River Cruising 101: Costs, Seasons & Tips for Booking

by  Christine Wei | Dec 10, 2013
Uniworld's River Queen
Uniworld's River Queen / Photo courtesy of the cruise line

Taking your time. Delving deep. Enjoying scenery. Making new friends.

If this sounds like your kind of travel, you're certainly not alone – which is a large part of why river cruises, popularized in the 1990s, have been making a remarkable comeback in the past two years. More than two dozen new ships will be sailing in Europe alone in the upcoming year, and entire cruise lines are debuting, too. More notably, though, river cruises might seem expensive at first glance, but their all-inclusive nature can make them a great deal.

When most people think of cruising, they think of ocean cruises on massive ships that traverse enormous spans of water. River cruising is different, and not just because it forgoes big bodies of water for the world's narrower, calmer rivers. In a nutshell, a river cruise ship is more akin to a floating hotel than a mega-playground. Itineraries tend to be concentrated in one region with excursions to less-traveled landmarks, taking between a few dozen and 150 passengers at a time. Trips are almost solely focused on onshore excursions rather than onboard entertainment, so it's no surprise that river cruises appeal to those who love to linger and explore at a calmer pace. In fact, these cruises are known for staying in port overnight, particularly in Europe. Moreover, the smaller ships can navigate waterways that megaships physically can't or otherwise aren't allowed to.

But if you're shopping around for a deal, you've probably noticed that river cruises are priced significantly higher than their oceangoing counterparts. A 7-night Viking River Cruise to Paris and Normandy starts at $1,356 on the lower end, for example, and a 9-night AmaWaterways cruise through the same region starts at $2,799. For a point of comparison – though offerings and itineraries on ocean-going cruises are by definition drastically different – a typical European ocean cruise can run from $599 for a 7-night Norwegian Cruise Lines trip through Spain, France, and Italy, to $1,199 for a 7-night Princess Cruise to Spain and France. (Keep reading for more sample routes and itineraries below.)

The key to affordability on a river cruise? They don't require nearly as many extra fees and add-ons that you'd see with a traditional ocean cruise. Here are some places to find the hidden value on a river cruise...

Breaking Down the Costs

We've already mentioned that river cruises spend less time cruising and more time in port. Whether or not your itinerary includes an overnight stay, it likely will allow for evening strolls and other after-dark forays. More importantly, shore excursions that might cost between $30 and $200 on a typical ocean cruise – think city tours, local crafts sessions, and active fun like scavenger hunts and horseback riding – are included on a daily (or twice-daily) basis on many river cruises. Let's say you enjoy excursions that on average would cost $80 per day in port. That comes out to approximately $400 for a weeklong cruise.

For the thirsty guest, river cruises often include unlimited wine, beer, and soft drinks with dinner and sometimes even lunch. Compare that with the going rate of a glass of wine on a typical ocean cruise, between $7 and $10, or corkage fees of up to $25 in onboard restaurants. This means that one drink with dinner alone can make up for up to $70. Have two drinks (because why not?), and that's $140 – before you add gratuities.

Which brings us to the next point: Upscale dining options like steakhouses and chef's tables can set you back by $35 to $75 per meal on ocean cruises. Dinner time on a river cruise, on the other hand, means four- or five-course affairs that often feature ingredients from regional markets at no additional cost – enjoy Hungarian goulash with paprika from Budapest on a Viking cruise, Greek baklava at a Grand Circle table, or local wine pairings on a Uniworld sail. If these meals are an equivalent to a $50 dinner upgrade per night on a traditional cruise, that's another $350 per week. You may not have as much choice as you would on an ocean cruise, to be sure, and meals on river cruises tend not to be bottomless or available at all hours. But for a certain type of traveler, this meal model makes more sense.

But this $900 in included value doesn't even account for extras like demonstrations, lectures, and  films related to the regions you're visiting, which are common on river cruises. And virtually every river cruise cabin boasts some sort of view – wonderful for when you're breezing along just a yard or two from shore. (In just two hours along the Rhine-Gorge on an Avalon Waterways cruise, for example, you can enjoy views of nearly 40 hilltop castles.)

And while these ships offer fewer amenities than the megaships by virtue of their size, more and more lines are adding upgrades. For example, the Viking Longships have sliding glass walls and wraparound terraces in certain rooms, while the AmaSonata boasts a heated pool and fitness center. Ships are getting open-air restaurants, decks with enhanced views, and even location-specific audio tour apps. Another plus: Because of their smaller sizes, river cruises both offer more attentive service and encourage more quality interaction among passengers.

Who's Who In River Cruises

Here's a sampling of the biggest river cruise operators, with few sample itineraries and prices. (Some operators offer cruises in other regions as well.)

Grand Circle Cruise Line - Europe - $995 for 7 nights in France focused on Christmas markets

Viking River Cruises – Europe, Russia & Ukraine, China, Southeast Asia – $1,356 for 7 nights in France; $1,756 for 7 nights from Budapest to Nuremberg.

