A High Court case will next week be asked to finally resolve whether river cruise lines are obliged to warn their passengers about adverse weather conditions that may impact their holidays.
There have been conflicting decisions on a subject that has cruise lines themselves in different corners. Some diligently issue weather updates on their website. Others don’t, explaining that it’s just too hard to get an accurate forecast, particularly weeks into the future when cruise parties leave for Europe.
River Cruise Passenger’s own attempts to find maritime weather forecasters dealing with rivers of Germany, France, Holland and Austria bear out the difficulty. While some commercial vessel sites had weather reports, there was little to aid a passenger’s search for accurate information.
And while the court case relates to matters six years old, last year some cruise lines were hit by low water levels and also found they had to change itineraries and switch passengers between cruise ships.
Lawyers acting for a group of Scenic passengers plan to ask a judge for a definitive ruling on the matter. Their clients were among over 1,000 who claimed their holidays were affected by floods across Europe’s rivers six years ago.
The passengers first won their case on the grounds that the cruise experiences were not what they had paid for, and they would not have gone had they known.
But a subsequent appeal overturned that ruling, saying the service Scenic had provided should be taken into account. Damages were reduced, compensation for pain and suffering removed and costs split.
Scenic subsequently set up The Scenic Guarantee. The company’s website maintains: “Staying true to our commitment of being all-inclusive, Scenic has partnered with Chubb Insurance, a leading global insurance company to offer, for the first time, a River Cruise Cover.
“On every Scenic river cruise you’ll be automatically covered once you commence your cruise for certain delays or cancellations that occur due to adverse weather conditions, natural disasters, mechanical breakdowns or strikes.”
Lawyers acting for the passengers plan to try and win a final ruling next Friday.
“Passengers should not be required to interpret water level data themselves in an attempt to determine whether their specific cruise will be affected. Unfortunately the state of the law is uncertain. The issue of whether or not cruise lines are under an obligation to provide passengers with information,” said Cameron Graham, associate at Somerville Legal.
The legal team is also calling on the industry and its body, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), to set up a system where future passenger can check water levels before they cruise.
But Mr Graham added: “Each cruise line is best placed to know what disruptions a cruise will face as a result of water level fluctuations… It is important that individual cruise lines still communicate with their own passengers so that those passengers know what disruptions they are likely to encounter.”
The legal firm is currently appealing to the High Court to overturn the Supreme Court’s dismissal that under the Australian Consumer Law, Scenic had an obligation to provide passengers with warnings about significant disruptions where they knew such disruptions would be likely.
However, River Cruise Passenger’s own investigation shows that could be a double-edged sword. Where passengers take out insurance, for instance, some have suggested that knowledge of a possible weather risk could negate claims on policies.
Travel insurance companies like 1Cover, InsureandGo have policies catered for cruise travel and low water levels are covered under poor weather conditions.
However, passengers are only eligible for compensation, only if the water conditions are “unforeseen”.
If a cruise line had a water level warning up on their website and you proceeded to sail on your itinerary anyway, it will be considered fair warning and you would have lost your eligibility to file a claim.
Need for more information
Ultimately, finding out what’s really happening on the ground is difficult as a passenger.
River Cruise Passenger found after extensive online research, that there is no centralised up-to-date system to help passengers understand the situation on most European rivers.
Some major rivers like the Danube, Rhine and Elbe are monitored by the German Federal Institute of Hydrology (BfG), which advises the utilisation and management of the German waterways.
They publish real-time water level measurements of the rivers, but it is hard for consumers to understand how their sailings will be affected from the numbers alone.
Cruise lines like Viking, Avalon Waterways, and APT, say they rely on a combination of official sources and staff on the ground in Europe to decide whether their ships will be sailing in low water level conditions.
In terms of compensation, cruise lines say they will try their best to accommodate guests’ requests for refunds or re-booking for next year at no extra charge if they have not sailed.
If the sailing has already taken place, lines like APT have offered a partial discount to guests whose itinerary cannot continue on the river or ferried passengers further down the river to complete the itinerary on another ship.