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?
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.
Some of the most commonly cruised European rivers include the Danube, Rhine, Moselle, Rhone, Main, and Seine – all of which provide a window into the Holy Roman Empire, ancient ruins, and fabulous wine regions. Most major companies will have ships stationed on these rivers, but several “off-the-path” areas are also awaiting exploration, including the Volga (Russia), the River Shannon (Ireland), and the Douro (Portugal), though options will be limited.
The Big Five
The Danube (often called the Blue Danube because of its once-vibrant hue that inspired Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz) is Europe’s second largest river, and spans from the Black Forest of Germany to the Black Sea. This once popular trade route passes through numerous capital cities including Vienna and Budapest – making it a popular choice for first-time river cruisers. The mighty Danube cuts west to east through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, and the Ukraine (Danube Delta).
The Main runs through the German highlands, serving as a vital link between the North Sea and the Black Sea. The Main-Danube canal is a wonder onto itself, completed in 1992 after years of abandoned attempts; it contains 16 locks and spans 106 miles. Flowing west, the entire 330-mile waterway is a hotbed of German history and culture, from bustling metropolises like Nuremberg and Frankfurt to medieval Bavarian towns and hillside churches.
The Rhine serves as Germany’s main artery, running from the Swiss Alps in the south, past the Black Forest and Alsace wine region to the North Sea. It spans a length of 820 miles that connects to other main waterways via a series of canals. The shores are dotted with old-world villages, French vineyards, and castle-lined cliffs, but the river is most famously known for the Lorelei rock. Located on a shallow bend, the slate rock has caused numerous ships to wreck and is the subject of much folklore. Most cruises embark from Amsterdam or Basel in Switzerland, and sail as far north as Rotterdam, Holland. In the winter, shorter (four- to seven-night) Christmas market cruises are available, making it a viable way to sneak away during the busy holiday season.
As the only major European river that flows into the Mediterranean, the Rhone has played an integral role in trade routes since Roman times and its strong current carries passengers past some of the most celebrated vineyards of Burgundy and Provence. It begins in Valais, Switzerland, from the overflow of the Rhone Glacier, through Lake Geneva and Lyon and Arles in France. Whether you spend your time shopping for fine wine and cheese, sampling French cuisine, or wandering the ruins of Roman arenas, amphitheaters, and baths, a journey through southern France is a luxury in itself.
Perhaps it is the Seine that gives Paris its romantic edge. Reaching a length of 486 miles through the regions of France's Île-de-France and Haute-Normandie regions to the English Channel, the Seine River is known for its charming French countryside and exquisite bridges: It glides past 37 in Paris alone! Most cruises include a visit to Monet’s garden, the beaches of Normandy, the Palace of Versailles, and spend quite a bit of time in the City of Lights, a crowning cultural destination. Most major river cruise companies – as well as smaller sightseeing outfits – offer journeys on the Seine.
Scotland’s main waterway connects the mystical regions of Lochs Dochfour, Oich, Ness, Lochy, and Linnhe. The Scottish Highlander, another barge vessel from European Waterways, offers six-night cruises alongside jaw-dropping scenery to whisky distilleries and Cawdor Castle – the setting for Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” A handful of cruises on other lines also include the Hebridean Islands in the west.
At over 1,300 miles, the Dneiper serves as the Ukraine’s primary waterway, which flows south into the Black Sea, with a number of voyages offered from late April through early October. Traditionally, cruises include excursions to the botanical gardens of Kiev and/or Yalta, a visit the Monastery of the Caves (an underground network of tunnels built by monks), and the White Palace, the summer home of Russia’s Czar Nicholas II. Viking and Imperial Waterways both offer sailings on this river.
This lesser-known waterway may be river cruising’s best-kept secret. For starters, the entire Douro River Valley has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is home to palaces, monasteries, ancient manor houses, and quintas (traditional wine farms); in fact, it is the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. Flowing west across Spain and northern Portugal, the Douro is the lifeblood of Costa Verde (Green Coast), home to Port wine, dramatic gorges, and orange, almond, and grape blossoms that leave a sweet fragrance lingering in the air. The city of Porto – which has recently seen a renaissance of its own – is found on most itineraries, and on lengthier cruises (seven to eight days), passengers are also treated to the ancient Spanish city of Salamanca.
This dramatic waterway connects the Czech Republic to northern Germany, and cuts across the sandstone crags of Saxon, Switzerland, and Dresden, Germany, past medieval towns, gothic cathedrals, and storybook castles, before emptying into the North Sea. Add-on extensions to Prague and Berlin are common on these voyages, and are often included in the itineraries. Cruises to this region are primarily limited to Viking River Cruises, which operates two vessels on 10-night cruise vacations.
The Moselle flows through France, Germany, and Luxembourg past medieval cities, castles, and fortresses, as well as vineyards in the wine regions situated along its banks. Spanning just 338 miles, the Moselle is also a tributary of the Rhine; as such, the two can often be found on combined itineraries.
Venice enchants visitors with its legendary canals, and a cruise along the Po grants time to explore this mystical city before following a path to Padua and Verona (via motor coach tour), the settings for two of Shakespeare’s famous plays. Overnight cruises with English-speaking guides are challenging to find, but CroisiEurope (www.croisieurope.com) has a handful of four- to seven-night offerings.
The River Shannon
Those seeking isolation and natural beauty should consider the River Shannon, which sees virtually no commercial traffic. As Ireland’s largest river, it runs north to south through the country’s core, ending near the city of Limerick. While much of the river is lined with marshes and bogs, other areas expand into lakes (primed for water-skiers), not to mention several isolated islands, cheerful pubs, stone castles, and rolling, grassy hills. Most travelers secure a private charter vessel or hop on a sightseeing day cruise. However, the 10-passenger Shannon Princess (www.shannonprincess.com) is a luxury hotel barge that sails on weeklong voyages that most closely fit the traditional river cruising style.
