Could Europe Drought Spell Big Trouble for River Cruise Lines?

December 3, 2011

(Update 10:38 a.m. EST) -- River cruise operators in Europe are hoping that rain forecast for this weekend will resolve the disastrous situation of exceptionally low water levels on the Rhine and Danube.

An autumn drought has meant that the port of Budapest has been closed this week and passengers on Christmas markets river cruises have been ferried around by bus instead of ship in the first busy week of the season.

Currently, riverboats can only sail the Danube as far as Komarom, some 60 miles short of Budapest, and cruise lines are employing a variety of contingency plans to get people to the Hungarian capital. "Rather than bus people into the city, we decided on last week's cruise to overnight them in Budapest in a hotel so that they could still experience being in the heart of [the city] rather than incur lengthy bus journeys," Viking River Cruises' U.K. Managing Director, Wendy Atkin-Smith, told Cruise Critic. "This will be our contingency plan for this weekend, too, if nothing changes with the water situation." Viking is posting updates about itinerary changes on its Web site.

AMAWATERWAYS president Rudi Schreiner told Cruise Critic that Budapest was "too risky" for the company at the moment because of the low water levels. "We still have several days before our next ship arrives in Budapest, and things can change quickly. There is rain in the forecast," he said. In fact, Cruise Critic member Susanb1 is on Amalegro, docked in Komarom, Hungary, and reports on the message boards today: "While sailing last night from Vienna to here at 3:30 a.m. the ship scraped bottom but was able to continue to our mooring. I believe they are quite worried that they will not be able to get back. They were also saying they may only be able to make it as far as Regensburg for the next cruise ... but again that has not been determined." Passengers on Amalyra have been taken to Budapest by bus for the day and given 20 euros each for lunch.

Uniworld reports that two of its holiday market cruises are operating as normal (River Beatrice and River Queen), but that the line is monitoring the water levels between Passau and Regensburg for its River Empress cruise. Company president Guy Young told Cruise Critic in an e-mail that "this stretch of the river may present a challenge and we already have a contingency plan in place."

The Rhine is suffering from a lack of water, too, and both Avalon Waterways, Uniworld and Viking are switching passengers onto ships with shallower drafts so that they can keep sailing. Uniworld is starting passengers on its Rhine Holiday Market cruise on new ship S.S. Antoinette, but in Strasbourg on day five will transfer cruisers to River Princess. Young says, "We did proactively notify guests of the ship change in advance of the cruise departure. And while we did receive a few cancellations the majority of our guests are sailing with us."

Weather-related problems on Europe's rivers are not unusual. Water levels are often too high in spring (so ships can't fit under the low bridges), or too low, like now. Last year, the Main-Danube Canal froze, creating further challenges for cruise lines.

What Cruise Critic members posting on the message boards are unhappy with is not so much the situation, but the way it is being communicated.

YodaMom has just returned from a Viking River Cruise from Amsterdam to Basel. "What really concerns me is that we were not told about the river level," she says on the boards. "It is a historical low and not navigable for many type of ships -- including Viking River Cruise ships. They knew this. They interrupted a previous trip. We were only on the ship three stops. We unloaded, suitcases sitting on the sidewalk in Koblenz. It was buses from that point all the way up to Basel. It was dull, miserable, nothing like the brochures claimed."

Member At_NYC is also unhappy following a recent cruise in Europe. "On our Viking trip, the passengers were not told of the low water issue until the night before they need to be bussed. And even as we got bussed to Passau, they didn't say anything about the Vienna to Budapest stretch, until a German speaking passenger overheard a conversation between two crewmembers!"

Viking's Atkin-Smith has told Cruise Critic that full refunds -- in the form of future cruise credit -- are being offered to anybody who wants to cancel because of the water levels.

Avalon Waterways, according to Bpcruiser, has got it right. This member was switched from the new Avalon Panorama to the smaller Tapestry so that a Rhine cruise could be completed, and says: "Avalon offered us a full cancellation refund before we even departed the U.S. They also offered for those who decided to stay with the cruise on the Tapestry a $400 per person refund to our credit card used for trip payment as well as a 100 Euros/pp on board ship credit."

But as member Steamboats, an experienced river cruiser living in Germany, contests, "River levels can change pretty quickly. So it doesn't make any sense to inform passengers, let's say a week ahead of the cruise, that there might be any problems on an upcoming cruise."

Rain is forecast for this weekend for central Germany as well as Budapest so stay tuned to see if the situation changes.

--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor