I struggled to know how to respond when friends asked if I had a nice Christmas. We spent it on a river barge, with all the food and drink we could consume included in the price, and we made friends with fellow passengers who also planned to escape the usual turkey round, relatives and television reruns. What’s not to love?
But here’s the problem. We were supposed to sail on the Main-Danube Canal and the Main on board the River Princess. Instead, we spent a week moored on the canal on the outskirts of Nuremberg, overlooking a recycling factory. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The factory was across the canal and was closed for Christmas for the first few days, so everything was quiet.
We had only just boarded when the captain broke the news that we could not sail anywhere because of the high water on the Main. By the time Uniworld realized the extent of the problem, it was already too late to advise passengers – mainly from the United States and a handful of Australians, all already in Europe – that the ship would have to remain moored for the duration .
And it was a really big deal. The Main River was completely closed, bringing all cruise ships and cargo ships to a halt.
The cruise director put a brave face on it. Anyway, he decided, we would still see all the places on the route, but reach them by bus instead. But it did matter: we were expecting a cruise.
Bus travel meant an early start (I wasn’t the only one who groaned at an 8:30am departure on Christmas Day); Halfway through the week, many of us gave up as the bus rides got even longer. On Christmas Day it was a bearable 40 minutes one way to Bamberg, but Würzburg, on day three, was 90 minutes one way. And because the bus ride took up a lot of excursion time, we had to race through the cities.
We received an update on December 27. The river was still impassable, but Uniworld had decided to pull a few rabbits out of the hat. A tour of a bunker beneath Nuremberg, where the Nazis hid precious art, was organized for those who couldn’t make the two-hour bus journey to Wertheim. We jumped in and it was excellent, with two brilliant guides.
On the penultimate day, as an alternative to a three-hour bus ride to Frankfurt and a city tour, they offered a new excursion to Regensburg (a beautiful town in the opposite direction of where we should have gone) or a short cruise along the canal to Roth, where we would pick up those who had passed through Regensburg and sailed back to Nuremberg.
Many chose to stay on board and it was great to see new friends from Tasmania who had never been on a river cruise before, eager to move, navigate locks and learn how they worked.
My only hope is that they try again. It wasn’t the holiday we expected, but despite all the problems, after spending every Christmas bar two (blame lockdowns) on a river barge since 2012, I can’t imagine a better place to be.
Do you want to know if I had a great Christmas? You bet I did.
If you’re concerned about your cruise being affected by water levels, here are a few things you need to know.
Does high water occur often?
The flooding we experienced was extreme – we saw how bad the situation was when we visited Würzburg. Viking and Scenic river ships were also stuck here and the lock used by ships to bypass a weir was completely flooded. However, nuisance due to high water is not an unusual occurrence.
In extreme situations, a few companies can get around the problem by switching passengers between ships (this is what happened with Viking), but more often than not, water levels usually result in only a few changes at ports.
For example, on a Rhine cruise in 2012 we were supposed to be in Strasbourg on Christmas Day, but the river was too high to get under the bridges close to the city, so we were coached there from Mannheim. Our ship was already in Strasbourg anyway, so only that day was disrupted.
When is the best time to avoid high water?
It can happen at any time, but spring is always a gamble as rivers can be hit by the double whammy of alpine snowmelt and rain. A lot of snow fell in Europe at the beginning of December and that, in combination with heavy rainfall before Christmas, caused the Main to overflow its banks.
Is low tide also a problem?
Yes, but unlike flooding, the situation can change within hours. One summer, a nighttime storm meant that a passage through the Rhine Gorge, which had been impossible a few hours earlier due to low tide, was suddenly back on track.
Low tide is more likely in summer, but has been known to happen at Christmas. Most companies avoid the River Elbe in Germany altogether because it regularly runs out of water, both in summer and winter.
Are there rivers immune to high water?
The water levels on the Douro in northern Portugal are regulated by five locks, so flooding is not a problem. The Rhône and Saône in France are not immune to high water, but it is very rare.
Canals are regulated, so the Dutch and Belgian waterways are a safe bet. Most cruises there take place in the spring, when the tulips are blooming. Yet there is much more to enjoy than just flowers, so a few companies, such as Viva Cruises and Avalon Waterways, also sail there in the summer.
CroisiEurope and European Waterways offer inland waterway holidays on the canals of France and Germany. These ships are a good choice. Because they are so small and can only carry eight to 24 passengers, they can visit more remote places.
Can I claim compensation if I do not sail?
River cruise lines will refund your money (or offer an alternative cruise) if they have to cancel your holiday. They also offer a refund or compensation if they are unable to provide a “significant part” of your holiday or need to make a “significant change” to what has been booked.
Unfortunately, changes due to water levels, including being coached everywhere instead of cruising, are not considered “significant.”
Uniworld said it is making every effort to maintain the itineraries as advertised, but reserves the right to make changes and substitutions as necessary to ensure the safety of guests and the ships.
“Every effort will be made to notify guests of any known changes prior to boarding,” a representative told Telegraph Travel. “Otherwise, all guests on board will be informed of the changes. Any changes to itineraries, including the addition of extended coaches that affect the operation of the intended itinerary, will not result in the right to a refund.”
Can I claim something?
Not according to the fine print. However, it doesn’t hurt to contact the company if you’re not satisfied. The best know that goodwill goes a long way toward retaining customers.