Europe's River Cruise Season Off To A Dry Start?

May 9, 2011

(2:35 p.m. EDT) -- At a time when water levels on Europe's rivers are traditionally at their highest, operators of commercial river traffic on the Rhine are being warned of possible bottlenecks at narrow points of the river due to water shortages.

According to reports on the news Web site Bloomberg, water levels on the Rhine and its tributaries are at their lowest level in 17 months. April was unusually dry and meltwater from the Alps, which feeds Europe's rivers, was less than usual, due to a poor snow season.

At the moment, the situation is only affecting barges carrying freight, which are having to travel with lighter loads to avoid running aground. While the majority of river cruise operators we've spoken to have not shown any concern at this stage, Avalon Waterways, which is launching a new ship, the Avalon Panorama, this Friday, has issued travel trade and media on the pre-inaugural voyage with a "Plan B" program, should the ship not be able to operate its proposed Frankfurt-Mainz-Rudesheim-Koblenz-Cochem-Cologne itinerary. A decision hasn't been made yet, but Panorama may not be able to operate the Rhine Gorge section of its trip (so potentially missing out Rudesheim, Koblenz and Cochem).

Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, told Cruise Critic: "Our Avalon operations team continues to monitor the water level situation closely and is making preparations in the event that low water levels make some areas of the Rhine impassable. We have contingency plans in place to fully operate itineraries and excursions while navigating around any affected areas of the river."

Viking River Cruises, AmaWaterways and Uniworld, all of which have river boats on the Rhine and its tributaries, reported no operational changes when we contacted them today and in any case, river cruise operators do usually manage to run most of their tours by coach in the event of the river being too high or too low; it's just less scenic than the actual sailing option.

Rain is forecast for later this week, which could alleviate the problem, but there's no question about it; Europe's main river cruise season isn't looking at the best of starts.

--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor