Tourists planning a winter getaway on a romantic cruise along Europe’s rivers are facing stranded ships and long coach journeys after the dry summer left water levels at record lows.
Holidaymakers expecting to travel between Budapest and Vienna on the serene waters of the Danube have been told they will be bussed between the cities instead because the water is too low for the cruise ships to navigate.
Instead of settling into a cabin for a week they will be forced to move between stranded cruise ships that have been turned into floating hotels as cruise companies frantically try to rescue as much of their itineraries as possible.
But it has left many customers angry and frustrated. “We are starting to wonder how many bus trips we are going to have as we booked a seven-day river cruise on a boat not a bus trip. We have absolutely no interest in bussing around Europe or any other country let alone at Christmas time,” one Australian traveller wrote on an internet message board.
There have already been months of chaos on Europe’s waterways after the summer drought brought river levels so low the German authorities had to warn people to beware of unexploded Second World War munitions being exposed by the retreating waters.
But anyone hoping autumn rains have rectified matters will be disappointed. Rainfall has been low over northern Europe, and the river levels have continued to drop — in Budapest the Danube has fallen so low the remains of a bridge destroyed during the Nazi occupation have been exposed.
The low water levels have proved disastrous for river cruises. The Danube may be Europe’s longest river, but the popular cruise routes run through the upper reaches, where ships have to negotiate a number of shallow stretches.
As a result, some cruises have had to be cut from a week to just two days on the water. Vienna and Budapest, traditionally two highlights of a Danube cruise, are cut off from each other, so passengers face a three-hour coach journey instead. The German city of Regensburg, another highlight, is proving impossible to reach.
Things are no better on the Rhine, where cruise ships are struggling to make it to Cologne or to the Rhine Gorge. And with the Christmas Market season getting underway in Germany, there are fears cruise ships will not be able to make it to the most famous markets.
Cruise companies are trying to get round the problem by operating “ship swaps”, which see passengers bussed from one ship to another to avoid the shallow stretches.
One company went to the length of chartering a local boat in Budapest so its passengers didn’t miss out on the traditional night cruise past the Hungarian parliament building.
But many customers have been left disappointed. “Is it only me having too high expectations? We signed up for a river cruise. We expect to spend time cruising on the rivers, not riding a bus across Europe,” one wrote on a cruisecritic.com, an internet message board.
“Romantic if you like bad airline seats, bus tours, missed ports, and significantly decreased port time due to long bus rides,” wrote another. “We did three ship swaps and sailed the only stretch of the Danube after dark. Lots of fun packing and unpacking.”
“As a result of this season’s historic drought in Europe, low water conditions on the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers have persisted longer than expected,” Viking Cruises, one of the biggest operators, said in a statement.
“In order to minimize the impact to each sailing, Viking has several contingency plans to bypass those areas where water levels remain too low. We always want our guests to feel that they have the most current information about their journey, so we will continue to directly contact all guests on itineraries affected by residual low water conditions until levels return to normal.”
It may be of little comfort to those whose holiday plans have been ruined, but cruises are not the only river traffic affected. Petrol supplies to the Rhineland area of Germany are carried by river, and several petrol stations ran out earlier this month after tankers were unable to get through.
Europe may have to get used to lower river levels. Climate scientists say dwindling glaciers in the Alps mean there will be less meltwater to make up the shortfall in the spring.