When planning a big trip, budget is always important. We know that some of River Cruise Advisor’s readers have the resources to take multiple river cruises, but we also know that some readers are looking to plan a special, once-in-a-lifetime trip that they have saved up for.
River cruising generally is more expensive than ocean cruising. A 7-day ocean cruise can cost as little $900 per person. A 7-day river cruise? Expect to spend $2,500 and up per person. But while river cruises are pricey, they can be quite a bargain when compared to other means of exploring Europe. No having to rent a car, book hotel rooms and pay for meals and tours. Nearly all river cruises include these components. No need to pack and unpack each time you change locations. Your floating hotel moves with you – or rather, you with it.
What we find is confusing to most readers is what’s included in a river cruise. We’re here to shed some light on the subject of costs and inclusions.
You’ll see river cruise companies advertising all-inclusive pricing. But what exactly does “all-inclusive” mean? It depends on the river cruise company. In general, the higher the base price of the cruise, the more likely it is to be truly all-inclusive. This can make comparing cruise packages more complex, and it’s one of the reasons why seeking our advice can be helpful.
What are some of the things that could be part of an “all-inclusive” package? The list is somewhat arbitrary, as each company can decide for itself. However, there are some industry standards by which you can gauge just how inclusive a package really is — nearly all river cruise companies operating in Europe include wine and beer with lunch and dinner, for example, yet some include complimentary beverages period, at any time of day or night.
What are some of the items that could be bundled in the cruise fare? There are quite a few. And even within each, there are varying degrees of how much. For instance, one cruise might include premium drinks while another only includes house options, charging extra beyond the bar rail. You might not care about having all of the bells and whistles included, and not having them factored into the bottom line is a good way to save you money.
Don’t just make your decision by comparing brochure rates. When figuring out the value of a river cruise you’ll want to calculate the total cost, derived by factoring in all the inclusions and special offers. Be sure to see our comparison chart, What’s Included In My River Cruise.
Comparisons By Cruise Line
Let me give you an example: On one particular 2017 sailing (I used last year’s data for comparisons), Scenic’s per diems for eight-day Bordeaux itineraries were considerably higher than AmaWaterways (by 28 percent), CroisiEurope (by 90 percent) and Viking (by 45 percent). On some sailings, Scenic’s per diems in Bordeaux approached $700 per person, compared to Viking at $481 per day. At first, I thought, “Wow, Scenic is over-the-top,” even though Uniworld came in higher (nearly $750 per day in staterooms that are a third smaller). A closer look at the numbers, however, revealed a much different picture than what I saw at first glance. For example, the Scenic sailing included air from North America. What’s that worth?
On its website, Viking was pricing roundtrip economy air at $1,595 between select North American gateways and Bordeaux. That fare seems consistent with what I was able to find by searching Google Flights for May and June airfares between Atlanta and Bordeaux. Tacking on air at $1,595 per person adds an effective daily cost of nearly $200 per person for an eight-day Bordeaux cruise.
Uniworld had the same offer but with an earlier deadline. That’s a savings of $1,595 per person, or about $200 per day. Though these offers won’t be available when you are reading this, they give you a good example of what incentives to keep a lookout for so that you can grab them when they do crop up.
You’ll also want to calculate other incentives. Keeping with this specific example, those who paid their Scenic sailings in full by October 31, 2017, saved an additional $500 per couple on 8 to 10-day sailings and $1,000 per couple on 11+ day sailings. Uniworld was offering a 10 percent savings for those who book before September 30, 2017. AmaWaterways offered savings of up to $750 per person on select Bordeaux departures in 2018.
These examples are all meant to illustrate that it’s important to look at what holds the most value for you and best aligns with your travel style. The higher rate just might end up being a bargain for you.
Airport Transfer Fees. Transfer fees are not usually included in the fare. Some companies include transfers if air travel is booked together with the river cruise. Emerald Waterways, Scenic and Uniworld do not charge for transfers no matter how you book your air.
Beverages. Another added feature that many lines include in the cruise fare is complimentary beverages. There are the non-alcoholic variety, such as soft drinks, coffee, tea, and bottled water. There are also those drinks that contain alcohol – beer, wine, and spirits. Some river cruise lines include some or all of these with lunch and dinner. At least one company charges a fee regardless of when they are served, Riviera River Cruises, though Riviera’s pricing is unbundled, which can save you in the long run. Some companies allow you to drink whatever you want whenever you want – all are on the house. These include beer, wine, and soda. Spirits (like whiskey, vodka or Aquavit) are typically not included, but can be on ships operated by Crystal, CroisiEurope, Scenic, Tauck and Uniworld. AmaWaterways introduced Happy Hour in 2018, offering up free drinks before dinner.
Your location on the ship also plays a crucial role in the complimentary beverages: A glass of wine at dinner is complimentary, but a glass of wine in the lounge after dinner could cost you.
Fitness Center and Equipment. For those who keep fitness in mind, is there a fitness center or a pool onboard? Are bicycles available during your time onshore? While most river cruise boats do have bicycles available, this varies more by ship than by supplier.
Port Charges. Some river cruise lines roll the port charges and other taxes into the package, so you won’t see an additional charge for these items. Again, keep in mind that this can change from year-to-year.
