On the precipice of the Christmas markets season, which begins in earnest next week, river lines from Avalon Waterways to Viking have already reported impacts to itineraries.
For example, on two recent sailings, Avalon was forced to transfer passengers onto ships with smaller drafts so the cruises could continue uninterrupted. With the port of Budapest closed, AMAWATERWAYS ships turning around there have been required to stop an hour short of the city. An AMA spokeswoman said it's been using the Sofitel Budapest to gather guests before transferring them to the ship's location outside of Budapest.
Lines are being proactive about the possibility of dealing with more disruptions during the popular Christmas markets stretch, which focuses on visits to the region's sometimes snow-covered medieval Advent markets. "At this time, we plan to operate all of our Christmastime sailings as scheduled, without alterations," said Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways. "We are, however, also working with our nautical advisors to outline numerous strategies to address low water level problems, if needed. For instance, we will consider lightening the ship's load during this stretch, including carrying as little fuel as possible until we get to the other side. Another option, of course, is to transfer our travelers by coach, over [impacted] stretches."
Spokespeople from AMAWATERWAYS and Viking said their lines had similar contingency plans in place for dealing with the low water levels. Viking's strategy of having sister ships simultaneously sailing the same itinerary in opposite directions means the line can bypass some off-limits stretches of the river by transferring passengers overland from one ship to another.
Still, if a potential make-shift Christmas markets cruise is unacceptable, at least one line is allowing guests to rebook.
"Passengers do have the option to cancel for any reason [for future cruise credit], but the vast majority are continuing travels since we're trying to provide as close to the original product as possible," said Richard Marnell, Viking's senior vice president of marketing. "We're not required to offer the cancellation option, but we do understand that people want their cruise to be perfect." We've e-mailed representatives from Uniworld, Avalon and AMA to see if their lines will also offer the option to cancel upcoming cruises.
River cruise line passenger ticket contracts clearly address the possibility of river levels impacting itineraries. Lines are obligated to provide passengers a like product, even if that means bussing them between ports and putting them up in hotels. Over the course of the season, it's somewhat likely that river levels -- both high (spring melt from the Alps) and low (late-season dryness) -- will affect cruises. "We plan for it as an eventuality," said Marnell.
Insurance-wise, there's not a great deal potentially impacted passengers can do at this time. Like a hurricane that's already formed, the current low river levels are a known quantity.
Regardless, river cruisers wouldn't be covered for a change in itinerary caused by low water levels anyway -- unless they have a "cancel for any reason" policy, which can be prohibitively expensive. Whether the individual line chooses to offer some form of compensation for an altered itinerary is up to them. Still, it never hurts to see what lines will provide.
"With many instances like this, we always encourage our customers to call their supplier first to see if they are willing to make a trip change for a later cruise so they can experience the trip they originally planned," said Carol Mueller, a spokeswoman for Travel Guard.
--by Dan Askin, News Editor