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On a sunny Wednesday at the end of June, I arrived in Lyon, France, at Viking Longship Heimdal, ready for my French river cruise to Avignon on the Saone and Rhone rivers. I asked the Viking River Cruises employee escorting me to my room what time we were departing, expecting to hear that it was some time that evening.
“Probably Saturday,” I was told.
Unseasonable rain from weeks prior meant that water levels were too high to sail the Saone north to Macon, our first stop (and our only stop on the Saone before heading back to Lyon on Friday). Despite Heimdal’s long, narrow and relatively short height, it wouldn’t be able to fit under the bridges of the Saone.
“Getting under the bridge is a matter of centimeters,” said Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking River Cruises.
Luckily, the Rhone — which we were scheduled to sail for the remainder (and majority) of our cruise — was fine, so we’d be able to sail as usual. Therefore, the hiccup, which was formally announced during the cruise director’s first daily briefing, wouldn’t affect the rest of our itinerary.
Ship staff also told me it had been worse earlier in the season. There were weeks when the ship could not sail at all. And Seine River sailings were disrupted because of historic floods in Paris this year.
While France had a few weather-related setbacks this year, the Elbe and Danube rivers have been fine, according to Marnell. Notable floods affected Europe sailings in 2013. Last year, the Elbe had low water, which is usually caused by drought.
“High water is better since it tends to go away quickly,” Marnell said. “Low water has a tendency to linger longer.”
Other issues that could affect cruising include dense fog and high winds (as well as a variety of non-weather-related problems). While many experts say that fall is the best time to cruise to avoid water-level issues, others say it’s futile to try to predict the weather.
“There was one year with low water for Christmas Market cruises, and the next year, there was high water,” Marnell said. “That’s just how it rolls.”
How Often River Cruises Don’t SailMarnell wants travel agents to know that, statistically, it’s very rare for its ships not to sail.
“We handle more than 1,700 sailings in a year, which is about 13,600 sailing days on all the ships,” Marnell said. “Only about 2 percent of days have significant disruption.”
Marnell says Viking has gotten better at predicting the weather and quicker at informing cruisers in advance.
“We notify people before they go if we have warning from our operations staff that there’s going to be an issue,” Marnell said. “If we don’t have the opportunity to let them know in advance, the ship staff will. It’s better to exceed expectations upon arrival. We have become conservative in letting people know.”
What Happens When a Viking Ship Can’t SailViking staff are quick to tell you that the line has advantages over other river cruise lines due to its fleet size, its own in-house operations team and the uniformity of its ships.
Because Viking has so many ships, passengers can be transported from ship to ship along their itinerary’s route. According to the hotel manager on Heimdal, the Lyon to Avignon itinerary has three ships that sail that route simultaneously, so it’s possible to ensure that passengers can visit the destinations as planned and always stay on a Viking vessel.
Plus, Viking’s Longships are nearly identical to one another. This means that having to change ships three times in one eight-night itinerary isn’t jarring, and it’s also easy for the line to move passengers into the right stateroom category.
“We get criticized for not making our fleet distinctive, but the advantage is that we are able to move people seamlessly,” Marnell said.
Of course, most would admit that not getting to sail at all is a bummer, and having to change ships means unpacking again and getting acquainted with a new onboard crew. But Viking officials say it’s better than what ships with smaller fleets have to do: long bus rides and hotel nights at properties that don’t share the brand’s standards when it comes to food, room presentation and high-touch service.
On my cruise, I didn’t experience the Viking ship swap since there were no northbound ships (the Saone sailing is relatively short compared to the Rhone portion of the itinerary). We stayed in port on Wednesday night, and on Thursday, our wake-up call was a little earlier than it would have been had we been docked in Macon as planned.
Our itinerary for Macon featured an included (or Viking classic) excursion to Beaujolais in the morning, with the option of two add-on excursions in the afternoon. Since our ship was back in Lyon, Viking included lunch in Cluny for all guests with afternoon excursions. It was a nice touch for the sake of our convenience, but lunch — a rustic, three-course meal of Burgundian food — was also a great experience.
Did it feel like a bus tour? Not really — our total bus time was only 50 minutes longer than it would have been otherwise, and the scenery was beautiful.
Later on in the cruise — after several glorious sailing days — a propeller problem prevented us from sailing into Arles, the Provencal town that artist Vincent Van Gogh made famous. This added an hour bus ride to our day, which caused me to reconsider my plans.
Marnell says Viking comes up with “custom solutions” for guests upset with their river cruises, but during the entire trip, I never heard a single complaint about not sailing to Macon or having to bus into Arles.
Why? For me, the changes were serendipitous. As we drove into Arles, we spotted fields of towering sunflowers — bringing Van Gogh to life. It was what I came to France hoping to see.