River Cruising in Europe Part Two

A Cautionary Tale Part Two

Note: See Part One Here

Low & High Water

We just got home from a European river cruise and it didn’t go as we had hoped. Sometimes the rivers experience high water conditions that prevent the long boats from passing under bridges. In our case, Europe has been suffering a long drought in the Danube and Rhine Regions, and the rivers were so low they kept the long boats from sailing in certain areas.

Our Experience

It is not my intent to single out Viking River Cruises but they are the company we cruised with this year. We were also novices to river cruising and were totally unprepared regarding a couple of areas where we experienced serious problems. We offer what has happened to us as a cautionary tale which will hopefully help others in their planning.

To start, we were very surprised at the number of longboats and cruise boats plying these European rivers. There were places where there were as many as six boats tied up three abreast at the docking area. Along one stretch of the Danube River, in the course of a mile, we passed five of these cruise boats headed in the opposite direction. Not that it affected us, but the traffic was almost unbelievable.

There are a few major companies offering river cruises and more than a dozen smaller ones. Avalon Waterways and Viking River Cruises are probably the two largest with the most experience. In addition to these, the list includes AmaWaterways, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, Tauck World Discovery, Crystal River Cruises, Scenic Cruises and a number of newer operators. Generally they have similar policies regarding cancellation, itinerary changes and what is covered in a cruise package.

Getting the cruise you want usually requires making a selection over a year in advance so there is no way of knowing the water conditions ahead of time. Most lines reserve the right to modify the itinerary as conditions warrant. To fulfill the contract, this can include putting you on buses and in hotels instead of on boats. Once you show up to take the cruise, except in the case of a medical emergency, you are in their hands through to the end.

Air Fares

Many lines include airfare and transfers in the package price. In our case with Viking we asked if we could remove the air portion as we were considering taking a trans-Atlantic cruise back to the States. Viking’s policy without exception required us to pay for the air portion even if we weren’t going to use it.

Since this was our first river cruise we didn’t know that there were options in approaching airline ticketing. We were advised of a $100.00 per person deviation fee for Viking to schedule us into Budapest a week early. Apparently there is also a program called Air Plus which costs $50.00 and provides you a bit more flexibility with the airline reservations but can also increase the cost of the airfare.

In our case the reservations booked by Viking were terrible and nothing we would ever have arranged for ourselves. Going to Europe we were routed Florida to Frankfort with a connection to Budapest. We had an impossibly short time between flights so we missed our connection. For the return flight we were booked at 7:00 AM out of Amsterdam to Munich, connecting to a flight to Frankfort to catch our flight back to Florida adding up to a twenty-two hour travel day where a normal trip would be less than 13 hours. When we asked for changes to the schedule, we were advised that any alterations would require a change/upgrade fee of $600.00.

Added Tours

Also included in many itineraries are local tours in the cities visited. While this is normally a good feature, in our case Viking’s insistence on providing these tours ended up adding additional hours on buses getting to many of the tour sites. You could stay on the boat and choose not to participate but that meant you missed one of the places on the original itinerary. Some smaller cruise companies either don’t provide tours or charge extra and that should be a consideration when making plans.

Cabin Types

Most cabins on river boats are small and the options are usually a matter of the window size, having a French balcony or a full balcony. We had booked a French balcony cabin with Viking on this trip and if we return to Europe we will probably down grade our selection. First the cabin was so small that it was uncomfortable to use for just sitting (no chairs either) so we spent most of our onboard time in the lounge (there are also suites with sitting rooms). Additionally because when we were docked we were usually tied up to another boat. To avoid looking into another stateroom we usually kept our curtains closed. The French balcony wasn’t a valuable option.

Trip Insurance

Because of the high price of river cruising, in the future we will select trip insurance that allows us to cancel for any reason and pay much closer attention to river conditions weeks before the trip. It seems that an adjusted itinerary is not justification to cancel for many insurance plans including the one we used for this trip.

Information On River Conditions

For more information on river conditions see Ralph Grizzle’s information at River Cruise Advisor, a site that tracks water levels as does River Cruise Information. We will also pay for the air upgrade option (in the case of Viking that’s another $50.00 per person) and become more involved in selecting flights.

On the positive side Viking has recognized that they didn’t deliver what we were expecting and have provided some compensation for all of the problems we experienced, which makes for a slightly better ending to this story.

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River Cruising in Europe – Part One

A Cautionary Tale, Part One

Longboat Danube River in Budapest
Longboat Tied-up on the Danube in Budapest
The Grand Europe Cruise

We had planned a river cruise across central Europe about a year and a half ago. You have to book way in advance as these cruises fill up. As trips go, this was the most per-day cost we have ever spent traveling, but everyone we know kept saying we must do it. This excursion was on Viking and went from Budapest to Amsterdam and was to be two weeks.

Early on in the planning we found that water levels in the rivers can be a problem – mostly the issue is high water. We have travel friends who had done this same trip a few years ago and almost never got on the boat. For them it was high water and the boats couldn’t get under many bridges. Their trip was two weeks of buses and hotels – nice buses and first-class hotels – but not what they had signed up for.

All summer I had watched the weather and it looked as if flooding wasn’t going to be a problem. We made our final plans which included spending a week in Budapest with a train excursion or two using Budapest as a base before the cruise. Two days after getting to Budapest we got messages from Viking informing us that low river levels was now a problem and our trip was going to experience some modifications.

As it turned out that was a major understatement. First our longboat couldn’t get up to Budapest so we were going to be put up in a hotel and bused to Vienna the second day. On the bus ride to Vienna we were told that our boat couldn’t make it to Vienna so we would drive past Vienna to Melk to catch the boat. After we had been on the boat for a few days we were then told that the Rhine River was closed to boats our size due to very low water. Two days later we spent another day on a bus to transfer to another boat that was nearer the Rhine. The new boat sailed thru canals for a couple of days and than we were stuck. After that we were taken on a bus trip thru the middle Rhine valley with a boat excursion, but no Rhine River cruising and because of that we also couldn’t get to the canals in Holland to sail past the iconic windmills. The trip ended with an all-day bus ride with a tour stop in Cologne followed by a very late arrival in Amsterdam.

The Viking Modi tied-up on a foggy day in Passau Germany
Three longboats tied-up at Melk Austria

At this point we need to be fair and comment on what these cruises can be. If we hadn’t encountered extremely low water it is easy to see how wonderful this could have been. Most of these boats are absolutely beautiful. In our case, the crew couldn’t have been nicer or offered any finer service. The meals were absolutely fantastic and we loved the lounge and the music in the evening. The sections of the rivers where we did sail and the towns that we docked at were a great experience. Had we been able to stay on the boat for the whole trip and tie-up at more towns the experience would have been everything we had hoped for.

This brings up the big question – what can be done to prevent this from happening? In most cases not much, be we do have some ideas leaned from hindsight. We will be more specific and offer some ideas in part two Here.

Images of Budapest

If you haven’t given much thought to Budapest, Hungary maybe it’s time you did. This city can hold its own against any number of great European cities like Paris, Rome or London. There have been travel moments in our lives that just stay with us because they were so special. Strolling the banks of the Danube in Budapest after dark is just such a moment…

Enjoy a stroll thru Budapest with us.