The Douro is one of my absolute favorite cruising regions. Its translation is “river of gold,” and I agree that it’s indeed precious. The third longest river on the Iberian Peninsula, the Douro wells up in Spain’s Sierra de Urbión, crosses the country’s Numantian Plateau, and heads westward across northern Portugal before releasing into the great Atlantic Ocean.
The Douro River didn’t merely act a conduit between the ocean and the inner reaches of Portugal, it was a transportation system that enabled the region’s famous port wine production to flourish. In fact, Alto Douro, or the Upper Douro, is the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. Aptly deriving its name from the city of Porto, Port wine is produced exclusively in the Douro River Valley—named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Flat-bottom boats called rabelos used to deliver casks to the cellars directly across the river from Porto to a town called Gaia, which serves as the official point of embarkation for several river cruise lines today.
The pastoral countrysides, rural villages, and pocket-sized towns lining the Douro provide a unique river cruise panorama. Steeply terraced, verdant vineyards surrounding Porto give way to rock faces carved by nature and etched by ancient men; traces of some our ancestors’ earliest illustrations are harbored within this region. As you wend your way closer to Spain, the arid landscape points to its constant companion, the sun, which also makes the Douro glimmer in the 18-karat hue so fitting of its moniker. However, the float down history’s memory lane will stop shortly after reaching Spain, with river traffic from Spain’s upper regions halted by dams built along the river in the 50s and 60s.
While its distinctive beauty and rich history make the Douro a destination unto itself, it’s the Portuguese people that make me want to return again and again. They are among Europe’s friendliest. You also get a mix of ports in Portugal and Spain on Douro River Cruises. That means good Port wines from Portugal and paella from Spain, along with Flamenco dancers and Portuguese pingo (similar to espresso). Several companies offer weeklong cruises on the Douro roundtrip from Porto, typically heading south to Spain’s Vega de Terron and back, including pre- or post-hotel stays in Lisbon.
In Porto, stroll Rua Diogo Leite where popular wine cellars, like the famed Sandeman’s, wait for you to duck inside. You’ll likely feel torn, because outdoors the colorful buildings on the hillside of the opposite bank and small local bands singing with spirited bravado beacon, suspending you beautifully in Porto’s present. At Porto’s Cais da Ribeira, diners enjoy the fish restaurants and tascas (tavernas) situated in the charming old buildings along the pier. From the halfway point of your journey, Vega de Terron, your cruise may have you heading out on a day trip to Spain’s Roman city of Salamanca, dating back to medieval times. Here, even those oblivious to architecture can’t help but notice the amazing blend of Renaissance and Gothic, old and new. The same can be said of the itineraries being offered here, with time-honored routes being plied by several new vessels—many constructed specifically to content with the unique size requirements of the five locks you’ll transit.
Late May and June as well as the autumn harvest season proves to be the most idyllic time to visit the Douro. If you can take the heat, August is still a great time to visit and can be a little cheaper. The same goes for November on the opposite end of the spectrum, with chillier temperatures and rain requiring a few extra layers, although I have had beautiful weather on the Douro in November, notably in 2017. Viking River Cruises even offers departures in December, but don’t expect to find Christmas Markets here.
Just in time for the start of the 2017 sailings on Portugal’s Douro River, Scenic opened a new dock for exclusive use of Scenic and its sister company, Emerald Waterways. Unlike other river ship docks that tie up across the Douro in Gaia, this is conveniently located in Cais de Miragaia, a historic area of the World Heritage city of Porto and only a five-minute walk to the Ribiera, one of Porto’s most popular riverfront promenades known for its distinctive small alleyways and pastel-hued buildings.
Scenic launched the custom-built luxury Scenic Azure in April 2016 as one of the only owner-operated river cruise ships on the Douro with sailings that both begin and end in Porto. At 260 feet long and only 48 cabins, this is the next-generation of river ships designed with only one purpose: to navigate the calm waters of the Douro and its short and narrow locks, vineyard-covered gorges and abundance of incredible scenery. The vessel boasts the same all-inclusive luxury experience synonymous with the all Scenic Space-Ships—a 1:2 staff-to-guest ratio; private butler service and unlimited complimentary beverages and spirits; full-size private balcony staterooms, which come equipped with Scenic’s Sun Lounge technology.
Douro itineraries range from eight to 17 days sailing roundtrip—with no overnight sailing—from the World Heritage city of Porto to Vega de Terron over the Spanish border. Highlights include many of the region’s best sites and activities: sparkling wine tasting at the fairytale property of Quinta Aveleda; exploring the restored Monastery of Saint John of Tarouca; a sumptuous lunch and Flamenco dance in the architecturally-rich city of Salamanca. You can also opt for a canoeing adventure on the Sabor River and learn about life in the port wine town of Pinhao from residents. Enriching this journey even further, itineraries can be combined with Bordeaux and Seine river cruises plus extensions in Lisbon and a land tour from Porto to Madrid.
Emerald Waterways added another “Secrets of the Douro” eight-day voyage, aboard the company’s new Emerald Radiance. The ship carries carry 112 guests in 56 suites and staterooms, including the Riverview Suites, a new category of stateroom with 300 square feet of living space and panoramic floor-to ceiling windows on two sides. Emerald Radiance also boasts a serenity pool on the sun deck, a choice of two restaurants, an onboard hairdresser, massage therapy room and fitness area, not to mention a three-to-one guest-crew ratio.
