There is very little about river cruising I don't like, except that the time goes by far too quickly. Then again, for me, every cruise feels that way, no matter the length.
A rarely talked about fact in ocean cruising is that itineraries are not set in stone and cruise lines can change them with little or no notice. My guess is that most people never read the contract details, so when this happens, they are "shocked". While most sailings follow the scheduled itinerary, stops are occasionally skipped or changed due to weather conditions or operational logistics that make it unsafe to call on that particular port.
This too can happen on a river cruise, especially when the river levels are too high or too low to navigate. Levels too high make it difficult to get under the bridges; levels too low make it difficult to navigate through sections of the river or to get close enough to the pier.
River cruise ships are built for optimal performance (for example the navigation bridge lowers down into the ship so it can get under bridges) and have incredibly low drafts (some as low as 1-3 feet under the keel!). This allows for minimal interruption, but even the best designs can't cover every situation.
How do you plan for this and what happens to your cruise if there are changes made to the itinerary?
This is a great question and, in part, is difficult or nearly impossible to answer.
The one thing you have no control over is Mother Nature. Therefore it is impossible to know in advance if your cruise will be affected by high or low waters. Current conditions may make the probability higher or lower, however, water levels can change practically hour by hour, and often decisions are made at the last minute dictated by the River Authorities.
This scenario happened to me on my first river cruise on the Danube. Water levels were changing all along the river. Without going into every detail, my cruise was not interrupted, but the ships ahead of us and behind us by 1 day were.
So what happens if there is an interruption?
While there is no standard policy across all lines, know that they have plans, backup plans, and backups to the backup plans! Generally speaking, one of four things will happen:
So how do you plan for this?
In my humble opinion (and no pun intended), you simply go with the flow. Expect everything to go as planned and stay flexible and positive if and when plans change. When you travel enough you know that even the best laid plans can and do change, so you need to work around what you can't control.
Keep in mind that the cruise lines understand that you have invested a good amount of time and money into a wonderful cruise experience, and are committed to making this the experience you dreamed about.
Typically cruise lines will do everything they can to keep the itinerary as is or as close to it as possible. Unless you have travel protection insurance that covers cancellation for any reason, do not cancel as you stand to lose your vacation investment. Wait for the cruise line to offer alternatives.
Alternatives are determined by each line and typically include the option to switch to another sailing (at no cost) or completing the current sailing at a reduced price (receiving money back), and/or receiving a travel voucher for a future sailing. The option to cancel with a full refund and minimal or no penalties happens, but not very often.
The good news is that less than 10% of all itineraries change due to low and high water. The probability of this affecting your cruise is low.
Cruise lines can be mixed with their communications on this topic. However, when booking your vacation with an expert river cruise advisor, you can expect to be walked through these types of issues upfront and kept updated until your journey begins (and beyond). Plus you'll be privy to other tips and insights too.
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Laurie Marschall - Owner and Founder