Last year, river itineraries on the Danube were affected by low water levels towards the end of the season in September. And just last week, the Moselle river flooded from torrential rains in the region, resulting in emergency services shutting off flooded roads and the closure of the railway line connecting Perl and Trier.
Thankfully, the river cruise season on the Moselle does not start until May. But with such unpredictable climate events, who is responsible for alerting river cruise passengers?
We spoke to two travel agencies, Ramsgate Travel and Brighton Travelworld and found that they, too, find that changing itineraries due to unexpected weather conditions are out of the control of operators but increasingly becoming the new reality of modern travel.
“It is an ongoing issue, even though it is in the small print and we explain to cruisers, they think or hope that it won’t happen to them!” says Julie Avery, Managing Director of Brighton Travelworld.
“In any case they never think it will be as bad as it is when it happens – some clients have to spend days on coaches and complain bitterly.”
Ms Avery also highlights that they would mention the possibility of itinerary disruptions to first-time cruisers more so than repeat clients, as she finds that they would ‘rarely’ raise concerns.
“Maybe one in 30 clients,” she says.
But at Ramsgate Travel, Managing Director Justine Sealey shares that many first-time river cruisers have heard about such things happening and often beat her to the punch, by asking about how their itinerary will be affected because of unforeseen water level conditions.
Who is in charge of monitoring the water levels?
The agents mostly leave it to the lines to monitor the water levels and contact guests regarding affected itineraries. After all, the lines have all the first-hand information on current water level conditions and whether their ships are able to sail.
“Agent do not keep an eye on the water levels during the season as that would just be causing unnecessary stress about pre-empting what may or may not be,” says Ms Avery.
“It is not something we would normally become aware of – understanding the potential impact on itineraries is complex as the cruise line may just swap boats along the rivers and then mostly all is well. But quite often it is only known once the clients board and then they are exceptionally upset as the cruise company did not tell them before they boarded.”
However, Ms Sealey shares that agents have a special role to play when itineraries are affected last minute.
“Clients often have already left for their river cruise a week before the sailing. So if their river cruise itineraries are affected last minute, agents would know exactly where their clients are in their holiday and will be able to contact them quickly to inform them of any changes and help them make any additional arrangements required for them to meet their ship,” says Ms Sealey.
Smooth and seamless
Both Ms Avery and Ms Sealey agree that the lines have learned from previous experiences and cruisers can even expect a ‘smooth’ and ‘seamless’ experience when their itineraries are affected.
Ms Avery at Brighton Travelworld who sells mostly APT and Scenic river cruises say that they certainly have disruptions. “Quite often it involves swapping boats up to 3 times along the river and the feedback is usually that this is handled very smoothly,” says Ms Avery.
“But given there is no refund at that stage then I guess the cruise companies prefer to handle it day to day on board. It is always an unpleasant experience and I do not think there is any easy solution.”
Meanwhile, Ms Sealey at Ramsgate Travel who sells mostly APT, Uniworld, Crystal and Scenic river cruises also says that the ship swaps work fairly seamlessly, especially as lines have a much larger fleet these days.
“One downside I can think of is that clients do lose the freedom of time and the choice to opt out of the day excursion and stay on the ship if they would like to spend a relaxed day in,” says Ms Sealy.
She also raised that if itinerary changes arises during the peak of the season, cruise lines might find it challenging to accommodate guests at choice rooms in hotels and secure their choice coaches.
Last year, she had a client who travelled during peak season and paid for the top suite on the ship. However, due to limited hotel availability, the couple was assigned a standard hotel room on their disrupted itinerary. They were offered an inconvenience payment and future cruise credit as compensation.
Communication is key
Ms Avery says that prior understanding is key to minimise any unhappiness caused by water level disruptions. That said, there is much information that will not be available to guests prior to departing Australia.
“At least if clients have some knowledge it is better than no knowledge but the issue is there is nothing specific that we can tell them as the cruise companies manage the issue day by day. Once they work out if they can have another ship ready for the passengers to swap onto further along the river (guests are coached to the alternative boat further along the river) otherwise if no other ship can assist with the water levels than the passengers may be on a coach everyday,” says Ms Avery.
American travel agents also share the same sentiments. When it comes to selling river cruises, product knowledge has never been more important. “Educating ourselves about the cruise lines is key,” said Claire Schoeder of Travel Edge in Atlanta. “I focus on just a couple lines so that I know them well rather than try to have surface knowledge about all of them.”
“Agents should not only be familiar with what the river cruise boats are like and what different lines offer to guests, but they should also know when rivers are likely to be at the lowest levels and what the cruise line plans if a particular river is not navigable,” she said. “While water level is hard to predict each year, being familiar with the recent water level history does offer significant guidance.”