If you don’t know where to start with your first river cruise, I’ll make it easy for you: Choose the Danube. This river is Europe’s second longest, touching the banks of ten countries and four capitals. It’s my number one choice for people new to river cruising. Why? The Danube features a list of marquee cities—Nuremberg, Passau, Linz, Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava (as well as Bucharest and Belgrade on some itineraries) and it offers something for everyone. I’ve cruised the Danube more than a dozen times and I love it every time that I go because I see something different every time. Packages on the Danube range from 5 to 23 days, so as you can imagine, there’s a vast range of sites that can be experienced during one trip.
The Danube begins in the shaded glory of Germany’s Black Forest near the Swiss border, where the Breg and Brigach headstreams converge and stretch all the way to the Black Sea. It flows east to west from Germany to Ukraine, but “the Upper Danube” is technically the eastern side—from Germany to Hungary—and proves to be the most popular with cruise companies. This is the tour for you if you really want to experience a collection of Europe’s greatest hits such as visiting the Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or biking Austria’s Wachau Valley between Melk and Durnstein. Evening visits to Viennese palaces, lit in their full glory, to witness a waltz or concert, or a stroll from Buda to Pest undoubtedly confirm poets’ romantic notions of European charm and grace.
Most seven to ten-night itineraries allow sufficient time to explore the major cities along the river. The most common route extends between Passau, Germany and Budapest, Hungary. Prague is often listed as a starting or ending point of a cruise; however, Prague is not located on the Danube River. It’s about 140 miles north of Passau and about 190 northeast of Nuremberg, with guests bussed to and from the ship.
Some vessels operate roundtrip from Passau; some operate one-way between Regensburg and Budapest; and others cruise between Vienna or Budapest to Nuremberg, which requires transiting the section of the Main-Danube Canal over the Franconian Alps. This passage, which I’ve discussed earlier is known as Europe’s Continental Divide. It was the vision of Charlemagne, and the waterway canal only took a mere 1,200 years to come to fruition—reaching completion in 2002. The series of 16 locks is spread over a distance of more than 100 miles, methodically lifting river cruisers nearly 1,400 feet above sea level. The Divide is represented by a concrete monument on the banks, and my first time reaching this iconic milestone, I expected the captain to speak the words reserved for airline pilots, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve reached our cruising altitude.” He did not, and crossing the divide passed uneventfully for most guests on the ship, who were having dinner. Not for me. I was out on deck to take in the spectacle.
For the most part the Upper Danube spans more than a mile wide, meandering through fertile plateaus dotted with fairy-tale fortresses, with the only narrow, canyon-like gorges being Hungary’s Visegrád north of Budapest and the Iron Gates (see the Lower Danube).
2019 Danube River Cruise Price Comparisons
River Cruise Advisor’s peak season 2019 price comparisons should be viewed as general guidelines for comparing prices across the major companies operating on a particular river (or region) in Europe or for a particular itinerary.
The intent of the charts is to provide a baseline for matching a cruise company to your budget. I’ve calculated what I believe to be the “true per diem” for each cruise company, after factoring in, or out, the various items that are included, or not included, on a particular river cruise.
Pricing is anything but straightforward among the major river cruise companies, as many companies offer two-for-the-price-of-one river cruises, reduced or free airfare incentives, early-booking discounts and many more pricing tactics that make purchasing a river cruise vacation a complex and confounding exercise. Using a spreadsheet until we were bleery-eyed, my team and I have tried to decipher the various offers and inclusions to arrive at meaningful guidelines for comparisons.
The bottom line, the true per diem, is what you can expect to pay per person for each day of your cruise for a lead-in standard stateroom, or where applicable, a lead-in balcony stateroom.
Price, however, should not be the only consideration when selecting a company for your river cruise. There are a boatload of variables to be considered, not the least of which is what’s included in your cruise. If you’re someone who prefers everything included, an open bar, for example, and prepaid gratuities, you’ll want to look to companies that provide those as part of your cruise fare. For help in figuring out which cruise company includes what, see “Attributes Of The Top River Cruise Companies,” a chart that outlines inclusions.
