In September last year my wife and I went on an 11-day river cruise on the Danube, booked with the UK-based tour company Shearings.
We were set to travel on the cruise ship MS Arena, which is operated by a company called Arena Travel, and paid for an upgrade to a ‘superior’ cabin on the upper deck.
Two weeks before the cruise, Shearings told us that due to low water levels, the MS Arena would be unable to reach Budapest. It said another ship, the MS Bolero, run by the cruise firm Nicko, would be the replacement. We were told this was a better ship and that we would receive the same standard of cabin in the forward section. This was where we wanted to be and so we accepted.
To our surprise and horror, we boarded in Passau, Germany to find we had been allocated the rear cabin on the main deck, adjacent to the engine room.
My wife said it was the worst holiday she had ever been on. Most of the cruising was at night and so she had, at the most, about one hours’ sleep the first night and virtually no sleep on the other nights when the ship was moving. As well as the noise we also had to endure the vibration from the engine.
Sleepless nights: Our reader says his wife hardly slept for the entire trip due to noise
We did make a complaint at the time, but were told that there were no spare cabins to move us to.
Looking at other cruises on the Nicko line, the rear cabins are always offered at a reduced rate and it is stated at the point of booking that there will be some noise.
On our return I made a complaint to Shearings, stating that this was not what we had been promised.
Had we known that we would be in a rear cabin, we would have cancelled. It has so far refused to acknowledge our complaint or offer any compensation or a refund. D.P, Norfolk
Helen Crane of This is Money replies: Where the best rooms are on a cruise ship is hotly debated among cruisers. Holidaymakers who want a balcony will seek out an outer side cabin, while those prone to seasickness tend to avoid the front section and prefer an inner cabin to minimise the motion.
Light sleepers generally avoid cabins near noisy areas such as the engine room and the ship’s generators – usually at the back – as well as those located next to busy communal areas such as the pool deck, bars or lifts.
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You and your wife are experienced cruisers, so you took care to research the ship and book a cabin at the front on the upper deck, which would be the quietest area.
Unfortunately when Shearings – which is part of the Leger Group – had to swap you to a different ship at the last minute, you got the exact opposite – ending up with a cabin on the middle deck, at the rear of the ship right next to the engine room.
You had hoped to explore the beautiful stretch of the river running from Vienna to Budapest, but were left Hungary for an explanation as to why your room wasn’t up to scratch.
You told me you avoided spending time in your cabin during the day, as the noise was so loud and the vibration so uncomfortable – but short of sleeping on deck you didn’t have many options after nightfall.
you had paid full whack – a total of £3,240 – including an extra £258 for an upgrade to a ‘superior’ cabin
Sleeping to the sound of an engine is not many people’s idea of a relaxing holiday, which is why many cruise firms offer cabins next to them at a discount price.
But you had paid full whack – a total of £3,240 – including an extra £258 for an upgrade to a ‘superior’ cabin.
You did some research when you got home, and found your cabin listed substantially cheaper than others on the same ship on the Nicko website.
You contacted the firm to ask why, and were told that there would be significant noise from the engine and that if that was likely to bother you, it recommended booking a different room.
Engine room: D.P and his wife were sleeping next to one of the loudest areas of a ship (stock image)
When you asked Shearings whether the cabin you ended up with was worth the same as the one you initially booked, it told you it ‘couldn’t comment on the rates listed by a supplier not affiliated with its company’.
This seemed like shady behaviour to me, so I got in touch with Shearings to ask about the real price of your holiday and whether it would pay you any of your money back.
Firstly, the customer service representative I contacted told me Shearings had ‘no prior warning or involvement in the allocation of cabins’ and that it was up to the ship’s crew to decide which rooms people were given.
Customers considering a holiday with Shearings this summer may be interested to know this when they pay the company thousands of pounds to organise their trip.
It conflicts with the email that Shearings sent you informing you of the change of ship, which promised that you would get the ‘same standard of cabin as originally booked’.
How can Shearings promise that if it has nothing to do with where you are placed?
It told you that the room was of the same standard on paper, but your experience was clearly not what you expected.
The Shearings employee went on to tell me her feelings about how noise might impact someone’s sleep.
‘I do feel that noise levels and the impact it can have on people is very subjective,’ she replied.
‘Whilst I am not disregarding [the customer’s] concerns, people tend to be a lot more sensitive to noise at night as they are trying to sleep.’
‘Some people are considered light sleepers and commonly wake up with the slightest bit of noise.’
If anything, this bizarre statement of the obvious seemed to prove your point about how your holiday came to be ruined by the noisy engine. However, she remained resolute that Shearings would not be refunding any of your money.
I tried to take the issue up the chain of command, but this member of staff refused to give me the contact details of a manager, saying the management had already been ‘made aware’ of your concerns and that there was ‘very little we can productively add’.
I didn’t think this was good enough, so I kept digging. Eventually I managed to track down the email address of Shearings’ chief executive, Liam Race, and sent him a long email explaining what had happened.
I’m sorry to say that he did not even take the time to reply.
Danube: They had been set to travel around the river, which runs through Budpest
Working for This is Money, I am in a privileged position in that when I get in touch, companies usually sit up and listen.
If I can’t get a proper answer out of Shearings, what hope do its customers have of getting their issues addressed?
When it comes to your options going forward, I would usually suggest that cruise customers contact Abta, the trade association which functions similarly to Atol for flight-based holidays.
However, Shearings is no longer an Abta member. Since 2021 it has instead held customer payments in a separate ‘secure trust account’ until after their holiday has taken place, meaning the money is – in theory – available for refunds more quickly if something goes wrong.
While Shearings says the account is independently operated, it does mean that you would have to go via the company to get any money back – and given its previous responses to you it seems that is unlikely to be successful.
I don’t know if you had travel insurance for the trip, but this kind of incident would not be covered by most policies.
You have therefore told me you are considering pursuing this via the small claims court. I’m sorry I couldn’t persuade Shearings to change its mind on this occasion, but I commend you on your dogged determination and wish you luck.
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