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Monday,  March 4, 2024 11:02 PM 

Cruise lines pivot as high water levels on Rhine disrupt Christmas Market voyages

Cruise lines pivot as high water levels on Rhine disrupt Christmas Market voyages
The MS Douce France photographed in Germany on the Rhine, which is seeing higher-than-usual water levels due to melting snow. PAX was on a river cruise this week that faced disruptions as a result. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Sometimes you can’t beat Mother Nature.

River cruise lines are pivoting this week after heavy rain and melting snow increased water levels on parts of the Rhine River in Germany and France, disrupting voyages at the height of Christmas Market season.

High water means vessels do not have enough space to sail under bridges, and for passengers on river cruises, the situation (unfortunately) can result in guests being bused to ports of call and destinations.

In most cases, river cruise lines will go to the ends of the earth to accommodate guests in situations where sailings simply aren’t possible.

But that doesn’t mean clients will be thrilled about it.

A quick glance at the Facebook groupMagical Christmas Markets of Europe,” an online community of more than 303,500 members, shows a string of sad comments from travellers who’ve had their Christmas Market cruise derailed due to the rising Rhine.

One woman, who did not name her supplier, lamented how her Christmas Market river cruise was cancelled entirely.

PAX reports on location

It’s obviously an outcome, beyond anyone’s control, that nobody wants.

But as the saying goes, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

River cruise lines are pros at preparing for the worst, and most times, companies have a Plan B, C, or D up their sleeve to make disrupted sailings as pleasant as possible for their guests.

In fact, PAX, this week, witnessed some logistics wizardry at play after a sailing we were covering on the Rhine, with CroisiEurope, was altered due to high water levels.

Bushes and trees submerged in rising water on the Rhine River in Nierstein, Germany. (Pax Global Media)

Just two days into our dreamy voyage, which started in festive Strasbourg, France’s Christmas capital, we received word that our last true port stop would be Rüdesheim, a magical Christmas Market town in Germany.

Our ship, the 55-cabin MS Douce France, eventually sailed on to Nierstein, where we boarded a bus to visit the medieval German town of Mainz (the original plan was to sail there).

The submerged trees and soggy riverbanks we spotted along the way, combined with heavy rainfall, was all the proof people needed to understand that this cruise was kaput. 

While on a walking tour of Mainz, our guide pointed to a device that measures water levels on the river, showing how the Rhine’s surface had risen by more than a metre that week after spring-like temperatures rolled in and melted all the snow.  

From Nierstein, we took a bus back to Strasbourg, where we boarded a second near-identical ship, the MS Symphonie, which remained docked for the remainder of our four-day itinerary.

All excursions after that were completed by bus.  

On the bright side 

What can you do? If anything, CroisiEurope should be commended for its calm handling of a tense situation and for completing the voyage as best as it could.

The company seamlessly transferred passengers (and their luggage) from one ship to another, assigning guests the exact same room numbers to avoid any confusion.

When we arrived at our new ship, at CroisiEurope’s hub in Strasbourg, everything was set up and ready to go. The fact that CroisiEurope owns and operates its own vessels helped.  

It may not have been what people signed up for, but there are worse outcomes than having more time in Strasbourg to explore.

The historic town, decorated to the nines with holiday lights and decorations, is home to France's oldest Christmas market. It’s like walking into a painting.

Pivot, adapt, adjust 

PAX contacted other river cruise lines this week to see how they’re coping with higher-than-normal water levels, which the Upper Danube river is also experiencing.  

AmaWaterways got back to us, confirming that it has not cancelled any of its Christmas Market itineraries.

“We are adapting itineraries, adjusting excursion times and docking locations when necessary, as well as implementing some ship swaps around the impassable points to ensure our guests can still experience the magical Christmas markets that are such a draw at this time of the year,” Jon Burrows, Ama's chief operations officer, wrote PAX in an email.

A similar strategy is unfolding at Avalon Waterways.A bus waits for river cruise passengers in Nierstein, Germany where the Rhine is experiencing high water levels. (Pax Global Media)

Pam Hoffee, the company's president, confirmed that Avalon's final departures of the season are experiencing high waters, “but Avalon Waterways has not cancelled these cruises.”

“Instead, we’ve done our best to keep the integrity of each itinerary intact,” Hoffee told PAX. “Some changes have included ship swaps, coach transfers to ports and hotel stays.”

“Avalon Waterways is in a unique position, able to change ships with identical configurations and amenities, enabling guests to move from one ship to another around areas with water level issues.”

“While we are committed to delivering the magic of the holiday season to our guests – and every effort is being made to do just that – we understand that changes are disappointing and have offered compensation for significant alterations.”

Viking told PAX that heavy rain is also impacting the Moselle river (in addition to the Rhine and Danube) and that some itineraries have been impacted.

“Our nautical team is continually monitoring the situation,” a company spokesperson wrote in an email. “To varying degrees, these high-water levels may affect upcoming departures.”

Viking says it has two advantages with regard to handling water level disruptions.

“First, we own and operate our ships,” the company said. “We have a Switzerland-based nautical team and a network of local partners and authorities that are focused on monitoring and adapting to current water levels to ensure our guests experience the least possible disruption.”

Viking also strategically launches sister ships on the same itinerary, but sailing in opposite directions. 

“In the event of low (or high) water, this tactic allows us to implement a ship swap that is typically seamless for guests – both they and their luggage are able to be transferred to their exact, identical stateroom on a sister ship that was purposefully sailing on the other half of the river in preparation for such a disruption,” the company said.

These advantages allow Viking to minimize the impact, “which means our guests are better able to focus on enjoying themselves and having a great journey, rather than worrying about potential changes or cancellations.”

Viking said guests and their travel advisors will continue to be notified directly “if we think that their itinerary might be impacted.”

Major European rivers are routes for all kinds of ships, including commercial shipping vessels.

The Rhine typically suffers from low water levels in the summertime due to dry conditions.

Parts of the Rhine are expected to remain closed to ships until at least Friday (Dec. 15), even if levels have been falling since Thursday, says the water level forecasting service of the Rheinland-Pfalz government in south Germany.

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