As always, I welcome your comments and feedback. While I try to get things right, I do goof now and then, which is why I am extremely grateful to readers who bring errors to my attention so that I can correct them as quickly as possible.
Bon voyage, Ralph Grizzle
Danube 2019 Peak Season Pricing ComparisonsThe Danube is my number one choice for people new to river cruising. Why? The Danube features a list of marquee cities - Nuremberg, Passau, Linz, Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava (as well as Bucharest and Belgrade on some itineraries) and it offers something for everyone.
What I appreciate most about the Danube: 1) Scenic beauty as you cruise through gorgeous landscapes and past fairy-tale villages; 2) Visits to iconic cities such as those mentioned; 3) Excursions to UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Cesky Krumlov; 4) Evening concerts and waltzes (both on the ships and during evening visits to Viennese palaces); and 5) Opportunities to bicycle, particularly on the gorgeous stretch between Melk and Durnstein through the Wachau Valley.
Current incentives when I compiled the chart in June of 2018: AmaWaterways and Avalon Waterways, $250 off per person; Emerald Waterways, free air for all Horizon Deck guests; $295 for Vista Deck and $495 for Riviera Deck; Crystal $1,465 savings; Scenic, fly free; Uniworld, 10 percent off when paid in full; and Viking, two cruise for the price of one and air is offered for $499 per person.
|Ship||AmaSonata||Avalon Visionary||Beethoven||Crystal Ravel||Emerald Sun||Charles Dickens||Scenic Crystal||Joy||Beatrice||Egil|
|Sailing Date||June 7, 2019||June 4, 2019||July 1, 2019||June 9, 2019||June 15, 2019||June 2, 2019||August 1, 2019||June 10, 2019||June 12, 2019||June 1, 2019|
|Itinerary||Romantic Danube||A Taste Of The Danube||The Beautiful Danube||Danube Dreams & Discovery||Danube Delights||Blue Danube||Gems of the Danube||Blue Danube||Delightful Danube||Romantic Danube|
|Cabin Category||Category E||Category D,E||Main Deck Suite||Petite Suite||Stateroom E||Lower deck standard||Standard suite E||Category 1||Classic||Standard F|
|Room With A View?||Window||Window||Window||Balcony window||Window||Window||Window||Window||Window||Window|
|Per diem *||$514||$316||$334||$837||$442||$348||$678||$663||$528||$943|
|Port Charges *||$22.75||$10||Included||$22||Included||Included||Included||Included||$24.28||Included|
|Gratuities (on ship) *||$18||$11.25||$11.25||Included||Included||$10.00||Included||Included||Included||$15.87|
|Gratuities (on shore) *||$2.50||$2.50||$2.50||Included||included||$2.50||Included||Included||Included||$2.50|
|Optional Shore Excursions *||Included||$19||Included||$37.50||$12.50||$12.50||Included||Included||Included||$12.50|
|Current Incentive *||$250||$250||$234||$1,465||$905||n/a||$1,400||4 night hotel||$369||$4,499|
|Value of Incentive *||$36||$36||$33||$209||$129||$0||$200||N/A||$53||$643|
|True Per Diem||$525||$335||$314||$687||$338||$399||$478||$665||$500||$344|
|Per Diem/Square Foot *||$3.28||$1.95||$2.25||$3.66||$2.09||$2.64||$2.99||$4.43||$3.33||$2.29|
|Balcony Upgrade *||$899||$493||$260||$0||$650||$510||$1,000||$400||$900||$500|
|Balcony Per Diem||$653||$386||$352||$687||$431||$472||$621||$701||$629||$415|
Pricing Charts Explanation & Clarification
* Nights – A 7-night river cruise spans 7 days, but one of those days is the disembarkation day. Unlike checking out of a hotel, you won’t linger until noon (or later) on disembarkation day. Some guests will depart before 6 a.m. for transfers to the airport and their flights home. Others may be able to stay as late as 9 a.m. Either way, you’re not getting a full day on your river cruise on that last day. For that reason, the “per diems” are calculated based on the number of “nights” on board. The result is a fairer assessment than calculating the cost per “day.”
