When is the Best Time of Year for a River Cruise

Springtime on the Danube at high water level.

Best time of year for a river cruise is…?

I get asked this question all the time. Some people want a Rhine cruise in the Spring for Tulip Time. Others prefer a Danube river cruise in December for Christmas Markets. Maybe cruise the Mekong in the winter to avoid monsoon season. There are pros and cons to consider.

Cruise Europe off-season and yes, you’ll avoid the crowds and the heat. Cruise during high tourist season and you’ll catch summer festivals and annual 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 to 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 a second direction, melting snow contributes to the water levels of the Main and Danube rivers on its journey to the Black Sea.

Here are some basic points to keep in mind when deciding the best time of year for your river cruise.

Europe River Cruises

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.

Take a look at the flood-prone areas…

Europe Flood Hazard Map - Best time of year for a river cruise


The same Spring floods or summer droughts can affect the rivers of France, too. A late Spring thaw and heavy rains can cause the bridges along the Rhône and Saône to be impassible.

Lower Danube river cruise flood.
When the trees are underwater, it’s a good chance flood waters are on the rise.

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. This could happen on the Rhine as well, but it’s not something to worry about year to year as it is on the Elbe.

USA River Cruises

Yes, the Mississippi River is prone to seasonal floods, too. Those beautiful, four-story wedding cake paddle wheelers just can’t fit under the bridges. Bring on the motor coach tours, just like in Europe.

Due to icing conditions, upper Mississippi River cruises end in November or December. Holiday cruises on the lower Mississippi River 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. Fall cruises can be a bit rainy as your river ship closes in on the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon.


Mekong River Cruises

Stretching some 2,700 miles from its source high in Tibet’s Himalayan mountains to the Mekong Delta in the South China Sea. As the Mekong flows through six countries, China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and finally Vietnam, the monsoon season follows its course during the winter months from August to November. Flooding on the lower Mekong Delta is an annual event in South Vietnam and Cambodia and a necessity for rice farmers and dozens of fisheries in its path. Rarely is a river cruise canceled due to flooding on the Mekong.

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 the best time of year for a river cruise!


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