This week on Avid Travel With Britton Frost we are going to be addressing the biggest area of concern for our readers, water levels.
If the water on certain parts of a river is too high or too low, it can make sailing either more difficult, or impossible. If water is too high, ships are unable to get under low bridges, and other concerns, and if waters are too low, ships run the risk of getting stuck.
The problem with water levels, however, is that we can’t predict when certain areas are going to be affected. Of course, we can look at weather and heat patterns, we can look at seasonal patterns, and we can gather other information to make educated guesses – but these methods of information gathering do not always help us because weather can be unpredictable.
This week, I give some of my own opinions on how passengers should deal with the risk of low or high water levels, as well as advice and comments from our readers. I am also joined by AmaWaterways’ President and Co-Founder, Rudi Schreiner, to gain some insight on the issue.
Read a transcript of the interview here:
Britton: So before we get into Rudi’s commentary about water levels, I kind of just want to talk a little bit about what I’ve experienced with water in Europe and then also what some of our readers have experienced and the comments that we’re getting now and how I personally feel like you as a cruiser should deal with low waters, um, cancellations if you should cancel and so on. So, so let’s first start with my experience with um, water levels. Now, I have never had a cruise canceled due to high or low water. However, in December of 2010 I was cruising on AmaWaterways and the Main Danube Canal actually froze. And so one of the ships got trapped and AmaWaterways had to spend a lot of money actually on this project, which they took everything off the ship. They took all the crew and they moved it to another ship that was already out of service for the season that was on another side of the river so that we could get on.
Granted this was the first day of our trip and we didn’t have to do any busing throughout the trip, but that first day we did have to go to where the ship was supposed to be. And then, um, cause that’s where our transportation was arranged. And then we ended up having to bus to the new ship. And you know, I’ll tell you that until Kristin and I, Kristin Karst is the co-founder and vice president of AmaWaterways. And I actually sat down with her to talk about water levels a few months ago and I’ll link that podcast in the description. But until Kristin and I started talking about water levels, I actually completely forgot that this happened. Um, I think that definitely when your entire river cruise turns into a bus trip, then that can of course be a little bit of a problem and something that you’re gonna remember because you’re paying for cruise and you’re essentially getting a land tour out of it.
Now, I will say that in these situations, I’ve heard that guests have been accommodated in really great ways sometimes. And then also in really not great ways sometimes. So that’s gonna kind of depend on which cruise line you take and how they handle it. And unfortunately, you know, there’s no real insight to that because every itinerary is different in every um, situation with the water is different. So that’s kind of hard to gauge. But just having to bus to a different location where a ship was docked was not something that made my vacation..it’s not something that ruined it. It’s not something that made it worse. I spent a few hours on a bus one day and then the cruise resumed as normal. And I will say that, you know, when you have these low points on the Danube, which you’ll hear Rudi talk about in a second, um, which areas they’re able to get to and which areas are more prone to issues with water because of the way that the locks are set up.
But when you just have to bus from one ship to another, that’s on a different side of the water, um, and you’re only making one switch. I don’t necessarily think that that’s going to be worth canceling over. If you, if you know that one area of the river is low or if the cruise line has contacted you and said that, you know, you’re not going to be, you’re going to have to bus from this side of the river to this side of the river. Um, if it’s just one switch, I wouldn’t even give that a second thought because yeah, maybe it cuts into a day or half of a day of the cruise, but you’re still there. You’re still gonna cruise and everything is going to be okay. And what we see now is a lot of cruise lines kind of setting things up this way. So because they have multiple ships in their fleet, they’re able to set up one ship in, in one place and then another ship on another side so that if there is an issue with low or high water, they can get passengers off one ship and then bussed to the other side of the river that’s passable.
And so you do see the river cruise lines taking a lot of initiative in these situations to make sure that their passengers are able to cruise as much as they can. And I mean it’s also important to keep in mind that none of these cruise lines want guests to be unhappy and want guests to walk away without having the cruise experience. Because a lot of, you know, a lot of business that these cruise lines get is, is word of mouth. And so if you have a bad experience and you go tell someone that and you write on a, you write on a forum on the Internet and you leave reviews and you say that you didn’t have a good experience, then these cruise lines are losing potential customers. So what you often see is cruise companies really kind of bending over backward to make sure that each guest is satisfied.
