Is climate change killing the river cruise industry?

It’s every holidaymakers’ nightmare: you’ve painstakingly planned your trip, forked out thousands of pounds and counted down the days until you can put your ‘out of office’ on – only to find that the holiday you booked isn’t the one you actually get, or worse that your jaunt has been cancelled. 

That’s the scenario facing tourists who have booked a romantic river cruise along Europe’s rivers this winter, following an uncharacteristically dry, hot summer that has left water levels at record lows. 

As a result, some cruises have had to be cut from a week to just two days on the water. Vienna and Budapest, traditionally two highlights of a Danube cruise, are cut off from each other, meaning passengers face an arduous three-hour coach journey instead. The German city of Regensburg, another highlight, is proving impossible to reach.

Matters aren’t much better on the Rhine, where cruise ships are struggling to make it to Cologne or to the Rhine Gorge.

It’s a position that journalist, Jane Archer, found herself in earlier this year: “Alarm bells were ringing for me as we cruised the Rhine from Rotterdam to Cologne.

“It was a hot August day and along the river, locals were swimming from ‘beaches’ that should not have been there. In Cologne, the captain confirmed the worst. Water levels in the Rhine Gorge were so low we could not get through.

“It was disappointing. We were sailing from Amsterdam to Mainz on Titan Travel’s Bellejour, and the gorge and a day in Strasbourg at the other end were highlights of the trip.

“Titan’s staff scrambled to find places to take us without straying far from the gorge in case water levels changed. We cruised the Moselle River, visited Cochem and ended up in Remagen, where Titan gave us free entry to the World War Two museum.

“Annoyingly a few vessels with very low drafts managed to get through the gorge. Something to remember when next choosing a Rhine cruise.”

Anyone hoping autumn rains have rectified matters will be disappointed. Rainfall has been low over northern Europe, and the river levels have continued to drop. In Budapest, the Danube has fallen so low the remains of a bridge destroyed during the Nazi occupation have been exposed.

And relief is in short supply. Climate scientists say dwindling glaciers in the Alps mean there will be less melt-water to make up the shortfall in the spring.

That’s not to say that passengers shouldn’t book a river cruise – the majority of river cruises can be enjoyed without any drama – and, as Tauck River & Small Ship Cruising VP Katharine Bonner says: “Virtually all types of vacations are weather-dependent to one degree or another” – but it pays to do your homework.

How does weather affect a river cruise?

Two diametrically-opposed events can affect the smooth running of a river cruise. On the one hand, too little water in the river means vessels can’t sail because they could run aground. Too much water and they can’t move, because they can’t get under bridges or access their docking areas.

Is there a particular time of year when water levels are at their worse in Europe?

High water is most likely in spring when rivers are swollen by rain and snow melt, but flooding – due to persistent rainfall – can happen at any time.

Low water can occur any time. It’s usually due to a heatwave and, of course, a shortage of rainfall, but the problem is exacerbated when there is a drought after a dry winter, when there hasn’t been the usual precipitation and snow melt to top up the river at the start of the season.

Which rivers are particularly prone to low waters?

The bad news is that most rivers in Europe can be affected by high or low water. On the plus side, it doesn’t mean that all river cruises will be cancelled.

The worst offender for low water is the Elbe, which is why few companies sail there – despite the fabulous sights you can see on the way. France’s Loire River also has issues.

Cruise lines such as CroisiEurope are coping by designing ships which have paddlewheels and can cope with low water levels.

Will my cruise line contact me if there is an issue?

Yes, but don’t expect plenty of notice. River cruise companies want to keep their customers happy and honour their bookings, so they’ll leave it to the last minute to make a decision on whether to alter the itinerary. Should this happen, confirmed passengers will typically receive an email from the company. News is often posted on social media too.

If water levels are affected, will my trip still run?

River cruise companies prefer to modify itineraries rather than outright cancel a cruise, wherever possible. This could mean shorter sailing time, a change of itinerary or being bussed to the places you should have visited by river.

Where possible, for instance if the high or low water is affecting a specific area, companies will transfer passengers from one vessel to another to get around the problem. 

Bottom line? You’ll need to be prepared, pardon the pun, to go with the flow. 

Will I be compensated if my trip is cancelled?

Rest assured that if your European river cruise is cancelled (or turns into a land tour), a refund (including flights booked as part of the package) is offered in most cases. Be sure to check the small print though, before booking.

What the river cruise lines are saying

AmaWaterways

“AmaWaterways’ operations team is highly experienced and fully prepared with contingency plans to deal with any issues relating to low water. Our priority is and will continue to be looking after our guests, minimising any disruptions to their plans and ensuring they have a good holiday. 

“In the case of the current historical low water levels affecting parts of the Danube and Rhine, it is worth noting that we experienced no disruptions from low or high water in 2017. The last time the Rhine experienced such low water levels was 2003.

“We take great care to communicate any potential issues to our guests in advance of their trip and our team have been working hard to ensure this happens. We have not had to cancel any departures this year, but have been able to offer modified itineraries with many interesting ports of call, so guests may still travel as planned. 

“AmaWaterways has always taken a prudent approach to itinerary planning and have avoided certain rivers like the Elbe that have, over time, experienced more low water issues than others.”

Tauck River & Small Ship Cruising 

“While we can’t control the weather, we can control how we respond when conditions don’t cooperate. I think all of the major river cruise lines – Tauck included – have become far better at dealing with unusual circumstances when they occur along for the river.

“For our part, Tauck deploys riverboats on opposite sides of problematic areas each year, timing their sailings to allow for easy ‘ship swaps’ if necessary.

“It’s also important to view things within the proper perspective. Despite this year’s exceptionally low water levels, we cancelled just three cruises outright. Also, we operated 100 per cent normally the entire year on the Rhone and the Seine.

“Finally, it’s hard to argue that conditions this year along the Rhine and the Danube were indicative of a trend; in 2017 we operated normally throughout all of Europe for the entire year, and we had just minor high-water issues on the Rhine the year before. So by any measure, what we saw this year was highly unusual.”

Avalon Waterways

“Avalon Waterways is one of many river cruise lines impacted by recent low water conditions in several of Europe’s major rivers. Despite the pattern of low water in some areas this summer and autumn, this year has been totally out of the ordinary, and we don’t expect to encounter this situation regularly moving forwards. 

“The good news is that we have been able to successfully navigate the majority of our scheduled departures with little disruption throughout most of the cruise season. Where the conditions did not provide what we considered to be viable cruise alternatives, we took the decision to cancel the planned departures as we felt it to be in the best interests of our guests.

“This was necessary for five cruises and our customers were offered a choice of solutions to include a refund, a cruise credit to sail with us in the future, and the chance to continue their European holiday on a similar tour, using hotels and land transportation (with refunds as applicable).”

CroisiEurope

“Water levels on some European rivers were unusually low this year and this impacted a number of cruises on the Rhine and Danube in particular.

“However, as Europe’s largest river cruise operator with over 50 ships and 42 years experience in river cruising, CroisiEurope has the ability to handle situations such as this and we were able to amend itineraries as required so there was minimum disruption to our guests’ holidays.

“Thanks to the design of our ships, which are small to medium in size and equipped with ballast, low water levels aren’t such an issue for us as they are for other operators' larger, heavier ships which have faced problems this summer.

“Only a few of our departures have been impacted and these were only over a short period of time at the end of the season.”

Read the article here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/cruises/articles/advice-low-water-drought-river-cruise-europe/