Seriously Low Water Levels Are Disrupting European River Cruises

As rivers dry up during one of the worst droughts in recent European history, river cruise passengers should be prepared for last-minute itinerary changes.

Rhine River Cruise Cologne, Germany

Europe is in the midst of one of its worst droughts in recent history—how will that affect summer cruising?

Photo by Shutterstock/Travelpixs

Earlier this month, I sailed on my first-ever river cruise along the Rhine, with an itinerary that had stops in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Switzerland. I was looking forward to exploring the many museums of Amsterdam and wandering through the vineyard villages of Alsace. But as we embarked on our journey in the Netherlands one thing became a constant during the cruise: a thick white waterline along the embankment that followed the river all the way from Germany to Switzerland. It served as a grim reminder of where the water once was, and where it is now—depressingly low.

To ensure that we could continue without running aground, our ship sailed along slowly and carefully, since parts of the Rhine are notoriously challenging to navigate because of treacherous hidden rocks, especially with so little water. While I was still able to do and see the things I had hoped to along the way, ultimately, the entire cruise itinerary ended up being affected, and we had much less time than usual in ports due to the slower pace. My Rhine River sailing with AmaWaterways was one among many river cruises this summer feeling the effects of climate change that have led to extreme drought conditions and shockingly low water levels this summer in Europe.

Across the continent, a historic heat wave and an increasingly unstable Gulf stream—which usually brings wet weather and rain to Europe—have meant that many inland waterways have effectively been drying up, affecting both cruising and trade vessels. Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian authorities overseeing the Danube, one of the largest and most important cruising arteries in Europe, have already started conducting emergency dredging (the removal of sediments and debris) of that river to keep vessels moving. Italy’s longest river, the Po, is also struggling and has completely disappeared in some areas as northern Italy experiences one of the worst dry spells it’s seen in 70 years.

Upper Middle Rhine Valley

The Upper Middle Rhine Valley is famous for its scenic vineyard views and villages. It’s also known for being treacherous to navigate.

Photo by Shutterstock/Kanuman

The Rhine, which regularly sees cargo ships carrying wheat, petrol, steel, and coal traveling up and down the river, has also been seriously affected, with water levels dipping below 16 inches in some key navigational areas. Experts warn that the river could reach critically low levels that might affect trade and cruising in mere days, potentially halting it completely. And the European Commission’s Joint Research Center warned this week that drought conditions will worsen over the coming days. During normal weather conditions on the Rhine, about 2,100 gallons of water flow through any one point per second—the flow rate is now down to zero gallons in some places, according to the Associated Press.

Though European river cruising remains in full swing this season, passengers with upcoming sailings should be prepared for possible last-minute changes to itineraries and bookings—as well as cancellations if the situation continues to worsen and ships simply cannot sail for a time—since ships rely on real-time river conditions. During times of drought, being bused between ports in trouble spots is not uncommon, nor is doing what is referred to as a “ship swap,” when passengers on two separate vessels that cannot sail any further due to low water levels will disembark, get bused to another ship, and swap ships owned by the same river cruise line so that they can continue with their itinerary.

During my trip, passengers aboard the new AmaLucia still had a wonderful time and we managed to hit all the stops on our itinerary, but at a slower pace. However, be prepared for shorter excursion times and potential ship swaps. Since low water levels are a greater concern during late summer, consider booking a cruise in the spring or early summer months to be safe.

Associated Press contributed reporting.

Mae Hamilton is an assistant editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.