(Update 5:40 p.m. EST) -- River cruisers booked on popular Christmas Markets sailings this month on the Rhine and Danube Rivers are anxiously watching weather reports and -- in a rare cruising turnabout -- hoping for rain. Why? Water levels in Europe have been unseasonably low, wrecking havoc on river cruise itineraries the last few weeks. Some passengers have had to switch ships halfway through their cruise; others found themselves "cruising by bus" as rivers became impassable.
Viking River Cruises' senior vice president of marketing, Richard Marnell, told Cruise Critic in a phone interview that interruptions like we've been seeing are highly unusual. Weather patterns in Europe are unpredictable -- not like the defined hurricane season in the Caribbean -- and low water levels are typically more likely at the end of the summer and early fall before the rains and snows start. (On the flip side, high water levels on early spring cruises can also cause problems as river boats are unable to pass under bridges.) "In the previous two years, we've only had one cruise impacted around this time of year," Mandell told us.
If you're on an upcoming river cruise, things are looking up. Rain is predicted for the week, and water levels should start to rise. Marnell reports that the middle Rhine is passable once again, and the Danube situation is improving (but more slowly). River lines do have contingency plans for impassable stretches; some run sister ships in opposition so passengers can bypass the impacted section by bus, then switch from to the other ship. Others have operations in place to switch passengers briefly to bus transportation and hotel stays. It might not be the anticipated vacation, but unlike ocean cruises, the river ships can't head in another direction to visit a different port.
The uncertainty of the situation is frustrating to both booked passengers and river cruise companies. The lines are hoping itineraries will run as scheduled because it gives a better passenger experience and is cheaper for the companies than buying up last-minute hotel rooms. However, delaying decisions means many travelers are headed to Europe not knowing whether their cruise will run or not. And in many cases, passengers can't cancel in advance for a full refund.
We've polled some of the major Christmas Markets players, and here's the latest on the river cruise situation. At press time, we have not heard back from AMAWATERWAYS (though a note on its Web site indicates that all ships are operating normally).
Situation: Avalon Waterways has just has one ship sailing currently -- Avalon Panorama on the Danube. "We haven't had to change any recent itineraries," writes Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, in an e-mail to Cruise Critic. "Our current group of cruisers on the Avalon Panorama embarked on their cruise in Vienna, as scheduled, and are currently in Melk, as scheduled." Should water levels get too low, the line's contingency plans include lightening the ship's load or switching to sister ships through the shallowest sections.
Clark's point about itineraries may be accurate, but it's important to note that the earlier Christmas markets cruises were significantly impacted because passengers who'd booked on Panorama, the fleet's newest and first all-suite boat, were required to pack up and debark, boarding an older Avalon ship (with much simpler accommodations) to continue the trip.
Notification: Clark says that the cruise line has "been in contact directly with any affected agents and their clients…. For us, it's important to have a discussion versus pushing out a general announcement. "
Compensation: When a change of ship becomes necessary, Avalon has a compensation plan in place. Though Clark did not give details, Cruise Critic member Bpcruiser was on a cruise with a ship switch and posted on the message boards: "Avalon offered us a full cancellation refund before we even departed the U.S. They also offered for those who decided to stay with the cruise on the Tapestry a $400 per person refund to our credit card used for trip payment as well as a 100 Euros/pp on board ship credit."
Grand Circle Small Ship Cruises
Situation: Grand Circle's Christmas cruises are operating with only a few minor modifications, Priscilla O'Reilly, vice president of public relations, told Cruise Critic in an e-mail. "While we've had to assess the situation day-to-day, we've been very lucky in that we've been able to deliver everything on our itineraries," she says.
Notification: O'Reilly did not say how the line was keeping travelers informed of any changes.
Compensation: Grand Circle has not made any major changes necessitating compensation. However, the line is doing what it can. For example, O'Reilly told us that repair work on a canal lock on the Rhine resulted in a traffic jam that forced Grand Circle travelers to miss a planned restaurant meal. The line reimbursed guests so they could get their own food when the ship could dock.
