As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, having had the misfortunate of timing my journey with the arrival of Hurricane Isaac. And so I did what nearly any traveler in my position would do: I’m headed back to the airport tomorrow to get out in advance of the storm.
But the ominous weather here did get me to thinking about what potentially unexpected situations like this could crop up for river cruisers? One answer immediately jumped to mind: water levels along the rivers.
Unlike mega-cruise ships that sail the seven seas, river cruise ships along Europe’s waterways are severely restricted in terms of height, length and even draught – the part of the ship’s hull that rests below the waterline. Low-hanging bridges translate into extremely limited clearance heights, and the numerous locks along Europe’s waterways force designers to ensure their ships do not exceed the maximum length and width allowable.
But the depth of water under the keel of a river cruise ship is significantly less than a cruise ship; sometimes the riverbed can be as little as a single foot away from the bottom of the hull. This means that river cruise ships are extremely sensitive to the height of the water: too much, and the ships won’t be able to clear the low-hanging bridges. Too little water, and they run the risk of grounding out.
Does this happen a lot? Not really; most of the time, ships are able to run their published itineraries with ease. Last winter, however, was a different story, particularly along the Danube.
Unseasonably dry conditions meant the water flowing into the “Blue Danube” was so little that the water levels dropped to the point where nearly every major river cruise line had to re-think its itineraries, as navigation became impossible along the stretch of river near Budapest, Hungary.
To compensate, cruise lines heading eastbound had to stop at a small town just before Budapest and disembark guests, transporting them by motorcoach and arranging for hotels in Budapest in order to complete their cruise. Guests arriving at Budapest International Airport were met and whisked to hotels, or transferred directly to the ship, an hour and a half away.
While many travellers understood that such a situation was far beyond the control of the cruise line, some weren’t so easily swayed, demanding discounts, onboard credits, or outright refunds.
I think a lot of the reason these people were so angry has to do with the fact that the water level along the Danube was something they thought they’d never have to contend with, much less worry about. And sometimes, that can make all the difference – an unexpected delay versus a possible delay.
The best option when traveling? Try to remain flexible, particularly when unexpected events occur and you’re forced to deviate from the published itinerary. It’s inconvenient, sure, but usually, it’s the people working behind the scenes that have it much worse.
As for me, I’m putting my advice where my mouth is and taking a 6 a.m. flight out of Fort Lauderdale. At least river cruises typically don’t have to contend with hurricanes!
Do you have a favorite method for dealing with unexpected occurrences while flying or river cruising? Use the comment form below to let us know!