Q – We are one couple, of hundreds, whose river boat cruise turned into a combination cruise (on a different ship than we booked) and bus tour. We are rather surprised at the lack of advance information about flooding or low waters we were provided. Is this common and what are your views on this subject?

A  –  We are not particularly pleased with the manner in which river boat lines, in general, have handled this question of water levels and their effect on itineraries. This topic has not been tackled with candor and you are right to be concerned. Just this past week, one company, Viking River, had twelve sailings that were effected by water levels. Guests had to do partial bus tours or switch from one Viking ship to another mid-trip. Last year, dozens of itineraries on all of the major lines were affected and there are hundreds of angry guests who feel they were not given adequate notice or compensation for their troubles.

The problem has to do with both high water, caused by melting snow from the Alps and other mountain ranges, and the low waters in July and August caused by summer draught. In the former, river boats may not be able to fit under bridges. In the latter, river boats may lack a sufficient draft to navigate the waters.

We believe that the need to adjust itineraries, change ships, and alter schedules, happens more often than the public perception. Each company covers itself in the fine print and they have an absolute right, due to weather conditions, to make changes in the name of safety. But we have noticed major differences in the manner in which each company handles these matters, particularly as pertains to guest compensation or options to cancel. Many guests on river boats last year complained online and elsewhere that they were not informed that their boat would not be operating the full itinerary until they landed in Europe.

The most recent problems with high water occurred in late June of this year. Uniworld had to switch guests from the River Empress and River Princess. True they were mostly able to keep the same cabin assignments, but guests had to pack up and move in the middle of their vacation. Avalon lost several sailings days and substituted bus tours. AMA and Tauck were able to maintain their schedules. AMA claims none of its boats were, thus far, affected. Viking, which has larger boats requiring a deeper draft, had 12 sailings affected.

Last year, during heavy flooding on Danube and the Rhine, Tauck was the only river boat company to offer full refunds to all booked guests based on their decision not to “operate a bus tour when our guests have paid for a river cruise.” It will be interesting to see if Tauck can maintain that rather expensive policy should operations be adversely affected this later this year.

One of the concerns we have in terms of the rights of consumers to have all the facts, is that the range of issues is so broad, water too high or water too low, that there is no sure season to avoid both flooding or low water. Some of the new, larger river boats do require more draft and consumers might consider this when selecting a mid-summer cruise. One of the areas that seems to be most adversely affected by water levels is that portion of the Danube that runs between Regensburg and Passau.

There is all manner of anecdotal evidence about river boat issues on the various crowd sourcing opinion sites. But our professional view is, as of this moment, from everything we have seen, AMA and Tauck seem to have the best consumer-driven policies when it comes to an inability to perform the itinerary for which their guests enrolled. All of the so-called river boat specialist web sites are supported by river boat advertising so it is no surprise that this problem is minimalized. But information about water levels and each company’s ability to operate each program, as advertised, is a serious issue that we will not shove under the rug, or under the river, in this case.