And this can either come in cruise credits, in accommodations, um, in hotels or I mean whatever it may be. As I said, each circumstance varies completely, but even so, I mean, you see some sort of initiative given by the cruise lines in most instances. And I know that people who have had their cruises canceled may disagree, but that’s just what I see from a lot of the comments that I get. Now, one question that I always get is, you know, how do we predict the water levels? I will get people emailing me now at this time of year, which is July and ask me about spring of next year. You know, if, if there’s a better season to cruise, how, what the prediction for water levels is going to be next year. And the answer is simply just, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know as well as, as you don’t know, um, because we can’t predict the weather a year out unfortunately.
And yes, in certain seasons you do have more rain and you do have more heat. And the, um, in the summer of course it’s, it’s hotter, but you also have a chance for rain. And so, you know, it really just depends. And in these situations specifically, we’re seeing times when the river is not passable and one day of rain gives the river enough water for the ships to be able to pass. And so, I mean, it really is a day by day struggle for people on the river when the waters are low. Um, but it also, I mean it makes it so much more unpredictable and you know, it really, it just depends. It’s like, do I need to take a rain jacket on a trip to the beach that I am planning in October? I don’t know. I’ll check the weather in October and I’ll see.
But there’s really no way of, of kind of predicting this or, or, or preparing for it. Um, and that’s what makes it so hard. Of course you see trends in certain seasons, but I mean, if you look at what happened in October of last year when the water levels were so low, that seemed like an anomaly. And that’s usually what I tell people is that, you know, these weather patterns aren’t normal and it’s best to just proceed with your plans. And then, you know, if your cruise line cancels, you’ll be able to either book another one with them or, or sometimes insurance will cover. And so really to just take it day by day plan as you would and then let things happen as they do. And that might seem like a gamble. And quite honestly it is. I mean, you’re booking this cruise but, but if you think about it, a cruise could be canceled for a number of reasons.
And so when you make travel plans, you’re making them hoping, hoping that you can go in any, in any sense. So whether it’s a cruise, whether it’s a resort stay and things do happen, um, especially weather. And so, I mean, that’s really the only advice that I can give. And that’s the only advice that Ralph and I do give is to just kind of proceed as you would and then if, if something happens it will. But I, I do want to look to a couple of comments from our water levels page before I get to Rudi’s comments about water levels because, um, people are noticing that the water levels are low again because it’s been so hot in Europe. And so I just want to read a couple of those comments because we do have people who have heard that the water levels are low and canceled and of course that’s their right to do so.
But I think that generally, and if you listen to the podcast last week as well with Elsa, um, she talks about having a cruise where the water levels were um, low and she ended up getting put up in the Ritz Carlton by Uniworld and you know, that that worked for her and she was pleased. Um, but she does also mention that she looks at certain seasons to travel because she knows that the water levels will be less of an issue. And I say knows with a bit of hesitation because as I already mentioned, of course there is no way of really knowing. Um, but you know, uh, this podcast was recorded on July 20th, so I’m going to read some of the comments from earlier.
July 18th, one of our readers commented, I’m 17 days out before Ryan cruise and I’m concerned, uh, Germany is forecasted for a major heat wave next week and some parts of the river are down. Has anyone heard anything about the Rhine or any rain being forecast? Uh, before August 5th? Cause I guess that’s when her cruise is. And then people just started commenting, you know, we’re due out on July 27th we’re tracking water levels. Um, there’s a website that you can use but it’s in German, so I’ll link that below. Um, but you can kind of pinpoint the water levels. So I’ll, I’ll link that and, and we can all try to figure it out as best we can. Um, but people are just commenting about the water levels and someone, yeah, commented we were leaving on a Viking cruise July 22nd from Budapest and just got an email from Viking giving a heads up of potential problems, no further details. Um, and then someone commented that they are on the Danube now on Avalon impression leaving the Wachau Valley on the way to Vienna. Water levels are fine and I will say that when we were on the Danube of the water levels were fine as well. But as I said, these things can change kind of at the drop of a hat.
Um, but yeah, leaving next week, just heard today the Danube river is low and we have already had a ship change. So that was on July 17th and I, we just got off and, and other people are saying the water levels are fine. So I’m not quite sure what was happening with that one. Um, but someone, yes, this is a common that I was looking for on July 12th. Judy comments, we canceled our elegant Elbe Viking cruise that we were scheduled to take the itinerary. Basically was changed to poorly arrange bus trip with hours of shuttling and no cruising. Um, as we know, the Elbe has the most problems with low water. I think, um, and actually only two cruise lines cruise on it anyway.
