If you’re a fan of ocean cruising, you’ve likely considered a European river cruise. Perhaps you've seen the ads of gleaming river ships that glide along the Danube past the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest or sit docked on the Seine in Paris with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop. It looks pretty amazing, right?

But river cruise prices can often inspire sticker shock. The intimate ambience that makes cruising Europe's waterways so seductive rarely comes at a bargain. These snug river vessels don't have the enormous capacity of large-scale ocean cruise ships, so passengers pay more — about $3,000 to $5,000 per person, on average -- for a seven-night cruise.

If that kind of cruise fare is beyond your budget, we have some good news: By knowing where to look and when to book, you can experience a river cruise in Europe for less than $2,000 per person (not including airfare and gratuities, of course). Here’s how to do it: 

Focus on Cruise Lines That Offer Value

There are several river cruise lines known for value pricing, plus a new upstart division of an established luxury line looking to lure younger, budget-conscious cruisers — so deals aren’t hard to find.

Consider CroisiEurope, a family-owned line based in Strasbourg, France, that operates 55 river ships in Europe, Asia, and Africa. While many of its longer cruises (seven nights or more), especially those on its renovated "five-anchor" ships, come in a bit above $2,000 per person, the company offers a wide array of four-to-six-night itineraries priced from $800 to $1,600 on its more basic, “four-anchor” vessels (cabins are smaller and decor might be a bit dated). And because the fare is mostly inclusive (with wine, beer, and select spirits included, along with a basic port excursion package), there’s very little additional outlay when onboard.

Avalon Waterways is also worth checking regularly for special pricing on its lowest category cabins. For example, we found a seven-night Danube itinerary from Vienna to Budapest in April, 2019 for $1,809 per person, and a seven-night “Tulip Time” cruise roundtrip from Amsterdam in March 2019 for $1,749 per person. The only caveats: Some but not all tours are included, so you need to be willing to explore independently to stick to your budget; and if you like to drink, you can indulge in wine and beer at lunch and dinner, but all other imbibing will cost extra.

The largest and perhaps the best-known of Europe’s river lines, Viking River Cruises, does have about a half-dozen seven-night sailings that squeeze in under $2,000 (just barely at $1,999 per person for a Rhine Getaway from Amsterdam to Basel, and the "Romantic Danube" from Budapest to Nuremberg). A daily excursion is included as is wine and beer with lunch and dinner, so if you’re disciplined, you can avoid blowing your budget too badly.

If you’re willing to try something different (and you like staying up late, sleeping until 11 a.m., and you aren’t a foodie), U by Uniworld’s newly launched The A (on the Rhine and Danube) and The B (on the Seine) can give you a seven-night river cruise for less than $2,000 per person. But to come in under budget, you’ll need to book judiciously (look for dates when fares start at $1,499), take the 299-euro beverage package (if you’re a big drinker — if not, stick with beer and soda by the glass to spend less), and take advantage of the free excursions.

Don’t Cruise in Peak Season

Yes, you’ll need to pack a rain jacket and umbrella and you can probably forget about enjoying the views from the sun deck on most days, but if your bottom line is saving money, cruises before and after the peak summer and early fall travel season in Europe — March and April as well as late October and early November — are your best bet. Prices during these months are often discounted by $500-$900.

You could also consider a Christmas Market cruise on the Rhine and Danube in November and December, which can cost as little as $679 for three nights, $1,399 for four nights, or $1,899 for seven nights. The catch: You need to be prepared for very cold and sometimes snowy conditions — but there will be plenty of spiced mulled wine to warm you up!

Book Far in Advance or Watch for Last-Minute Deals

River cruises sell out much faster than ocean cruises, with some itineraries fully booked more than a year out. Sign up for email alerts and watch for promotions offering discounted fares for early bookings as much as 18 to 24 months in advance of a sailing — there are some great deals.

Conversely, if you can be spontaneous and travel with just a few weeks’ notice, become a fare stalker since most companies are eager to fill ships by offering last-minute deals. A quick check in mid-May, for example, showed a special $1,587 per person fare for a five-night CroisiEurope cruise in Bordeaux, France in late May (and $1,645 for the same itinerary in July). Also available last-minute: CroisiEurope’s five-night itineraries on the Rhine from Strasbourg in early June (from $1,649 per person) and four nights on the Seine from Normandy to Paris in July and August (from $1,524 per person).

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