The cruise sails round trip from Porto, where guests will get a feel for the quaint villages and working vineyards and farms that typify the area as well as a day trip to Salamanca. During an excursion to the Coa Valley Prehistoric Museum in Pocinho you can view stone carvings made by early inhabitants of the Douro followed by dinner at a traditional local wine estate. A visit to the historic icon of Mateus Palace, depicted on the labels of Portugal’s famous rose wine and the numerous wine caves of Vila Nova de Gaia bring the region’s wine culture to life.
Yet another newcomer to the Douro is U.K.-based Riviera River Cruises’ MS Douro Elegance, christened in March of 2017. It is one of the four new ships built in 2017. Fitted with polished marble and hardwoods, the 63 cabins and suites span a minimum of 161 square feet. The upper and middle deck cabins and suites feature floor-to-ceiling windows that slide down halfway to create an impromptu balcony, while the Deluxe and Superior Suites feature Juliet balconies. The eight-day sailings travel roundtrip Porto, with visits to the medieval village of Castelo Rodrigo, Lamego, home of Portugal’s sparkling Raposeira wine, a visit to Mateus Palace, and a dinner at Quinta da Pacheca, a 18th-century manor house and home to the first wine in Portugal to carry the owner’s name. The 11-day option extends your exploration of Portugal heading south by land, visiting the Roman aqueducts in ancient Coimbra, the olive groves of Fatima and the bustling capital of Lisbon, where your journey ends. Launching in the fall of 2018, the Douro Splendour joins her identical sister-ship Douro Elegance in operating river cruises along the Douro.
Viking River Cruises’ 106-passenger Viking Osfrid joined sister ships Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil on the Douro in 2016. All feature the 10-day “Portugal’s Rivers of Gold” itinerary, from Lisbon to Porto (sailing roundtrip from Porto), but also offer an interesting post-extension tour in Santiago, Spain, as well as a pre-extension tour in Madrid.
I took a wine-themed voyage with AmaWaterways along the Douro in 2014 and again on with Emerald Waterways in 2017. Catch a glimpse of some of the stunning landscapes and fascinating sights you’ll see by viewing the video series I filmed during my trip on Emerald Waterways
River Cruise Advisor’s Peak Season Charts
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
Douro 2019 Peak Season Price ComparisonsA wine lover’s dream, Portugal’s Douro River is steeped in history. Flowing in the shadow of its more famous counterparts, the Danube, Main and Rhine, Portugal’s Douro River is a hidden gem filled with stunning scenery, warm and friendly people, and charming towns bordered by vineyards, and of course, barrels of fine Portuguese wine.
Tastings of Portugal’s famous fortified wines, in fact, make up a large part of any Douro river cruise experience. But teetotalers too will find much to enjoy, as the history of the Douro River Valley is so richly storied that UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 2001.
Operating from Porto, most Douro River cruises begin with a multi-day stay in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. In addition to visits to noteworthy towns and wineries along the route, many of these itineraries also include an overland day excursion to nearby Salamanca, Spain.
Sailing through the epicenter of port wine production are river cruisers operated by more than half a dozen companies. Because of relatively short distances, however, most scenic cruising is limited to stretches of only a few hours for ships to get from one town to the next. Plus, navigation along many stretches of the Douro is permitted only during the daylight hours, which is a plus for those who want to take in the local nightlife along the way.
All cruise companies operating on the Douro offer up somewhat similar shore excursions, some of which are day-long affairs. In addition to visits to wineries where you’ll learn about the history of port wine production — often along with an included lunch and wine tasting — many itineraries also make a full-day trek to Salamanca, Spain, perhaps most famous for its well-preserved architecture and centuries-old Universidad de Salamanca.
Current incentives when I compiled the chart in May of 2018: AmaWaterways, $250 off per person; Emerald Waterways, free air for all Horizon Deck guests; $295 for Vista Deck and $495 for Riviera Deck; 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 $1,299 per person.
|Ship||AmaDouro||Gil Eanes||Emerald Radiance||Douro Splendour||Scenic Azure||Queen Isabel||Viking Torgil|
|Sailing Date||June 8, 2019||June 15, 2019||June 8, 2019||June 2, 2019||June 4, 2019||June 16, 2019||June 4, 2019|
|Itinerary||Enticing Duoro||From Portugal to Spain||Secrets of the Douro||Douro, Porto, Salamanca||Delightful Douro||Portugal, Spain, Douro||River of Gold|
|Cabin Category||Category E||Middle deck||Stateroom F||Lower deck standard||Standard suite E||Classic||Standard F|
|Room With A View?||Window||Window||Window||Window||Window||Window||Window|
|Per diem *||$543||$426||$521||$446||$599||$686||$933|
|Port Charges *||$26||Included||Included||Included||Included||$24||Included|
|Gratuities (on ship) *||$18||$11.25||Included||$10.00||Included||Included||$15.87|
|Gratuities (on shore) *||$2.50||$2.50||included||$2.50||Included||Included||$2.50|
|Optional Shore Excursions *||Included||Included||$12.50||$12.50||Included||Included||$12.50|
|Current Incentive *||$250||$298||$905||n/a||$1,400||$479||$4,599|
|Value of Incentive *||$36||$43||$129||$0||$200||$68||$511|
|True Per Diem||$557||$397||$417||$496||$399||$641||$466|
|Per Diem/Square Foot *||$3.46||$3.08||$2.57||$3.85||$2.50||$3.98||$3.01|
|Balcony Upgrade *||$1,399||$329||$300||$510||sold out||$800||$800|
|Balcony Per Diem||$756||$444||$460||$569||sold out||$755||$555|
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.
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The book includes 2019 pricing charts for all rivers and all major river cruise companies. Get your copy now.