During the past few weeks, I have been interviewing some major players in the river cruise industry for my podcast, Avid Travel With Britton Frost. So far, my podcast features interviews with Devin Quinn from CroisiEurope, Kristin Karst from AmaWaterways, and Pam Hoffee from Avalon Waterways. The podcast will also feature an interview with Walter Littlejohn from Crystal River Cruises next week.
In every episode of the podcast, I make sure to ask at some point how each river cruise company has dealt with the issue of water levels.
In my recent interview with Avalon’s Pam Hoffee, I compared water levels to a garden. While it seems like a bit of an odd comparison, both things have to do with rain. While your garden may not have thousands of dollars invested into it like a cruise may, we can still use this example to understand what cruise companies are doing to try to make our travels easier when the water levels are low.
If we have a garden, we water it, we buy soil. While we may do as much as we can to maintain the garden, in the end, if there is not enough rain, your flowers may die. You wouldn’t blame anyone for that situation, you would just be disappointed. But ultimately, you would know that you did everything in your power to try to assist the process.
That is what river cruise companies tell us they are doing. They are not trying to control results, but simply be prepared for what may happen. It doesn’t matter what other precautionary measures are taken at that point, sometimes these ships simply can’t sail.
The thing that is so tricky about water levels, though, is that they can vary from day to day. In my interview with Kristin Karst, she mentioned that some days it would rain and make certain sections of the river passable when they weren’t the previous day.
When I asked Walter Littlejohn about how Crystal River Cruises handled the situation, his answer was simple: “For us, it first starts off with managing the expectations, and making sure that guests are always aware that this is always a possibility.”
Then he added: “Our philosophy at the end of the day is that guests book a river cruise vacation, so it was our job to make sure that we delivered a river cruise vacation. We simply took the time and the attention to detail, to find alternate places for guests to go where they could still enjoy a river cruise vacation. So, that’s what our ships did. We sailed all the time. We just went to different places than we originally intended to go.”
So, opposed to cancellations, Crystal was able to navigate other parts of the river that gave their guests river cruise experiences, just, at times, not the one they had originally booked. Littlejohn didn’t get into how Crystal was able to manage to change itineraries in such a short period of time; he just stated that it was able to be done.
When asked about how AmaWaterways was handling the low water levels in Europe, Karst said: “We decided not to cancel because most of our clients prepare for their trips about a year in advance, sometimes even more than a year in advance. They look forward to this trip. So we decided that we can not include a couple of stops, but then we can include different stops on the Danube where we have never been before.”
She told an anecdote from a trip that she had just gotten back from on the Danube. An alternate stop in Grein turned out to be a highlight of the cruise, thanks to a castle tour.
“The count and his mom guided us through his castle,” Karst said. “In the evening, he came on board, together with his winemaker, and he created a wine paired dinner for our guests.”
River cruise companies had to think on their feet, because they, like passengers, were concerned about how to handle the current situation, as there were always so many variables.
Travelers eventually got news of the low waters in Europe and often considered canceling trips altogether. “The number one question that I am getting is, ‘Is this going to be a pattern?'” Pam Hoffee told us. She went on to say that there is no real way to predict the pattern, but added that we don’t often see this trend year after year. As of now, water levels are pretty much back to normal.
When I asked Hoffee the same question as the previous two interviewees, she responded by saying: “I do feel very positive and confident that we did everything we could in this last year. There are a couple of ways that Avalon was able to handle the low water situation. … Quite often we had another ship on the side of the river that was impassable. So we could have guests go from one side of the river to the other … Certainly, there were times that we couldn’t make that happen, and we had to have guests go to a hotel.”
I remember going on a Danube cruise as a teenager, and the river froze. I was traveling with AmaWaterways, and we ended up having to take a bus to another ship that Ama was able to use to allow us to continue our cruise. When talking with Kristin Karst I recounted this incident, which to be honest I had completely forgotten about, and tried to place myself in the shoes of the travelers who have had vacations canceled.
I did not even remember having to take a bus ride until we started talking about certain guests having to take buses to other ships in the fleet. When I did remember, all I thought about was how insignificant that part of the trip was, as you can probably gather based on the fact that I said I didn’t remember it.
I do acknowledge, however, that I was not paying for this trip out of my own pocket. It was not my first river cruise, or my last, and it wasn’t something that I had booked a year or so in advance. That’s the other tricky thing about this situation. Different people are going to respond in different ways. Just as we can not predict what is going to happen with the weather next August, we can’t predict who is going to be upset about having to ride on a bus for six hours.
Devin Quinn had a similar response to Hoffee, “There are some things that are just out of our control.” But Quinn also points out that CroisiEurope has some advantages in low water. “We were one of the last [companies] on the Rhine river, because we have a higher lift out of the water,” she said. CroisiEurope also has paddlewheelers in its fleet, which are able to navigate more shallow waters than traditional river ships.
Through interviewing all of these different execs from the cruise lines for my podcast, one thing became clear to me: They are all trying hard to keep their guests satisfied. No company wants to cancel trips or put people in hotels. Everyone who I interviewed seemed to sympathize with guests, and understand their frustrations and concerns.
While different cruise companies may have handled the low water levels differently, all of these river cruise companies have one thing in common. They are trying to make the best of a bad situation. And they all hope that this coming season the rivers will run full and ever so gently downstream.
tony london says
why not do something different? buy a canoe and paddle down the length of the Danube, from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, then you will have really seen a river
Just a remark on the River Main. Because there are so many locks (sluices) on this river, the water level is usually regimented and stable. So the ships can at least travel without any problems between Mainz and Bamberg (240 miles), which is always part of the voyage from Amsterdam to Budapest. I reckon the same is also true for Bamberg to Regensburg, where the ships use the Rhine-Main_Danube Canal?
