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Will the drought in Europe affect your river cruise vacation?

August 18 2022
10 min read
Ships on Rhine river in Germany
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Experts are saying that the current drought in Europe could be the worst in 500 years, with water levels dropping, especially along the Rhine River. If have a river cruise planned for the end of the summer or the fall, should you be concerned?

Not at all, according to Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder AmaWaterways — as long as you’re willing to be a little bit flexible.

Here’s what you need to know about water levels on Europe rivers and what to expect if you’re booked on a river cruise or considering booking one.

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Cargo ships have it worse because of draft

The dire news you’re reading about low water levels in Europe now, especially along the Rhine River, mostly concerns the cargo shipping industry in Europe.

“The Rhine River is the main artery for German and Swiss transportation and also French,” said Schreiner. If water levels are low, cargo ships cannot carry their normal loads of freight.

That’s because the weight of the cargo such vessels carry affects their draft (the distance between the ship’s bottom and the water line). A weighted-down ship sinks lower in the water and therefore needs more distance from the water line to the river bottom to sail safely without scraping the riverbed.

If ships have to lighten their loads to cross shallow water, fewer goods can be transported at once. Companies will need more ships to carry the same amount of cargo, increasing transportation costs — all of which have a negative impact on the European economy.

Schreiner says that the last time Europe experienced extremely low water levels, in 2018, the economic impact was around 5.4 million euros ($5.4 million). You can see why people are worried.

However, the same problems do not affect river cruise ships.

“Our ships have a very low draft…about five feet,” he explained. “We also carry about 500 tons of water, that is ballast and fresh water for the guests.”

In the case of low water, the crew can dump the ballast water and reduce the freshwater to 60 tons (two days’ worth), and just refill as needed. The low draft and the adjustability of the ballast allow the ships to navigate through sections of the river where the water levels are not very deep.

Low water is only a problem at critical junctions, not along the entire river

Another point that travelers should understand is that when the news reports low water levels, it’s not that an entire river has dried up and is impassable.

“There are critical points, like the one on the Rhine River, right in the Rhine Gorge,” Schreiner explained. “There is rock on the bottom; there’s also this little house in the middle of the river. The area is protected and that’s where you have the low water issues. You could tear down the house and build a dam there, but that is not what is going to happen.”

Where the European rivers have locks and dams to control water levels, ships can still sail problem-free. Another section of river that can be negatively affected by low water levels is the Danube, past the last lock in Slovakia heading downriver toward Hungary. If water levels fall, riverboats can have trouble sailing all the way to Budapest.

Because these problem spots are well known, river cruise lines can find ways to mitigate the issues with savvy itinerary planning.

Related: Best river cruises in Europe

River cruise lines plan itineraries with water levels in mind

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle by Kaub, Germany, on the Rhine River. (Photo by Westend61/Getty Images)

The river cruise lines will tell you that low water levels are rare, and that few sailings are altered due to water levels – but the truth is the risk is always present. Any time there’s a heat wave in Europe, especially if coupled with lighter-than-average spring snow melt or rainfall, you can end up with low water in certain parts of Europe.

The cruise lines plan their itineraries to mitigate this risk.

One thing Amawaterways and many other river lines do is run two ships simultaneously on the same one-way itinerary, with one ship starting at one end and the other on the opposite end.

Schreiner gives an example of two identical sister ships, AmaLucia and AmaSiena, that both sail the Rhine.

“We have one ship starting in Amsterdam and one ship starting in Basel…If they cannot pass Kaub [the critically low water point on the Rhine], then [the passengers] all disembark on either side," he explained. "They disembark in the morning, they go on the shore excursion, and they come back on the other side on the sister ship. In the same cabin. Their luggage has been moved over automatically so by the time they arrive on the ship they have their luggage, and then they sail on the other ship back to the destination.”

Other than the hassle of packing up in the middle of the cruise, travelers still get the full Rhine experience they paid for.

If the water issues are closer to the beginning or end of an itinerary, cruisers may have to spend a few days in hotels or bussing to destinations rather than sailing there. In some cases, an itinerary may be adjusted with certain destinations dropped and new ones added. Only in very rare circumstances are the sailings canceled outright.

