After an Iconic River Cruise Line Shuts Down, Here’s What You Should Know About Protecting Your Cruise Booking

Another cruise line has shuttered in the wake of the pandemic. Experts weigh in on how to best insure your cruise booking in the case of financial default.

The 223-passenger paddle wheeler "American Empress" with a bright red bow

The 223-passenger American Empress was among the four river cruise vessels that American Queen Voyages owned and operated.

Photo by Debbie Ann Powell/Shutterstock

American Queen Voyages, which brought the iconic American Queen paddle wheeler back to life on the Mississippi River in 2012, has ceased operations.

“Despite great efforts by our team, crew, and partners, AQV has been unable to fully rebound from the effects of the pandemic,” said Adam Peakes, president of Hornblower Group, which owns American Queen Voyages, in a statement shared with AFAR. “As a result, the financial impact has proven unsustainable and we have made the very difficult decision to sell the company, or, if a sale cannot be achieved, its operations will be wound down.”

The news was announced via a press statement on February 21. At the time, the company owned six ships, including four paddle wheelers that sailed on the Mississippi, Columbia, and Snake rivers, and two coastal cruisers, which had operated on the Great Lakes. AQV also held a long-term charter contract for an expedition ship that sailed along Alaska’s Inside Passage. None of the ships had passengers aboard at the time, and all future sailings were canceled effective immediately.

Earlier this month, competing river cruise operator American Cruise Lines said in a statement sent to AFAR that it had put in a successful bid for American Queen Voyages’ river vessels, which in addition to the 436-passenger American Queen, includes the 245-passenger American Countess, the 166-passenger American Duchess, and the 223-passenger American Empress. “We look forward to announcing additional details after this portion of the Hornblower Holdings bankruptcy process concludes,” ACL said in its statement. In addition to ACL, Viking is the only other major player with overnight passenger cruises on U.S. rivers and lakes.

Would-be cruisers are now being directed to the American Queen Voyages website, where they can apply for a full refund on all payments made thus far.

Annie Jones, owner and travel advisor at Telos Travel, said in cases like this, the process of getting your money back “is often a lengthy one and full of headaches.”

For guests of American Queen Voyages, there’s a three-step process for getting reimbursed, which starts with submitting a claim form via the cruise company’s website that includes details like the reservation number, dates of the purchased trip, and payment method. According to American Queen Voyages, because the company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, it will not be making reimbursement payments directly and will instead issue customers a denial notice, which they can then submit to Argo Surety, the insurance company overseeing refunds.

American Queen Voyages isn’t the first cruise line to shutter in the wake of the pandemic. In February 2022, luxury cruise line Crystal Cruises ceased operations overnight (with some crew still aboard ships that had been seized for unpaid fuel bills). A year and a half later, after being acquired by the luxury, small-group tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, the cruise line was rechristened as simply Crystal. And last year, Life at Sea Cruises, which was selling a three-year, around-the-world cruise concept, called off its inaugural voyage, leaving passengers who were ready to temporarily move their life to the high seas hung out to dry.

These recent incidents serve as a cautionary tale for travelers.

How to protect your cruise booking

“The best way to protect your travel investment from a cruise line’s financial default is to purchase travel insurance,” said Todd Smith, founder and president of AdventureSmith Explorations, a small-ship adventure cruise travel agency.

Lauren Gumport, vice president of communications and brand at Faye Travel Insurance, echoed that sentiment, adding that when you’re booking a cruise, make sure you book a travel insurance policy that has trip cancellation coverage through a third party—booking it through the cruise line typically won’t protect you in the case of insolvency.

“Covered reasons for trip cancellation can include the financial insolvency or financial default of an entity that directly provides travel arrangements, such as a cruise line,” Gumport said. “That means your insurance policy’s trip cancellation coverage could reimburse you for up to 100 percent of non-refundable trip costs if the financial default occurs more than 14 days following the effective date for your trip cancellation benefit.”

Smith said another tactic is to book with a reputable agency that can do the heavy lifting of getting your funds back in the event of a cruise company sinking, but perhaps more importantly, that is in tune with what is happening in the industry.

“We have extremely close relationships with our partner operators, aren’t shy about asking them hard questions, do our due diligence on behalf of our clients, and can usually sense when something is amiss,” Smith said. “Ultimately, we aim to steer clients to the operators, ships, and trips that will provide them with an experience that exceeds their expectations.”

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at Afar. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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