It was the cruise complaint that made front page news around the world – an Australian couple launched a class action against Scenic after claiming a European river cruise became a coach tour due to extremely high water levels.

According to Tim Somerville, the Sydney-based lawyer who launched the class action, ships remained stationary and were used as “floating hotels” while passengers were bussed to attractions.

It posed a question for every river cruiser:  – could this happen to them?

The answer, according to river cruise experts, is that it happens more times than the industry likes to admit.  Though Cruise Passenger’s view is that it also happens a lot less than the headlines would have us believe.

In 2013, the year Somerville was affected, unprecedented flooding had made water levels too high. But in 2015 it was the opposite – extremely low water levels caused numerous cruises to be cancelled or amended.

And, as the Scenic lawsuit highlighted, cruise lines aren’t legally obligated to tell you about changes before your departure date or offer you any compensation for changes necessitated by the weather.

So as the European river cruise seasons stars up, it’s important to know what the statistics are for weather-impacted journeys.

Travel consultant and river cruise expert Richard Turen researched the topic for the trade publication Travel Weekly in the United States. He writes that there is a “growing perception that a meaningful percentage of these cruises do not operate as advertised as a result of high- and low-water issues. This perception is largely generated by negative feedback on the major review sites as well as anecdotal evidence from returning guests.”

He also claimed there was a lack of transparency from the cruise lines themselves.

So what are the figures? We talked to Australian representatives for the major cruise lines and Turen spoke with representatives in the US. Overall, around 90% of cruises operated without any changes, even in a year that was widely acknowledged as one of the worst on record. Some lines were doing better, running at around 95%. So for all the chatter about a disastrous season, the numbers don’t seem to back it up.

These are the line by line results for the 2015 season.

Out of 600 European cruises just six required schedule changes, a success rate of 99%. Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, attributed this to the fleet’s lower drafts and scheduling departures away from typical low/high water months.

No APT cruises were cancelled in 2015. The majority of the 115 cruises were kept on track, with the line utilising ship swaps or alternative ports. Only three cruises saw passengers disembark and stay in hotels, less than 3% of the total sailings. APT Executive General Manager Steve Reynolds told Cruise Passenger “the impact of water levels to river cruises in 2015 was unusually higher than in previous years. It is therefore important to emphasise that the following figures are not a usual representation of how water levels can affect our departures.”

Avalon Waterways
Less than 1% of Avalon cruises were cancelled in 2015 and less than 5% had to alter itineraries. In many cases these changes involved transferring passengers to an identical ship. An Avalon spokesperson told Cruise Passenger that “scheduling and fleet coordination is designed with contingencies in mind, allowing it to minimise disruption in these situations”.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
Uniworld amended 6% of its European itineraries for 2015, which president Guy Young described as “one of the most challenging seasons on record with regards to low water levels.” Uniworld told Cruise Passenger that the fact that they directly own and operate their ships in Europe gives them an advantage as they have an experienced team on the ground. “In most instances, the vast majority of our itineraries are able to operate without major deviation.”

No Tauck cruises were cancelled in 2015, however 16 departures (just under 10% of the total for the season) required additional coach transport. Guests had to transfer between ships on two departures and hotels replaced a night onboard the ship for six departures.

Of the 44 cruises in 2015 eight were impacted by water levels and guests were swapped onto a sister ship (with the same cruise director and staying in the same number cabin). No cruises were cancelled.

Scenic and Viking River Cruises declined to comment to Travel Weekly. Scenic also declined to speak with Cruise Passenger while Tauck and Viking River Cruises did not respond at the time of publication.