Can I get a refund for my river cruise to Ukraine?

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Shortly after Jack and Pat Davies book a river cruise to Ukraine, the country begins to fall apart. Can they get a refund?

Question: In mid-February, we booked a Viking River Cruises trip to Ukraine for this summer, beginning in Kiev and continuing throughout the country to Zaporozhye, Odessa, Kherson, Sevastopol and Yalta. Some of our ports of call were in Crimea. We paid for the total cost of our trip, including three nights in Istanbul and an additional five days in Turkey on our own before our return flight.

On Feb. 18, Kiev exploded in flames, as protesters toppled the government. The next day, we contacted Viking and asked what the expectation was for the Ukraine cruise. A representative replied by email that it “should be fine. We will let you know otherwise. No worries.” But on Feb. 21, the United States Department of State instructed Americans to avoid “all nonessential travel to Ukraine.”

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We immediately contacted Viking River Cruises to withdraw our trip reservation because of this warning and our own judgment. Viking suggested we wait it out, but the situation only worsened.

A few days later, we contacted Viking again and explained that, because of the worsening aggression in Ukraine and because of the continuing warning from the Department of State, we were not going to Ukraine. Viking imposed a 15 percent penalty for cancellation. We think that, under the circumstances, we should be getting a full refund of the $11,596 we paid. Can you help us? — Pat and Jack Davies, Minneapolis

Answer: It seems highly unlikely that Viking will be sailing to Crimea anytime soon, so I’m not sure why it won’t refund your vacation.

Oh wait, maybe it’s because, buried in the fine print of its terms and conditions, it specifically says it’s not liable for any security problems beyond its control, including a “civil commotion, riot, insurrection, war, government restraint, requisitioning of the vessel, political disturbance, acts or threats of terrorism, inability to secure or failure of supplies including fuel, acts of God, or other circumstances beyond [our] control.”

But does that mean it gets to keep your 15 percent? That appears to be Viking’s position. Again, referring to the company’s terms, if you’re canceling between 120 and 90 days before your departure, you have to pay a 15 percent penalty. Eventually, Viking canceled some of its Ukraine itineraries, but it’s not clear if it would have refunded the 15 percent after the fact, or kept it because you decided to cancel first.

This situation could have been prevented by doing a little research before booking your vacation. Political upheavals usually don’t happen without warning, and there were signs that Ukraine might be a problematic vacation choice. Although few could have predicted what happened after you bought your cruise, a quick check of the State Department website (www.state.gov) might have left you with some reservations.

Technically, Viking was correct. You canceled, so it was entitled to keep your 15 percent. But let’s not get hung up on technicalities here. You weren’t sailing to Odessa this summer, even if the company imposed a 100 percent penalty. I wouldn’t have.

I contacted Viking on your behalf to see if it intended to keep your $1,739, regardless of whether it operated its Ukraine tours this summer. A representative called you, told you that your request had been routed to the wrong desk and agreed to refund the remaining 15 percent.

Should Viking have refunded Jack and Pat Davies's cruise?

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51 thoughts on “Can I get a refund for my river cruise to Ukraine?

  1. Chris, you are right: If they were concerned about political unrest, they never should have booked this trip in mid-FEBRUARY. Kiev didn’t “explode in flames” on February 18th; it had been “exploding in flames” for nearly a month by that point. (And the protests started in NOVEMBER, and never let up, although they didn’t turn very violent until January.)

    Highlights from the State Dept. “Security Message for US Citizens”, dated –> JANUARY JANUARY NOVEMBER NOVEMBER JANUARY <– 19, violence escalated with protesters and police using stones, Molotov cocktails, tear gas and rubber bullets. Several demonstrators have been KILLED and HUNDREDS on both sides injured.
    *****

    You know what my first reaction ISN'T, when reading something like that? "Let's book a trip to the Ukraine starting in Kiev! What could possibly go wrong?!?!"

    Sometimes bad things happen in life and somebody has to take it in the proverbial shorts. Sometimes it's a service provider, sometimes it's an insurance company, and sometimes it's you.

    If you choose to ignore deadly political unrest in the very city where you choose to start your trip, I vote for "you" as the one that gets to lose money.

