Add another caveat to “managing clients’ expectations” this summer. Travel advisors are reporting that the record heat in Europe is affecting river cruises on the Rhine and the Danube. It also caused the closure of the locks in the North Sea Canal, forcing Holland America Line to change the embarkation ports of the July sailings of its newest cruise ship, MS Rotterdam, from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, 90 minutes away. But properly preparing clients for what may come, combined with experienced suppliers who know the ropes and some travel insurance, can put a life preserver on your clients’ vacation plans.
At The Travel Nook in Queens, NY, Ria Maratheftis is “crossing my fingers and toes, locking myself in my room and praying like I never have before (to the mother dragons, breaker of chains, old Gods and the new) that my Ama family (three French balcony rooms, with air, pre & post and insurance and private transfers from PHl to JFK) does not cancel.”
Many travel advisors are experiencing the shifts first-hand—and reminding everyone that now is the time for up-front communications to keep clients informed.
“I’m on the Danube right now,” says Julie Vowell-Ramirez of Dream Vacations in Houston, “and the schedule has been altered for our Budapest to Nuremberg cruise on Avalon Tranquility II. We couldn’t get any further than Passau, so are missing Regensburg, Roth, and Nuremberg. We are docked in Engelhartzell, about 45 minutes from Passau, and will stay here until disembarkation on Sunday. Some of the guests are disembarking tomorrow to be bussed to Nuremberg for transfer to the airport, or to the Avalon Artistry for the second leg of their cruise up the Rhine through Basel. We are staying on board and heading to Prague for a post-cruise tour. Avalon has been very helpful and flexible, trying to help everyone. As with all travel this summer in Europe, flexibility, and patience is the key to a great vacation!”
Paul Barton’s clients, scheduled to sail Viking’s Amsterdam to Budapest itinerary last Wednesday, instead spent their first night in Cologne because of low water on the Rhine, and low water on the Danube also will mean a ship swap. Still, he says, “I have done ship swaps myself and found them to be seamless and only a very small inconvenience.”
A Viking spokesperson noted that the company owns all its ships and all are identical, making ship swaps simple for everyone. “If we think an itinerary will be impacted, we will notify both the guest and their Travel Advisor so that all parties are informed,” she said. “We encourage advisors to leverage the information in these communications to help answer their client’s questions.”
Lisa Chambers Fletcher of Gifted Travel Network is on the Rhine, “boarding the Emerald Luna today in Amsterdam. We have been re-routed and will not make it to Basel. New itinerary ends back in AMS instead. Lots of switching about of flights and train tickets!”
At Brownell Travel affiliate Deborah Barth Travel in Birmingham, AL, Barth’s Tauck Rhine Oberammergau group of five couples, originally booked in 2018, “can’t make it to Basel tomorrow, so they’re offloading everyone at 6 am and putting them in hotels in Basel, and continuing on to Munich and the rest of their trip,” she reports. “Handling it all very well and in Tauck style, so clients seem to be fine! So, so glad I had them with Tauck!!! Their connections on the ground for transportation, hotels, and guides are a lifesaver.”
Anna Maria Lankes of Amore Travel, LLC, in Hutto, TX, is on an Avalon cruise on the Danube; unable to make it to Budapest, the ship picked them up in Slovakia instead, after a 90-minute bus ride. “I would tell customers that want to book a river cruise that they have to be flexible and realize that changes could be made to the itinerary days before travel,” she says. “I received an email two days before we boarded. But Avalon went above and beyond making it right for us by providing a lunch cruise and a free afternoon excursion for us.”
Just back from a river cruise, and with a group of six customers headed out, Beverly Falley of Island Dreams Travel in Lawrence, KS, is more concerned with flights than with water levels. “Flying to and from anywhere in Europe now is problematic. This has been an absolute nightmare for these clients; the situation with flights is just unbearable. We will see if they arrive at their destination as scheduled and if the transfers go as planned.”
Taking a Proactive Approach
Like all trips this summer, it seems, the difficulties are a reminder of how important a good travel advisor is to handling changes. Angela SanFilippo-Szemko of LBAC Travel in Sayville, NY, has already reached out to her clients sailing Ama on the Rhine next week. “I advised them of a possible low water situation and explained the various scenarios. They already had flight schedule changes resulting in a lengthy layover (so we booked an airport lounge); I made them aware of the situation at Schipol (so she purchased air tags to add another layer of tracking to her luggage); and other minor things have come up. She is a very positive person and travels quite a bit. Her response was, ‘We’ll deal with it. Another added element to our fun adventure. Every one of our past trips always had some element of uncertainty, why should this be any different?’”
