Viking Cruises’ Imperial Jewels of China tour hits all the highlights of the Middle Kingdom, including Shanghai, the Three Gorges, the Xian necropolis, the Great Wall and the Hidden City. The cruise line promises the itinerary is “phenomenal.”
But that’s not how Gail Ohanesian saw it. She claims Viking broke a promise and that she’s entitled to a partial refund for her China vacation.
“Before booking this cruise for myself and my travel companion, I asked the sales agent how many people would be assigned to individual tour groups,” she remembers. “He told me that when visiting sites, we would be in groups of 12 to 16. I asked him to confirm that for me in writing because the size of the group is very important to me. He did so in an e-mail.”
That wasn’t quite true, she adds. There were 38 people on each tour bus.
“Had I known that at the outset, I would never have signed up for this trip,” says Ohanesian. “The large size of the tour group totally changes the nature and character of the trip. It limits the types of places at which the group can eat, the types of activities and the personal attention.”
Let’s take a little time-out. To most of us, the size of the tour may be an unimportant detail. But if Viking is going to give someone assurances of a group size in writing on a $10,684 cruise tour, then it should follow through.
“I feel that I have been cheated by Viking,” she says.
Well, let’s not go too far. I mean, I’ve been on these ships and it’s a pretty amazing experience. I’m not much of a cruise guy, but a riverboat cruise … where do I sign up?
To its credit, Viking apologized to Ohanesian in writing and offered to cut her a check for $335. But here’s where things get a little strange, at least from her perspective. In exchange, it asked her to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Here’s the full text:
I hereby accept the sum of Three Hundred Thirty-Five Dollars ($335.00) in Cash from Viking Cruises, Inc. (Viking) in full and final settlement of any claims which We/I may now or hereafter have against Viking and/or their respective affiliates, parents, subsidiaries,servants or agents in respect of all claims, losses, and/or damages sustained by us and whether now or hereafter to become manifest, arising directly or indirectly from the above trip. The check will be issued within seven business days after receiving the signed agreement.
Beginning as of the date of this Settlement Agreement, neither this Agreement nor its subject matter shall be discussed with anyone other than the parties to the Agreement or their attorneys, except as otherwise required by law. We/I also agree to take all steps reasonably necessary to protect the confidentiality of this Settlement Agreement and to prevent the Settlement Agreement from falling into the public domain or into the possession of unauthorized persons or persons who do not work for Viking.
We/I agree that, if asked about the status of any claims by or disputes between the parties to this Settlement Agreement, We/I shall not communicate the terms of the settlement except to state that this matter has been amicably resolved.
Confidentiality agreements that effectively prevent a client from criticizing a company in a public forum are fairly unusual in the 21st century travel industry. These documents have a way of finding their way online, like this one just did. Also, I’m unaware of a single instance in which a traveler has been sued for breach of such an agreement, and has lost.
“I have declined the offer,” says Ohanesian.
She’s looking for a refund of somewhere closer to 10 to 15 percent of the cost of her tour.
I’ve only seen contracts like this a few times, notably for vacation rentals. In my view, it’s better to quietly negotiate about a review with a customer after they’ve accepted a settlement, as opposed to imposing the equivalent of a gag order before the money is received.
But then, I’m just a consumer advocate.