Europe's Drought Will Happen Again: Here's How River Cruises Are Preparing

Adaptability is the name of the game

The Rhine Level in North Rhine Westfallen Is Currently Particularly Low
Thierry Monasse / Getty Images

You've likely heard the news: extreme drought in Europe this summer has drained rivers, and the low water levels have been causing some river cruises to alter their itineraries. Sometimes, passengers rode buses between specific ports of call rather than sail the river on the ships.

While such disruptions are a significant frustration for travelers, they are, unfortunately, a fact of life for river cruising. Ship traffic, including cargo traffic, is continually impacted by rivers' water levels. And while droughts like this one come and go, there is an overall trend toward droughts becoming more common—and more severe—as time goes on. Fortunately, river cruise lines are doing everything possible to prepare for ever-changing weather conditions.

"During the summer, droughts are common in Europe and many other places. Recent significant droughts in Europe occurred in 2003, 2015, 2018, and 2019," said Stephen Bennett, chief climate officer of climate impact consultancy Demex. He also serves as the American Meteorological Society's Financial Weather and Climate Risk Management Committee chairman.

But Bennett notes that this drought was particularly severe because it was so widespread. "According to the European Drought Observatory, 64 percent of the E.U. territory is under drought conditions," he said. "This is qualified as a one in 500-year drought, which means that it is so severe that it has only a 0.2 percent chance of happening in any given year. Scientists in France have declared this the worst drought since records began in 1958."

This is certainly not the last time Europe will face such conditions. "The frequency of droughts has substantially increased over the last half-century, and there are strong links between these droughts and climate change. Climate change is making droughts more frequent, severe, and pervasive," said Marty Bell, chief science officer at WeatherFlow, which provides weather data and AI-driven modeling for consumers and businesses.

To make matters worse, it's not just droughts that affect river cruises—the opposite conditions can impact them, too. "On the flip side, if there is heavy spring rain or unusually high temperatures that cause a drastic snowmelt—many rivers originate high in the mountains—or if there is torrential rain for a prolonged period of time at any time of year, the rivers may swell or flood, which could also cause problems by preventing ships from passing under the bridges," said Ming Tappin, a freelance cruise writer and founder of Your Cruise Coach.

Because river cruising is so dependent on water levels, whether in drought or flood conditions, cruise lines have come up with solutions to minimize interruptions. "River cruise lines always have multiple ships sailing on the same river from opposite directions. So in the event that a part of the river becomes impassable, a 'ship swap' is performed," added Tappin. In that case, both ships approach the troublesome point on the river, and the passengers transfer from one vessel to the other. Then the ships return to their point of origin, so the passengers get to sail the complete itinerary.

River cruise ships are also specifically designed to have shallow drafts, which means their keels, or the lowest points of the vessel, are not that far beneath the water's surface. That allows the ships to sail in shallow rivers. Some ships can adjust their ballast, making their drafts even shallower.

There are, of course, times when rivers become entirely impassable. "In extreme circumstances where the water levels prevent ships from sailing, and a ship swap is not possible, the river cruise will become a land-based holiday," said Tappin. "Guests will continue their tour on motorcoaches and stay in hotels along the way. Everything that would have been included on the river ship—meals, tours—would still be included on the land trip."

So, what if you're a passenger on an affected river cruise sailing? Are you entitled to a refund? "In all cruise contracts, it is written that the cruise line has a right to alter itineraries if necessary," said Nancy Yale, a travel advisor with Cruise and World Travel, a Virtuoso Agency. There's an argument to be made here for purchasing cancel-for-any-reason (CFAR) travel insurance, which would get you your money back if you decide to back out of the trip before departure. (Bennet's company Demex has even started offering extreme weather insurance, though it's primarily for homeowners and business owners.)

But despite what's in the fine print, river cruise passengers are not necessarily out of luck for some form of compensation from the cruise lines. "I have seen them offer their guests a pro-rated refund or a credit towards booking a future cruise," said Tappin. "Some cruise lines may even offer a full refund of their current cruise in addition to a booking incentive for a future cruise."

If your trip is affected by water levels, remember that it's out of your cruise line's control—no one wants to change the itinerary. Your best bet is to take the trip in stride, as you'll likely still be visiting the same ports advertised when you booked the sailing. "They make every effort to fulfill the itinerary either by land or river," said Yale.

Article Sources
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  1. The New York Times. "Low Water Levels Disrupt European River Cruises, A Favorite of U.S. Tourists." August 29, 2022.

  2. Global Drought Observatory. "Drought in Europe." August 2022, Page 1.