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FAQs about Water Level Disruption on Danube River Cruise Holidays

Global River Cruising’s FAQs about low or high water level disruption on river cruises

If you are thinking of taking a river cruise as a holiday, then you are not alone.  The popularity of river cruising has grown massively in the last 5 years.  Being able to visit the great capitals of Europe or far flung destinations in Asia in comfort with the scenery floating by is a great experience. The chat on the holiday and cruise forums can include questions about what happens to river cruises when water levels are either high or low.  As a travel agent who specialises in river cruises, we have to say that the amount of cruises which are affected is tiny compared to the amount of sailings there are each year.  Remember, the customers who are on the forums are the ones who have been most affected.  And it comes down to the operator and how they have dealt with the issues.  This usually causes the most annoyance – being kept in the dark. So here is our quick FAQ guide to river cruising water levels to put your mind at ease

Why do water levels affect river cruising holidays?

Not enough water and a ship can’t move.  Too much water and the river will be flowing too fast to be safe for the ship to move or too high to get under bridges.  The captain has to abide by the rules of the river authorities as well as use his/her experience of what the ship can do safely, under the circumstances.  He/she is in charge of floating asset that costs millions of pounds as well as the safety of you the passengers.  The Captain’s word is final.  

When is the best time to travel to avoid water level disruption on a river cruise holiday?

When an operator puts together an itinerary for a river cruise, they know that to sell it customers are looking for highlights such as the large cities of Vienna and Budapest as well as scenic cruising elements.  In an ideal world of river cruising, this is fine.  However, an “ideal world” itinerary may not be as ideal for the river conditions at any given time.  Customers love to book for September.  But if there has been a long dry summer, the rivers could be very low in places, as has happened in 2018.  It took until early December for the Rhine to get back to normal, and 2 days of heavy rain did it.

Will my river cruise holiday be affected by water level disruption?

If you are thinking of booking a river cruise please remember to keep the risk of disruption in perspective.   River cruise operators carry hundreds of thousands of passengers a year.  The amount of complaints that you will find on forums are tiny as comparison.  And often the complaint is because of the way the disruption was handled by the cruise line rather than the disruption itself. New ships have to be technologically superior to the last in their ability to deal with water level issues, largely thought to be caused by climate change.  By having lower drafts (the part of the ship that needs to be below the waterline), newer ships can usually deal with very low water levels.  At the same time, by reducing the above water height, if the river is running at higher levels, one ship may be able to fit under a bridge where another one can’t.  The specification of each operator’s ships will mean that where some operators will have to cancel cruises, others will still be able to continue. By booking a newer ship, you should increase your chances of your ship being able to cope with the extremes of water level changes.  But again it comes down to the individual operator, so speak to us first.

How do operators deal with water level issues on river cruises?

Customer complaints often stem from long coach journeys to visit sites which because of water levels, have not been possible for the ship to sail into. The complete logistical reorganisation of river cruises, on a daily or even hourly basis, depending on what the Captain decrees is possible, is actually an incredible thing and may have caused your poor Cruise Manager many nights without sleep.  Their aim is to keep disruption down to an absolute minimum for you.  If you don’t think they are giving you enough information or you have questions then please do speak to your Cruise Manager, however hassled they may look.  Chances are at the biggest times of disruption, they simply haven’t had chance to eat, let alone keep you up to date on an hour by hour basis.  Patience and the benefit of the doubt is always appreciated.  They really are trying their best.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle - Rhine Gorge - Winter

The Cruise internet forums are taking about “ship swaps”. What is a ship swap?

This is the commonest way to be able to deal with a low or high water level which means a certain point is impassable.  By positioning ships on either side of the impassable part of the river (Passau or Nuremburg are potential points of low water on the Danube), you will then get swapped from upstream to downstream or vice versa.  You will need to pack and label your case as per the instructions you are given by The Cruise Manager.  Your case will need to be ready in the morning.  You will then be sent off on an excursion from ship number one, and you will then return later in the day by coach to ship two where your luggage is waiting.  Two operators who are particularly good at this are Scenic and AmaWaterways. Not all operators have the ability to swap ships.  Bear this in mind when you are booking a river cruise if you are at all concerned.    

Will my cruise get cancelled due to the high or low water levels?

This does happen but don’t expect it to.  Operators understand that many passengers are travelling long distances to take these cruises and what might be a once in a lifetime holiday and they are often part of a longer itinerary in Europe and would rather have a holiday than not.  

In summary

Don’t let the threat of disruption put you off seeing Europe on a river cruise.  Our advice is to choose your operator carefully before booking if you are someone who is concerned.  As river cruising travel agents with 7 years of experience of the rivers, our service in these matters is invaluable.  Large online cruise consolidators with high turnover of staff will not offer this level of expertise. Our aim is to open our customers eyes to the logistics of river cruising and embrace the experience.  There will be as many nautical staff as hotel staff on your river ship.  Your captain will have studied for years to take charge of the vessel.  Locks are incredible feats of human endeavour but no one is in charge of the weather.  Don’t let concern about water levels put you off booking what is a great way to see the world.   Alex


About Alex Leete

Who is Alex Leete? A passion for travel and over 15 years' experience in the industry encouraged me to set up Global River Cruising, our own family run company. Over the last few years we have been on as many river cruises, ships and seen as many destinations as we possibly can so we can rightfully call ourselves "experts". As independent specialists we work hard to find the perfect river cruise for our clients - at the very best prices too!

View all posts by Alex Leete

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