One of the advantages of a river cruise, and cruising in general, is that travelers can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time — a big plus in the culture-rich regions of Europe. The Old Continent’s waterways were once the fastest methods of transportation; today, traveling by land is also an accessible and convenient option to get from place to place.

Both modes of transit have benefits and disadvantages, but when it comes to value, does one have an edge over the other? We did a point-by-point comparison of a recent Elbe River cruise on CroisiEurope and an equivalent itinerary on land, estimating costs and highlighting differences. Read on to decide which one is best for you.

The Itinerary: The Elbe River cuts through central Germany, dividing the eastern and western parts of the country. A 9-night cruise offers tons of history and culture from every period imaginable, from medieval times to the Protestant Reformation to World War II and beyond. The journey starts from Berlin and ends in Prague (or vice versa). Highlights include Martin Luther’s Wittenberg; the porcelain-making town of Meissen; Dresden, the "Florence of Elbe;" and the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. On CroisiEurope, you'll pay between $3,675 and $4,363 per person for an upper-deck, double-occupancy cabin in high season; Viking offers a similar route from $2,999 to $4,599.

Transportation

River: Cruising along the river is a pleasant way to soak up some scenery, especially with a glass of wine on the sun deck. Though there are some industrial areas and several locks (most of them in the Czech Republic), the Elbe River passes through stretches of grassy terrain punctuated by villages, including some quaint church towers. The most beautiful part of the journey is just outside of Dresden on the way to the Czech Republic, where terraced vineyards and gorgeous mansions grace the banks.

Land: The journey on the road can be equally picturesque — some parts of the route follow the river and wind through town centers, where you can get up-close views. The Via Romantika, a road that passes through Dresden and Meissen, is known for its enchanting landscapes. The trip requires around nine hours behind the wheel and a rental car which costs around $760 for nine days (that’s $84 per day), not to mention gas (around $6.45 per gallon).

Overnight Accommodations

River: The ships that sail the Elbe are comfortable and well-designed. Though more compact than most hotel rooms, it’s hard to beat the convenience of keeping your belongings in one place instead of packing and unpacking at each new destination.

Land: Even five-star hotels can cost less than $200 a night in central Germany. The properties located in the larger cities on the itinerary — Berlin, Dresden, Prague — hover around 150 euros per night (that’s around $177USD). One example is Dresden’s Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski, where the standard rooms are anything but standard (they’re in a former Baroque palace.) Hotels and guest houses in smaller towns tend to go for a a little less, such as the simple but largely sufficient NH Hotel in Magdeburg that costs 95 euros per night (or around $112USD).

Food  

River: You’ll be served multi-course meals in an elegant setting, including aperitifs, wine pairings, digestifs, and coffee and tea. Dishes could include foie gras, pork tenderloin, and sweet desserts such as crepes suzette; gala dinners are particularly extravagant. Some lunches are taken at restaurants in-port, which allow passengers to taste the local cuisine.

Land: The best part of doing a vacation on your own is freely sampling the culinary specialties of the region: wienerschnitzel; stollen (a fruit and nut cake); white asparagus; the Magdebuger Bordetopf, a baked casserole with lamb and mutton. Beer is plentiful (and cheap) in both Germany and the Czech Republic; you could easily order pint after pint without making a dent in your wallet.

Excursions

River: Walking tours are included at each port. In culture-rich towns such as Wittenberg, where Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of a church, history lessons (or revisions) are an essential and enriching part of the cruise.

Land: You’ll have to factor in the cost of admission fees to monuments and sights such as the Sanssouci Palace (12 euros) or the Luther House in Wittenberg (8 euros) in addition to any guided tours. On the plus side: You have more flexibility than travelers on a set cruise ship schedule — so you can spend less time in ports where there’s not much to see (Litmorice) and more in areas that merit more in-depth exploration such as Dresden, the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, and the many parks and palaces of Potsdam.  

The Verdict

Usually sold as packages with most extras included — meals, drinks, shore excursions — river cruises can give you a lot of bang for your buck, save a lot of time and energy, and include luxurious amenities. In destinations such as central Germany and the Czech Republic, where hotels are relatively inexpensive, a land vacation can total less than the price of a cruise if you don’t go overboard with pricey restaurants and lots of guided tours. Our recommendation? Travelers looking for convenience and ease, companionship, good meals, and expert guides, should take to the waters; independence- and choice-seekers who want in-depth exploration should for the DIY option.

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