The Thames river extends much further from London into lesser visited towns over a 215-mile course. While numerous sightseeing cruises of London are readily available, European Waterways (www.gobarging.com) deploys its Magna Carta on several themed voyages that often include a stop at the Windsor Castle.
Often referred to as “Mother Volga,” Russia’s national waterway has been the center of commerce in Russia, as well as a vital source of hydroelectric power. Originating in the Valday Hills, it travels south through Moscow and empties into the Caspian Sea after a staggering 2,229-mile journey – making it Europe’s longest (and largest) river.
European River Cruise Lines
By looking just at the riverboats' exterior, it may be difficult to tell one vessel from the next. Until recently, there wasn’t much difference between styles, with most vessels claiming comfortable, casual accommodations. As the river cruise industry transforms, however, ships are becoming more upscale and passengers are faced with an ever-growing list of options. Should they go luxury or low-key? Should they book short or long itineraries, and with – or without – the pre-cruise package? Which companies sail where? Here’s the lowdown on the leading European river cruise lines:
(Note that the following list includes major companies that cater to English-speaking guests, and is not inclusive of all cruise lines serving Europe. Many cruises can also be booked through major tour providers.)
As a fast-growing, California-based company featuring first-class accommodations aboard a stunning new fleet, AMA Waterways has been stepping up things a notch for the industry. The company is launching two new ships in 2011 on the Mekong River and the Volga. This line offers cruises ranging from nine to 30 days, which typically include pre- or post-cruise packages. www.amawaterways.com
Relative newcomer Avalon has emerged as a major player in the industry with slightly more upscale and innovative vessels and a partnership with Globus, a leading tour provider. The moderately priced cruise line has been collecting awards from numerous publications, including our own “Smart Luxury Awards.” www.avalonwaterways.com
This family-run French company sails the major waterways, but is also an excellent option for the lesser-traveled rivers including the Douro, Volga, and the Po. All announcements and information are available in English and French, but it's not as popular of a choice among Americans as some of the other cruise lines. www.croisieurope.com
This company adds a twist on river cruising: Instead of the elongated vessels found on many cruise lines, European Waterways operates a fleet of small, luxury “hotel barges.” It is also operates the Shannon Princess, Ireland’s only luxury barge hotel. www.gobarging.com
French Country Waterways
American owned for over 25 years, this all-inclusive barge cruise line operates four luxury vessels on six-night itineraries with an emphasis on fine food and wine. Evening dining in local restaurants is common, and itineraries weave in local events for an added cultural experience. www.fcwl.com
Imperial River Cruises
Imperial River Cruises sails the Black Sea, Russia, and the Ukraine with an English-speaking crew and excursion guides. Ships tend to be much older than many of the other companies, but most have been refurbished within the past 10 years. www.imperialrivercruises.com
Sailing the canals of Holland and Belgium, and the Rhine, Main, Moselle, Rhone, Saône, and Danube rivers aboard 10 state-of-the-art vessels, Austrian-based Lueftner is a solid choice for a classic river cruise experience. www.lueftner-cruises.com
Still under-the-radar, this Australian-based company operates five vessels that are an estimated 22 percent longer than other ships, with the majority of accommodations boasting luxurious suites and (walk-out) balconies. Top-tier categories also include private butler service. www.scenictours.com
Primarily a tall-sailing ship line, this small German company also operates the River Cloud II, a five-star river yacht, from March through November. The ship features outstanding dining, all-outside staterooms, marble-tiled bathrooms, and 1930s-style décor. www.seacloud.com
With a long history (since 1925) of providing personalized tours, Tauck now operates four custom river vessels on two-week Danube, Rhine, and Main river cruises. In addition to spacious staterooms sporting plasma televisions and floor-to-ceiling windows, each ship has 14 opulent suites, fitted with floor-to-ceiling windows and marble-tiled bathrooms. www.tauck.com
As the industry’s self-proclaimed boutique cruise line, the interior décor is a step (or two) above the other cruise lines. The company works hand-in-hand with the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, so staterooms and public areas feel like a floating high-end hotel. Voyages cover all of the major European waterways, as well as the Douro River. www.uniworld.com
Viking River Cruises
One of the biggest names in river cruising, Viking is best known for its casual style, outgoing staff, and well-executed shore programs. In addition to 15 ships stationed in Europe (with four more set to join ranks by 2012), the company also operates five vessels in China, Southeast Asia, and Egypt. www.vikingrivercruises.com
Tips for Booking European River Cruises
Read on for our expert tips on booking European river cruises:
Snag a deal. You can almost always find a deal on a river cruise ship. Visit the specials section of the cruise line’s website, and double-check that the sale fare applies to the dates you are interested in.
Book early. Until supply meets demand, these vessels will continue to sell out months in advance.
Weigh your options. Many companies offer standard sightseeing tours, with optional excursions that are available at an additional cost. Research these in advance, as some will be worth the splurge and others may fall short.
Bring snacks. There are no 24/7 buffets like you’ll find on ocean vessels. If you get hungry between meals or develop the late-night munchies, you’ll be covered if you have your own stash.
Be an early bird. Arriving a day early for an overnight stay in your port of embarkation is always a good idea, but when you are cruising outside of the U.S., it’s essential. Even if you’re traveling during the summer months when the weather is clear, unforeseen events (volcanoes erupting, pilots striking) can cause your flight to be canceled; and at a peak-travel times, other carriers are likely to be booked solid. Allowing a cushion of a day or more will ensure that you don’t miss your boat (although you can catch up with it later, who needs the hassle?). Even if everything goes as planned, you’ll have a relaxing day to explore the port city without having to rush to board the ship.