Next »

European River Cruises 101

Set sail on charming old-world waterways with our expert tips and comprehensive guide to European river cruises

By ShermansTravel Editorial Staff

April 25th, 2011

As ocean-plying vessels continue to expand in size to monstrous proportions, many cruise aficionados have set their sights on river cruising as a way to return to the calm, quiet, serenity of small-ship travel. Cruising European rivers allows passengers to get into the heartlands and villages that are often overlooked in land-only package tours, while coasting past medieval castles, country cottages, sprawling vineyards, and other picturesque backdrops. A world away from the carnival-style theatrics and party vibe of the larger ships, the intimate, friendly atmosphere on a smaller riverboat vessel is contagious, and by the end of a sailing, most cruise guests and crew have made plenty of acquaintances – if not formed flat-out friendships! 

In recent years, the waterways of the region have seen tremendous growth: It seems that the European river cruise lines just can't build vessels fast enough! Last year, cruise agents reported that 34 percent of their clients expressed an interest in river cruising, and it's predicted that number will only grow. River cruising has ballooned an estimated 23 percent per year since 2001 – considerably higher statistics than those for ocean cruising. As new cruise lines sprout up and new ships are commissioned, cruise companies are trying to distinguish themselves from the pack with innovative approaches. Staterooms are becoming snazzier, pre-and post-cruise excursions are becoming the norm, and previously unknown cruise regions are gaining momentum.

In order to help you plan your perfect European river cruise vacation, our cruise experts have rounded up answers to some of the most frequently asked questions, as well as some useful tips for booking European river cruises. We’ve also broken down the cruise offerings by river and cruise line so you can decide which voyage is right for you. Once you’ve got your feet wet, head over to our Cruise News blog for the latest updates on the industry, or check out our Europe cruise deals section for ways to stretch your travel budget a bit further.

When is European river cruise season?
How long do European river cruises last?
What ports do European river cruises leave from?
How much do European river cruises cost and what’s included?

What are the ships like?
What is there to do onboard?

When is European river cruise season?
River cruising in Europe is possible from March through December, although the regular season wraps up in early November. From late November through mid-December, most cruise lines also offer a handful of Christmas market cruises that incorporate excursions to festive outdoor markets. The best deals are typically found in the early sailing season from March to April, and as the season winds down in late October and early November. During these times, expect cooler temperatures to dip to an average of 35 to 50 degrees (depending on which river you are sailing). Prices are generally higher in the summer months when temps average around 60 to 75 degrees, with rates peaking in September.

High Season: May−September
Low Season: November−December; March
Sweet Spot: April & October

How long do European river cruises last?
European river cruises typically last between seven and 14 nights, with some “Grand European” cruises – which span several waterways – lasting anywhere from 20 to 30 nights. A handful of shorter, three to six-night “sampler” cruises are also available. Note that unlike ocean-sailing ships that usually incorporate days at sea into the itinerary, most days are spent ashore with river cruising.

What ports do European river cruises leave from?
River cruise ships have the advantage of being able to set sail from small towns and villages, but there are also a number of major cities resting along the riverbanks. Some of the more common embarkation ports include Budapest, Vienna, Frankfurt, and Zurich.

Lengthier itineraries will combine more than one river, but the following are the primary embarkation (and debarkation) ports for the continent’s major waterways:

Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rhine
Antwerp, Belgium: Rhine
Arles, France: Seine, Rhone
Avignon, France: Rhone
Basel, Switzerland: Rhine
Budapest, Hungary: Danube
Chalon-sur-Saône, France: Saone, Rhone
Frankfurt, Germany: Danube
Hampton Court, England: Thames
Kiev, Ukraine: Dnieper
Killaloe, Ireland: Shannon
Melnik, Czech Republic: Elbe
Moscow, Russia: Volga
Nuremberg, Germany: Danube
Odessa, Ukraine: Dnieper
Paris, France: Seine, Rhone
Passau, Germany: Danube
Porto, Portugal: Douro
Potsdam, Germany: Elbe
Prague, Czech Republic: Danube
Remich, Luxembourg: Moselle 
St. Petersburg, Russia: Volga
Trier, Germany: Rhine
Venice, Italy: Po
Vienna, Austria: Danube
Würzburg, Germany: Rhine
Zurich, Switzerland: Rhine

