Low water levels plague Europe river cruises

With a low water level, a large stretch of the Elbe’s riverbed was exposed in August near Magdeburg, Germany. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
 

A hot and dry summer in Europe has led to lower-than-normal water levels on portions of the Danube and Elbe rivers throughout the summer, and has forced river cruise lines to alter their itineraries during July, August and now into September.

“Water levels on the Elbe and Danube rivers are currently lower than normal and Viking has had to make adjustments to the cruise schedules of several ships sailing these rivers,” Viking River Cruises wrote on its website this week.

Five Viking cruises have been altered this week, four of which include a ship swap. Passengers will be transferred in order to avoid a low-water area of the Elbe River that ships cannot bypass.

Additionally, Viking’s Sept. 2 “Grand European Tour” from Budapest to Amsterdam, scheduled to depart on the Viking Aegir, will begin in Komarom, Hungary, on the Viking Embla. Viking will provide transfers from Budapest to Komarom.

“These are currently the only sailings we expect to be altered by the low water on the rivers,” Viking stated.

But low water levels have been a problem all summer. The low levels on the Elbe came during a year when Viking launched two new vessels on the river in eastern Germany. Other river cruise lines have avoided the Elbe in part because of the challenges presented when the water level is low.

The Danube River is one that all the major river cruise lines sail. The area on the Danube where the low waters have posed a problem is the 75-mile stretch between Regensburg and Passau in Germany.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection had to alter eight Danube River sailings in July and August, which included having guests swap ships from one side of the low waters to the other. The company canceled its Aug. 9 “European Jewels” cruise on the Maria Theresa, deciding that there wouldn’t be enough actual cruising in the trip to justify the departure.

“We sincerely appreciate the understanding and support our guests and travel industry partners have shown during this challenging time,” Uniworld wrote on its website.

Avalon Waterways wrote on its Facebook page last week that the river levels on the Danube had again begun to recede.

“Danube River waters receded over the weekend and early this week. Once again, the waters between Regensburg and Passau are beginning to delay and/or stall ship passage. We are fervently working to keep cruise itinerary disruptions to a minimum. If or when cruise itineraries are altered, however, we will provide affected travelers with alternate opportunities to see and explore the best Europe has to offer,” Avalon wrote on Facebook.

The post elicited a string of comments from passengers, some concerned about current and upcoming sailings, others with positive messages of support and kudos for how Avalon handled past sailings that were disrupted due to low water levels.

The forecast is calling for rain in the coming days, according to Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, which has not had to alter any of its Danube itineraries yet this summer. Schreiner is hoping that some much-needed precipitation along the Danube will help bring the river’s water levels back up.

Another season, another water level gamble

River Rhine

It seems almost inevitable. The river cruise season gets underway and then either high or low water levels due to heavy rains or lack thereof cause some disruptions. And this season is no exception.

Since the start of the month, river cruise lines have been dealing with higher than normal water levels on Europe’s Rhine, Danube, Rhone and Seine rivers, which forced several river cruise lines to alter some of their itineraries.

Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

The challenge is that there is no telling when or how severely these highs and lows will happen. But river cruise passengers should perhaps be made aware of the possibility and of the ways in which high or low water levels could impact their trip, because as we have seen year in and year out, some disruptions, however minor, almost always occur at some point in the season.

“So far, it doesn’t seem to have deterred clients from river cruising but if these dramatic rain or drought weather patterns continue with more and more sailings affected, it may start to have an impact in the future,” said Linda Dinsmore, a river and small ship specialist who runs the website The River Cruise Lady.

Dinsmore admitted that she doesn’t talk to clients about water levels before they take a river cruise, and that so far clients haven’t been asking about water levels, “so I think it’s a situation that you hope doesn’t happen.”

That said, she had clients that ran into some issues last week on the Rhine River, where they were driven further up the river to board their ship due to the higher waters, an adjustment that “was not too disruptive,” she noted.

When water levels are higher than normal, river cruise vessels can’t squeeze under the low bridges they need to bypass to complete their sailings, and when water levels are low they can’t sail through shallower waters where there isn’t enough clearance for the ships’ drafts. So, each river cruise line undertakes a variety of contingency plans when this happens, including (but not limited to) busing passengers to ports and destinations they can’t reach by ship, having them stay in a hotel for an extra night or two if the ship cannot get to them, or having passengers swap ships, which entails boarding another ship on the other side of an impassable bridge or stretch of water, a strategy Viking River Cruises employed for this most recent water rise.

Viking said on its website that it has contacted guests whose cruises need to be adjusted due to this month’s higher water levels, including those on the May 13 Passage to Eastern Europe cruise aboard Viking Lif, which is now taking place on sister ship, Viking Aegir; and those on the May 13 Grand European Tour aboard Viking Aegir, which is now taking place on sister ship, Viking Lif. (Viking said it does not anticipate any further itinerary changes beyond these sailings.)

While this season’s disruptions are nowhere near the mayhem caused by the historic floods in Europe two years back, they serve as a reminder that river cruising, despite all its potential and success, still has some notable vulnerabilities. And while river cruise companies have grown very accustomed to working around water-level issues, for customers the required itinerary changes can still serve as a disappointment if they weren’t made aware of the possibility in advance.“The mainstream cruise lines are getting better at handling these conditions and it’s not something that occurs too often or for too long when it does,” said Pete Larson, owner of River Cruise Guru. But, he added, “I always advise my clients about fluctuating river levels and how it could affect their cruise … Many new river cruisers come from the ocean cruise market where this isn’t something they may have experienced or thought about.”