Little things tainted great river cruise

After deliberately leaving some time to pass for reflection, I have a few comments about our Eastern Europe river cruise in August ’04. Grand Circle Travel (GCT) was the operator, and our flights were arranged on Lufthansa by GCT.

When I saw where our assigned seats were for our Aug. 3 flight from New York’s JFK, I called Lufthansa and had the seats changed. Arriving for the flight, we discovered that the changes had not been done; we wound up in the 3-seat row immediately behind the last 4-seat row. Tray tables came down between our seats instead of in front of them, and our feet had to wrap around the seat legs in front of us! Of course, the flight was full.

We had been promised assistance at all of our airports. We had no assistance when we left from JFK. We changed planes in Frankfurt and again saw no reps from Grand Circle. We finally met someone from GCT when we landed in Bucharest; they escorted us to a bus. Fortunately, we needed no help until Romania, and then it was in the form of transportation. (We didn’t expect anyone from GCT to meet us on our return journey as we had added on some additional travel.)

We stayed in Bucharest overnight, and the city tour was fine. We then had a lovely train journey to Constanta, where we boarded the River Aria for a 7-day Danube cruise followed by an added excursion of four days in Prague. Including airfare, the cruise-tour and the Prague extension, the price for the two of us was $6,217 plus a surcharge of $75 each.

The seven days’ sailing up the Danube were great. The ship was fine, accommodations were excellent and the food was superb. The open seating and relatively small number of passengers made for interesting meals and conversations. The off-ship tours were great and the home-hosted lunches were extremely interesting. The tour guides generally were well informed and interesting and took good care of us. Local tours, especially in Budapest and Prague, were excellent, and the hotels were first-rate.

However, there were several unhappy sides to this trip. There was an extraordinary focus on tipping; we were urged to bring along $75 in singles per person, and every opportunity was used to tell us how to “thank our excellent local guide; we won’t be seeing him/her again” and to “thank our bus driver for his safe driving.” Since we had daily tours, this was an ongoing, and annoying, mantra.

Worse yet, weeks before we left we were forced to pay a surcharge “because the dollar went down.” Talking to other passengers, we found that not everyone was forced to pay it; those who paid in full early were not charged. We paid on the due date — and were required to send the extra money. This is poor business practice, in my estimation, since altogether the line had received well over $6,000 for the two of us.

The company’s response to our complaints and suggestions was dismal, while all the while we continued to receive additional promotional brochures.

One more unhappy event — upon our disembarking the ship, our bags were offloaded by the crew, who wheeled them up a cleated gangplank, bouncing them from one cleat to the next. Any surprise that they broke a wheel on my roll-aboard? When told about the damage, a ship’s rep said that unless I had bought their insurance I had to fix it myself. It’s too bad that little things can be allowed to spoil what should have been a perfect cruise.

On our next cruise I will attend to the flights myself and we’ll meet the ship on our own, and, based on their apparent disdain for our post-cruise comments, I don’t think it will be with GCT.

Lauderhill, FL

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to Grand Circle Travel and received the following reply.

Thank you for forwarding a copy of Mr. Gladstone’s letter concerning his experience on his “Eastern Europe to the Black Sea River Cruise.”

First and foremost, I regret that Mr. Gladstone feels we have disregarded his post-cruise comments, as we did not. We read them with great interest and, as with all of our travelers, deeply appreciate his feedback. However, we send comprehensive evaluation forms to all travelers, and because close to 75% of our travelers are kind enough to respond to our surveys (more than 100,000 travelers responded last year), we do not respond to surveys individually. Other than the survey Mr. Gladstone sent, we don’t have any other record that he sent us additional comments.

Grand Circle provides airport representation at gateway cities for departure and arrival only, and as our Travel Handbook indicates, “The Representative will be at the check-in counter 2½ hours before your departure time and at the gate one hour before your departure time (security permitting).”

While I cannot speak to what time the Gladstones checked in for their departure from New York, our JFK representative did report that she was not able to secure a gate pass and only met two of the six passengers scheduled for departure.

In terms of tipping, our Travel Handbook also has a section dedicated to tipping on our programs and opens with, “Whether you tip, and how much, is always at your own discretion, though your recognition of a job well done will be much appreciated. For those of you who have asked for suggestions, we offer these guidelines. The amounts suggested reflect the standard tipping amounts that we recommend on all our programs.”

Regarding Mr. Gladstone’s damaged luggage, he is correct in stating that travel protection is recommended for all travelers, specifically because so many things can happen. Because tour operators cannot be responsible for every eventuality, we do provide detailed information on the protection plan we recommend, and we encourage passengers to consider other plans at their discretion. We strongly advise travelers to purchase travel protection so that if a situation such as damaged luggage occurs, they will be covered.

Finally, passing a 3%-5% currency surcharge on to our passengers was not a decision we made lightly. In fact, it is the first time we have done so in over 45 years of business. We advised Mr. Gladstone during prior inquiries that we applied a currency fluctuation surcharge to any reservation not paid in full early, by check, by passengers taking advantage of our Good-Buy Discount. This was to have been a benefit to some travelers.

Although we regret his disappointment, Grand Circle in fact absorbed a much greater share of the increase, which was close to 20%. It’s unfortunate that some felt the charge was applied unfairly when our intent was to offer a benefit to passengers who had taken advantage of the early-payment option.

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