Prepaid Gratuities. Gratuities are not necessarily mandatory, but they are often expected. They are paid to both cruise ship staff and to tour guides and motorcoach drivers ashore. Some companies, such as Scenic and Tauck, include gratuities in their cruise fares. If gratuities aren’t included, a good rule of thumb to follow is approximately 10 Euros per person per day, or 10 percent of your overall cruise fare per cabin. Gratuities can be added to your onboard account and paid in cash or by credit card if they are not already included in your fare.
Private Butler Service. Which river cruise lines offer private butler service as part of the package? Are there different levels of private butler service if it is provided at no additional cost?
Shore Excursions. Shore excursions are usually included in river cruise packages, but not all shore excursions in some cases. Some companies also offer premium packages that can be purchased in addition to or in lieu of shore excursions that might be part of the package.
Wi-Fi Internet. Note that, in almost all cases, connectivity will be free but slower than broadband, except when docked in cities where the ships have direct linkups to fast internet.
Consider the Category
Now that you have a sense of what kind of amenities comprise the rate, let’s look at the general categories the major players fall into.
Fully All-Inclusive – Everything included in one upfront price, from pre-paid gratuities and drinks to shore excursions—even laundry on many cruise lines. Crystal and Uniworld, however, do not include port charges.
- Crystal River Cruises (except for port charges)
- Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection (except for port charges)
Nearly All-Inclusive – Itineraries with these cruise companies generally price out a little less than the All-Inclusives above, but don’t include prepaid gratuities, adult beverages outside of lunch and dinner, or port charges.
- Avalon Waterways
- Emerald Waterways
- Viking River Cruises
Low-Cost Leaders – While one doesn’t typically consider river travel to be a value proposition, some companies price out lower than their competitors.
- Riviera River Cruises
Take It Day-by-Day
Though there are no hard and fast guidelines, I recommend thinking about how much you would be comfortable spending on a daily basis. Knowing what you’re comfortable spending can help you match the ship to your budget.
Below, I provide a range of per diems, from less than $400 per day to more than $400 per day. Pricing is a moving target, however, and there are many special offers that are not reflected in my pricing guidelines. It is possible, for example, to find cruises that cost less than $200 per person per day.
Sky’s The Limit, More Than $400 Per Person Per Day.
If the sky’s the limit, you’ll find a good fit with AmaWaterways, Crystal, Scenic, Tauck or Uniworld. Scenic and Tauck are truly all-inclusive. Crystal and Uniworld include everything except for port charges. AmaWaterways is not all-inclusive; nor does it include port charges, but because of its quality and reputation, AmaWaterways commands a higher price point. On AmaWaterways, you’ll typically need to pay gratuities (unless you prepay them), and you’ll need to dole out extra for drinks outside of lunch and dinner.
Down To Earth, Up To $400 Per Person Per Day.
If your budget is up to $400 per day per person, Avalon Waterways, Emerald Waterways, Riviera River Cruises and Viking River Cruises will usually fall within your budget.
Budget Friendly, $300 Per Person Per Day or Less.
CroisiEurope is a good example of a quality cruise line that falls into a cost-conscious category. The quality surpasses what one would expect for less than $300 per person per day. While the line is better known among the European crowd, it’s far from uncomfortable for North Americans.
Downright Cheap, $200 Per Person Per Day or Less.
A budget of up to $200 per person per day limits you to either older or international ships. That’s fine, as both are okay so long as you manage your expectations. You may still get a lot of value but there will be noticeable differences such as stateroom sizes and amenities, quality of the dining experiences, few options such as bikes available for complimentary use, gyms and alternative dining venues. Ships in the $200 per person per day range generally do not have all, if any, of these extras.
Take a look at www.TeemingRiverCruises.com. It’s a relatively new company with what is per diems often below $200 per person.
There are a few European operators that offer cruises for less than $200 per person per day. But be careful when comparing prices: Excursions may not be included (but can be purchased as a package). Wine and beer with lunch and dinner, which nearly all cruise companies include at no additional cost, may not be included on the low-cost river cruise operators. These extras can add up. Check out Regina River Cruises and Tourrador
Keep in mind that when choosing a cruise company, it is not only important to look at the cruise fare, but also what is included in that fare. Before reading this article, you might not have thought that you needed a butler – but in finding that some cruise lines offer them free of charge, can simply not bear the idea of living without someone to cater to your every need. Maybe you are not a drinker, so you choose a less expensive cruise line that doesn’t include beer, wine, and spirits.
Port charges, gratuities, after-dinner cocktails, and other things can pile on and make your cruise more expensive than you initially though. See the price comparisons below to look at the true per-diem for each cruise line, taking into account the extra charges that will be tacked on for the lines that are not all inclusive.
Pricing By River
Click a region and it will take you to a corresponding chart with price comparisons for the different cruise companies.
The great thing about river cruises is that they can cater to the needs of the consumer. The takeaway here is that in doing research, make sure that you are realistic about your budget and your needs.
No matter your decision, we are here to help with the resources on River Cruise Advisor, including help directly from me, Get My Recommendations Based On Your Budget.