I love both ocean cruising and river cruising. Unpacking once is very appealing to me. With ocean cruising you do make an impact in the port cities you visit particularly if there are more than one ship in port. With river cruising, typically there are only about 150 people or so on a ship so your impact is much less and you can blend in easier in your ports. Another way that a river cruise is different from an ocean cruise is that water levels DO make difference. The rivers can be too high to allow sailing under bridges. Conversely, rivers can be too low to allow sailing on the rivers. In these cases, your river cruise can change into a bus tour through Europe or even a ship swap – which I will explain in this post.
I have been checking travel experiences and destinations off my bucket list for a few years now. One that I was particularly excited about was visiting the Christmas markets in Europe. I could picture myself in a yellow bathed glow of the lights, holding a mug of gluhwein in my hand, admiring the handmade items in all the stalls and streets and Christmas trees all lit up. This year it came true. I invited a woman that I didn’t know very well or had seen in decades to travel with me but on I thought she would be a good travel companion. Blogger Hubby had no desire to go to Europe to shop although it was so much more than that. She readily agreed when I proposed this trip and before you knew it, we were making plans together, and sharing all the details that make up a trip like this.
We booked again on AMAWaterways since I had such great experiences with them in the past. Our trip was scheduled to leave Basel, Switzerland on December 8th and arrive in Amsterdam on December 15th. We added an extra day in Basel prior to the cruise and two extra days in Amsterdam afterwards thinking we’d get out into the countryside of Delft, Gouda and see windmills.
Our original scheduled cruise
Trouble seemed to be looming around the the beginning of November as I read on the “River Cruising” thread on CruiseCritic.com that Europe, and particularly the Rhine Valley was in the throes of a major drought and the river was at historic lows. It was so low that marine traffic, for the most part, was stopped around the Rhine Gorge area. Cruise lines were having to do ship swaps – where one ship goes as far upstream as you can and you meet your sister ship which could only go as far downstream. You pack your bags and they are then transported to the other ship for your to continue your cruise. Ship swapping is never desirable but at least you get most of your advertised cruise and the inconvenience of having to pack and unpack again. Other cruise lines were doing motor coach trips from the boat and that is no fun when you are expecting a river boat cruise and docking near the city you are visiting. Driving takes some time away from your city.
I kept reading the posts from a contributor who lives in Germany and he kept us all updated with river levels and the weather. Things were not getting better. Lots of people who were counting down to their cruise was complaining about ship swap, some cruise lines cancelling, some had entirely different cruises than what was booked. I wasn’t getting nervous until the middle of November. I just wanted to know that AMA had a plan. They never wrote to us as other cruise lines had but they were always receptive when I would call. Of course, they kept saying things could change last minute but I was skeptical. The water levels in some spots was only 29 cm! Our ship had no sister ship to swap with. I called AMAWaterways several times to see what would be happening with my sailing on the Prima. Of course I got the “we are monitoring the situation” which wasn’t good enough for me. I had read on CruiseCritic.com from past passengers that compensation would be decided AFTER the cruise.
After several telephone calls and writing on their Facebook page, which I don’t think they cared for, I found out that if our cruise was going to be a substantial deviation from what we booked we could either cancel and get all of our money back and no penalty OR we could go on the altered cruise AND receive a credit for the full amount that we paid for the cruise applied to another cruise in three years time. The altered cruise would be the Tulip cruise but without the tulips – we would be cruising through Belgium and the Netherlands. This was not public information but shared with me because I felt like I needed more information.
Ten days before our cruise all of us passengers on this sailing received our first communication from AMAWaterways stating that we were “confirmed” that we would not be sailing on the Rhine and that we had the two options I mentioned in the previous paragraph. I feel that what they offered was very fair. Some cruise lines just cancelled and those who independently purchased their airfare were scrambling for something else to do. Others were very upset when some cruise lines did bus tours and they missed some of the very important port cities they were looking to do. In fact one cruise on AMA didn’t even go into Germany for the Christmas markets. They were driven in coach from Basel to Amsterdam where they did the altered itinerary. What they were offering us gave us a choice. That was very fair of them.
My friend and I decided that we would do the altered itinerary with the free cruise to use later. We began researching some of the new cities we would be sailing into. We decided that we would take the full day tour to Bruges which was exciting to me – a city that I really liked and wanted to show my friend. Blogger Hubby and I were deciding where we wanted to go on my free cruise – we had decided on the Bordeaux region of France. This trip, although not what we had booked, began to get a little exciting. Yes, we were going to miss Strasbourg, Cologne, Heidelberg but we would go to the area of windmills in the Netherlands, we would go to Bruges, Rotterdam and other places in the lowlands that I had never been.
Two days before our departure we received another email telling us that the original cruise was back on, the offer of a free cruise and the altered itinerary was rescinded. It had rained sufficiently that marine traffic had resumed on the Rhine . WOW, I felt like the little girl in the Exorcist with my head spinning around. I had lost the free cruise, the windmills, Bruges and now back to the original itinerary that I was originally excited about but now, it seemed like the glow and sparkle was quite a bit tarnished. My friend and I decided that there was some mourning naturally but by the time we would get to the airport, we would be excited again. We felt bad for those who had taken the option of canceling the cruise.
Wrapping this up, don’t rely on the cruise lines to to you up to date. Join CruiseCritic and go to the river cruising thread. You will be educated more than you probably wanted to be. When booking your cruise, look to see if there is another ship with the same line leaving on the same day as your cruise but from the port city where you would be disembarking from. I say that because it could allow a ship swap if there is low or high water. Our ship had no “sister” ship with to swap so we were offered the alternate itinerary. Some cruise lines would cancel this sailing but AMA offered something else. How comfortable are you with this. Finally, AMA did it right – rather than cancelling, they offered the altered itinerary. For those that just wanted the Christmas markets and nothing else, they allowed them to cancel with no penalty. They are the only cruise line that gave us choices and that means a lot to me.
UPDATE: I “guessed” at the email address of the owner of AMAWaterways and told him how disappointed I was in AMAWaterways for the lack of communication with us and how the excitement of the trip was very diminished. He wrote back and asked how I would have handled it and I told him. One of my main points is when they sent us the letter “confirming” we would not be sailing on the Rhine they did not reserve the right to go back to the original itinerary if conditions changed – which they did. To me, that was a sticking point and it caused a number of people to cancel and then some who had cancelled decided to rebook, again at the last minute, to do this cruise.