Rain in Europe washes away river cruising's low-water worries

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A view of the Rhine River in Rudesheim, Germany, in early August 2022. Water levels are lower than usual this season due to excessive heat and little to no snow and rainfall earlier in the year.
A view of the Rhine River in Rudesheim, Germany, in early August 2022. Water levels are lower than usual this season due to excessive heat and little to no snow and rainfall earlier in the year. Photo Credit: TW photo by Nicole Edenedo

Rain has arrived in Europe, much to the relief of river cruise lines that had been forced to disrupt dozens of sailings in recent weeks due to low water levels.

A number of companies say that recent rainfall has been enough to replenish parts of Europe's most severely affected rivers to water levels sufficient for the resumption of normal sailing operations, and bodes well for fall sailings.

"The rainfall Europe has received in recent weeks has improved the water levels and as a result, Avalon Waterways' cruises are operating normally," said Steve Born, chief marketing officer of the Globus family of brands. "The nature of rivers is to ebb and flow, and we're thrilled our guests are enjoying their vacations as they were intended."

The Danube and the Rhine had been among the rivers hardest hit by water levels so low at some points that river cruise lines began altering itineraries and canceling cruises.

Scenic, Emerald, Avalon Waterways, Amadeus River Cruises, Uniworld and Viking all had to cancel or alter cruises this summer. Alterations involved having guests switch ships and use motorcoaches and rail services to complete disrupted itineraries. 

"We had to alter just a handful of cruises," Born said, noting that by mid-August, three out of seven itineraries sailing the Rhine and Danube required ship swaps and four cruises needed to be canceled. "In the rare instances guests undergo a ship swap, they maintain their ship experience, including stateroom -- down to the number -- regardless of the ship's name."

Some cruise lines gave guests the choice to continue with altered itineraries, rebook on different departures or receive partial or full refunds for unused cruise days. 

Denise Koranek of Sunset Travel Vacations in Grapevine, Texas, said that all three river cruises she booked for clients with Scenic had been disrupted. She said about one-third of her clients chose to follow the new itineraries offered. 

"They will receive reimbursement for their train tickets from Amsterdam to Switzerland (up to $500) to catch their flight from Zurich back home," Koranek said. "Two-thirds canceled and will rebook."

Captain Arjan Leunis navigates the AmaLucia through Mannheim, Germany, on the Rhine River.
Captain Arjan Leunis navigates the AmaLucia through Mannheim, Germany, on the Rhine River. Photo Credit: TW photo by Nicole Edenedo

High temperatures coupled with a lack of sufficient rainfall for months is what caused already-low water levels to continue to drop as summer progressed. Cruise lines say the trouble for sailings started in late July and continued through mid-August. 

"It started impacting us notably in July when we could not transfer vessels between the Rhine and Danube, which led to ships ending up in the wrong river," said Marcus Leskovar, executive vice president of Amadeus River Cruises, adding that departure schedules were also disrupted.

Ellen Bettridge, CEO of Uniworld, said the company's large fleet in Europe lessened the impact of low water on operations.

"In total, we've only had to cancel 7% of our cruises that we felt could not be adjusted to our standards and have operated 93% of our European cruises as planned with little to no changes," Bettridge said, adding that impacted guests can usually be accommodated on other Uniworld ships sailing in Italy, France and Portugal.

Up until now, travel advisors had been waiting with bated breath for rain to arrive as they fielded numerous phone calls and emails from clients on impacted cruises. Several were on edge about the possibility that river cruises they had booked for September would be the next to fall through. 

"I have clients on Rhine cruises with Avalon in September and praying the cruises don't get canceled due to low water levels," said Toni Lanotte-Day, owner of Toni Tours in Levittown, N.Y. "These folks have already been rescheduled twice due to Covid." 

Suzy Schreiner, owner of Azure Blue Vacations in Bothell, Wash., said a recent group she hosted on an AmaWaterways cruise was one of the few ships on the river at the time.

"We were literally one of the only ships able to complete our itinerary simply due to the fact that the ship is a bit smaller and has a [shallower] draft than even other Ama ships," Schreiner said of the AmaStella.

AmaWaterways said it did not have any cancellations this summer -- but even with the cruise line's shallow-draft ships, the company was not entirely unaffected by low water levels.

"Itineraries on the Rhine and Danube rivers were modified where it was necessary," said Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder of AmaWaterways. "All our ships are once again sailing their original planned itineraries. Our experienced teams will continue to monitor the situation closely, but with the good mix of sun and rain forecasted for the weeks ahead, our guests can expect to enjoy a spectacular fall river cruise season." 

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