Knowing when to cruise is almost as important as choosing your river cruise line.
When should I take a river cruise? I get asked this question all the time. Some people want a Rhine cruise in the Spring for Tulip Time. Or a Danube river cruise in December for Christmas Markets. Maybe cruise the Mekong in the winter so as to avoid the drenching rainy season. Each season has its pros and cons.
Cruise Europe off-season and yes, you’ll avoid the crowds. Cruise during high season and you’ll catch summer festivals and outdoor events. It really depends on your personal preferences and what weather you can and cannot tolerate.
Twice I’ve tried to complete a full-length Rhine, Main and Danube cruise between Bucharest and Amsterdam. Twice we’ve had to stop our cruise mid-way due to each of the rivers’ unpredictable old chestnuts…flood and drought.
So what happens? One of two things: everyone switches from their river ship that was going in one direction to another one that will turn around and continue onward. OR…the cruise line will use the docked ship as a floating hotel. Shore excursions will be via motor coach. Not the river cruise you had hoped for but it’s not the fault of the cruise line.
In Europe, the mighty Alps feed the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers from its source in Switzerland. Snowmelt flows in two directions. Downstream to form the Rhine as it flows to the North Sea. In the second direction, melted snow becomes rushing water that can flood the Danube River on its journey to the Black Sea.
Here are some basic points to keep in mind when deciding which season to plan your river cruise.
As you can imagine, a hefty winter snowfall in the Alps compounded by a rainy Spring can easily cause the Rhine, Main and Danube to overflow their banks. If you’re already underway and see trees and furniture floating past your river ship, it’s a good sign that flooding has begun. April, May and June are the mostly likely months for flooding.
A dry summer can lead to excruciatingly low water levels in the fall and river traffic can come to a grinding halt.
Aside from the Rhine, Main and Danube, the same spring flooding or summer drought can affect the rivers of France, too. Spring thaw and heavy rains can cause the Rhône and Saône to be impassible.
Smaller rivers like the Elbe and Mosel in northern Europe are affected more in the late autumn when, if after a hot and dry summer, water levels become too low and ships could scrape bottom.
Check this map and get an idea of historic flooding.
Yes, the Mississippi River is prone to seasonal floods, too. Those beautiful, four-story wedding cake paddle wheeler just can’t fit under the bridges. Bring on the motor coach tours, just like in Europe.
Conversely, a dry summer can make the Mississippi impassible. In this case, as in Europe, you might end up on bus tours while your river ship is conveniently docked in town. Occasionally, the river cruise is able to veer off onto one of the tributaries of the Mississippi and presto! You have a whole new itinerary.
When winter winds begin to blow, icing conditions may form. Upper Mississippi River cruises end in the late fall. Holiday cruises are possible on the lower Mississippi River. These tend to be round-trip from New Orleans and not upstream to Memphis and beyond. Summers on the Mississippi are hot, humid and did I mention hot?
Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest are also seasonal cruises. Summer temperatures in the high desert can reach into the 100s and extend into September. Fall cruises can be a bit rainy when your river ship closes in on the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon.
The Mekong River stretches some 2,700 miles from its source high in Tibet’s Himalayan mountains to the Mekong delta in the South China Sea. The Mekong flows through six countries, China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and finally Vietnam. The monsoon season follows the river’s course during the winter months from August to November.
Flooding on the lower Mekong River and Delta is a necessary way of life in South Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s a boon to farmers and fisheries in it path. It’s rare to have to a river cruise canceled as the overflow from the Mekong flows out into its tributaries and lakes.
The dry season, from November through February can be quite pleasant. Keep in mind, though, that no matter what month you choose to cruise the Mekong, it’s going to be hot and humid.
So many rivers and only twelve months in a year. Decide on your priorities. It’s important to determine if you’re more concerned about weather and inconveniences or disruptions or interested in cultural experiences, local festivals and seasonal events despite inconsistent weather patterns.
To me, any time of year is a good time for a river cruise!
Sherry is editor and creator of CruiseMaven.com. An expert on ocean and river cruises plus trains in the US and Europe, Sherry’s goal is to share her experiences to entertain, inform and inspire readers to travel the world.