Since I took over the river cruise beat for Travel Weekly this summer, I've been hearing a lot about low water levels increasingly disrupting European sailings with a hot, dry summer and fall.
Obviously, it's a situation beyond any river cruise lines' control, but one that nonetheless always ignites a flurry of letters by upset passengers caught unaware of the possibility of last-minute changes from water levels that can literally vary by the minutes or hours.
While most of the lines, and good travel agents, are careful to point out the possibility that high or low water levels could impact customers' trips, it's easy to see how many who have had long-planned vacations might have forgotten or never really read the fine print.
Regardless, it's been interesting for this newbie to the industry to see how the different lines respond, whether it's by lining up their ships to sail in opposite directions so that they can swap passengers near low water areas then turn around, allowing everyone to sail their full itinerary with just a minor blip; make wholesale changes to routes to avoid any disruptions at all; or scurry to put passengers on buses and in hotels for part of their trip when river closings hit last-minute.
Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
This week, I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to experience it all first hand as I prepared to sail the AmaPrima from Basel to Amsterdam as a sponsored journalist on assignment to write about the onboard wellness program. Just less than a week before departure I was notified that the itinerary was being dramatically altered due to continued and unusually dry weather in October that had closed the Port of Cologne, leaving the ship in Amsterdam.
While this would be a huge disappointment to passengers who had been looking forward to sailing the Rhine with stops in Strasbourgh, Cologne and other historic cities and sites, I was impressed by Ama's quick and generous response to the situation: a full refund or the chance to take the altered route and get a credit for the full cruise price to be applied to a future sailing.
A Tauck spokesman said they were forced to cancel three sailings this year, two on the Rhine in October and one on the Danube in August. Walter Littlejohn, head of Crystal River Cruises, said
he had lost count of how many itinerary changes they had this year in an effort
to keep passengers off buses and on the rivers.
Viking, which has the largest fleet in Europe, declined to
respond to repeated emails about how they were dealing with this year's water
levels and how many sailings had been disrupted.
While some AmaPrima customers did opt for a refund, 100 or so
passengers who did embark in Amsterdam were enthusiastic and ready to roll with whatever
the next 10 days might hold.
"I'm not sure we should have done this or not," I
heard one woman say good-naturedly to her friend as we sat in the lounge the
"Why not?" the other responded. 'We didn't have anything else to do."
It also helps to have crew with a good sense of humor.
Cruise director Maddy Caldaruse on Wednesday evening welcomed everyone aboard the "mystery" cruise. "We are as excited as you" to see what's in store, she said laughing.
She also apologized in advance for any potential hiccups, noting we would be sailing a new route for Ama, one that she said had been put together in just a matter of a few 14-hour days compared to the year or two she said they normally spend researching and developing new routes.
"We might not have the answers to all your questions, and we might not have all the paperwork [about upcoming stops] as usual," she said. But she promised a presentation in the morning to highlight the upcoming stops in Dutch and Belgium cities and villages, and she vowed to do her best to make the trip as seamless as possible.
And who better to have at the helm than a Dutch captain, Ron Schuegard, who joked that the sailing through his home country and neighboring Belgium would be "an extended tulip cruise, (normally done in the spring) with no tulips, and rain and rain," which of course started just as we arrived.
But the passenger roster included many regular Ama cruisers, including one who has been on 43 -- yes, 43 -- Ama sailings. And they all seemed eager to enjoy AmaWaterways' consistently excellent comfort, service and food wherever the ship might take them.
After the captain introduced the crew, one passenger took the mike to thank them for keeping the AmaPrima sailing.
"Obviously, they are doing the best they can," he said. "It's been a rough road for many of us to get here. But we are pleased to be here."