* Per Diem – The rate divided by the number of nights on board, indicated per person but based on double occupancy. Solo travelers will, in most cases, pay single supplements. Solo travelers can learn more about single supplements at this link, Avoiding Single Supplement Fares
* Port Charges – Not all river cruise companies include port charges. What are port charges? Ports of call, where river cruise ships dock, set their own fees, and these fees are then passed on to the river cruise passengers. See our post on port charges, Port Charges: Which River Cruise Companies Include Them?
* Gratuities (on ship) – Some companies include gratuities for crew, others leave it to their guests to take care of gratuities. If your cruise is one of the latter, you may want to have some euro notes handy for stuffing into envelopes (or into the hands of your favorite crew members) on the last night of the cruise. Guidelines of how much to tip also vary by river cruise line. See Prepaid Gratuities: Which River Cruise Companies Include Them?
* Gratuities (on shore) – Just as with crew gratuities, some companies take care of on-shore gratuities for guides and drivers; other companies leave it to their guests. If you’re traveling with a company that operates by the latter policy, be sure to carry euro coins with you for tipping guides and drivers.
* Beverages – Nearly all river cruise companies offer complimentary soft drinks, speciality coffees, beer and wine during lunch and dinner. In between mealtimes, though, you’ll pay for most beverages when traveling with Avalon, Emerald, Riviera and Viking. Beverages are included on CroisiEurope, Crystal, Scenic, Tauck and Uniworld. AmaWaterways introduced a “Sip & Sail” Happy Hour in 2018, which includes complimentary cocktails before dinner. For that reason, I’ve indicated AmaWaterways as “Beverages Included,” though you should be aware that you could leave the ship with a balance on your bar tab if you consume beverages outside of Happy Hour or breakfast (sparkling wine is included), lunch or dinner. Riviera does not include wine and beer, even during lunch and dinner. For those who don’t imbibe – and who don’t wish to pay for an inclusion they won’t make use of – Riviera’s a la carte pricing structure makes a lot of sense. For those who want to add a touch of the all-inclusive to their Riviera experience, the company offers drink packages for its 2018 river cruises that start at roughly $129 per person for an average weeklong voyage (the package will be $159 in 2019). This adds draft and non-alcoholic beer, red and white house wine, bottled water, soft drinks and juices on a complimentary basis to lunches and dinners served onboard. Spirits, or drinks purchased outside mealtimes, come at an additional cost. Viking River Cruises has a similar package. While Viking includes beer and wine with lunch and dinner, the company also offers a Silver Spirit Beverage Package. At €300 per cabin, double occupancy, the cost of Viking’s all-inclusive beverage package may seem steep at first glance, but it can be quite a value when you consider the quality of the beverages offered. Are you a Scotch drinker? Then you may know of Highland Park Ragnvald, which goes for more than $500 a bottle on the internet sites I researched. Yet on Viking, you can enjoy as many glasses as you like of the single malt Scotch whiskey as part of your Silver Spirit Beverage Package. Without the package, a 4 cl shot of Ragnvald goes for €22. Now you know which one to order when you belly up to the bar on Viking.
* Laundry – All-inclusive river cruise companies may provide free laundry service during your cruise. Some companies also provide access to washers and dryers free of charge and even include the soap. Most river cruise companies offer laundry and pressing services for a fee if it’s not part of an all-inclusive package. Either way, you’ll likely need to do some laundry while traveling, unless you pack like I do. See What I Pack When I river Cruise, What About You? If you don’t pack like me, you’ll need laundry services. See Laundry Services: Which Cruise Lines Include Them?
