Viking won't bend rules for couple

Question: My husband and I are taking a Viking River Cruise down the Seine this summer. We are redeeming frequent flier miles for the flight for a surprise 70th birthday present for my husband, since he loves World War II history.

We planned to fly to Paris early. But now Viking is saying that we must arrive on the day the tour begins, as they are meeting us in the baggage area. We are terribly upset not only that they are refusing to take us the two-plus hours to the starting point for the cruise, but that they also have ignored over and over again attempts to communicate through our travel agent. We would appreciate any help you can give us.

- M.R., Furlong, Bucks County

Answer: Viking River Cruises seems like it's being needlessly rigid. So I asked Joost Ouendag, the company's vice president of marketing, why they weren't accommodating your requests.

"We do not, as a rule, allow diversions from our scheduled itineraries," he told me. "This is not the result of an inflexible approach on our side, but rather an inescapable reality of organized group travel."

When you're traveling with a large group, Ouendag said, having everyone where they're supposed to be - "adhering to stringent quality and cost-control guidelines" - helps keep things running smoothly.

"This is not to say that we cannot bend the rules a little on occasion," he added.

So why didn't Viking bend the rules for you - or at least answer your travel agent? I reviewed the correspondence between your agent and Viking, and it appears that you did everything right. You worked with a travel agent (good job), she was polite and realistic with her requests (also good), and when she was stonewalled, she didn't turn hostile (very good).

I'm left to conclude that Viking River Cruises believed you would just give up and reschedule your flight to arrive on the approved day. But they didn't know you, and you were not about to take "no" for an answer.

Your options at that point were limited. You could have kept pestering your agent and the cruise line, or you could have asked for a full refund and found another way of traveling through Europe.

I'm glad you decided to press on. I took a Viking River Cruise along the Danube a few years ago, and it was a blast.

After I contacted Viking River Cruises, Ouendag apologized to you for the way in which your request was handled. He promised to bend a rule for you to make sure you have a transfer from Paris to Le Havre.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site,