So that one seems a little bit less surprising, but this woman canceled her cruise and hopefully got her money back either through insurance or through Viking. Maureen comments I’m so sorry to hear to hear this. Did they offer an adjustment or vouchers? And um, then another comment from a man named John saying we were on the phone with Viking Sunday and Monday they advised they had canceled the same Elbe trip that was to start four days earlier giving these passengers 12 days notice. Um, but he states that he was only given three days notice. Um, so I mean, people do have problems with the amount of notice that the cruise lines are giving them. And I think that that’s kind of where the issue is with the water levels come into play is that sometimes, especially in October when the water levels were low, people weren’t hearing that their cruises were being canceled until a day or two days before.
Um, so unfortunately it seems like guests are kind of having to do their own research on the levels of the water and then making informed decisions based off of that, whether or not they should cancel. So that’s kind of my advice is that on that water levels page, we do have a lot of discussions going back and forth about people, um, who have recently cruised, how the water levels were and then of course in our newsletter every week we try to keep everyone updated about water levels, which levels are high, which are low and then which are optimal. Um, and so any problems that happen, we also kept you updated when the lock was broken on the Danube. And so, you know, just staying informed in those ways and then using that information to make decisions. But as far as booking goes, as I said, I would just kind of book the cruises and not worry about it. Um, and that’s kind of Rudi’s advice as well. So when I sat down with him to talk, which we’re going to get to actually in just a second here. Um, he kind of stated that, you know, there’s nothing really to worry about because especially on the Danube, because there’s always a chance to be able to pump water through locks and dams and flood certain parts of the river. So let’s hear what he has to say now.
Britton: So, I want to talk a little bit about water levels because you gave some really good insight during the Q&A. About, you know, how a lot of people have really complimented AmaWaterways, you know, written to me and complimented Ama because it seems like you can generally sail further than, than other cruise lines. And I’ve heard that from multiple people is that when a lot of people have to stop, you’re able to keep going. So I want to know a little bit more about why you can do that. Is it, is it the way that the ships are built or?
Rudi: It’s two things when you do your deployment, uh, there are many factors in how you do your deployment. First of all, it’s demand plus for me, one important part is also deployment according to past history on water levels in different regions. There are critical regions, more critical regions and more critical times. Yeah. And there is a history about it. So in general what you have, you have a snow cover in the winter time and then you have snow melt in this spring and you can have heavy rains. So spring time you can have excessive water. So you are right above average then comes the dry summertime and depending how much rain you get water levels can drop and can drop quite a lot. And that happened last year. So last year there was a high sitting over Europe for a long time, not over Europe but over Germany. Yeah. And it pushed all the lows to the south and to the north.
So while there was no rain in Germany, there was flooding going on in Italy and in France. So critical areas are the transition from the Danube river over to the Rhine river. That is a critical area because north of Passau, there is no longer…and then its natural flow of the water. That means high levels go much quicker. You cannot control the water levels. So when you go from, uh, Budapest let’s say to Amsterdam, yeah. You are crossing that critical area. Yeah. And that can be go both ways, high or low. So most river cruise lines today place one ship in Amsterdam and place a ship in Budapest and go against each other if they cannot cross a critical area which is right kind of almost 50% halfway the middle then they swhich passengers to the other ship and continue with, uh, on the other ship.
Yeah. So there’s not much interference. Uh, the Danube River in Austria has 11 hydroelectric power plants. Uh, that means they also locks so they can regulate the water pretty much all season long. If there is no more water coming down, it’s almost like a lake, so they don’t let any water flow off. So, even last year with the extreme low water, we never had any issues cruising between Vilshofen and Bratislava because that’s where the last look is. We had some issues sometimes going into Budapest because there’s no more lock afterwards. So Budapest was not that critical. It happened a few times to us where we couldn’t go in, but then we bussed people from Bratislava to Budapest, which is a few hours on the bus trip and then we accomodate them in, in a hotel in Budapest. So I always, uh, look at deployment, uh, trying to avoid at critical times critical areas, number one.
Number two, when you do ship construction, you try to maintain the lowest possible draft. So that’s another thing that comes into the picture. And there, I’m very critical about how we build the ships and how deep we can go. There are other cruise lines also out there who are doing a fantastic job on it. Yeah. And some don’t. Some don’t do such a good job, so yeah. But, uh, for some of them for years it was no issue. And then suddenly you get an extreme, uh, climate extreme season, like last season and it’s showing you there’s this A-ha!, Okay, now and I understand why. Yeah. So we had really on the Danube almost no problem on the Rhine, on the other side, there are no locks on the Lower Rhine. So that means once water levels get low, there’s nothing you can do against it. Yeah. You cannot block the water with a dam.
