An unusually dry, hot summer and fall in Europe has disrupted river cruises throughout their peak season. With the Rhine hitting record lows this month, operators have been forced to cancel cruises or develop new itineraries. River cruise editor Jeri Clausing was on the AmaPrima in October when Rhine closures required AmaWaterways and other lines to reroute their popular Basel-to-Amsterdam sailings to the Netherlands and Belgium. Clausing spoke with AmaWaterways president and co-founder Rudi Schreiner about these challenges.
Q: I know water levels are cyclical and that you have plans and experience with such events. Did this year take you by surprise?
A: I have been in the river cruise business for over 25 years, 16 as a co-owner of AmaWaterways. Our experienced operations teams are fully prepared with creative contingency plans to work around whatever gets thrown our way, whether that is high water, low water, broken locks, strikes or geopolitical events. We plan our itineraries, train our captains and cruise managers and build our ships with all these factors in mind. In the case of the current historical low water levels affecting parts of the Danube and, more significantly, the Rhine, cruising issues are subject to only very few inches of variations in water levels and in general are unpredictable more than four to five days prior to the crossing of certain critical river sections.
Q: Tell me about your contingency plans and priorities. Is it to stick to the original schedule or keep guests sailing?
A: AmaWaterways' prime focus is to minimize the impact of water levels and preserve our guests' precious vacation. We have not had to cancel any departures this year. We do that by designing special, modified itineraries with many interesting ports of call, so guests may still travel on an AmaWaterways river cruise. We have always managed to offer interesting alternatives and, when appropriate, provided generous compensation.
Q: How do you advise and compensate guests when there are disruptions?
A: We are monitoring the current situation daily and have a procedure in place to advise guests and their travel advisers of our contingency plans about a week to 10 days in advance. We also have a new website that keeps them updated if conditions change. You have to remember that the low water situation is dynamic. Our procedure when there has been significant modifications to an itinerary is that two to three weeks after our guests return, AmaWaterways will be in touch with their travel adviser to confirm if their sailing is eligible for any future cruise credit compensation. This is based upon a full review of the deviations they may have experienced.
Q: How is AmaWaterways adapting?
A: River cruises involve air transportation to and from the embarkment and disembarkment ports as well as the tours associated with each port of call and in many cases, pre- and post-cruise land stays. Our contingency plans adapt to all parts of our guests' vacations. Despite any changes in itineraries, the onboard experience doesn't change.
Q: Has low water affected your business to the same extent in the past?
A: 2017 was a perfect year, without any disruptions from low or high water. The last time the Rhine experienced such critical low water levels was 2003. So one extremely low water season that may occur every 15 years doesn't make a "pattern" to be avoided. We have always been prudent on itinerary planning and have avoided certain rivers like the Elbe that over time have experienced more low water issues. Worldwide weather patterns and overall seasonality are getting more unpredictable, and weather events seem to be more severe. I think the traveling public is more adaptable now, and travel advisers are doing a good job of ensuring their clients have appropriate travel insurance and are making their clients aware of possible weather disruptions to vacation plans, whether they involve river cruising, ocean cruising or resorts in the Caribbean.