How To Choose A River Cruise
Choosing a river cruise can be a source of consternation, confusion and frustration. 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, so to speak.
That’s where I come in. I’m here to help you navigate the ever-changing currents that define river cruising today. As many of you might already know, I produce tons of content for my sites avidcruiser.com and rivercruiseadvisor.com to help travelers make informed cruise vacation decisions. I decided to create an ebook to streamline this information even further, devising a step-by-step guide to selecting the right river cruise for you. Believe me, it is a process. There are so many personal factors that go into making river cruise vacation decisions. What I think is incredible might be a total miss for you.
Having focused my travel writing career on the cruise industry for nearly three decades, I’ve taken hundreds of cruises, and in the past ten years, added more than 50 river cruising to my proverbial travel bucket. Personal preferences aside, what I can tell you is that I have garnered a lot of insights that can help you understand the many options available to you.
Clearly, I adore this segment of the travel industry and am grateful for each day that I spend on the rivers in Europe. But more importantly, I can take what I’ve learned and pass it along to you to ensure your time and money are wisely spent.
But just how does one start to peel back the layers of what seems to be an upstream endeavor at first glance? I decided to apply a journalistic principle that I had to strictly abide in college: “The 5 Ws and one H.” I bet that you all know where I’m going with this; it’s the Why, What, Where, When, Which, Who and How. (Okay, that’s 6 Ws, but who’s counting? I like to go the extra nautical mile.) If you answer these questions and take into consideration the many aspects that add up to a memorable river cruise, you won’t be disappointed. As someone who has traveled all of my life, I can say without reservation that river cruising is one of the most rewarding ways to experience the heart of Europe.
Who Am I?
Before we get started, I thought I’d give you a little sense about who I am as a traveler so that you have it as basis of comparison. Perhaps the best way to do this is tell you how I got forever hooked on travel in the first place. Prior to getting a bachelor of arts in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the age of 32, I set off on what I like to refer to as my “sabbatical decade.” From 1980 through 1990, I bicycled across America, pedaled through Europe and island-hopped the South Pacific. After backpacking through Bali, bussing through Java, hopping a boat to Singapore and crossing Malaysia to Thailand, I flew into Burma, tramped to Dhaka and endured a 32-hour train ride from calamitous Calcutta to bustling Bombay. Having my fill of the exotic East, I hopped a plane for Europe, landing in Greece and making my way to Switzerland before returning home to North Carolina. Circumnavigating the globe would take me full-circle, both literally and figuratively, because I would ultimately pursue a career in travel writing, yet still biking, cruising and backpacking across Europe. Only now, those activities are usually followed by fine dining and wine courses back on a ship.
While I still possess a spirit of adventure that craves authentic experiences, staying active is paramount, which is why I enjoy the fact that river cruising offers opportunities to bicycle, walk and hike in nearly every port of call. I’m further fulfilled by encountering new faces and cultures, although my standards have inevitably become much higher as a result of exposure to life’s luxuries on cruise ships. As a food and wine lover and proponent of impeccable service, I expect a lot when a hefty price tag is attached—but I’m also laid back enough to forego some of these fineries in the name of budget or when heading off the beaten path.
Today, I make my home in Asheville, North Carolina (when not on a cruise!), where I enjoy mountain biking, hiking, camping, lingering in coffee shops and frequent trips to the gorgeous Biltmore Estate. I have two wonderful grown children, Alex and Britton, who traveled with me often as they were growing up.
In addition to my websites, I also do a lot of video work for destinations and for cruise lines such as Seabourn and Silversea Cruises. My work has appeared in USA Today and numerous consumer magazines. One of my articles, “Ship Shape,” which appeared in Hemispheres (United Airlines in-flight magazine), even received an award in the category of “Best Cruise Writing,” from The North American Travel Journalism Association. I’m also the author of four books, including Remembering Charles Kuralt, a biography that Publisher’s Weekly called “a sweet and lovely homage, a welcome commemoration.” But enough about me. My goal is to provide you with content that engages you and compels you to find as much pleasure from river cruising as I do.
If you get stuck or feel lost along the way, please feel free to contact me using the form on River Cruise Advisor. Let’s go cruising!
Five Steps To Success
I found that the process of matching the right personality to the right ship can be broken down into six steps. It’s not a perfect formula, but going through the process helps you think about what’s important to you.
