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Danube River Cruise (photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown)

High And Low Water Levels and Weather Issues on a River Cruise: What to Expect

Danube River Cruise (photo by Carolyn Spencer Brown)
Cruise Critic

Apr 19, 2023

Read time
4 min read

It's not just ocean cruises that can be impacted by bad weather. Although river sailings aren't affected by hurricanes, high winds or rough seas, low or high water levels can lead to altered itineraries and -- in a worst case scenario -- canceled sailings.

Here's a breakdown of what to expect when water levels and weather affect a river cruise

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How Does Weather Affect a River Cruise?

River Cruise Hero 1792x1200

Weather can adversely affect the river water levels in Europe, the U.S. and Asia. If it rains too much, the rivers rise, to the point where riverboats can't go under bridges and through locks. If it rains too little, the waterways dry up, so riverboats (and other vessels) are unable to sail.

Europe River Cruises: How Weather Might Impact Voyages

ms Serenity TA Listings Page Image

High water often happens in the late spring and early summer, after snow melts in the Alps. The mountains are also more apt to receive high amounts of rainfall in the spring, which can have a trickle-down effect on Europe's rivers.

Conversely, droughts often happen in the late summer and early fall, particularly if Europe is hit with a heat wave. Keep in mind, however, that weather can be extremely unpredictable, with unseasonal rains or unusual periods of drought. If you have a river cruise coming up, watch the overall weather patterns and don't forget to get travel insurance.

Asia River Cruises: How Weather Might Impact Voyages

Light fog on the Yangtze River (Photo: Lao Ma/Shutterstock.com)

Asia river cruising is more stable than European river cruising, primarily because the ships sail the countryside; there aren't a lot of low bridges to get in the way. Plus, the river cruising season (generally November through February), doesn't usually coincide with the rainy season. That being said, unusual rains or monsoons can happen, and if the rivers rise too high (as they did in Myanmar in late 2015), cruises can be affected.

Amazon, Nile & U.S.: How Do Other River Cruise Destinations Fare?

Viking Mississippi (Image: Viking River Cruises)

While the other main rivers for cruising -- Amazon, Nile, Mississippi and other U.S. rivers -- don't suffer the same weather concerns as those in Europe, freak incidents can occur, such as extreme flooding on the Mississippi.

Some Rivers Are More Susceptible to High and Low Waters

Elbe Princesse

The Elbe River, which runs through Germany and the Czech Republic, is notoriously low. The Loire River in France also has issues. River cruise lines are coping with the problem by designing ships that have shorter drafts and paddlewheels that can handle lower water levels.

The Rhine, Danube, Rhone, Saone, Seine and other rivers in Central Europe that are fed by the Alps and other mountain ranges tend to have the most flooding. Of these, the Rhine as well as the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, will generally recuperate the quickest, as the waterway is important for commercial vessels and can be managed by locks.

What Will Happen if Weather Affects My Cruise? Will My River Cruise Line Contact Me?

River Duchess

Yes, river cruise lines will always contact passenger if changes or cancelations are made, although don't expect to get much notice.

River cruise companies prefer to keep their passengers happy by sailing the published itinerary, so they will often wait until just a week or two before the voyage leaves to announce changes. Usually booked passengers and their travel agents will receive an email from the company; the news is occasionally announced via Facebook and other social media channels.

River lines tackle water issues in several ways. If the line owns numerous ships, it will often sail one part of the itinerary on one vessel, and then transfer passengers to another riverboat for the rest of the trip. Ports and embarkation cities might be changed.

Another option is to turn the ship into a floating hotel. In this scenario, the passengers stay with their belongings on one ship, and take buses to other cities during the day. Hotel stays in different cities might be substituted for staying on the ship if distances are too great. In some instances, the cruises are canceled outright. This is the exception rather than the rule, however.

I Don't Want to Go on a Bus Tour. What Are My Options?

If the cruise line changes an itinerary, it might give passengers an option to rebook on another cruise later in the year or choose a different itinerary at the same time. Sometimes, although not always, passengers are given refunds; as with ocean cruises, river cruise lines are not required to refund money if the itinerary changes.

Unless you booked an air or hotel package through the cruise line, you will probably not be reimbursed for flight cancellations and change fees, pre-booked hotels and other travel expenses paid for in advance. Your best bet is to purchase cancel-for-any-reason trip insurance.

What to Expect on a River Cruise series is a resource guide, written by Cruise Critic editors and contributors, where we answer the most common questions about life on river cruises-- including dining, cabins, service, tours and onboard activities.

Updated April 19, 2023
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