How much do European river cruises cost and what’s included?
European river cruise fares tend to be significantly higher than most ocean cruises (with the exception of high-end luxury vessels) because they offer a more intimate onboard experience with lower passenger capacity, plus, they’re virtually all-inclusive. Like any cruise, there is a vast range of price tags, with variables like pre- and post-cruise excursions, airfare, itinerary, sailing dates, cabin selection, and the number of nights all coming into consideration.

With that in mind, figure that a stateroom on a seven-night cruise (without airfare) during peak season will run between $2,200 and $3,300 prior to taxes (rates can spike as high as $5,500), though numerous early-booking sales are often offered with reduced airfare and/or drastic discounts on the cruise fare (expect discounting of $500 to $1500 off per couple). If you are looking for a similar peak-season cruise, but have more time to spare, a 10- to 14-night itinerary will accordingly balloon in cost, typically ranging from $2,500 to over $5,000 (with sale prices from $1,100).

What’s included in the price varies based on company, but it’s standard that meals, entertainment, and shore excursions are part of the fare. Some companies offer wine and beer (usually with dinner only), others sell it as a separate package. Gratuities are usually at an additional cost for the passenger.

More and more river cruise lines are bundling in pre- and post-cruise land packages. These often include several nights’ accommodations and tours that complement the itinerary. Double-check what your cruise rate covers, and keep in mind that these packages can often be purchased separately. Prices vary based on cruise line.

Airfare is not covered unless you purchase an air-inclusive cruise rate. Many travelers go this route because river cruise lines frequently run two-for-one (or 50-percent off) airfare specials.

What are the ships like?
The first thing you’ll notice is that the European riverboats aren't very wide (picture two cabins separated by a hallway and not much else). There is no lengthy security check or long lines to wait in: Passengers simply arrive at the dock, and after showing their ticket, the crew will take any luggage and help them aboard.

The demographics consist primarily of middle-aged and elderly couples; kids are sparse to come by, if at all. River cruising typically doesn’t offer kid-friendly activities, so little ones will be bored. However, if older teens can appreciate the history and culture of the destinations (and know that this type of cruise isn’t one giant party), they may find it very enjoyable.

Traditionally, cabins don’t fall into the standard “interior,” “oceanview,” and “balcony” categories of ocean ships, although some newer river vessels are unveiling suites as part of the continuing movement toward luxury. On most river ships, the lowest category is a standard room with one or two small, rectangular windows near the ceiling that allows some natural light to seep through, with larger panoramic windows available in the next category up (though these types of cabins typically come standard on luxury lines). Full walk-out patios are a rarity, and while some top-tier staterooms have them, most come with sliding doors that open to a French balcony. On older ships, rooms tend to be smaller and often lack French balconies and expansive windows.

If you’re looking for luxury, book one of the industry's newest ships, which often feature suites, marble bathroom countertops, and floor-to-ceiling windows.

What’s there to do onboard?
Contrary to popular belief, you won’t be spending that much time aboard, and when you are on the ship, you’ll likely be in the dining room or in your cabin sleeping. Days are filled with shore excursions, and ships often visit more than one port in a single day. There are the occasional days where you’ll spend the morning coasting past the scenery, in which case curling up with a good book, strolling the deck with your camera in hand, and just simply relaxing are activity enough to pass the time. Passengers can also round up fellow card players, or soak up some rays (depending on the season) on the sundeck. On certain evenings there might be live musical performances and educational lectures, and a number of ships feature a small bar for drinks and conversation. Beyond that, expect onboard facilities to be almost entirely shut down by 11:30pm, as some adventures get started in the wee hours of the morning.

Our Experts save you money with travel deals and advice

Sign up for the Top 25 Newsletter to get exclusive weekly deals