1. Why River Cruise?
So why should you consider taking a river cruise? For many travelers, the slow chug along the river is just the right pace for getting the lay of the land. Sitting on the top deck of a ship under brilliant blue skies, gaze on fabled landscapes dotted with castles, villages and vineyards. Just one flight of stairs down you have all the amenities of a modern hotel—restaurants, bars, lounges, fitness facilities, spas, Internet access and comfortable staterooms.
I find river cruising to be one of the most enjoyable travel experiences available to those seeking to get to know Europe.
2. What Do You Want to Cruise On?
There are the longships, rivers cruisers, barges, paddlewheelers … say what? With so many ways to denote “riverboat” it gets confusing. This post breaks down the differences between various river-going vessels.
3. Where Do You Want to Cruise?
Is Italy’s Po River on your list? Then you’re in luck. There are only a few river cruise companies that do the Po, CroisiEurope and Uniworld among them. Want to cruise the Rhine or Danube? That’s where things become complex. Nearly every major river cruise company has ships operating on those rivers. So let’s make this simple.
Cruise The Danube
The 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’ve found that most people appreciate most about the Danube:
- Scenic beauty as you cruise through gorgeous landscapes and past fairy-tale villages
- Visits to iconic cities such as those mentioned
- Excursions to UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Cesky Krumlov
- Evening concerts and waltzes (both on the ships and during evening visits to Viennese palaces)
- Opportunities to bicycle, particularly on the gorgeous stretch between Melk and Durnstein through the Wachau Valley
Cruise The Rhine
After the Danube, the Rhine is Europe’s next most-popular river cruise destination. Most departures sail between Amsterdam and Basel.
What I’ve found that most people appreciate about the Rhine:
- Castles. You’ll see lots of them along the Rhine river, especially between Rudesheim and Koblenz, Germany.
- Culture. With cities like Heidelberg, Strasbourg, Cologne, Amsterdam and more, you’ll get a good dollop of city life and culture on your Rhine River cruises.
- Bicycling. In many places along the Rhine river, there are good bicycling paths and dedicated bike roads.
- Beer and wine. Have a Cologne Kolsch before or after checking out the impressive Cologne Cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), or stroll the “world’s merriest street,” known as the Drosselgasse, to find a Weingarten in Rudesheim, Germany.
Cruise The Rhône/Saône Rivers
Rhône River cruises typically are between Lyon and Avignon or Arles in France. Many packages also include the Saône River, which joins the Rhône in Lyon.
Here’s a few things that people enjoy about Rhone river cruises.
- Provencal and Bourgogne Beauty. Rhône River cruises typically sail between Lyon and Avignon or Arles, taking in the gorgeous landscapes of Burgundy and Provence.
- Pont du Gard. The iconic bridge crossing the Gardon River is one of the best-preserved legacies of ancient Roman architecture in France.
- Bicycling. I’ve enjoyed cycling along the Rhône and Saône rivers though the wine-producing region of Beaujolais and across from the city of Avignon.
- Arles. Perhaps best-known for its incredible Roman monuments and the fact that the impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh lived here from 1888 to 1889.
- Wonderful Wines. Rhône River cruises typically visit the wine-producing regions of Beaujolais and Chateauneuf du Pape.
- UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as the Pope’s Palace in Avignon and Pont du Gard.
Cruise The Seine
On a Seine River cruise, you most always begin and end your trip in Paris, where ships dock within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower. Cruises are usually roundtrip to Rouen, Caudebec-en-Caux or Honfleur. To my knowledge, only CroisiEurope and a single Scenic ship can dock in the center of Honfleur. The rest of the river cruisers bus their guests from Rouen or Caudebec-en-Caux.
Once overlooked by river cruise companies, the wine-producing region of Bordeaux, attracts river cruisers who are wine aficionados as well as history lovers, thanks to the region’s intoxicating mix of culinary delights and old-world charm.
The vast majority of river cruises through this region will operate roundtrip from the city of Bordeaux, and most (but not all) are a week in duration. If you’re looking for longer voyages, you have the option to purchase pre-and-post land excursions to Paris or the Loire Valley. A handful of river cruise lines combine multiple river cruises together on back-to-back itineraries that are connected either by direct TGV high-speed train or by overland motorcoach travel. And beginning this year, Scenic will offer 12-day Bordeaux voyages.
Cruise The Douro
Douro River cruises are from Porto, Portugal to Vega de Terron, Spain. Most trips are roundtrip from Porto.
What many people appreciate about Douro River cruises:
- The Douro River Valley has been a UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2001. It’s not only gorgeous but also culturally significant.