“We will not cancel any cruises,” said Shreiner. Instead, in the most extreme cases, AmaWaterways will create a new itinerary.

Not every river cruise line takes the same stance.

“We’ve canceled one cruise on the Danube and have made a few mostly minor alterations to a small handful of cruises on the Rhine,” a Tauck spokesman told TPG when asked about this year’s cruises. “Like other river cruise lines, we’ve dealt successfully with low-water situations in the past, and we have a variety of strategies that we can deploy as necessary. Unlike other river cruise lines, however, we’re very fortunate that we also operate numerous land tours throughout the region, so we have a fantastic network of local supplier-partners that we can leverage as necessary should alternate arrangements become necessary.”

The situation changes day by day

Water levels are unpredictable and can vary day by day, depending on what the weather brings.

“We’ve been cruising since March with no issues” until August, said Schreiner. “We have a very good rain forecast for this Thursday/Friday, and fairly heavy rains coming, so [the situation] might change.”

However, as everyone knows, predicting the weather is not an exact science. This is why most lines are not offering flexible cancellation policies or waiving penalties for canceling a river cruise because they’re worried their itinerary will get disrupted due to low water levels.

“If you want to cancel a cruise right now in October because of low water, I will tell you, ‘Sorry, we don’t know if there’s low water in October,’” said Schreiner. “You don’t know a week or 10 days in advance what will happen with the water levels. They can go up, they can go down, rain can come in.”

Ships might be able to pass through a tricky spot, like Kaub, today but not tomorrow, or can’t this week but can next week. Some years, low water levels caused disruptions as early as June and some years as late as October. Just as with ocean sailings, there’s always a risk that weather and river/sea conditions can impact that itinerary, and cruisers must accept that itineraries cannot be set in stone.

If you book a river cruise, you acknowledge that you might not get the exact itinerary you signed up for.

Related: Booking your first river cruise? Here’s what you need to know.

You will be reimbursed

Most river cruise lines do not allow guests to cancel pre-cruise without penalty except for in the most extreme circumstances. However, you won’t be entirely out of luck if your itinerary changes once you arrive at your ship.

For every day that is altered, AmaWaterways guests will get 50% of the daily rate they paid as a future cruise credit. If the whole itinerary is changed, you’ll get to sail the new itinerary and receive a 100% future cruise credit to book another cruise. Tauck says it deals with compensation on a case-by-case basis.

Should your cruise be canceled, the cruise line will also offer compensation. “While we may have to make changes to some of our itineraries and have had to cancel a few voyages, impacted guests and travel partners have and will receive transparent updates and the opportunity to re-book onto another sailing,” shared Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of Uniworld, in an email to TPG.

This is not the end of river cruising

A recent CNN article proclaimed that summer droughts like the current one, plus global warming, could signal a death knell for river cruises in the near future. Schreiner does not hold with that assertion because river cruise lines simply adjust their schedules year after year for optimal weather conditions.

“Look at the Mekong — you don’t cruise in May, June, July and August because it’s too hot. You don’t cruise in Egypt in June/July because it’s too hot. In Europe, we don’t cruise in January, February and into early March because it’s too cold,” he explained. “Maybe 10 years from now we cruise the Danube and Rhine in January/February/March and we stop in the summertime because August is too hot and there are low water areas.”

“We don’t know what the future will bring,” he continued. "But it’s clear that river cruising is not going away anytime soon."

Bottom line

This year’s summer drought in Europe could affect your upcoming river cruise, but it’s highly unlikely your cruise will be canceled outright.

At best, you’ll do a ship swap mid-cruise, a slight inconvenience that will allow you to follow your planned itinerary. Or, you might have a few port stops changed out for new ones, or spend more time than you prefer in busses or hotels, possibly with shorter visits to destinations that now require longer bus rides.

You will, however, still get a vacation in Europe, even if it’s not the one you expected.

Schreiner’s advice is simple: Just go. “You will be cruising, you will be enjoying," he said. "You might see some cities you might not have expected to see and you might miss some you wanted to see. In the end, you will have a fantastic vacation and you will get a future cruise credit according to what you miss.”

He added: “It’s better than canceling and sitting at home and not doing anything.”

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured photo by Getty Images/EyeEm
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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