European River Cruises Hit a New Obstacle: Not Enough Water

A week into a two-week river cruise along the Danube River in August, Erin Needham, her husband, Scott, and her mother-in-law, Linda, found themselves in an odd position: their trip, Ms. Needham’s first to Europe, was being cut short because the water was too shallow for the ship to go on.

Stuck in Vilshofen, Germany, and unable to make it to Passau, the next stop on the itinerary, Ms. Needham was disappointed, but her cruise company, Riviera Cruises, had warned guests that this could happen, so she felt she couldn’t be upset.

After a few days in Vilshofen some passengers opted to take a bus tour planned by Riviera while others decided to get on their flights home a week early. Ms. Needham and her family chose to continue their cruise on another ship, also run by Riviera, along the Rhine river.

“They transferred us to another cruise today with a fancier room AND we get to go to France! Now we are at the Chocolate Museum and our ship is docked in the background. Things are turning around,” Ms. Needham tweeted. (Ms. Needham later told The Times that she couldn’t have been more impressed with how the company handled the situation.)

Ms. Needham’s experience isn’t unique. For the thousands of people who have taken part in river cruises down the Danube, the Rhine, the Rhone and the Elbe this year, low waters have caused challenges and disruptions to travel.

“Sometimes it’s tough to decide if we should cancel before a trip starts,” said Jana Tvedt the vice president of Riviera Travel USA. “You think it’s going to work one way and then two days later it’s totally different.”

In previous years, captains on river cruises navigated through high waters caused by heavy rain and melted snow, but rarely through such low waters. The shallow waters are the result of a hot, dry summer across Europe that has left parts of the Rhine at record-low levels for months.

The unpredictable nature of the weather, especially the inability to know when it will rain next, has left cruise goers irate and unsure of whether to go on their trips.

“We got an email three days before we were supposed to leave, with the option to cancel for a full refund,” said Carol Milosch. (Ms. Milosch and her two companions had paid a total of $6,500 for their cruise.)

After a few hours of debating, Ms. Milosch, who lives in Asheville, N.C., chose to go on the October trip on Avalon Waterways because she had been planning it since December. Three days of the eight-day trip were spent touring the countryside by bus instead of cruising the Rhine.

“We still saw a lot and Avalon was good to us, but it just wasn’t the trip I spent nearly a year imagining,” Ms. Milosch said.

It’s not just passengers who have had to adjust to the drought and planning challenges.

Cruise companies including Riviera, which Ms. Needham’s family sailed with, and Avalon, which Ms. Milosch’s family used, have had to think of ways to keep trips intact, despite the low waters.

“We’ve had to find creative solutions,” said Rudi Schreiner, president and co-owner of AmaWaterways. “We don’t know a week ahead if the water will hit critical levels, but people book their trips sometimes a year ahead and we want to provide them with the best possible vacation.”

If the water is too low in certain areas, Mr. Schreiner’s company tries to make it up. For each day that the cruise deviates from the planned itinerary, passengers receive a 15 percent discount off a future trip. And if the trip cannot go forward on the river, bus tours are provided. Similar deals are provided by other companies.

“We still want you to have a good time, but maybe that’s in a slightly different area than planned,” Mr. Schreiner said.

Typically, if a cruise is canceled or moved to land, a full refund — including airfare, if booked as part of the package — is offered. Travelers who book their own airfare separately will not be guaranteed a refund for that part of their trip unless they bought travel insurance or a refundable ticket.

In addition to moving passengers to buses for land tours, many companies move their passengers from one ship to another at the point where the water is low. Ship swapping — stopping one ship just before it reaches a point too low to navigate, and moving passengers to another ship in a part of the river with navigable waters — has become a common way of managing the low waters along the Danube, Rhine and Elbe, in particular.

And as the off-season approaches, some companies are planning to dedicate more time than in previous years to figuring out how to prepare for next summer.

“We made the right decisions this year, but we’ll be meeting to figure out how to improve our processes,” said Pam Hoffee, the managing director of Avalon Waterways. “If this happens again next year, we want to communicate with our guests faster and help them as quickly as possible.”

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