Situation: Scenic Pearl has only been minimally impacted by the low water levels. Janice Tully, product manager, Scenic Cruises USA, told Cruise Critic in an e-mail that "for the entire time, guests have been on the Scenic Pearl. [The] only change was to sightseeing for one day." Tully adds that as the line's sister ships run in opposite directions, if necessary, guests can transfer between ships for a mostly seamless river cruise experience. As Scenic Cruises is part of Scenic Tours, the company already has operations in place for motorcoach tours in Europe, so it's prepared to make arrangements should bussing every become necessary.
Notification: Should there be a problem, passengers will be notified either by the company's reservations department or the ship's Cruise Director (depending on whether the itinerary change is made before or after the trip starts).
Compensation: Should cruises become significantly impacted, compensation would be addressed on a case by case basis.
Tauck River Cruises
Situation: As Tauck just began its Christmas Markets cruises over the weekend, it has not been impacted as greatly as the lines running cruises in late November. Tom Armstrong, Tauck's corporate communications manager, told Cruise Critic in an e-mail that "other than a couple of slight tweaks, both our Rhine and Danube cruises are proceeding normally."
Notification: Tauck updates current passengers on any itinerary changes via its onboard cruise director. Guests on upcoming departures can find up-to-date information through the line's call center or Facebook page.
Compensation: Compensation will be handled on a case by case basis, if necessary. Says Armstrong, "Should a situation arise, we would take a close look afterward at the impacts experienced by our guests and how their actual cruise differed from our regular itinerary. We would then extend any refunds and/or travel vouchers based on the extent of the discrepancy between the expected and the actual experiences." The line's normal cancellation policy remains in effect as no actual trip disruptions have been confirmed at this time.
Situation: Company president Guy Young told Cruise Critic in an e-mail that all Uniworld departures this week are expected to operate as normal, with the exception of S.S. Antoinette. Passengers on the December 7 voyage began their river cruise in Basel aboard River Princess and will transfer to S.S. Antoinette in Strasbourg on December 9 for the remainder of the cruise.
Notification: Uniworld directly contacted passengers on the December 7 cruise or their travel agents prior to departure to alert them to the ship switch. "As water levels continue to be monitored, each cruise will be evaluated case-by-case and should any changes become necessary, Uniworld will continue to proactively contact guests should those changes occur," says Young.
Compensation: Uniworld is not allowing guests to cancel for a refund at this time; however, if a major itinerary disruption is necessary, the line may offer a refund or a future cruise credit. On last week's Rhine Holiday Market cruise, when S.S. Antoinette guests also had to spend some time aboard River Princess, guests were notified in advance and were offered the opportunity to cancel for a refund. Compensation is also being provided for this week's S.S. Antoinette passengers.
Situation: Danube cruises that departed last weekend had to contend with hotel stays and bus tours around Budapest, which ships can't access, and Viking Legend and Viking Prestige passengers will switch ships between Regensburg and Passau/Melk. Rhine cruises will have to swap to bus tours between Heidelberg and Basel. Marnell reports that with rain in the forecast, conditions are improving and next week's cruises should need fewer alterations if any.
Notification: Viking is contacting its passengers via mail, e-mail and phone calls, and is posting information on its Web site and Facebook page. Even passengers departing in the next few weeks have been alerted to the possibility that low water levels might impact their cruise.
Compensation: The line is adjusting its compensation packages according to the severity of the itinerary interruption. A Viking representative explained the policy on Cruise Critic's posted on the message boards: "For each of the Danube and Rhine sailings that are affected in December, we are providing shipboard credit, complimentary optional excursions, and credit to use on a future cruise. Should you decide instead to not join us, we will provide you with a credit for 100 percent of your cruise fare towards a future cruise."
Currently, passengers departing on next weekend's cruises are also allowed to cancel for the full cruise credit, though Marnell reports that "the vast majority -- over 90 percent -- are continuing to sail." Viking is waiting to see how the water levels are before addressing cruises departing the following weekend. The line is also addressing the concerns of travelers whose November cruises were impacted and will be sending them credit for a future cruise, as well.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor
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