Best Time of Year for a European River Cruise
What is the best time of year for a European river cruise?
This can be a very tricky question to answer. And to be frank, even the most experienced travelers are going to be disappointed from time to time.
Sure, there are “experts” out there (like this guy pictured to the right), but the truth of the matter is: specific weather patterns are very difficult to predict six to twelve months out.
Our Sad Story
Carol and I tend to like to travel to Europe in the shoulder seasons (April, May, Sept, Oct). The weather is generally cooler, the massive summer crowds gone, and you can often get more bang for your buck.
A while back, Carol and I flew off to the south of France for a long-awaited river cruise with our friends at Viking River Cruises. As we landed in London to swap planes and head to Marseilles, we got an email from Viking telling us that our river cruise was going to be disrupted by high water levels. You can read the whole story by clicking here.
When we got to our starting point in Avignon, Viking offered their clients the option of leaving the sailing with a refund of the unused portion of their cruise, or continue on with the hopes of lower water levels in the coming days. We opted to stay, and as it turned out, we never got to sail and wound up using our cruise ship as a hotel with luxury coach excursions to and from our ship each day. But, at the end of this experience, even though we did get to see nearly all of our desired locations, Viking still offered their guests a 50% discount off of a future sailing. Very generous, indeed. You can read about that by clicking here.
So, if we got foiled, what’s a person to do? When is the best time of year for a river cruise?
Well, before I make an attempt to offer a few tips on this subject, let’s take a peek at a helpful video from our friends at Tauck River Cruises:
So, as you can see in this video, high water, low water, and broken locks can disrupt a river cruise. While these things are definitely not the norm, what can we do to stack the odds in our favor so that these river gods and nixes don’t disrupt our vacation?
While not all high water occurs in the spring, spring rains and snowmelt are generally the culprits for most springtime high water events. If you look at the map I’ve included, you can see which areas of Europe are most prone to flooding.
And, oh look, there’s our Rhône river in France! It’s highly prone to high waters as the French Alps are nearby and shedding snowmelt into the river.
Now to make this even more difficult, we don’t know when this spring snowmelt is going to occur. We interacted with a couple on our Facebook Page who had taken our same exact cruise a week prior and had absolutely no difficulty. And, I suspect that the group behind us enjoyed smooth sailing as well.
Travel Tips: Best Time of the Year for European River Cruises
- If you’re river cruising Europe in April, May and even early June, the rivers flowing through the darkest regions in the map above provide the greatest opportunity for high water levels. These include the Rhône and certain portions of the Rhine. We had clients sailing the Rhine while we were sailing the Rhône. They had to swap river cruise ships one afternoon, but other than that, the rest of their journey was just fine.
- Alternatively, if you’re river cruising in the spring, the Bordeaux region of France, the Seine around Paris, and the Douro River in Spain might make good options for less high water probabilities. It looks like the Rhône is best in the late spring, summer and fall.
- Predicting low water levels? No can do. It totally depends on the summer weather and each individual country’s management of the water levels.
- Predicting broken locks? No can do. When we sailed the Danube, we sailed through 11 different locks. We encountered no problems, but it must happen on occasion and back up the river traffic for a bit.
- European summers are a very busy time for travel and river cruises. Most of the river cruise lines completely sell out in the summer months, requiring that you book at least a year in advance.
- European summers can be hot and posses very large crowds in popular cities. But, this is also the time of year when you find many fun festivals to visit. So, maybe hot weather and fun festivals are more your cup of tea.
- Fall can bring beautiful foliage, lower temps, and again, the large crowds will be gone.
- Christmas cruises on the Rhine and Danube can be wonderful times. The temps will be towards the cold side (layer your clothing), but the cities are absolutely beautiful all dressed up for Christmas. We did the Danube in very early December and completely loved the experience.
I know that this wasn’t a very definitive answer to my initial question. But the truth is, I don’t have one of those goofy hats (pictured at the top of our article), and therefore, I’m not a river cruise climatologist and don’t have a definitive answer.
Your best course of action? Be certain to include water level probabilities in your discussions and be aware of the possible risks. No one can ever promise you absolute perfection with every travel experience. Airline strikes, volcanoes, floods, and stifling hot weather are just a few of the things that can pop up to make a mess of your vacation. Do your best to contemplate the things that can go wrong, and then be flexible. You can’t predict all things, but you can decide to make lemonade out of lemons. Right? 🙂
How to Book a River Cruise?
