valid issue regarding the clarity of our Terms and Conditions with reference to overbooking. A revision of our documentation is under way and will be included in future mailings.

Mr. and Mrs. Kohler, as a gesture of our goodwill, and as a way of thanking you for taking the time to write us about your dissatisfaction with your move, I would like to offer you the enclosed travel certificate for $500.

I understand that you enjoyed your trip otherwise, and I hope that you will choose to use your certificate to travel with us again soon. In the meantime, we wish you all the best.

CHRISTEL A. SHEA, Quality Management, Grand Circle Travel, 347 Congress St., Boston, MA 02210