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.

The highs and lows of river water levels

The highs and lows of river water levels

By Michelle Baran
InsightAs river cruise lines glide into their busy sailing season, high water levels on the Mississippi and some lower levels on the Danube and Elbe rivers in Europe serve as a reminder that conditions on the rivers are as changeable as they are charming.

And while river cruise executives themselves often admit there isn’t anything they can do about the water levels (despite likely wishing they could!), the way river companies respond is indicative of the fact that the product is adaptable and water level issues are often somewhat solvable with a bit of innovation and operations juggling.

Recently, water levels on the Elbe River and a stretch of the Danube River between Regensburg and Passau in Germany were lower than normal, Viking Cruises informed passengers on its website. MichelleBaran

In response, Viking is having impacted guests begin their itineraries on a different sister ship than was originally scheduled located on the other side of the impassable lower water area. Can’t pass through? No problem. There’s an identical ship waiting on the other side.

Scenic Cruises did what many river cruise lines do in this situation: It had passengers who couldn’t continue their itinerary on one vessel swap ships with passengers on the other side of the lower water level area.

“It is not that unusual for the rivers of Europe to go through phases of low or high waters — remember last year’s historic high water levels?” noted Elliot Gillies, spokesman for Scenic Cruises and Emerald Waterways.

In order to reduce the amount of impact, Gillies noted that parent company Scenic Tours builds its Scenic Cruises and Emerald Waterways river cruise vessels with the lowest drafts possible to be able to pass through shallower waters.

But at the end of the day, the issue is in the hands of Mother Nature.

“Water levels are generally influenced by the snow pack in the mountains of Central Europe and the amount of rain during the season. As long as there is enough water in total running into the rivers, operations can be expected to run smoothly,” noted Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, which does not operate on the Elbe and only faced some minor itinerary adjustments due to the lower waters.

Indeed, the ebbing rivers in Europe are a small operational blip compared to last year’s flooding in Central Europe that wreaked havoc on the region and the river cruises running through it.

In the U.S., the Mississippi is once again showing its erratic side (there have been ups and downs on this river as well in the past couple of years that have caused delays and itinerary disruptions).

Heavy downpours in recent weeks in the Midwest have resulted in flooding along stretches of the Mississippi River, and forced the American Queen Steamboat Co. (AQSC) to move its American Queen paddlewheeler to the Ohio River for the remainder of July.

AQSC President and COO Ted Sykes observed that “sometimes river conditions are outside our control.”

I think it’s safe to say they’re always out of river cruise lines’ control, but their tides still flow in favor of the river cruise industry at large.