- Friendly people. The Portuguese are among Europe’s friendliest people.
- Port wine and paella. You get a mix of 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 (like espresso).
Cruise The Elbe & Loire
Both of these rivers are exceptionally shallow, and the only company that does them well is CroisiEurope. It does so by operating two paddlewheelers, one on each river, that can navigate the shallow rivers. On the Elbe, CroisiEurope’s paddlewheeler can cruise right into the center of Prague from Berlin. On the Loire, CroisiEurope’s cruises are roundtrip from Nantes, a lovely city that merits a day or two pre/post. CroisiEurope’s Elbe program has been successful that the company is building a second paddlewheeler to cruise between Berlin and Prague.
Cruise Sweden? Spain?
Yes, you can cruise across Sweden on the Gota Canal. I’ve done it, and it was wonderful. You can also river cruise in Spain and you can do canal cruises in the United Kingdom, but we’ll stay focused on the rivers that most of you are selling.
4. When Do You Want To Go?
When do you want to cruise? Do you want to see tulips in bloom? Christmas Markets? Grape harvest? Fall foliage? Avoid the crowds? Avoid the heat?
The main river-cruising season begins in March and continues through the end of December, beginning with “tulip time” cruises in the Benelux countries and ending with “Christmas market” cruises in Hungary, Austria, and Germany.
The summer months are decidedly high season in Europe and along with the bright and sunny days you’ll find longer lines and crowded attractions. Yes, the shoulder months during the “off-season”—October, November, December, and mid-to-late March—are cooler, and yes, you’ll probably need an umbrella, but I find Europe in the fall and spring to be a wonderful, relaxing place. If you are heading to Europe in the spring, you’ll enjoy longer days than in fall and late March-early-April is a wonderful time to tiptoe through the tulips in Holland.
The months of September and October can still be plenty warm in Europe, the fall foliage is stunning, and there’s a lot of festivity in the air: farmer’s markets and wine festivals crop up in September and October. (There are also several wine-themed cruises in November, when vintners are unwinding from a busy harvest and ready to kick back enjoy the fruits of their labor with you.) After that much of Europe switch into festive Holiday mode as the Christmas Markets get set up across much of France, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and other countries.
Just don’t go for Halloween: while you might see a few signs of this spooky holiday around Europe, it’s just as likely that you won’t see anything at all come October 31. It is, after all, a predominantly North American thing. It also stays warmer a bit later in the season on the southern European rivers such as the lower Danube, touching on Croatia, Italy’s Po River, and the Douro, which wends its way through Portugal.
When the conversation about the best time to take a river cruise arises, it typically has nothing to do with how many layers of outerwear you need to don or throngs of crowds you need to contend with; it has to do with water levels. That’s why I dedicated a chapter of this book to discuss this topic in greater detail. However, I put it at toward the end of the book because while it’s an important factor to keep abreast of by signing up for ongoing updates on water levels, it shouldn’t be something that impedes planning your next vacation. Mother nature is unpredictable and if you wait to have clear signs that water levels won’t fluctuate, there likely won’t be any staterooms available. You’ll miss the figurative, and literal, boat.
5. How Much? What’s Your Budget?
How much you are willing to budget for your river cruise? I’ll give some general guidelines for you to help guide you, but remember that pricing is a moving target.
Sky’s The Limit
If your can budget more than $400 a day, then take a look at Crystal, Scenic, Tauck and Uniworld. All are the most inclusive of among the river cruise companies, including the all-important (to some) prepaid gratuities. You should be prepared to spend between $400 and $600 per day. As an example, Scenic’s 12-day Bordeaux sailings from May through September this year start at US$6,230 per person, double, and include free or reduced airfare. That’s $519 per person per day. But keep in mind that air is included or reduced.
Down To Earth
If you would like to stay under $400 a day, AmaWaterways, Avalon, Emerald and Viking deserve a look. None of these offer 24/7 booze or prepaid gratuities (except as add-on packages or for some suite guests), but all are exceptionally good choices that rank high in pleasing their guests. As an example of affordability, one of the higher per diems that I priced on AmaWaterways was for its Duoro River cruises. Its eight-day Enticing Douro river cruises start at $3,099. That’s $387 per person, per day.
