It’s been a rough summer for river cruise operators in Europe, with the hot weather making itineraries a challenge.
Cruise lines have reacted with mixed responses. Most have been upfront. APT and Avalon have made sure that passengers are aware their holidays may be subject to changes on their sites. Others have not been so transparent.
A recent court case involving Scenic highlighted the dilemmas of the river cruise passenger. It was all about what passengers were told before they left Australia for the long and arduous journey to Europe – a huge commitment in time and money.
Acknowledging the cruise lines can’t predict or influence the vagaries of the weather, and that most do a great job of talking to clients and mitigating the problem with experiences that are sometimes even better than the brochures promised, what can be done to ensure that everyone is a winner in a difficult set of circumstances?
An interesting idea has been suggested by American travel agent and media owner Richard Turen.
Writing on the influential trade site Travel Weekly, he suggests it may be time for passengers to be able to resort to a Bill of Rights.
Mr Turen says there is about a 6% to 10% chance that a river cruise itinerary will have problems as severe as those experienced by Europe this year.
But good travel agents who want to ensure their clients know what to expect may not be well informed enough.
“We’re all booking the summer of 2019 now, and popular escorted tour programs and cruises are getting heavily booked,” he writes.
“I have never earned a degree in meteorology, but we nonetheless need to learn about how climate change can impact our clients, and, when appropriate, attempt to translate and share data, possibly suggesting alternative dates.”
He says: “My suggestion would be something along the lines of a River Cruiser’s Bill of Rights, which would outline responsibilities falling to both river lines and travel advisers for providing information.
Here are some ideas regarding the kinds of provisions and understandings such a document might include:
1) Advisers earn a commission on every booking. We have a responsibility to our guests and to river cruise lines to make ourselves aware of procedures and policies on Europe’s rivers.
We need to explain to our clients that operations are often a matter of inches of water clearance or bridge clearance and that decisions, of necessity, are often made within hours of a scheduled sailing. Our clients need to understand that it is local port officials who determine who sails and who doesn’t.
2) The adviser needs to work with each riverboat supplier to determine likely trouble spots.
For example, if we see another drought next summer, the section of the Danube between Passau and Regensburg in Germany may be problematic. Our guests are entitled to written explanations of what is likely to happen if they are booked in late August.
3) It is the adviser’s role to present the big picture.
4) Guests/advisers may request a history of water-level issues on the specific itinerary and on the exact dates being considered prior to booking.
5) Every river cruise guest should be offered a chance to purchase optional insurance enabling them to cancel for any reason up to 24 hours prior to embarkation.
6) River cruise lines should support an ad-free website that lists current water-level conditions beginning one week prior to sailing, updated daily by each river cruise company.
7) River cruise lines should establish a hotline staffed 24/7 for consumers and advisers when water levels are interrupting operations.
8) Every river cruise company should design a reporting mechanism so that advisers and guests can receive real-time updates from the onboard cruise director. This is where many of the decisions are made.
9) Advisers should be briefed with likely scenarios, given water-level issues. The seller should be told what has happened in similar situations in the past, e.g., were hotel nights involved? How exactly were itineraries changed?
10) Each cruise line needs to try harder to enforce predictable policies.”
We at River Cruise Passenger understand that cruising Europe’s waterways is a wonderful experience – but one which can sometimes be at the mercy of the elements. This year is a case in point.
But honesty and information are the keys to ensuring river cruising continues to grow.
We think Mr Turen has a point. It is time to clear up passengers’ rights – and ensure travel agents have the information to do the job they love: giving their clients experiences that bring them back for more.