Just check that I am right, please!
I’m so torn! Had decided to book a cruise with Scenic from Budapest to Amsterdam this coming November but after reading about all the water levels last year have held off booking.
As it is a surprise for my husbands 50th would be so annoyed if we ended up seeing Europe on a bus, especially when its not a cheap trip and you’re paying for the luxury!!
Jaime Seaburg says
Does anyone know if there is less of a chance to be caught by low water in the Spring (June) than in the Fall?
Thank you, Jaime
Britton Frost says
Unfortunately there is no way to predict the future. This could happen at any time of year. Water levels have returned to normal as of now, though. We doubt this will be as big of an issue this year.
Jaime Seaburg says
Thanks for your response Britton.
Enjoyed your article.
Jaime Seaburg says
What is the basis of your thought
that the low water won’t be as big
an issue this year? Jaime
Ralph Grizzle says
I’ll chime in, as Britton is away this week. 2018 was unprecedented and hopefully won’t repeat itself. Of course, it could. But what we’re expecting in 2019 is a return to normal.
Jamie, in 2015 we had booked a cruise on the Elba in Germany for July only to be told two days before we travelled that due to low water it was cancelled. We later booked the same cruise in April 2017 early spring and we had a great time – no issue with low water. However we found out later that the cruise was in difficulty for most of the Summer due to low water. So in answer to your question for me there is a much reduced chance of low water in Spring. Hope this helps
Jaime Seaburg says
This does help Geoff.
Thank you for responding.
Sounds like the best chance is in the Spring,
be ready with other plans if the cruise is cancelled
and hope for the best. Thanks, Jaime
Kennneth Mackenzie says
We were caught out by the low water situation on an Avalon cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam in September 2018. Without any prior warning from Avalon that this would almost certainly happen, after 6 glorious days of cruising, we were ordered off the ship and had to endure the next 7 days of a hellish trip trip cooped up on autobahns on a bus with inferior hotels and meals. My concern was that Avalon made no mention of this probability before we embarked, even though they would have known. If we had been given this information and the opportunity to cancel before we started out, we would certainly not opted to proceed. Terrible customer relations, Avalon- we booked a cruise not a second-rate bus tour.
We took a Uniworld Cruise in the South of France which was an “Un “Cruise. We had to be off ship by 9 am, travel by bus everyday and back on by 6:30/7 then RUSH to dinner. Yes we saw a lot but we booked the cruise to relax! Not fun. No notice before hand.
We then booked a Viking Russian cruise and we cruised! Guess they don’t have water level issues in Russia. Great cruise.
When booking a river cruise, you expect to cruise. If a cruise line cannot deliver a cruise, it should cancel. Viking cruise line knew of the low water levels of the Rhine all summer and fall. Viking emailed us three days before sailing to tell us ” “the water level is low and it may change our itinerary”. Being first time river cruisers, we didn’t know what to expect but trusted Viking. Little did we know Viking would bus us up to 10 hrs a day to the destinations. The boat did not leave the dock. It was our hotel and we never left the dock. It was truly a vacation from Hell. If you get that email saying “your itinerary may change due to low (or high) water levels, Cancel Immediately! You may lose your travel insurance fee but it will be well worth it! By the way, if you book Viking, don’t use their travel insurance. It is twice the fee of other travel insurers, and only will give you another cruise. Any other insurer will give you a refund. I hope this post will warn other first time river cruisers of the hazards of booking Viking. They offered a $500 refund for a $10,000 cruise. I hope this doesn’t cut into their TV advertising of a beautiful cruise sailing down the river. Buyer beware!
Pam Moore says
What travel insurance did you buy?
Jim Fanuzzi says
The Viking solution seems to be transfers via busses to another longboat upstream – sometimes hours away. They tout this as a company advantage. This may seem an adequate solution for low river events– but doesn’t take into account the constant packing, re-packing- staging of luggage, etc. along with missing the visual images of the “river trip” from the river. One of the best advantages of any cruise is the pack on arrival/unpack at end. Viking should take notice of the Crystal solution.
Jack Albrecht says
Crystal did a phenomenal job juggling and re-juggling things to present an enjoyable cruise vacation for its guests. We were booked for a cruise on the Crystal Bach this past November. A week before embarkation, we got a message that the Bach was out of commission and that we would be sailing on the Crystal Mahler instead. Shortly after that, we were notified that the itinerary was changing due to low water levels. Since our embarkation point changed from Frankfurt to Cologne as well, Crystal arranged for transport from the Frankfurt Airport to Cologne.
Crystal had offered a 100% refund for those who wanted to cancel their voyage. We mulled it over and decided that what we really wanted was a relaxing vacation and to enjoy being spoiled the Crystal Cruises way. Even though our ports of call changed drastically, Crystal created a new adventure with lovely excursions every step of the way. At the end of our two weeks, we decided to do an open booking for what will be our third cruise with Crystal. Great job!
Cynthia cuthbertson says
It is difficult as a first time customer on a river cruise trying to decide whether to book or not
Try the Viking Ocean Cruise.
Britton Frost says
Water levels are definitely something that you need to take into consideration when booking a river cruise, but as of now, the water levels are pretty much back to normal.
I personally would not let it impact my decision to book, however it is important to remember that weather issues of any kind can happen to prevent sailing.