So. It got fairly bad last year in the area of the danger of the Rhine Gorge. Yeah. In some areas you physically could walk through the Rhine river. Yeah. So that’s kind of the whole story. I mean, it’s two sides and, and we always have been doing a very well in how we manage it. The other thing what we do is, uh, if you have a seven night cruise in one day is influenced by high water, low water, or other factors and we do a totally different program we will give you a 15% future cruise credit per day. So if it’s three days, it’s 45% if it’s all seven days differently, we still will try to make a beautiful vacation out of your time spent in Europe and then you, but you will get a hundred percent future cruise credit. Yeah. So we want to do come here, we will do the best what we can. If it doesn’t work according to schedule, you’ll get your benefits. We don’t want to tell you two weeks before the departure that you cannot go and then we cancel the cruise because of low water. What do you do then? Then you sit at home trying to figure out where do I go. This way you come to Europe, you still experience a good vacation and then you still have your money available or your credits available for a future career.
Britton: Yeah, and I, you know, I have a lot of people write to me and kind of ask because there’s a lot of hesitation now with cruising because of what happened last year. I think that really kind of kicked it into overdrive that people are worried about, you know, that they’ve booked cruises. And if they’re going to be able to go. And in the beginning of June, you had all the high water issues. I mean, my advice is always just kind of like, like you said, you’re still going to come over, you’re still gonna do this trip and, and have the experience. But I don’t think that being hesitant or trying to cancel your cruise ahead of time is a logical decision. I mean, what do you think about that?
Rudi: First of all, things happen every once in a while. Every so often. So five, six years ago we had for a short period, extreme high water levels. Yeah. Where ome dams overflowed where some dams cracked. And we had to, we had to pause going to certain areas. Yeah. Uh, 2003 was low water. Uh, it takes six to eight months and things are pretty much forgotten. Yeah. So it has influenced maybe some people. Yeah. But overall I think bookings are strong. Not too many questions any more about low water, high water issues. This year again has been a very good year. Uh, we are still right now we are in July and we are still above our regular water levels. Yeah. Which for July is extremely good. Yeah. ’18 was a perfect year. ’18 uh, sorry, ’17 was a perfect year. We did not have a single day of high water or lower water issues. So you never kno but overall I would say it’s, it’s, it’s not a big concern. Yeah. It happens at times and for us the only area which for us was really kind of got a little critical was uh, the late October, early November time period on the Rhine, but not during the peak season.
Britton: Yeah. And I mean, yeah, I mean it’s just kind of like I, I think as you said, like six to eight months, people tend to forget and you always hear about the bad. It’s like maybe you hear about one cruise that didn’t sail compared to however many did. And think about how many ships are leaving every day. So yeah.
Rudi: But bookings look good. Yeah. 20 looks good. Good. And we already did our deployment for ’21, we are already starting to book our charters for ’21. So…And we’ll still continue building ships every year. So it hasn’t changed much.
Britton: And congratulations on this ship.
Rudi: Thank you very much. Thank you.
Britton: So as you can see, you know, Rudi and I are kind of on the same page about telling people to just proceed with their plans. I know I’ve said that multiple times, but I think it is really important to reinforce that and not try to police the situation and, and you know, just to kind of make sure as Rudi said, you know, you still get over there, you still get to do your vacation and I mean, yes, going in a bus is disappointing. So maybe if your entire cruise is going to be a bus ride, like we’ve seen, some of them have to be, um, then that’s time to reevaluate. But especially if you can look back at the comments on the water levels page at how other cruise companies, the cruise company that you’re traveling with, has handled the situation. As Rudi said, with AmaWaterways, they get a cruise credit per every day disrupted.
So even if you just have one day that’s disrupted by low water and you have to switch ships or you don’t get to go to port or whatever it may be, then you still have that discount on a future booking. And I know that people get a little bit upset about cruise credits, but if your entire trip is disrupted, then you do get a chance to rebook. Um, with Ama at least you get that 100% future cruise credit. So, um, I think that yes, proceed with caution if you feel that you need to, but otherwise, you know, when you, when you book anything, when you put money into anything, you’re taking a gamble.
And I do want to emphasize too, and I said this to Rudi, is that a lot of times you hear so much about the bad because people are upset that their cruises are disrupted. And you don’t hear about how many cruises are not disrupted and the amount of cruises that are not disrupted compared to those that are, it’s a way, way, way larger number. And that’s why these cruise companies are still able to operate because they do well and they do good business and people are happy and they come back. So a final word of advice is just to book the river cruise of your dreams and let it play out.