Are you thinking about a fun European river cruise? Give us a call at (480) 550-1235 and we can help you sort through the options, discuss potential obstacles, and book a wonderful sailing. When you book with us, the price is never higher than doing it yourself, and many, many times we have special pricing options available that are not widely known to the general public.
If you prefer, you can also use our online information request by clicking here.
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Interested in cruising September, October. My partner and I are looking for upper and a 2for 1 would be great. The route would be from Basel to Amsterdam. Wondering about weather and water levels, from your experience.
September is a very popular month for river cruising, and if you look, you’ll also notice that because of the demand, prices are generally the highest in September. Folks like September because the weather is still lovely and the crowds are gone.
Generally speaking, high water issues come with the spring snow melt in mountainous regions, and further high/low water issues are weather driven. For example, a few years ago, there was a drought in the Danube region which produced low water issues for the ships. Water levels are difficult to predict, but “generally” not an issue in September, October.
I will pop you an email, and if you like, we can take this conversation offline. Thanks for reaching out.
we have cruised with Viking river 7 times and have only run into one minor problem with high or low water. that was near lyon in the summer when a bunch of thunder storms dumped plenty of rain and guess where it went. to the river. by the way that is the only summer cruise we have taken. most of our cruises are around Thanksgiving time. tulip time in Holland we have found is the hardest cruise to time to predict.
We’ve been stuck in Lyon on a river cruise as well. With the French and Swiss Alps feeding The Rhône, it can be tricky in that area.
Leaving on Uniworls River Cruise Nov. 30 to Dec 7.. Austria and Germany.. Vienna to Nuremberg…. What do you wear on the ship and what coat should I bring? Can you give me an idea of the weather ? Thank you..
This will help you with your what to wear question: https://www.uniworld.com/en/faq/
And this should help you understand the weather: https://www.accuweather.com/en/at/vienna/31868/november-weather/31868
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I saw and appreciate your answer to Brenda, above. We are cruising the Rhine with Uniworld, from Amsterdam to Basel, on November 5 of this year (the last sailing for that itinerary of the season). Given all the water level issues right now, I was wondering if you have any info or experience with Rhine water levels in November on the Rhine?
Boy, I’d hesitate to give you an answer. River levels are difficult to predict. From our experience, we don’t generally see any issues at that time of year. But, the moment I say that they’ll have a colossal draught and you will be disappointed.
I just came off that river trip and the water was very low. We had to bus three hours to another ship waiting for us upstream. Beautiful trip even with that switch of boats!
Hi Claire, we’re glad to hear that you enjoyed your trip, in spite of the water issues. 🙂
We are planning on doing our first river cruise in 2019….Would June or Sept be the best for the Rhine or Danube? We prefer Viking and air fare included.
First of all, thanks for stopping by our website. While the Rhine and the Danube are two completely different experiences, we tend to prefer to do our river cruises in the less busy shoulder seasons. While all months are lovely, June will likely find large crowds in the cities and while September is a wonderful month from a weather perspective, it is also the most expensive month of the year for a river cruise.
I would recommend that you consider April, May, or early October.
Lastly, we’ve often got perks for you above and beyond Viking’s best offers. We’re the #2 booking agents for Viking in the world. When you book with us, you’ll get good advice, benefits from our backchannel access, and perks. If you like, give us a call at (480) 550-1235. Thanks! 🙂
We are thinking of a river cruise next May. We will be going to visit our son in Berlin and plan to travel for a few weeks while there. Possibly start a cruise in Budapest and ending in Berlin or the other way around..any suggestions? We’d love to visit Prague and Vienna as well.
There are quite a number of options depending on your preferred style of travel. Perhaps it’s best to give me a call and we can discuss. 480-550-1235. Thanks! 🙂
Great article thanks. Other issues to consider is rain potential and also whether you have seasonal allergies. I had a minor issue with cottonwood in the late spring during our river cruise.
Hi Chuck, Thanks for stopping by and sharing. 🙂
Can you recommend the best European River cruise line for me to take my 87 year young mom on? Limited bus tours, we prefer short shore excursions and /or a more ambitious walking excursion for me while she enjoys the amenities of the ship in port. Open to all European Rivers, but leaning towards Paris-Normandy or?
The Rhine is a great first-time river cruise. Lots of castles and very little time on a bus. We like the Paris to Normandy itinerary. Just know that when you visit the Normandy region, that day is a lot of time on the bus. 🙂 Please feel free to give me a call to discuss. We’re the #2 booking agents in the world with Viking and we can bring you a lot of expertise in the booking process. Plus, right now, we have some additional perks to share.