When a week of their two-week cruise was canceled, Elliot Finkelman’s clients were offered a credit or a flight home at Scenic’s expense. “As part of being a professional travel consultant, we are morally obliged, and under TICO in Ontario, we must advise clients” of potential issues, he says. But beyond that, as “any long-term salesperson knows, the short-term sale is not the way to go. You just arm them with knowledge and always let them decide. If they don’t want that trip now, we work on what else they have dreamed about that would work today.”
Christina Ernst at VIP Alpine Tours in Sautee-Nacoochee, GA, “I spoke with two of my upcoming Rhine clients and told them about the potential impact. But I think AMA does a good job, and both were ok. One experienced this in 2018 and she simply said, ‘Let’s see what happens, I’m just ready to get out there!’”
Sharon Carr Travel in Dallas has “found it beneficial to be extremely frank with our guests about the state of the travel industry. Delays and cancellations are more prevalent now across all airlines, everyone is short-staffed from the airlines to hotels to cruises, and no one is immune,” says Casey Carr. “The entire industry is a sh*t-show at the moment. You’re still likely to have a great time, all travel comes with greater risk of headaches for the time being, but things will stabilize. Pack your patience!”
At Rubinsohn Travel, when Adrienne Sasson’s clients’ Avalon cruise was canceled due to low water in 2018, she fought the insurance companies to make them whole. “Though cruise fare was refunded, their air was not, as it was separately booked,” she says. “According to the insurance, high water levels were covered, but not low levels. It took months and months [of] being relentless, as I’m sure were others. We finally won, and now the verbiage is changed to include low water level cancellation.”
But Linda Da Sosa of Travel Experts is more proactive. She never books the Po in summer, she says. “I always hear about them bussing people on that route. If I wanted a coach tour, I’d book one.”
At Hummingbird Global Getaways, A Departure Lounge Affiliate, Heather Olivarez also is avoiding any issues. “I had a few guests that wanted to book Rhine but I advised against it,” she says. Instead, “two clients that have always booked European river cruises have decided to book their first US river cruise.”
Advice From Industry Experts
So what’s a travel advisor to do?
Hang in there, says AmaWaterways president and co-founder Rudi Schreiner, who told TRO he is carefully monitoring “the situation on the Rhine.”
“I have been on our ships on the Danube and Rhine these past two weeks, and I can confidently say that our guests are very happy to be back cruising on these rivers and are confident that we’ll take care of them even if an unforeseen event like low water suddenly requires some modification to an itinerary. They know they will still have a wonderful vacation,” he said.
“Travel advisors should reassure their clients that, with 20 years of experience and ships with the lowest draft on rivers, AmaWaterways has comprehensive plans in place should the water levels affect the ability for us to sail on any portions of the rivers. Our top priority is for guests to have a safe and memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience that they’ve been patiently waiting two years for!
“There is a huge pent-up demand to travel internationally this summer and fall with travelers better prepared, leading to more patience when it comes to adjusting to unforeseen hiccups. We’re seeing a lot of last-minute bookings from travelers reserving their river cruise vacations as close as two weeks before their embarkation dates.”
Riviera Cruises, meanwhile, has not been impacted by the low water levels, says EVP Marilyn Conroy. “High/low water disrupts less than 1% of river cruises, which is minor in the scheme of things. When we are affected, we can change embark points/and or operate tours by bus (that’s the last resort). If we were not able to operate, we would offer clients a changed itinerary—regardless, the voyages that are affected are very minimal. It’s a bit like ocean cruisers who can’t get into a port because of rough seas; it’s not an occurrence that happens often but from time to time.”
At Avalon Waterways, president Pam Hoffee noted that “while the Rhine River waters are low, to date, our guests have experienced only minor itinerary alterations. When a portion of the Rhine becomes impassible, we have contingency plans that include ship swaps for our guests. And when ship swaps become necessary, our guests enjoy the fact that our Suite Ships are nearly identical, providing them the same comforts and accommodations, despite the disruption. In addition, when itineraries undergo alterations that greatly impact our cruises, we provide our guests options to ensure the quality of their vacation.”
At Dream Vacations/CruiseOne, SVP and general manager Drew Daly noted that “the river cruise lines always make it work and figure out creative options to ensure the guest experience is seamless. Advisors should listen to their customers’ concerns and be empathic. They should also always educate customers if there are any potential itinerary changes as a result of low water levels and assist them with other options if necessary.”
In the end, says Signature Travel Network senior director of business development Rachael Signer, “unlike the pandemic, we have been here before with low river levels causing disruption to itineraries in Europe. Her advice is three-fold: (1) Trust your reputable partners. River Cruise lines are prepared for this disruption and are creative at ensuring guest satisfaction. (2) Be upfront with your customers about possible disruptions before they book. Setting the right expectations upfront will eliminate any unwanted surprises. (3) Do your homework, try your best to know what rivers and ship sizes are more problematic so you can recommend an alternative experience if needed.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook. As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent, and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business, and technology sectors.