Traveling by river is the best way to see Europe. After all, many of Europe’s oldest cities were built around rivers, as they were the main avenues of transport at the time.
A European river cruise will take you gliding through the tranquil countryside and right through the heart of historic city centres in Germany, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the UK and more. Plus, you’ll have the chance to get a deeper experience of the local culture with shore excursions to archeological sites, castles, museums, galleries and more.
But what’s the best time to plan a European river cruise? Are there certain periods of the year you should avoid?
In this article, we’ll look into the four seasons – Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring – and explain the pros and cons of a European River Cruise at each different time of year.
European River Cruises By Season
If you visit Europe on a river cruise, you’re certain to get the highest chance of beautiful sunny days. Gliding along a river on the deck of the boat, soaking in the sunshine and warmth, is a fantastic experience.
You’ll be able to enjoy outdoor activities and perhaps even go swimming and boating during your trip. Plus, summer in Europe is prime time for outdoor concerts, festivals and events – so there will always be something interesting to do.
However, the main disadvantage of traveling during summer is that this is the busiest time of year. Everyone else is on their summer vacation and there will be large crowds of European tourists as well as people from all over the world. The higher demand means higher prices and less selection.
One of the main advantages of traveling during the fall season is that you get to see the spectacular foliage of the European countryside come alive in hues of red, yellow and orange. The weather will still be warm and sunny and the days will still be long, but the summer crowds will have faded away.
Since the cruises will be less busy, you’ll probably get a better deal. In fact, mid-September to Mid-October just might be the best time period of the year to enjoy a European River Cruise. Many travelers find this time of year to be the ideal balance when it comes to weather, crowds and prices.
However, if you wait until late October or November, the days will become shorter and the weather will start to get colder. You might find some attractions and museums will close for the winter, or some shore excursions may not be available.
It’s important to note that many river cruises in Europe will take a break during the winter. They will not operate throughout January and February and usually won’t resume until late March. Of course, there are still opportunities for winter river travel in Europe in November and December.
Winter river cruises can be incredibly charming. Imagine a chilly journey down the Danube to the charming medieval towns of Austria and Germany. You can wander through delightful Christmas markets illuminated by twinkling lights, sipping mulled wine and listening to traditional carols sung by a choir.
Many Christmas season cruises will entertain passengers with on-board activities such as an onboard tree-trimming party, visits from Santa for the children, holiday-themed entertainment and a traditional Christmas dinner.
Of course, you’ll need to bring plenty of warm clothing to beat the winter chill. For some people, this doesn’t appeal. If you’re from a cold country, you might want to escape the snow and spend your winter vacation in a hotter climate. However, if you like the cold, your winter weather cruise can be a wonderfully magical experience.
Spring is a beautiful time to explore Europe. The flowers are blooming, the weather is pleasant and there are many great festivals and events. Also, since this is the “shoulder season” you’ll enjoy cheaper prices.
If your cruise takes you through the Netherlands, you’ll be able to enjoy the incredible floral displays of Tulip Season. (However, Tulip time cruises in the Netherlands are extremely popular, so you’ll need to book them at least 6 months in advance!)
However, one of the challenges of taking a river cruise in spring is the potential for flooding.
If there has been a heavy winter snowfall in the Alps or a particularly rainy Spring, this can cause the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers to overflow their banks. The highest risk for flooding is during the months of April, May and June. Usually this type of flooding will be anticipated in advance, but sometimes it can be unpredictable.
Sometimes if the flooding is too extreme, it can cause the bridges along the Rhone and Saone Rivers to become impassible. So, this might cause your European river cruise to be cancelled. Or, sometimes the ship will be docked and used as a floating hotel and you’ll still be able to continue on your shore excursions via a bus or shuttle. It’s not ideal, but you can still have a great time.
Which season is right for your European river cruise?
As you can see, there’s no bad time to plan a river cruise in Europe. Each season will bring different advantages when it comes to weather, cost, crowds and more. Apart from the low season of January/February when many cruises will be shut down for a break, there are advantages to traveling in every season.
The key is to think about what you want to experience on your river cruise and choose the time of year that is right for you.