Newlyweds Gavin and Tina Lawrence spent $20,780 on their pre-honeymoon voyage with Scenic – a romantic river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest in October 2018.
It was the couple’s first river cruise and what they thought was going to be an experience of a lifetime.
“When we first arrived on the ship, it was absolute bliss. Amazing food, great service and the ship itself was spectacular. We had decided to do this cruise as part of this great holiday trip, which ended up with our wedding in Germany,” said Mr Lawrence.
“But by the second day, everything started to go awry, and the wheels fell off the entire operation.”
Mr and Mrs Lawrence are one out of more than a dozen couples who say they were promised five-star luxury by one of Australia’s most reputable cruise lines, but instead, were given substandard service and food, overnights in hotels and were bused around Europe during one of the region’s worst heatwaves.
The group, some of whom spent close to $50,000 on their cruise, have employed lawyers who this week won orders forcing Scenic to hand over documents which will allow them to assess their chances of winning a class action.
According to court documents seen by River Cruise Passenger, total payouts are estimated at up to $11 million.
Last month, Scenic lost an appeal in the NSW Court of appeal over compensation for 1,000 passengers affected by flooded rivers in Europe in 2013. And now, the lead plaintiff in the 2013 case, David Moore, has been given dispensation to argue he and other guests should be entitled to additional damages for “distress and disappointment”.
Scenic are potentially facing another lawsuit where at least 14 cruises were allegedly affected by low water levels and passengers “didn’t get what they paid for.”
Lawyer Cameron Graham from Sommerville Legal maintains: “They booked and paid for a luxury cruise and what they were provided with was something entirely different.
“They had gone to Europe expecting to receive what was advertised by Scenic Tours in their brochure, and what they instead got was a poor substitute.”
The lawyers will be arguing that, “despite their experiences with the 2013 cruises, Scenic again did not cancel tours and refund money to passengers”.
The court documents state: “Given the cost calculations, representative proceedings are likely to become viable if the class size reaches approximately just over 1,500 group members. At 2,000 passengers, assuming a 50% refund per passengers, costs would be about 8% of the total quantum of $11,055,000.”
Mr Lawrence said they only received about $3,500 back for about only a third of their ‘cruise’ spent on the ship.
“On a 14-night, 15-day cruise, we spent five days and four nights off the ship, and out of the nine days that we were on the ship, it was either broken down or stationary because of the water levels,” said Mr Lawrence.
“We then spent hours in traffic and then bused to hotels. We were given pretty appalling food and we had spent money on an all-inclusive cruise which included alcohol. But what we found at dinner at the hotels, was that we were only allowed two drinks of either wine, beer or soft drinks.”
As first-time cruisers, Mr Lawrence said he was shocked and disappointed with the lack of communication from the cruise line, and the atmosphere of the cruise was depressing.
“There were men in foul moods and ladies were crying. It was just an absolute holiday from hell. If I wanted to go on a coach holiday, I could have spent a lot less doing a Contiki tour.
“We spent hours crammed on coaches, with very little time to see the sights as we had to drive long distances to our next stop. The sad thing is from what we have seen and the little bit we experienced on the ship, is when Scenic get it right, they get it right. But when they get it wrong, it’s a disaster.”
Darren and Merrilyn Kelly from Adelaide were also another couple that had forked out a large sum of money for their dream holiday. The couple had spent two years saving for their big European holiday.
“We spent roughly around $37,000 on our holiday and out of a 14-night, 15-day cruise, we spend only five days and four nights in total on our ship. What we are most disappointed about is the lack of forewarning and disclosure by the staff,” said Mr Kelly.
“We were told at the beginning of our cruise that water levels were predictable, and Scenic offered us a couple of options. These options were either to be transferred to the nearest airport where we could fly home, continue by bus, or wait for the next ship.”
Mr Kelly, who had booked his cruise as part of a big holiday, said he felt trapped by the offer.
“We couldn’t fly home as we had things booked after our cruise, and for those who decided to fly home, the cost of flights was not covered. We felt like hostages on the cruise. We were left in the dark until the last moment.
“My wife and I decided to continue with the trip. But what followed after, as absolutely appalling. We were served the cheapest meals – roughly equivalent to eight euros – when we stopped at places for lunch and were only given one option. There were quite a few people on our tour who had dietary requirements or were vegetarian, so they didn’t have anything to eat. We found out that other passengers on other lines that were affected were given 25 euros in cash to purchase their lunches.”
Mr Kelly said that they were expecting a reasonable refund from Scenic but the amount that he said they gave back was “disgusting”.
“We were offered one day compensation for five days and four nights spent off the boat was substandard meals in hotels as well as only one drink allowed at dinner. Also, during our coach tours, were given one small bottle of water.
“While my wife and I are young and fit, there were much older people on our cruise who were struggling. Many people had mobility issues and combined with cramped buses – it was a nightmare.”
Scenic said in a statement to Cruise Passenger: “Extreme weather conditions in Europe in 2013 impacted on river cruise operations across the Rhine Main and Danube rivers and was the basis for the class action against Scenic which is currently before the High Court. Since 2013, Scenic has improved communication to ensure guests are more aware of extreme weather issues that may impact on river conditions and therefore more able to make an informed choice on their holiday. This includes the establishment of our bespoke compensation through River Cruise Cover.
“River Cruise Cover provides automatic cover once guests have commenced a cruise against certain delays or cancellations that occur due to adverse weather conditions, natural disasters, mechanical breakdowns or strikes.
“No guests have come forward in relation to a class action for weather conditions in 2018. Scenic has been advised to provide documentation for some cruises affected by low water in 2018. Scenic is reviewing our right to appeal this decision.”