Avalon Waterways – Europe, China, Southeast Asia, South America, USA – $1,839 for 7 nights from Budapest to Vienna; $3,298 for 7 nights in France

Uniworld – Europe, Russia, China, Southeast Asia, Egypt – $2,999 for 7 nights from Basel to Amsterdam

Tauck – Europe – $3,990 for 7 nights from Basel to Amsterdam

AmaWaterways – Europe, Russia, Vietnam & Cambodia, Africa, Myanmar – $3,399  for 9 nights in France

Abercrombie & Kent – Europe – $3,995 for 9 nights in Holland & Belgium

Note: Also look for well-regarded, local operators in regions like the Amazon (International Expeditions or Aqua Expeditions) and Southeast Asia (Pandaw and Ayravata).

Where and When to Go?

Europe: This slower-paced mode of cruising was introduced here in the mid-1970s, and it continues to be a favorite year-round destination. Just take a look at Viking's 40 percent increase in Europe-bound passengers in the past year for a sense of the region's popularity! Tulip cruises in the Netherlands kickstart the spring, then Paris-to-Normandy and Eastern European trips begin picking up in the heart of summer through late fall. In this moderate season, Uniworld also reports a bump in Portugese and Spanish itineraries, thanks to the timing of the annual vineyard harvest. Come winter, Christmas market-themed itineraries in Hungary, Austria, and Germany become all the rage. One note of caution: While Rhine and Danube cruises are perennial favorites, melting snow in the spring and heavy rain in the fall can affect water levels and block passage through certain waterways.

In just the past few years, the spotlight has been turning to Myanmar, ever since its government was turned over to the citizens after nearly 50 years of military rule. As a recently tourist-friendly city, it's a great budget port - as are its neighbors along the Mekong River: Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Popular times to go are during the relatively warm winters and springs, before it becomes too humid in the late summer and before typhoon season hits in the fall.

Another unsurprising winner in the summer and fall months is the jungle- and rainforest-filled Amazon, particularly in Peru and Brazil. What's interesting about this area is that trips in the high water seasons (late winter and spring) and low water seasons are drastically varied. The former means access to smaller tributaries that are too shallow to reach in other times; the latter means more hikes and onshore expeditions.

Last but not least is the Nile River, whose popularity via river cruise formerly peaked at the turn of the century. Though Egypt still holds a lot of intrigue for many travelers, political unrest in the region has unfortunately caused most cruise lines to cancel most of their upcoming itineraries.

6 Booking and Cost-Saving Tips

As with traditional cruising, there are multiple ways to nab a great river cruising deal. Here are the best, plus a few other factors to keep in mind when booking.

1. Look to the spring (especially March and April) and fall (October through December). As outlined above, weather proves least difficult during the summers in many destinations, so demand is often higher in those months. But even if you're interested in perennial favorites that are popular year-round, you'll see many more airfare deals during the shoulder seasons. Speaking of which...

2. Be an early-bird booker. The first few months of the calendar year is known as "wave season," when cruise lines actively offer steep discounts in hopes of filling up cabins for the entire year. Expect to see 2-for-1 deals for rooms and even flights, generous onboard credits, and rates slashed in half. ShermansTravel will be running an in-depth report in early January, but if you're very keen on cruising, you should be on the lookout right now. To put the word "early" in perspective: Viking reports that more than 50 percent of their 2014 peak season staterooms have already been snatched up - to the extent that they've opened up booking for some 2015 itineraries through next Wednesday, December 18. 2014 bookings for many of the other operators mentioned here are also currently open.

3. Play it safe when it comes to flights. Even if you usually come out unscathed from tight connections, now is really the time to exercise caution. The ship won't wait for you, though it theoretically would be easier to catch your cruise at the next port when it's traveling more slowly and covering less ground.

4. For lower rates on cabins, inquire about smaller-sized digs near the front and back of the ship, especially since you won't be spending much time in them in the first place. The one caveat is that these rooms can be noisier when the ship goes through the locks, but if you're a heavy sleeper or a fan of ear plugs, it's worth the discount. Plus, on off-peak cruises, you might be able to switch to another empty room for less than the original rate if the noise does end up too much to bear.

5. Consider pre- and post-sail stays. Enjoying an additional night or two in a port city is a great way to make the most of your trip. Asia itineraries especially tend toward pastoral ports, and this would be a good way to include some urban explorations. Some cruise lines like Abercrombie & Kent include hotels before or after the cruise in their departure price; others like Viking and Avalon all have hotel discount partnerships as well as guided extensions on offer.

6. Traveling solo? More and more river cruises have been drastically reducing or even waiving hefty single supplements for a while now. These discounts aren't necessarily year-round, so it's best to call specific cruise lines or their agents directly for specific dates and routes.

More Seafaring Resources Before You Go
What to Do When Your River Cruise is Cancelled
5 Money Saving Tips for European River Cruises
Top 10 Riverboat Cruises
10 European River Cruise Lines

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