The number of clients choosing to sail on Europe's major rivers is growing at an unprecedented rate. This year the total is expected to exceed 500,000 guests from the U.S. and Canada. This represents a 700% increase in the number of river cruisers since 2001, according to Viking River Cruises, the company that has about half of the business' market share.
You've seen those wonderful Viking ads. They are beautifully photographed, and the entire industry has surely benefited from the images they project.
River cruising has become the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry by almost any measure, and it's easy to see why.
The rivers are calm, sometimes even serene. The ships seem to carry just the right number of guests since bridge heights and canal passages pose design restrictions limiting the number of passengers. When Viking says its ships sail "to the heart of Europe" there is no disputing that statement.
The growth in the number of Americans experiencing river cruising means that the prospective new client might know someone who has gone on the trip. If they don't, they are likely turning to various online forums that publish the views of self-appointed river cruise critics. So a great deal of what they are reading is, let's be honest, a bit scary.
It seems the rivers of Europe can flood at any time, which makes delivering an itinerary as promised in the brochure unlikely. Droughts in the warmer months are just as serious a problem. It seems that you can never predict water levels, so you are playing a kind of Russian roulette when you book a river cruise. The forums carry stories of cruises turning into bus tours and paltry future cruise credits being issued as compensation.
As the owner of a website devoted to river cruising, I have seen our team deluged with questions regarding water levels, the safest time of the year to book and about refunds should a cruise turn into some hybrid bus tour punctuated by nights aboard a vessel that may remain docked.
Here are some things I think we have to tell our clients concerning full disclosure. Remember the legal test of liability. Is it reasonable to expect that in your professional life as a travel consultant you would have read or directly heard about water-level issues and docking problems on Europe's major waterways? Is it reasonable to assume that you have either had or heard about clients whose vacations were negatively impacted by changes to their itinerary?
In my view, if the answer to these questions is yes, you have an obligation, legal or otherwise, to inform prospective river cruisers about the problem.
Now you could easily respond that we don't have any legal responsibility to inform clients booking flights that planes have gone down, that hotels have had fires or that cruise ships have sunk. And you would be right. But the question is just how often do riverboats have water-level issues that impact the consumer's experience?
Syndicated consumer travel writer Chris Elliott, writing in the Washington Post, summarized river cruising this way: "The takeaway for anyone planning to take a European river cruise is clear: Don't expect it to actually be a river cruise if the weather won't allow it. You can minimize your chances of participating in an overpriced bus tour by planning your tour during the fall, which generally has more stable weather."
So what do we tell the client sitting in front of us or calling to book a vacation on the Rhine, the Danube or the Rhone about water levels? Do we tell them, "You pays your money and you takes your chances?" And what about cancellation policies and advance notification of water levels? And finally, is it true that riverboats very often don't have their own berths because of severe river overcrowding, so guests will find their balcony cabin facing a balcony cabin on the vessel next door?
Guests often have to cross over the sun deck and climb a series of stairs to walk across the open deck of the vessel tied closest to the dock.
For those of you who are not fully familiar with the realities of river cruising, the following observations might be helpful:
• While September, early October and the last three weeks of May seem to be the least likely times to experience water-level incidents, the fact is they can happen at any time. There are no water-level guarantees.
• It would appear that the rate of affected sailings is somewhere between 5% and 10%, but no one knows for sure because the river lines do not provide these statistics.
• Height margins are critically narrow in this business. Some of the larger river vessels have 6-foot drafts, while smaller ones might be able to navigate with a 5-foot draft. Given the issue of low-hanging bridges, one company might be able to sail while another cannot.
• Water levels do not affect entire river systems. In 2013, there was significant flooding and portions of Passau, Germany, were underwater. In 2014, sections of the Danube between Passau and Regensburg, Switzerland, were affected.
• The Elbe is probably the major river most prone to flooding. France has had flooding, and last year authorities had to stop all navigation on the Rhone and Saone.
• River cruise lines are having some success by off-loading guests from a bottleneck beyond where their vessel can travel and busing them to a portion of the river where an identical boat is waiting to take them on.
With its huge fleet, Viking River has been able to do this with some success. Other lines are extremely careful about planning, trying to avoid heavy traffic areas where sufficient berths do not exist. They are trying to avoid overcrowded towns by using alternative small-town ports.
• A fair number of guests on altered programs seem to feel that weather is beyond anyone's control and praise the river line for "doing the best they could." Some riverboat companies, including Tauck, now discuss the possibility of high or low water in their brochures and online videos. Tauck explains that sometimes the "river gods" act up. But this does not mitigate the travel agent's responsibility to discuss the possibility with guests.
• River levels can and do change within a three-hour window. It is virtually impossible to notify clients one or two weeks in advance of river conditions on the day they are scheduled to sail. The site www.rivercruiseinfo.com aggregates water levels for the major rivers, but its data is based on readings from the previous day and only serve to indicate if water levels are "higher than usual" or "lower than usual."
• The more expensive, more inclusive lines seem to have a higher satisfaction ratings when it comes to hotels, schedules and handling a modified program. Moderately priced lines seem to disappoint more when alternative arrangements involve unsatisfactory hotels, long bus trips and the general condition of the transportation. When things go wrong, there are clear differences in the way each line handles on-the-spot changes.
• Future credits seem to be the accepted norm for compensation when guests arrive in Europe and find their itinerary has been changed. The lines seem to use a formula of 25%-75% based on the number of nights that need to be altered. Agents who intercede on behalf of their clients can sometimes achieve better results.
I am biased here. I think that river cruising is a unique way to experience a destination without flitting about Europe like a hummingbird. I would sing the praises of this kind of vacation to anyone who will listen. But there is growing concern about the inability to obtain straightforward information about water levels and docking issues on Europe's rivers. It occurred to me that one reason we have no information about this subject is that no one is asking the lines direct questions about the number of affected sailings.
So I asked six of the major river cruise lines three specific questions about these issues. I will have their responses next time we meet.