Water Levels on the Rivers of Europe
When all is said and done, there is no way to accurately predict whether your river cruise will be affected by low-water or high-water. But in general, high water occurs in the spring while low water occurs in heat of the summer, usually August. The summer of 2018 saw record low water levels on the Danube. However, contrary to the conventional wisdom, I saw record lows on the Rhine in November of 2015. While high or low water can impact your river cruise, in 50+ river cruises, I’ve never experienced a major disruption because of high water or low water, and I have cruised in both. I should add that I did not river cruise in the summer of 2018. In the comments below, some readers say their dream vacations were disappointing because of low water. Others had their trips scuttled altogether because the river cruise companies could not operate. My hope is that this page will serve as a useful forum for sharing information about the conditions on the rivers and how the cruise companies are handling adverse water levels.– Ralph Grizzle
Whether a river has high or low water levels is something you’re unlikely to consider when planning your river cruise – until it happens to you.
Unlike ocean cruising, river cruising is all about narrow margins. Low bridges make the air draft of a ship – how much of it sticks out of the water – critically important. Most river cruise ships have collapsible upper deck railings, removable furniture, and even navigation bridges that lower completely into the floor.
What’s under the keel – or hull – of your river cruise ship also makes a difference. In some cases, there can be less than a foot of water under the keel. River cruise ships have incredibly shallow drafts to begin with, and river cruise operators construct their ships as efficiently as possible. They’re the high-performance sports cars of the cruising world.
Unfortunately, low water and high water conditions can exist – and they can throw a real wrench into an otherwise flawless cruise.
For current updates from river cruisers currently on the rivers (or from those who have returned recently) be sure to see the comments at the bottom of this post.
The Rhine is perhaps the most dependable river when it comes to being able to continue navigation due to low water. I felt the boat scraping the bottom of the Rhine in Rudesheim in November of 2015, but we made it past. See Is AmaWaterways The Champion Of Low Water?
Water levels are unpredictable. In many cases, the cruise line may only find out on your actual sailing, or a few days beforehand, that a particular stretch of water isn’t navigable.
Water levels aren’t uniform. That is to say, if there’s low water on the Danube, the entire Danube isn’t affected. In 2014, water levels were too low for many ships to pass between the German cities of Passau and Regensburg. In past years, the stretch heading across the Austria-Hungary border has been problematic.
History isn’t a good indicator of high or low water. In June of 2013, Passau was hit by the worst flooding – and the highest water levels – since the Middle Ages. In 2018, the Danube was so low that many cruise ships terminated their journeys in Passau.
What happens if high/low water levels affect my sailing? River cruise lines will typically attempt to keep your itinerary as operational as possible. Generally, when high/low water levels hit, three options are available to cruise lines:
- Continue the affected itinerary by having guests ‘swap ships’ – typically, being bussed from one town to the next, where you will embark a sister-ship or similar vessel to continue the rest of your journey. Read about our ship swap on Viking.
- Complete the itinerary as far as possible aboard your ship, and then transition to hotels (on the company’s expense) to complete the remainder of your itinerary.
- Outright cancellation. This is the rarest option, exercised when no other options are available.
I’m not sure if I should cancel my river cruise because of high/low water levels. What do I do?
Unless you have travel insurance that covers cancellation, do not cancel your river cruise over high/low water. Wait for the cruise line to either pull the plug or offer alternatives. If your sailing commences in a few weeks, cancelling your sailing will result in you loosing all monies paid. If you wait for the cruise line to pull the plug, offers typically include the ability to switch to another sailing at no cost; the offer to complete your cruise as scheduled at a discount or rebate; or the offer to cancel with minimal or no penalties. Of course, such offers are determined by the cruise line, but typically favor the guest.
Curious as to what the current conditions on the rivers of Europe are? Check out this handy link (note: on October 21, 2018, the tables at this link were not loading). The tables should be used as a guideline only, and only indicate if water is running low or high – it may not have any bearing on whether itineraries are about to be affected or not.
Several cruise companies maintain pages about current sailing conditions:
- Emerald Waterways: https://www.emeraldwaterways.com/current-sailing-conditions
- Scenic: https://www.scenicusa.com/current-sailings-conditions
- Viking River Cruises: https://www.vikingrivercruises.com/my-trip/current-sailings/