    Certainly no insurance outside of an Any Reason rider would have helped here (for reasons unknown to me, no insurance carrier even offers a specific "State Dept. Travel Warning Rider"), and I'm pretty sure every cruise contract out there has a similar exclusion about war breaking out being an excuse for them to cancel without refund. (I expect the reasoning there is that in most cases, the cruise line is going to be losing a lot of money themselves… since they are the ones writing the contract, and they have overhead to pay, they choose to pass the losses on to you.)

    1. Wow, great sleuthing. I was with the OP. Now I’m wondering if they didn’t just want out of the trip for another reason, and used the pretext of civil unrest to make the case.

      1. This is the 3rd time I’ve seen an article here where the OP cancels a trip, citing a State Dept. Warning, when in fact the Warning superseded an earlier notice that was already in effect when they booked their trip. (One was somebody that canceled a trip to Sudan, citing a recent warning, even though Sudan had been under one warning or another for YEARS by that point; the other cancelled a trip to Mexico) At least this one didn’t have an active warning at the time, just a security bulletin that happened to cover the exact area they were traveling to.

        I think people are using the State Dept. Warnings as a convenient excuse for 2nd thoughts about taking a trip to a dangerous place.

        Though in all fairness, I’m pretty sure pretty much everybody that has booked a leisure trip to the Ukraine has cancelled it by now. You’d have to be utterly nuts not to. If the OP had waited, the trip was probably cancelled by Viking themselves when Crimea got annexed by Russia.

        1. True – but she didn’t wait, as the rep suggested, so SHE chose to cancel, and therefore is responsible for the penalties.

          1. I wonder how many articles we’ll see about people canceling trips to East Africa as a result of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and getting all out of joint when they can’t get a refund.

    2. Viking cancelled their sailings on this route (as well they should have), but you vote that their customers deserve to lose their deposits anyway?

      BTW, there’s a huge difference between a Travel Alert (like the one you cited from January) and a Travel Warning which urges deferring non-essential travel.

      There are active Travel Alerts right now for Thailand and for Russia itself. And there are general Travel Warnings (more serious than Travel Alerts) right now for Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, and Haiti.

      1. If the very first port on your trip has been engulfed in months of protests ranging from vigorous to violent, most people would wait until things have died down until booking a vacation there, no matter what level of caution the State Dept. is or isn’t urging. Independence Square, the heart of the protests, which had been going on for months by that point, is within spitting distance of the riverfront; who schedules a RIVER CRUISE under such circumstances? I’d be just as likely to schedule a night walking tour of downtown Ferguson, MO for this weekend…

        I might could cut them some slack if the only part of Kiev they were going to visit was the airport, but the dangers of downtown Kiev itself should not have been a surprise.

        1. I’d be just as likely to schedule a night walking tour of downtown Ferguson, MO for this weekend

          False comparison. A more appropriate comparison would be planning to travel through Ferguson, MO six months from now.

          By your standard, no one should travel to Bangkok and no one should have traveled to Athens, Lisbon, Madrid, Moscow, Rejkavik or Caracas in recent years.

          Viking itself saw it differently than you in its written correspondence to the OP:

          “[it] should be fine. We will let you know otherwise. No worries.”

          And yet it appears that they subsequently failed to “let the [OP] know otherwise,” even as they told the press that they did so for all their guests:

          “Viking cancels Ukraine river cruises”
          [Posted June 27, 2014]

          All guests who were booked on the remaining 2014 Ukraine sailings were notified of the cancellations and were offered a full refund.

          http://www.travelweekly.Com/River-Cruising/Viking-cancels-Ukraine-river-cruises/

        1. Yes and yes. The OP cancelled first but, per Travel Weekly, Viking ultimately cancelled all the 2014 sailings on this route.

    3. Nice job …
      Kind of like opting for a walking tour of Belfast in the mid 80s (height of the troubles) and then being shocked, just shocked I tell you, that there was violence.

      My general thought … You cancel -> you pay the fee … If Viking cancels -> you get a refund. The LW cancelled so they’re on the hook.

      Chris … do you know if they rerouted the cruise elsewhere?

      Edit: That should read … “If Viking cancels -> you get a 100% refund.”

