River cruising has exploded over the past year—and so have the problems that come with it. While low water levels were an issue last year, they are more hopeful—and better prepared—for 2016.
Viking, Avalon Waterways, and Uniworld were all affected last year, shifting sailings and moving guests. As the calendar turns to 2016, they are looking to the skies in hopes that customers will not be disappointed.
Travel Market Report spoke to three River Cruise operators about what the troubles mean for cruising, how they deal with the difficulties, and how cruisers have reacted.
An ebb and flow
Predicting the weather is always an uncertain business, and when a problem does arise—be it flooding on the one hand or low water levels on the other—companies often have to make a decision quickly.
“[It can happen] even within a 24-hour period, so it is very difficult for us to predict,” said Uniworld president Guy Young.
Despite their best efforts to meet guests’ expectations, there were two instances where Uniworld was greatly affected by water levels—in 2013, during record European floods, and last summer, when the Danube was plagued by low water levels.
In 2013, Avalon was forced to cancel six sailings but provided discount vouchers for future cruises and full refunds to its guests.
It did the same this past summer, when it forced to run some itinerary deviations and cancel other cruises, but Young emphasized that isn’t the norm for river cruises.
“It is important for guests to understand this is the exception rather than the norm and Uniworld will do our very best to ensure that we consistently deliver a great holiday experience for our guests,” Young said. “On the balance, I believe we have done an excellent job meeting the expectations of our guests.”
Avalon Waterways faced the same issue this summer; it had to cancel its Avalon Visionary sailing from Paris on the Danube in August when a cargo vessel became stranded, blocking a section of the river, and low water levels around the same time led to a number of other cancellations.
But while no river cruise operator can guarantee there won’t be water level problems in 2016, Avalon managing director Patrick Clark said the line In addition to offering guests on cancelled cruises a full refund, it also speeds up or slows down sailings to get past any blocked portions of the rivers it sails. .
Avalon also plans to have a number of ships sailing on either side of possible problematic stretches of river, which allows them to perform a “ship swap,” relocating passengers to a different ship to continue their cruise.
Tauck World Discovery also employs ship swaps for its river cruises, arranging itineraries with enough flexibility to move guests from one ship to another without a problem.
Tauck’s Tom Armstrong said it’s also an education issue, making sure guests are aware that the nature of river cruises—like travel in general and air travel in particular—always allows the possibility of disruptions.
“We do this with a full page of messaging in our river cruising brochure, and with an animated video on our website,” he said. “By preparing our guests for the possibility of disruptions ahead of time, we hopefully minimize the impacts if and when they occur.”
Tauck doesn’t offer any itineraries on the Elbe River because it “seems to be particularly vulnerable,” Armstrong said, and even when there has been a cancellation, “overall guest satisfaction levels on our river cruise sailings have remained very high.”