River cruisers sailing on some of the major lines have had to deal with disrupted itineraries on the Danube, as ships struggled to sail with the low water levels in September.

Both the Danube and Rhine experienced the month’s lowest water levels on September 22 and 23, affecting the itineraries of number of passengers sailing the Danube.

The disruptions began as early as the start of the month in September 1 when Joanna Rath from the Australian River Cruise Passenger group was informed at the nightly port briefing that the ship couldn’t sail the last two days of her Viking river cruise on the Danube to Bucharest.

She was bused to different sights from Nikopol which was one stop before the disembarkation port of Giurgiu. “There was no interruption of our Bucharest shore excursion, disembarkation time or arrival time at our hotel in Bucharest,” says Ms Rath.

Ms Rath received an email notice from Viking on August 1, two weeks before her sailing saying,”…the Danube River is currently experiencing low water levels that may impact your itinerary”. The email also outlined the common scenarios Viking River Cruises employ to minimise the impact on the itinerary when sailing is restricted, along with a Customer Relations phone number to call should she have further questions.

But the seasoned river cruiser who has been on voyages decided to go on the trip anyway. “I know the unexpected can happen on any river. I do a lot of research before taking any trip and know of the difficulties experienced in past years. Given the well publicised temperatures Europe had this summer, I am surprised we were able to sail as far as we did,” says Ms Ruth.

Other passengers have been experience similar disruptions up to September 29. Some, reportedly also had to make unscheduled stops and ship swaps to continue their itineraries.

Lines like Avalon Waterways and Crystal River Cruises have bused passengers to Vienna and Budapest as their ships have not been able to get past Regensburg due to low water levels. Meanwhile, Scenic passengers had to swap ships.

“We just finished our Scenic Cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam. Had to swap ships and were on a bus from Passau to Regensburg. It was absolutely seamless and professionally managed,” Xerxes posted on River Cruise Advisor on September 28.

“All free choice schedules maintained, bags delivered to cabins before we arrived, personal preferences communicated etc. In Amsterdam we met people who were with “another” cruise company and they had been in a bus for seven days from Passau to Amsterdam.”

Ship swaps keep itinerary disruptions to the minimum

Viking River Cruises say that they are well positioned to provide guests with ship swaps to keep itinerary disruptions to the minimum.

“We strategically launch sister ships on the same itinerary, but sailing in opposite directions. In the event of low (or high) water, this tactic allows us to implement a ship swap that is typically seamless for guests – both they and their luggage are able to be transferred to their exact, identical stateroom on a sister ship that was purposefully sailing on the other half of the river in preparation for such a disruption,” says a Viking River Cruises spokesman.

“Because water levels can fluctuate quickly, other lines will more often have to cancel a cruise with little notice or implement longer bus rides and hotel stays to continue moving guests toward their end destination. Viking’s river fleet comprised of sister Longships gives guests the best chance that water levels will not significantly impact their itinerary.”

Disruptions are set to continue into October

River cruisers have also started to share on River Cruise Advisor that disruptions are set to continue into October.

“On Avalon (Waterways) from Prague to Budapest. Turns out they are busing us straight to Passau on Tuesday, Oct 1. Thus we miss Nuremburg completely and can only bus to Regensburg. We will be docked in Passau for 3 nights,” says Nancy.

Dennis Meißner of the German Federal Institute of Hydrology (BfG advised earlier in May that, “the water-level situation within the coming months will be depend on the weather conditions to an even larger extent than usual”.

And so far in the season, river cruisers have been blessed with timely rains that allowed itineraries to sail without disruptions, until September.

In mid September, the water levels on the middle Rhine was low but still passable. The cruise director on board Viking Vili pointed out a group of rocks in the centre of the river to passengers as he was discussing low water.

The water levels in the Danube and Rhine make some recovery with showers coming in last weekend but it is only forecasted to continue into early this week. Thereafter, the water levels everywhere are predicted to slowly fall again, according to BfG.

Most of Europe’s rivers also remain in the “autumnal low-water phase”. Riverinfo.eu also shows that many rivers have much below normal water levels. From September’s records, the Danube and Rhine water levels steadily fell from the month’s highest and lowest within a week and a half.

The Elbe River stays dry

Meanwhile persistently low water levels in the Elbe has led to cancellations of October sailings. Viking River Cruises has also put up a low water level warning on their website for the Elbe.

Bill Goode who was on a Viking cruise on the Elbe wrote, “Low water level on the Elbe caused our October 6-11 Berlin – Prague sailing to be modified from cruise to bus trips, so we opted to accept the full refund that was offered instead. We didn’t expect to be traveling again in the next 12 months, so the 50% voucher that was offered if we accepted the revised itinerary would be of no value to us.”

“Consistent with what I’ve read elsewhere, Viking waited until two weeks before our departure date to notify us. The notice came two days after I had called Viking and was assured, absolutely, that there was no problem on the Elbe, and the cruise portion of the trip would go as planned.”

“I learned from this experience. It is good that we scheduled the complete package through Viking including air and insurance. The refund will cover every penny we paid. That made me glad I had not arranged air and insurance on my own as I usually do. Several components of the trip were modified since our initial deposit, including two hotels, four airline reservations, and ultimately the cruise itself.”

The German government has also begun looking into different measures to make transport conditions more reliable on the Rhine by adapting transport infrastructure to climate change. This includes an improvement of the water level forecast to river engineering such as adding barrages and sluices in the Rhine to offer water management options.