      1. So, just rotten timing on the OP’s part then? Sucks for them. I think if the entire sailing gets cancelled, they get their deposit back regardless of when they cancelled. Everyone else was getting a refund.

    4. I stopped reading Consumerist but oh SirWired, how I’ve missed your comments. Glad to see you popping up here. 🙂

  2. There is small print in 99.99% of all travel brochures that says they have the right to alter the itinerary at their discretion. On another vein: I am an experienced tour operator and took a Viking cruise a few years ago…..

    My experience with Viking was similarly evasive and trying. We booked a Seine Cruise with a WW II theme; we were not told by Viking reservations that 85-90% of guests were German and that we would be segregated from them at meals and for tours. To add to the situation; the remaining handful of non German speaking guests paid substantially more than the Germans, were told to tip substantially more ( it is easy to compare prices applying Google Translation to a webpage) and were shuffled off to poignant WWII beaches while the Germans ‘holiday-ed’ on the beach in Honfleur (?). Viking’s response to my lengthy researched letter to its CEO, showing price differences and misleading information was a total denial, with a $250 credit for another trip per person. (Apparently most of the non German speakers also wrote to them with the same issues which he did admit on the phone. ) Buyer beware and thank you again, Christopher for consumer muscle.

    1. Why were you segregated? To me, mingling with people from other cultures would be one of the primary reasons to take a trip like this.

      1. We were told by staff, we were separated as the Europeans were on a different price. So that is why I bothered to get the German website of Viking and look. What a shock; the Germans did not get free wine and beer at lunch and dinner; we did. The price was as I recall about 40% less than ours. At meals we had to sit with the same English speakers for 21 times. ( 3 meals x 7 nights). They were nice, but as I have lived and worked in Europe, this was not at all what we had been told about the demographics by reservations staff who called it an International Departure.

    2. For tours, wouldn’t they need to separate guests by language spoken? Perhaps they just seated the meals likewise as they thought it would be easier and more comfortable to converse? I’ve never been on a river cruise so I’m not sure what the usual protocol would be…

      1. We were told by staff, we were separated as the Europeans were on a
        different price. So that is why I bothered to get the German website of
        Viking and look. What a shock; the Germans did not get free wine and
        beer at lunch and dinner; we did. The price was as I recall about 40%
        less than ours. At meals we had to sit with the same English speakers
        for 21 times. ( 3 meals x 7 nights). They were nice, but as I have lived
        and worked in Europe, this was not at all what we had been told about
        the demographics.

        The usual is you sit where you wish and with whom you wish, no matter their language or passport.

  3. IF the tour company had not cancelled the tour, I agree that they are allowed to keep the cancellation fee. However, since they cancelled all of the tours to this area and refunded everyone else 100%, I feel they should have refunded the remaining 15% to the LW without having to go through all of this to get the refund.

    The LW should still have done the research before buying the trip to see why the level of unrest actually was. I know I saw many news stories about the issues way before February. Maybe I noticed because I had thought of taking a trip there myself and was more aware when anything about the area was mentioned on the news.

    Did Viking offer a fantastic discount (trying to fill tours that probably were not selling because of the unrest hoping things would calm down) and that is why the LW booked?

  4. Should this all be rephrased to ask whether or not tour operators should be required to disclose whether or not a countries government has posted warnings about a travel location?

    The conversation seems to be about whether or not the OP deserves a refund. If the other option is to be killed, then yes, they deserve a refund. But what about the question of whether the tour operator should even be running tours. Why are they taking reservations for an area that, as sirwired mentioned, had been flagged for a while as having unrest. Is it a scam to begin with? If a company is going to taking bookings for tours in a warzone, I’d avoid them for all travel – government warnings or not.

    1. Most tour operators are international businesses so … Whose warnings do they use? US, Germany, UK, Poland?

      At some point, a traveler has to accept responsibility for themselves…

      1. I would think it would the the government warnings for the individuals home country. It can easily be an automated service provided by a 3rd party. Or something the governments can even coordinate.

        Travelers do need to take some responsibility, but without knowing the OP’s level of comfort on the internet and doing research like this, hard to say it’s the most effective route.

        1. I’m not aware of any third parties that aggregate warnings… heck I cant even figure out how to get the warnings from State unless I go looking for them. Do you have a third party that will do this?

