Michelle Baran
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.


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