Viking’s goodwill gesture was a welcome surprise to this traveler

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Douglas Guiler and his wife planned to embark on a Viking cruise this summer. But two months before they were scheduled to depart on the cruise, Guiler’s wife died. Guiler asked his travel agent whether he could substitute another traveling companion for his wife.

His travel agent thought the answer was “yes.” But Viking’s answer was “no.”

Unfortunately, Guiler did not have travel insurance that would have reimbursed him for the cost of his wife’s reservations. His story is a warning of the risks run by travelers who fail to purchase travel insurance that covers their situations.

But his story also has a more positive message, which is: Don’t be discouraged by a company’s initial refusal to offer assistance. Even companies known to rigidly adhere to their terms and conditions at the expense of their customers can be persuaded to change their positions.

Guiler and his wife had purchased, through Cruise Holidays of Viera, a 14-day cruise on the Viking Sea from Bergen, Norway, to Stockholm, as well as air reservations to and from Europe. The total cost of the trip was more than $15,000. They owned a travel insurance policy that covered medical costs and provided a small amount to cover cancellation costs, but it would not cover the costs of a cruise cancellation.

“My travel agent thought that Viking would permit me to substitute another family member to take the place of my wife,” says Guiler. “The word back from Viking was that this was not Viking’s policy. For me to have another guest in my wife’s place, her reservation would be canceled. Then I would need to pay full fare for the new guest.” Guiler would also have had to purchase new air tickets for his traveling companion.

Guiler asked our advocates whether Viking’s policy of not allowing substitutions for passengers with reservations is “reasonable and generally in line” with those of other cruise lines, which he assumed is intended to encourage cruise passengers to buy insurance policies sold by the cruise lines themselves or travel insurance companies with which they partner. He noted that the no-substitutions policy surprised his travel agent.

We’re wondering about his travel agent’s reaction, because Viking’s no-substitutions rule is standard for the cruise industry. Viking makes clear in its terms and conditions that it treats passenger substitutions as cancellations of reservations and charges change fees:

For any cruise/land booking, whether under deposit, partially paid, or paid in full and air-inclusive packages paid in full, the following travel agent or guest-requested situations are considered cancellations and fees will apply as noted below: changes to departure date; substitutions of itinerary; substitution of another person for original booked guest(s); or changing to a promotional fare.

(Note: Emphasis in the above paragraph is mine.)

As our advocate told Guiler:

Unfortunately, you are correct, travel companies are moving away from refunding or allowing changes to reservations and pushing travel insurance for these trips. It is possible by writing the executives you can possibly reach one who may show some compassion, but there is no guarantee, especially in the short period of time. You may have a better chance to appeal for a full refund (at least for your wife’s portion). Also, you should review any travel benefits/coverage that your credit card may provide.

It was no doubt discouraging to Guiler to hear that not only was he bereft of his wife, but he could not even expect to get back her cruise fare without having to pay a significant portion of it as a change fare.

But his story ends on a positive note.

We suggested that Guiler appeal his case to Viking using the contact information on our website.

Guiler took our advice, which yielded him an unexpected gesture of goodwill from Viking:

She offered condolences on the loss of my wife, indicated verbally that a substitution would have been an option without additional cost, and provided me a one-year voucher for the balance that had not been refunded. This outcome certainly was unexpected and appreciated.

So we caution our readers that even when a company’s reputation and terms and conditions would suggest that it’s unlikely to provide compassionate treatment to customers in need, that company may still offer it. Just as in Guiler’s case, it may come as a welcome surprise.

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