  5. On an $11,596 trip, they OF COURSE had travel insurance. So why didn’t they just put in a claim instead of bugging Chris? 😮

    1. Every insurance policy I’ve ever seen has had an exclusion for war or insurrections. I can’t upload the policy itself, but I checked with TravelGuard’s platinum level policy, which is their top-of-the-line product. There, on p. 21 under “Exclusions and Limitations” is (e) war or act of war, whether declared or not, participation in a
      civil disorder, riot or insurrection;
      .

      Go take a look at your own personal insurance policies for auto and home. Bet you find those same or similar exclusions there.

      Or was that completely tongue-in-cheek and I missed it, still being pre-caffeine?

      1. Yeah… tongue in cheek, but maybe a little off the mark. I just get so sick of people buying five-figure tours, not buying travel insurance, then whining to Chris for help.

    2. While trip insurance commonly has a “terrorism” clause (you get to cancel if there’s a terrorist act in a city you are traveling to), this would not have qualified. Moreover, if you go anyway and get hurt, you are totally on your own. (This is to prevent trip insurance from getting turned into “mercenary insurance”)

    3. This only would have worked if they had a cancel for any reason coverage. As others have said, most trip insurance excludes acts of war or civil unrest.

  6. This is yet another situation where transferability of non-refundable travel arrangements would have saved the day. For every traveler who demands a higher degree of personal safety on the road than at home, there is a ‘danger tourist’ who is actually drawn to parts of the world where unrest is making the news.

    The general rule is: if the situation is that dangerous, a seasoned company with experience in the region would cancel, and would thereby automatically have to refund everything.

    1. true, but she was told to wait a bit, and chose not to. The rep was correct in telling her to consider that, as the companies take a bit longer to cancel, and once they do, you get a full refund. IF you choose to cancel yourself, reason makes no difference – YOU chose not to go, and are under the appropriate penalties.

  7. Any time a client is worried about civil unrest, their trip is going to be bad because they are always going to worry. Once a State Dept warning of any level shows up, we start cancelling. I have never seen a penalty for this reason. I do have many other offers to different areas are thrown at me at ridiculously low rates in order to keep the customer.

  8. My first question is, did the OP call prior to 120 days before the tour when they were talked out of canceling. If they tried to cancel before the penalty period, and Viking wouldn’t let them, then I would think Viking should still honor the 100% refund. Otherwise they are just like the car dealers that keep putting off a warranty repair until the warranty expires.

    However, I am still shocked they booked it, I remember hearing about all the turmoil in Ukraine before the Olympics even started, and they started before the OP booked.

  9. I am usually sympathetic to non-frequent travelers who find themselves in trouble due to inexperience (ie connection times, etc) but EVERYONE IN THE FREE WORLD knew that Ukraine was experiencing unrest during the time they booked their tour. If you decide to book the trip despite the political climate, you take on the responsibility of the contract regarding cancelation.
    Am I glad they got their money back? Yes. But only because Viking cancelled the tour themselves anyways.

  10. There has been civil unrest in part of Ukraine, not the whole country. Viking was likely within its rights to alter the itinerary, and might well have been able to begin in Kiev and travel an alternate route. That there is unrest in one region should work as a “get out of jail free” card to activities elsewhere. For example, there has been violence in northeastern Mexico. That doesn’t affect security in Cancun. There has been violence in Ferguson, Mo. That doesn’t affect security in New York.

  11. I’m not really opposed to traveling to places with some unrest. I visited Tiraspol and Bender a few years ago, despite my government having an “Avoid All Travel” warning. However, I included my visit to Transnistria as part of a self-guided itinerary with other destinations as well, so that if, upon arrival, I felt like it wasn’t the right choice, I could take myself somewhere else. I would probably not hesitate to plan a self-guided trip that included time in Ukraine right now, but I would also make sure that I had an alternate plan (Romania is lovely!) in case things didn’t feel right. I would NOT put all of my conflict-zone travel eggs into the cruise basket, where I had no ability to change my itinerary to control when and where I traveled.

  12. This is awfully generous. I don’t see why Viking should have to bear 100% of the risk of political upheaval causing cruising to become undesirable. 85% Viking/15% customer seemed more than fair.

