Richard Turen
Richard Turen
I was sitting in the lounge of a riverboat on the last night of a cruise along the Danube. We had tied up directly across from the magnificent Hungarian Parliament building. You could imagine the 961 rooms in the evening darkness. Budapest lights up its public buildings along the river, and the Parliament Building looked like a movie set about to start filming. Some riverboat operators take their guests on magical night cruises to see the illuminated buildings displaying their Gothic Revival strength and elegance. Don't put your clients on any Danube cruise that does not include this event. It is a highlight of the cruise.

Spread out in the spacious lounge were 62 clients from all over the U.S., clients who had joined us on our annual vacation. Everyone seemed thrilled with the experience and particularly the friendships made and enjoyed.

One client, a frequent five-star ocean cruiser, mentioned that what he loved most about the river cruise experience was that "since there is only one comfortable lounge, you have this great gathering place to talk with 130 guests. I really felt as though we had ample time to relax and interact with one another, and it surprised me how much I enjoyed that aspect of river cruising."

"So," I asked this former food industry CEO, "will you be doing it again?"

"Oh, no," he replied, "I don't think I could get my wife to do this kind of vacation again."

Then he told me why. His wife and several of the other folks in our group had been discussing the seemingly total lack of real security onboard the ship we were on as well as on others we encountered along our journey.

I circulated around the lounge, stopping to chat with other members of our group, asking how they enjoyed the experience. Most were saying they would not return given tensions in the world and the lack of security they were feeling. "We're sitting targets" was the phrase I heard mentioned more than once.

The idea that I was somehow unsafe on a river cruise in Central Europe had never even entered my mind. I know the statistics; I have written an entire series on just how dangerous travel abroad is and what the statistical risks are. And, it turns out, the risk of being harmed in some way is actually greatest if you stay home and never travel overseas.

The safety record on river ships is impressive. You are even safer cruising the Rhine than you are flying to Dubai, and a long international flight is one of the safest things you can do. Almost nothing is as statistically safe as flying on a commercial jet. But river cruising is even safer.

Nevertheless, I've learned to listen to my clients. I decided to look into the security issue when I got home to see just how seriously this subject is being addressed by river cruise lines. I started thinking about the week I had just spent cruising through Germany, Austria and Hungary. Had I seen anyone onboard the ship that seemed to be fulfilling a security role? No, really I hadn't.

Had I noticed any security when walking through two other docked ships in order to reach our own? No, not at all. As a matter of fact, I remembered specifically that after being asked for my room key, there was no security visible at all.

Then I remembered coming back to my riverboat in Regensburg on my own, after a long walk. There was no one on the gangway to meet me or check my ID. I just walked aboard.

Two of my clients specifically said they would never come back on a riverboat because "these ports have absolutely no security. Anyone could pull up in a truck and no one would stop them. We're right in the center of town."

I thought about that. Had I witnessed anything that could be construed as port security when we disembarked? I couldn't recall seeing a police vehicle or private security.

So, I began researching this topic, contacting each of the major lines to see what kind of security they were providing their guests onboard ships and on piers.

This was not easy. Viking River Cruises did not wish to discuss the subject at all. I had to use sources at the company to get some of the information I was seeking. Others were cautious but helpful.

"We don't really talk about security" was a phrase I heard more than once. But after some digging, this is what I learned about security at the major river lines serving Americans in Europe:

AmaWaterways: The line has a security guard checking IDs against an arrival list before guests are permitted to board the ship. The company uses a digital photo ID keycard system to verify comings and goings of guests while the boats are in port. During the night, when the ships are docked, they are locked down and a "night watch" is in charge of onboard security. As with the other lines, Ama would not discuss whether or not they have armed security officers on its ships. My sources tell me they do not. Ama has contracted with at least one high-profile security firm to sail their ships and recommend improvements.

Avalon Waterways: Avalon includes information about "vigilance" in the first-day safety briefing onboard their ships. The line states that "every member of every crew has been trained in security procedures." Every stateroom is equipped with an emergency button, and exterior doors are locked and require key access after hours. Crew patrols every area of the ship on a scheduled basis after hours.

Avalon has started stationing private security guards at the entrance to certain ports where a ship docks overnight. This already happens in Paris and Brussels, and the line is looking at other destinations where it might be feasible.

Security barriers have been added to control access from the sky deck, and Avalon is testing the installation of security cameras on all of its vessels. Extra crew are assigned to the ships' lobby areas when guests from other vessels need to pass through. While not one of the river lines I spoke with would say that anyone onboard was armed, close ties are maintained with local port and police officials, and they are frequently invited onboard to tour the ships and learn their layout.

Crystal River Cruises: Crystal believes that its procedures "exceed river-industry standards." Its protocols include the 24-hour presence of two security officers on the gangway carefully monitoring who comes aboard. The line provides "24-hour security in port," but that really goes back to the presence of the security officers at the gangway checking IDs for all passengers and guests.

Crystal's designation of security officers places them in a unique position. This makes some sense when you consider that Crystal's Rhine-class ships carry 106 guests served by a crew of 68, while at least one major competitor carries 130 guests served by only 39 crew members.

Next week: My survey of river cruise lines' security measures continues.
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