Opinion Reality Check Fact-checking river cruises Part 2 of 2 By Richard Turen / March 24, 2016 Share 1 -- There seems to be two major hurdles facing the companies sailing Europe's rivers. First is a growing perception that a meaningful percentage of these cruises do not operate as advertised as a result of high- and low-water issues. This perception is largely generated by negative feedback on the major review sites as well as anecdotal evidence from returning guests. The second perception is that sufficient berthing options simply do not exist on Europe's major rivers.In editing my own site dedicated to river cruising and writing about the subject for other publications, it occurred to me that I could not recall any journalist asking any river cruise line for exact statistics to use as a counterargument to these perceptions. (Read part 1, "River cruisers need the facts.") So I decided to try to find out the exact numbers for altered sailings in 2015 as a specific result of water levels. I think that travel sellers deserve transparency on these numbers.I also asked what early warning procedures were in place to notify guests booked on a river cruise that they could be busing the river rather than sailing it.Finally, I asked each of the major lines what percentage of the time the riverboats tie up to others in port, requiring guests to cross through adjacent vessels to get to shore.For purposes of clarity, I will not draw conclusions but instead take you through the responses of each line:Ama WaterwaysRudi Schreiner, the president of Ama, thought the questions were important enough to personally address them. He outlined three itineraries that had to be adjusted and pointed out that the lower drafts of Ama ships as well as deployment that tries to typically avoid the problematic high- and low-water months in Europe allowed it to operate 600 cruises between May and October with six requiring schedule changes, a 99% success rate.Avalon WaterwaysWe heard from Patrick Clark, the managing director at Avalon Waterways, that "less than 1%" of Avalon departures in 2015 were actually canceled. Using the altered definition of itinerary changes brought about by water level issues, Avalon experienced "less than 5%." This often meant transfer to an identical ship with "minimal disruption." ScenicWe received our response from the PR department at Scenic. They explained that they could not answer the question regarding altered sailings because "this is a privately held company, and there is some info they will not give out." They went on to explain that its "near carbon copy" ships enable it to switch ships near the high- and low-water marks so there are fewer missed ports.Although I had specifically asked about 2015, I have researched cancellations and altered itineraries for all of the riverboat lines going back several years.In the case of Scenic, for instance, record flooding in Europe in 2013 resulted in river cruises being turned into partial bus tours over a six-week period in Europe. This resulted in a class-action lawsuit accusing Scenic of violating Australian consumer law (the company is based in Australia) by "failing to cancel or delay cruises, offer alternative tours or warn of expected disruptions." I point this out because that might seem to be an unreasonable consumer protection given that water levels are, most often, not predictable for a given lock in the river until within three hours of scheduled passage. And we know that Scenic did, in fact, provide alternative touring and accommodations. But in reading some of the charges, the real complaint here was the quality of the hotels used and the failure of the consumer to have an opportunity to cancel their travel for a full refund. This is not a Scenic problem; it is a problem that can affect any guests booked on river cruises in Europe during a period of unusually heavy rains or unusual and prolonged drought. Tauck River CruisesThe response we received from Tauck was detailed and specific. In 2015 it experienced "zero" cancellations and 16 departures, "just under 10% of all departures," required additional "coaching." Six departures throughout the season required at least a one-night hotel substitution replacing a night onboard. Guests had to change vessels to get around water issues on two sailings.Uniworld Boutique River CruisesOur responses from Uniworld came from President Guy Young. He pointed out that 2015 was "one of the most challenging seasons on record with regards to low water levels." This is significant, as it is not really understood by many sellers who think that flooding is the major barrier to the successful operation of brochure itineraries on Europe's rivers. In fact, Europe generally, and Germany specifically, had their hottest and driest summer in 2015 since records were kept. This is likely attributable to climate change, and forecasts are that record drought and shrinking summer water levels will only get worse over time. Travel sellers need to be aware that a heart-of-summer drought may be as serious a problem as flooding possibilities in fringe season months. Uniworld had to amend 6% of its total European itineraries in some manner in 2015. Put another way, Uniworld operated 94% of its itineraries without any necessary water-related modifications.Viking River CruisesDespite repeated requests, Viking River would not respond to any of our questions related to water levels and the number of canceled or amended riverboat itineraries in Europe last year.My questions regarding prior notification resulted in a number of similar responses. Water levels change rapidly within a 24-hour period. Operations people at the various lines and my own review of weather reporting stations in Europe indicates that river levels can be affected by inches within a three-hour period. And inches often make the difference in terms of a riverboat's ability to transit a particular lock or bridge.So there is no industrywide early warning system in place. Tauck contacts travel agents as soon as it knows an itinerary is affected for sure. Uniworld says that it informs its agent partners when there is an itinerary deviation of any kind. Ama posts the latest water-level and itinerary standings online.The issue of rafting or double docking is relatively clear. It is a fact of life on the most crowded European rivers. The Scenic spokesman said they have no recollection of a guest ever complaining about the need to tie up to other boats and added "most guests, I have found, are curious about the other vessels and this provides a look-see." Ama has its own dedicated docking facilities in some ports, including Vienna and Budapest. The berths on the Danube between Passau, Germany, and Duernstein, Austria, are the "most problematic" during peak season summer months.Scenic points out that it takes an average of 18 months to build a new ship but more than four years for the lines to get permission to build a new dock. That would seem to be the heart of the problem.So what are the takeaways for the travel seller? Despite its growth, by every account, the statistics show that more than 90% of all European river sailings operate their itineraries with no need to alter their port schedules in any way. Some lines are operating at 95% efficiency on the rivers without issues of any kind. But then again, severe weather can affect those figures dramatically in any year. Shared berths and double docking is a fact of life on Europe's most popular itineraries. Berth construction has not kept up with demand. And travel agents who sell river cruises need to be up to date on the latest weather information in Europe on the days immediately preceding a guest's departure. Sailing calm rivers and visiting waterside towns and villages is seen as a hassle-free way to explore the hidden gems of Europe. It should be a stress-free vacation option. But for the dedicated travel seller, there is a fairly steep learning curve involved in representing these products honestly and knowledgably.