    1. so you are ok with there being no trip and Viking keeping 15% + maybe even airfare well there is still a planed air trip that is not called off so you still have to pay.

      1. I’m not sure what I think about your hypothetical situation, but it’s not what happened here. The cruise was still scheduled to go and the customer cancelled. Obviously, it’s different if they waited to see if Viking would cancel the cruise.

        Not sure what airfare has to do with this. We’re talking about the price of the cruise. You can’t possibly be arguing that if a Viking cancels a cruise due to political dangers, Viking should have to pay for their plane ticket, too.

        1. Why should they pay for the ticket, if it was purchased separately? That is the chance you take if you piecemeal a trip. However, with that said, many travel companies have picked up the change fee, as the fare can be used within one year from the date of initial purchase. Cruise lines offer air, so if you book everything through them and they initiate the cancellation, you get your money back unless you decide to reschedule and apply that money paid for that.

          1. Right, that’s what I’m saying. There is no reason the cruise line should have to pay for the separably purchased plane ticket. Obviously, the cruise line is free to give customers whatever benefits it wants, but that’s less about what’s right than about what’s good business.

  13. I love it. Viking only doing what is right — returning the 15 percet — not to make a possible repeat customer happy, but because it took a consumer advocate with a national (international?) audience to make the call. “Wrong desk”? Nonsense.

    1. Yes, the ‘wrong desk’ comment is a CYA comment but makes them look foolish. The LW made a decision to cancel and at the time, the 15% was appropriate. However, if the cruise was canceled later by the cruise line, then they should go back to the travelers who panicked and refund the 15%. The cruise line has vendors to pay within ‘x’ amount of days prior to utilizing arrangements, so at the time the LW canceled, those costs were being considered.

  14. People should be allowed to cancel reservations and expect a full refund if it is over 3 months before the trip AND less than 1 week after making the reservation.

    1. I guess you don’t understand how all this works. There are vendors and employees, that need to be paid. Just because you wish to cancel prior arrangements, doesn’t mean the company you made the purchase with should be out money. I worked for a tour company and we had to pay our vendors before we took our guests to their hotel, the activity, used their bus, ate their food. Those vendors held space for us and if we backed out at the last minute, should they refund us and lose money because they hadn’t been able to fill those spots due to our guests holding space? There is a trickle down effect that you are missing.

  15. We travel independently on most of our trips. I book cruises myself ( assuming I could ever get my husband on a cruiseship after the horror stories of the past 3 years or so). The exception over the years was two tours with Grand Circle Travel, one a great value on a river cruise from Amsterdam to Vienna and the other to Egypt which I would not have been comfortable planning myself. In other words, we trust the company to know what they’re doing, to advise us of potential problems before accepting our money. When dealing with a reputable company, I would rely on them to know if the trip was safe or not. I would not be checking with the State Department before booking. Viking loses face here and I would hesitate to do business with them after reading this story, even tho I’ve been slavering over several of their river cruises for many years. Viking’s reaction to this cancellation tells me that they’re not on the ball, allowing their reps to tell people “no worries” when there is definitely cause for worry. We are booked on another GCT cruise of the Dalmation Coast in February and I would rely on the integrity of GCT to offer me a refund or a different itinerary if they all start shooting at each other again.

    1. GCT has had their own issues over the years and have had very unhappy travelers. So no company is without complaints. NONE. Viking canceled the trips for this region, so you don’t think they took proper steps for their passengers safety? The LW jumped the gun, which happens.

  16. Read any travel blog, magazine article or listen to a travel podcast and we are told the “world is safe, don’t believe those over-cautious people at the state department” They will also say that the media over hypes dangers to get eyeballs. So here is someone who didn’t believe the over cautious state department or the media over-hyping the situation and looks what happens. We have all the Monday morning quarterbacks saying that they were fools for booking a trip to the Ukraine of all places. I guess it could be worse they could have booked a trip to Ferguson MO. It must have been on all kinds of warning lists. It is in that very dangerous country, the USA.

  17. The US state dept ? Aren’t they a bigger joke than the TSA ? Seriously who on earth would listen to the garbage put out by some govt department trying to cover their arse.

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