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Monday, April 6, 2015

Australian travel company ruined couple's holiday

We've all seen the ads on TV, beautiful people sipping wine on board a luxury boat, cruising through the picturesque French and German countryside.  Thousands of Aussies have already been or are planning to go, but if you haven't already booked, you need to read this article by Louise Hall in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning.

Is this about two hard to please, unhappy people who happened to strike bad weather, or is it a legitimate whinge?

David Moore and Janette Howell

David Moore and Janette Howell spent their life savings – $26,200 – on what they expected to be a relaxing river cruise through the picturesque French and German countryside.

Instead, they spent hours on substandard coaches, including one without a working toilet and air conditioning, and missed out on much of the promised sightseeing. 

They are leading  a class action against leading Australian travel company Scenic Tours, claiming its "expensive, luxury river cruises" turned into "cheap, second-rate bus tours" because of extensive flooding in Europe.
Up to 1300 people who travelled with Scenic Tours and Evergreen Tours in Europe between 10 May 2013 and 14 June 2013 will be invited to join the class action being run in the NSW Supreme Court.
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Heavy rainfall in France and Germany in April and May 2013 caused extensive flooding and water levels on the Rhine, Saone, Rhone and Danube rivers rose so high that cruise boats were unable to operate as scheduled for about six weeks. The affected tours included Amsterdam to Budapest, Amsterdam to Basel and the rivers of southern France.
Mr Moore, a Lake Macquarie school teacher, said Scenic Tours did not give passengers any warning of the significant changes, disruption or delays to the itinerary necessitated by the weather. 
He said given his chronic back problems, "no way in this lifetime would I have booked a bus tour".
In a statement of claim, the group said Scenic Tours breached Australian Consumer Law by failing to cancel or delay the cruises, offer alternative tours, or warn of expected disruptions, particularly to passengers who travelled to Europe from Australia.
Instead of visiting cities and sites via the river and spending nights on a boat, the passengers said they endured very long bus rides and in some cases stayed overnight at "low-budget hotels". 
Sydney firm Somerville Legal initiated the class action after founding partner Tim Somerville and his wife Julie were passengers on a cruise in southern France that began on May 19, 2013.
More than 120 people have signed up and the firm will be writing soon to all passengers from the 16 affected cruises asking them to join.
"Passengers chose to book these holidays to enjoy a relaxing cruise along rivers, not a second-rate bus tour. Many chose to cruise because of limited mobility or other health problems. Travelling long distances by bus was the last thing they expected, and nothing like what they paid for," Benjamin Hemsworth, from Somerville Legal, said.
Scenic Tours is defending the case. It said the standard terms and conditions of the contract allowed it to make changes to itineraries, including because of road, river or weather conditions. It said it was not liable for any loss, cost or damage, including the failure to perform its obligations because of a force majeure event such as high water levels.
Furthermore, it said the river cruises were not operated by it but by independent contractors, including Scenic Tours Europe AG, and any claim must be pursued against them.
Scenic Tours chief operating officer Damien Thomas said the company's aim to provide the "highest-quality service and travel experience ... does not alter in circumstances where a change to an itinerary is unfortunately required due to prevailing weather or river conditions, such as those experienced in northern Europe in April/May 2013".
After taking redundancies from their government jobs, Alan and Charmaine decided to take the "trip of lifetime" and paid $20,000 for a 15-day cruise between Amsterdam and Budapest. But after just four days cruising, the boat docked and passengers were bussed to and from attractions for the remainder of the tour.
Alan said other cruise companies cancelled or delayed tours, but Scenic carried on as if it was "business as usual".
"I appreciate they can't control the weather but it's the way they handled it, which to me seemed to be disdainful of their passengers," he said.
Once home the couple complained and were offered a "paltry" $500 refund or $1000 off their next cruise.
Other passengers have taken Scenic Tours to consumer tribunals and been offered $2500. Somerville Legal said those people were not prohibited from joining the class action.
The plaintiffs are seeking compensation and/or personal injury damages for inconvenience, distress and disappointment and the lost opportunity to cancel.
If successful, the litigation lender will take its fees and a percentage of the settlement.
The case returns to court in July and the substantive hearing will take place in April 2016.