How Water Levels Impact River Cruises

by Kristen O'Neal

How Water Levels Impact River Cruises

by Kristen O'Neal

It’s something every river cruiser should know — if water levels along your route are too low (or too high), your ship is not going anywhere. That doesn’t necessarily mean your trip will be canceled, but it could end up looking a lot different than you expected. (Buses, start your engines.) Here’s what you need to know about how water levels can affect your cruise, and what cruise lines do when things go wrong.

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The Elbe River / iStock / luchschen
Aria Amazon
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Unpredictable water levels can make or break your cruise.

River levels ebb and flow throughout the year. In Europe, the snow melting off the mountains in the spring can lead to high water levels, making it difficult for larger ships to pass under low bridges. On the flip side, the heat of the summer months can lower water levels, rendering stretches too shallow for cruise ships.

But that doesn’t mean that there is never low water in the spring or high water in the summer. A mild winter with little snowfall or a particularly stormy summer can throw everything out of whack. Case in point: While June 2016 saw low water levels on the Elbe, the Danube’s waters were higher than normal. There are also waterways that have become almost impossible to consistently cruise in any season, including Italy’s Po River.

River cruises in Asia and South America are not as dependent on water levels as those in Europe. The smaller ships can navigate shallower waters, and the lack of development (without those pesky bridges) means ship height is not a major issue. In contrast, high water means the ability to travel deeper into certain areas, while low water can increase your chances of spotting wildlife.Amazon River cruises operate year-round, through the high waters from December to May and low waters from June to November. Cruises along Asian rivers like the Mekong and the Irrawaddy are typically suspended between May and July, when the temperatures are high and the waters are low.

River levels ebb and flow throughout the year. In Europe, the snow melting off the mountains in the spring can lead to high water levels, making it difficult for larger ships to pass under low bridges. On the flip side, the heat of the summer months can lower water levels, rendering stretches too shallow for cruise ships.

But that doesn’t mean that there is never low water in the spring or high water in the summer. A mild winter with little snowfall or a particularly stormy summer can throw everything out of whack. Case in point: While June 2016 saw low water levels on the Elbe, the Danube’s waters were higher than normal. There are also waterways that have become almost impossible to consistently cruise in any season, including Italy’s Po River.

River cruises in Asia and South America are not as dependent on water levels as those in Europe. The smaller ships can navigate shallower waters, and the lack of development (without those pesky bridges) means ship height is not a major issue. In contrast, high water means the ability to travel deeper into certain areas, while low water can increase your chances of spotting wildlife.Amazon River cruises operate year-round, through the high waters from December to May and low waters from June to November. Cruises along Asian rivers like the Mekong and the Irrawaddy are typically suspended between May and July, when the temperatures are high and the waters are low.

Bode Museum on Museum Island in Berlin
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You might end up on a different boat — or a bus.

So what happens if there’s a problem? Larger lines that have multiple vessels in their fleet do a ship swap, where passengers (and their luggage) depart one ship and are bused up the river past the affected area to board another ship and continue on their way. This puts cruisers on a different ship than was booked, but keeps the itinerary intact.

If the low (or high) waters cover a section of the river so long that a ship swap is not feasible, then you may spend more time on land than anticipated. In an effort to hit the same lineup of ports, the cruise line may arrange for buses to take passengers along the planned route — morphing your river cruise into a land tour. Some lines will book hotel rooms for guests, while others will bus passengers back to the ship each night.

It’s also clear in the terms and conditions when you book a river cruise that itineraries are subject to change due to water levels. Fortunately, lines have back-up plans in place, and are nimble about making changes. River cruise lines are open with passengers about the issue, too — Viking River Cruises has an entire page on its website dedicated to itinerary changes, and other lines post updates on social media. So, if you have concerns before you book, just ask your line about their contingency plans. 

So what happens if there’s a problem? Larger lines that have multiple vessels in their fleet do a ship swap, where passengers (and their luggage) depart one ship and are bused up the river past the affected area to board another ship and continue on their way. This puts cruisers on a different ship than was booked, but keeps the itinerary intact.

If the low (or high) waters cover a section of the river so long that a ship swap is not feasible, then you may spend more time on land than anticipated. In an effort to hit the same lineup of ports, the cruise line may arrange for buses to take passengers along the planned route — morphing your river cruise into a land tour. Some lines will book hotel rooms for guests, while others will bus passengers back to the ship each night.

It’s also clear in the terms and conditions when you book a river cruise that itineraries are subject to change due to water levels. Fortunately, lines have back-up plans in place, and are nimble about making changes. River cruise lines are open with passengers about the issue, too — Viking River Cruises has an entire page on its website dedicated to itinerary changes, and other lines post updates on social media. So, if you have concerns before you book, just ask your line about their contingency plans. 

Elbe Princesse
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Choosing a new ship may be the answer.

While your cruise line can't be expected to make the waters rise or recede on demand, new ships are being designed specifically to deal with lower water levels. CroisiEurope’s MS Elbe Princesse (which cruises the Elbe River year-round) and MS Loire Princesse (the only cruise vessel to cover France’s Loire Valley) can navigate water as shallow as three feet deep thanks to lightweight frames and paddle-wheel propulsion systems.

While your cruise line can't be expected to make the waters rise or recede on demand, new ships are being designed specifically to deal with lower water levels. CroisiEurope’s MS Elbe Princesse (which cruises the Elbe River year-round) and MS Loire Princesse (the only cruise vessel to cover France’s Loire Valley) can navigate water as shallow as three feet deep thanks to lightweight frames and paddle-wheel propulsion systems.

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