* Optional Shore Excursions – All river cruise companies include complimentary excursions in most, if not all, ports of call. However, some companies offer optional shore excursions for a fee. Avalon, Crystal, Emerald, Riviera and Viking are among the companies that offer optional shore excursions. On my April 2017 Rhine cruise on Viking, for example, complimentary excursions were offered at each stop along the way. Viking also offered about a dozen optional tours, ranging in price from €49 per person to €189, the latter being a full-day excursion called Taste the Best of Alsace. Viking Hlin’s program director, Candi Finkelstein, told me that this was the number one rated tour on the Rhine Getaway itinerary, so sometimes paying for something you would not otherwise experience is not a bad thing. On Crystal’s Danube Dreams & Discoveries, more than two dozen shore excursions are offered, and most of those are complimentary. Crystal’s optional shore excursions on that itinerary range from a complimentary Culinary Walking Tour in Bratislava to Michelin-star dining experiences for $249 per person. On Emerald Waterways’ Danube Delights itinerary, you can pay extra for its DiscoverMORE excursions for such exclusive events as Tastes of Vienna and a Viennese Concert.
* Current Incentive (per person) – Riviera does not offer booking incentives, CroisiEurope rarely does. The rest offer a range of incentives, ranging from early-booking savings to two-for-ones and reduced or free air. The incentives are always changing so be sure to check with your travel seller or the cruise company about current offers.
* Value of Incentive (per day/pp) – I’ve divided the amount of the incentive by the number of nights to arrive at a per-diem value. Calculating the value of the incentives was a bit challenging, especially when it comes to air. One challenge: Free air isn’t really free air. While Scenic offers free air, for example, the company caps the fare at $1,400 for its lead-in cabins. Emerald Waterways offers free air for all Horizon Deck guests (also capped at $1,400); guests on Vista Deck pay $295 and those on Riviera Deck pay $495. Viking claims its free air is a $1,699 value. When searching peak season air from my home in Asheville, North Carolina to key river cruise destinations, I found that economy air was nearly always above $1,600 per person
* Per Diem/Square Foot – Why provide a square-footage per-diem? Why not? The idea is to provide a guideline of how much space you’re getting for the rate you pay for your river cruise. Though I caution that you should not plan to spend heaps of time in your room. There’s too much to see and do outside of those four walls.
* Balcony Upgrade – Nearly all of the entry-level staterooms feature fixed windows. The exception is Crystal, where even entry-level staterooms on its new vessels feature “Panoramic Balcony-Windows” that raise and lower, and basically function like a balcony (except on Mozart, which does have some fixed windows). CroisiEurope does not offer balconies on the majority of its vessels, but it too has windows that open, and though not as elaborate as those on Crystal, CroisiEurope’s windows provide fresh air and river views. With other cruise companies, you may want to upgrade to a balcony stateroom. I’ve provided price differentials for upgrades to entry-level balcony staterooms. Note that some of the entry-level balcony staterooms may be smaller than entry-level fixed window staterooms.
The Ultimate River Cruising Handbook
Featuring 2019 pricing charts for all European rivers.
In Europe alone there are more than two dozen navigable rivers and canals. Add the confluence of companies offering seemingly similar experiences and you might just end up feeling as though you’re going upriver without a paddle.
I’m here to help you navigate the ever-changing currents that define river cruising today. Having added more than 50 river cruises to my proverbial travel bucket, I’ve garnered a lot of insights that can help you understand the many options available to you.
Spanning 274 pages, The Ultimate River Cruising Handbook “manages to combine personal experience, with the history of river cruising, and the history of the multiple cruise lines extant today, plus discussions about the destinations offered by the most of the river cruise and barge cruise lines today,” writes Susan Kime, a writer for the online publication, JustLuxe.
The book includes 2019 pricing charts for all rivers and all major river cruise companies. Get your copy now.