Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

With river cruises lines beginning their gradual return to Europe's waterways, the best advice advisors can give clients eager to join the early sailings: Be flexible, or wait.

Last week, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises led the return of sailings for Americans with the relaunch of its Venice-based ship, the newly transformed Super Ship La Venezia.

It followed that with the christening in Portugal of its new ship on the Douro river, the S.S. Sao Gabriel.

I was on the inaugural sailing of the S.S. La Venezia, and with Uniworld's trademark butler service, locally inspired decor and cuisine, fine wines and exclusive excursions, the cruise felt not only surprisingly normal but downright liberating for those of us who had been checking the news every day for much of the last year for updates on border openings.

But it also underscored the challenges and uncertainties that operators face over the next few months and the need for customers who want to venture out early to understand that aberrations are going to be about more than just wearing masks or getting Covid tests.

There are various local, country and regional rules that can change on a whim, and that means itineraries may change, as well. Crews and land operators are just coming back after a year and a half, meaning that even the veterans might be a bit rusty and service might be a little uneven.

Supply chains still have disruptions. Additionally, because the early cruises are launching with a narrow window of notice -- and therefore often very few passengers -- some companies are consolidating initial sailings, which can mean further revisions from printed itineraries. Smaller passenger loads can also mean fewer options, simply because of scale.

"It changes every day," Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge said. Travelers and advisors, she added, "absolutely have to know that."

For instance, as Bettridge prepared to leave Venice for Portugal, she got word that Lisbon was tightening it Covid rules, so the company was working to tweak its land extension there.

"We're going to change it up, and we're going to do something fabulous for the guests in Porto,"  she said.

None of this should be a surprise to homebound-weary, seasoned and flexible travelers. But as Bettridge laid out some of the issues she faced in opening in the fast-changing world of Covid, I thought of 2018, when low water levels in Europe prompted mass revisions to river itineraries.

While some companies certainly handled it better than others, the underlying issues were well beyond their control. Yet many travelers blamed the operators themselves. I personally had recommended a specific cruise that year to some friends, who then texted me from Europe, furious when one day of their cruise was moved to a coach.

Low water had been in the news for weeks, so I couldn't help but wonder why they were so surprised. More importantly, why were they contacting me? I asked them why their advisor hadn't given them a heads up. That, fortunately, ended the text exchange.

Today's environment is another example of a situation way beyond any individual company's control. So, it's best to seriously consider how well your clients understand that before sending them anywhere in these still very early and fast-changing days of pandemic travel.

For those willing to roll with the punches, however, there is no better time to get back to Europe and on river cruises, as both the ships and the cities are much less crowded.

As I made my way across Italy I found that restaurants, bars, shops, and many museums and historic sites were open. And everywhere I went, the locals were as excited to welcome back an American as I was to be there.

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