Is it time for river cruise bill of rights

Richard Turen

Late August and September were challenging times on Europe’s rivers. Severe drought resulted in historically low water levels that saw the altering of itineraries on both the Rhine and the Danube. Some lines handled these events better than others. Some were affected in significant ways, some barely at all.

While acknowledging that no one can predict water levels from day to day, I do think the problem is exacerbated for advisers because we’re not being provided enough information in advance to share with clients at the time of deposit about possible scenarios should a trip be impacted by low water.

Having been told that water levels can change hourly, our clients naturally wonder “What will happen if … ?”

There’s about a 6% to 10% chance that a river cruise itinerary will be impacted, depending upon who is doing the analysis. That’s a range of uncertainty that justifies having every river cruise line help set expectations for guests and share some scenarios for what could occur if a trip is interrupted.

To put a human face on this statistical range, I recently had two clients who chose a river cruise to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. When the long-awaited cruise turned into a bus tour, they decided to come home. Mrs. C was afraid of long bus rides. She feared getting ill.

On our river cruise-dedicated website, we’ve been deluged with stories, questions and concerns about weather patterns for cruises booked for next year. “What are the safe months?” we get asked repeatedly. “How do we know that next September won’t be as bad?”

While climatologists are still discovering new wrinkles in climate change predications every year, I recently came across a paper on long-range weather pattern forecasts from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in which researchers concluded that we will be seeing more “extreme extremes” for heat waves in the Northern Hemisphere due to weather stalling in place.

If so, it increases the likelihood of record-setting July/August temperatures resulting in lower water levels.

We’re all booking the summer of 2019 now, and popular escorted tour programs and cruises are getting heavily booked. Like you, I have never earned a degree in meteorology, but we nonetheless need to learn about how climate change can impact our clients, and, when appropriate, attempt to translate and share data, possibly suggesting alternative dates.

And, increasingly, we must factor in whether a client’s health is up to the task of dealing with the stresses of prolonged exposure to high temperatures, potential travel disruptions and emotional distress related to the demands of having time spent on the river replaced by some very long bus rides and land-based hotels.

I cherish the experiences I’ve had while river cruising in Europe. It’s in a class by itself. But given the likelihood of continuing uncertainty in water levels, I would like to hear more from the lines that will help me guide my clients.

My suggestion would be something along the lines of a River Cruiser’s Bill of Rights, which would outline responsibilities falling to both river lines and travel advisers for providing information.

Here are some ideas regarding the kinds of provisions and understandings such a document might include:

1) Advisers earn a commission on every booking. We have a responsibility to our guests and to river cruise lines to make ourselves aware of procedures and policies on Europe’s rivers.

We need to explain to our clients that operations are often a matter of inches of water clearance or bridge clearance and that decisions, of necessity, are often made within hours of a scheduled sailing. Our clients need to understand that it is local port officials who determine who sails and who doesn’t.

2) The adviser needs to work with each riverboat supplier to determine likely trouble spots.

For example, if we see another drought next summer, the section of the Danube between Passau and Regensburg in Germany may be problematic. Our guests are entitled to written explanations of what is likely to happen if they are booked in late August.

3) It is the adviser’s role to present the big picture.

European river cruising is a small-ship journey on which guests are pampered while idyllic scenery unfolds before them. Sightseeing is included, activities are available and the entire notion that guests experience the core of Europe largely without hassle is true.

It is also true that this has been the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry, and the owners of these river cruise brands have been nothing but supportive of the advisers who love and sell their products.

4) Guests/advisers may request a history of water-level issues on the specific itinerary and on the exact dates being considered prior to booking.

5) Every river cruise guest should be offered a chance to purchase optional insurance enabling them to cancel for any reason up to 24 hours prior to embarkation.

Or, as an alternative, lines might develop an addendum insurance policy tailored to the cancellation of itineraries due specifically to water-level issues.

6) River cruise lines should support an ad-free website that lists current water-level conditions beginning one week prior to sailing, updated daily by each river cruise company.

The water-level update would be accompanied by information pertinent to each of the company’s vessels regarding itinerary changes. This would be a one-stop information summary for consumers and advisers. It would be extremely helpful for consumers to know that their specific sailing and brand were not the only voyages affected.

7) River cruise lines should establish a hotline staffed 24/7 for consumers and advisers when water levels are interrupting operations.

8) Every river cruise company should design a reporting mechanism so that advisers and guests can receive real-time updates from the onboard cruise director. This is where many of the decisions are made.

9) Advisers are increasingly being asked “What if?” questions that we can’t answer, and it must be acknowledged by the river cruise lines that advisers are partners; we are not the guy who walks behind the elephant in the circus, cleaning up the effluvium.

Advisers should be briefed with likely scenarios, given water-level issues. The seller should be told what has happened in similar situations in the past, e.g., were hotel nights involved? How exactly were itineraries changed?

10) Each cruise line needs to try harder to enforce predictable policies.

We understand that every situation is somewhat unique. But on-the-spot decision-making at the front desk once our guests have boarded or, even worse, lines of guests waiting onboard for word from management located abroad, isn’t satisfactory.

While we’re admittedly facing conditions beyond anyone’s control, we can do better. As the warden in “Cool Hand Luke” declared, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” Our clients have a right to better communication regarding water levels on Europe’s enchanting rivers.

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