Court documents extract: 14 cruises and what passengers experienced and what Scenic offered in compensation:
The plaintiffs’ solicitors have investigated the circumstances of a total of 14 cruises within the 2018 year, including the two taken by the plaintiffs (Aff Graham, -). Their investigations of the 14 cruises have revealed that they were disrupted in the following ways:
Cruise 1: the “Gems of the Danube” cruise from Nuremberg to Budapest, commencing on 18 July.
Of a 7 night/8 day cruise, 5 days had to be conducted as bus tours, with accommodation in city hotels. The couple interviewed by the plaintiffs’ solicitors received a $1,500 USD insurance payout, which was about 11% of their $13,140 USD ticket.
Cruise 2: the “Jewels of Europe” cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, commencing on 25 July 2018.
Over 14 nights/15 days, passengers were required to make a number of changes to inferior vessels by long bus transfers, including to get around river sections of low water. Passengers were also required to walk from ship to ship. As the cruise progressed, passengers experienced declining quality of service. The couple interviewed was offered a $1,000 insurance payout, which was about 2.5% of their $40,918.00 spent.
Cruise 3: the “Jewels of Europe” cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, commencing on 30 July 2018. This was Mr Kelly’s cruise, described in detail earlier in this judgment.
Cruise 4: the “Jewels of Europe” cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, commencing on 20 August 2018.
This was a 14 day cruise, of which 3 days, or 21.4% of the trip, were conducted by bus. On suspension of the cruise, passengers were required to make a 6 hour bus transfer to an alternative vessel. The couple interviewed received an $800 insurance payout, or around 3% of their $24,380 spent.
Cruise 5: the “Jewels of Europe” cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, commencing on 20 August 2018.
This cruise was suspended for 4 out of 14 days, or 28.6% of the trip, and passengers were put up in hotel rooms of inferior quality compared to accommodation as advertised on board the ship. Passengers were required to transfer to an inferior ship and some passengers had forced cabin downgrades. The couple interviewed received $100 compensation for their cabin downgrade and a $250 insurance payout, or around 1% of the $36,114 spent.
Cruise 6: the “Jewels of Europe” cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, commencing on 17 September 2018.
This cruise was suspended for 7 out of 14 days, or 50% of the cruise. Passengers were required to make bus transfers on two occasions of 3.5 hours and 7.5 hours to alternative vessels. Alterations were made to the tour schedule resulting in missed itinerary items. The couple interviewed received a $1,400 insurance payout, or about 9.7% of their $14,488 spent.
Cruise 7: the “Rhine Highlights” cruise from Basel to Amsterdam, commencing on 19 September 2018.
Various alterations were made to the cruise schedule for this 7 day cruise. Passengers were transferred to an inferior vessel. The couple interviewed was required to wait 5.5 hours between transfers without food or drink. The tour schedule replaced cruising with bus and walking tours.
Cruise 8: the “Gems of the Danube” cruise from Nuremberg to Budapest, commencing on 20 September 2018.
According to the couple interviewed, this cruise was suspended for 4 out of 8 days, or 50% of the cruise. The cruise ship was docked in port for 2 days and passengers were given the option to take replacement bus tours for another 2 days. Passengers were required to transfer to an alternative vessel. The couple received an $800 insurance payout, or about 7.7% of their $10,340 spent.
Cruise 9: the “Romantic Rhine & Moselle” cruise from Basel to Amsterdam, commencing on 3 October 2018.
According to the passengers interviewed, the cruise commenced on an inferior vessel. Passengers were required to make further land transfers to vessels of inferior quality during the cruise.
Cruise 10: the “Jewels of Europe” cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, commencing on 10 October 2018.
This was a 14 day cruise, with forced vessel transfer from one port to another and 6 days, or about 43% of the cruise, where cruising was suspended. For 2 days, the cruise ship remained docked in port, and 4 days were conducted as a bus tour. The couple interviewed received a $1,200 insurance payout, or about 6% of their $19,530 spent.
Cruise 11: the “Rhine Highlights” cruise from Amsterdam to Basel, commencing on 22 October 2018.
Only 1.5 days of cruising took place in a 14 day cruise. Most the cruise became a bus tour with passengers denied all-inclusive food and drinks packages. The customers were given lower quality substitute meals and 2 drinks vouchers for dinner. The couple interviewed received a $1,250 insurance payout, or about 13% of the $9,380 spent.
Cruise 12: the “Jewels of Europe” cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, commencing on 24 October 2018.
Originally a 14 day cruise, the cruise portion was reduced to 5 days. Passengers were then accommodated in hotels and required to continue tours by bus. Passengers with unlimited drinks packages were given 2 drink vouchers over dinner. The passengers spoken to were required to pay for their own mobility upgrades at hotels and the cost of rebooking flights. The pair interviewed received a $2,400 insurance payment, or about 8.4% of the $28,420 spent.
Cruise 13: the “Jewels of Europe” cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, commencing on 7 November 2018. This was Mr Lawrence’s cruise, as described earlier in this judgment.
Cruise 14: the “Christmas Markets” cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, commencing on 21 November 2018.
The cruise, scheduled to commence on 21 November 2018, instead commenced as a bus tour for 4 days. On re-commencement of cruising on 25 November 2018, the ship docked in port for 2 days. Further changes were made to the tour itinerary, with part of the cruise substituted with a ferry ride and the last 2 days substituted with a bus tour. The total suspension was 8 days out of 14, or 57% of the total cruise. The couple interviewed received a $2,100 insurance payout, or about 7% of their $29,996 spent.