Give Me Value
If you are looking to get a quality experience and spend less than $300 a day, CroisiEurope is a contender. The family-owned company, which has been in business for more than 40 years, merits much more than competing on price alone. For many, particularly those who enjoy an international mix, CroisiEurope is a good choice. And it operates on rivers frequented by few, if any, river cruise companies. CroisiEurope is alone on the Loire, for example, as it is when its ships sail into the center of Passau on the Elbe. I recently cruise on a New Year’s in Provence five-day itinerary that starts at $1,530 per person in 2017, just a tad over $300 per day.
5. How Many Are Cruising With You?
If the answer is no one, then you have to deal with the dreaded single supplement. That means if you’re a solo traveler, you could end up paying the same price as two people in a cabin. Always look at ways to avoid the single supplement. Some ships have staterooms just for singles. Other cruise companies have specials where they reduce or waive single supplements.
On the flip side, if you are bringing a group, well, lucky you. See Want a Free Stateroom? It’s a Numbers Game: How To Benefit From A Group River Cruise
6. Which Cruise Company?
Once you’ve chosen your river and decided on your budget, you’ll have likely narrowed your choices to a limited few. Also, What’s Important To You? What are your interests? Do you want to bike? Hike? Is 24/7 free booze important to you?
Attributes Of The Top River Cruise Companies
AmaWaterways Avalon CroisiEurope Crystal Emerald Riviera Scenic Tauck Uniworld Viking
Excursions Included? Beer/Wine Lunch & Dinner? Drinks Included 24/7? Onboard Bicycles Fitness Center Exterior Balconies/Veranda Two Room Suites Service Guarantee Own & Operate Room Service Mini Bar Dining Venues 1 Personal Butler Port Charges Included Airport Transfers Prepaid Gratuities Laundry Included
While I've tried to be as accurate as possible, sometimes the answer required more than a simple yes or no. For example, while all river cruise companies in the accompanying table offer complimentary shore excursions in ports of call, some charge for "optional" excursions. Also, airport transfers are Included when air tickets are purchased with the river cruise company, but may not be included otherwise. I've indicated companies that always include airport transfers, even for guests who have made independent air arrangements.
AmaWaterways **: Beer, wine and soft drinks included with lunch and dinner; sparkling wine with breakfast; and complimentary cocktails during Happy Hour, introduced in 2018. Complimentary shore excursions included in every port, along with complimentary Special Interest Tours. AmaWaterways features twin balconies, both a French and an outside balcony, in many staterooms. In addition to the main dining room, AmaWaterways features The Chef's Table restaurant, with its excellent multi-course, wine-paired dinners, at no additional charge. Light lunches and breakfast are served in the lounge, along with full lunches and breakfast served in the main dining room. Nice touches like gluten-free snacks, fruits, Gemstone detox water, 24/7 coffee stations and more. Airport transfers are included when purchasing air through AmaWaterways. Pre-paid gratuities are offered.
Avalon Waterways **: Beer and wine included with lunch and dinner; sparkling wine with breakfast. Coffee, tea and non-alcoholic beverages complimentary 24/7. In addition to the main dining room, Avalon offers small group (30 people) reservations to Panorama Bistro (light menu paired with wine). When weather permits, grilled lunches are available on the Sky Deck. Meals can also served in the Club Lounge and Panorama Lounge. Some optional tours require a fee. Airport transfers included when purchasing air from Avalon. Avalon's beds face floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors for gorgeous views while your head is propped on the pillow. Stocked in-room mini-bar incurs charges for each item selected.
CroisiEurope **: Extra charge only for high-end champagnes and wines. Wi-Fi internet access with complimentary use of Samsung tablet. Complimentary shore excursions included in every port.
Crystal River Cruises **: All of Crystal's new-builds feature Panoramic Balcony Windows, which function, in essence, like balconies. Crystal Mozart features balconies in about half of its staterooms.
Emerald Waterways **: Complimentary shore excursions in every port. Wine, beer & soda complimentary with lunch and dinner. All staterooms restocked daily with bottled water. Owner’s Suites comes with complimentary stocked mini-bars. Room service included for suites. Laundry concierge available for a fee; complimentary for suites.
Riviera **: Riviera’s beverage package, which includes wine and beer with lunch and dinner, goes for $129 a week ($159 in 2019).
Scenic **: Inclusions are for all guests, regardless of ship or suite.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection **: Uniworld charges for at least one optional excursion, the Vienna Evening Concert at 75 euros. Free laundry service in higher-end suites across its fleet. Additionally, most Uniworld ships have complimentary self-service laundry facilities for passengers to use; only River Royale, River Baroness, Douro Spirit, and River Victoria lack this feature in the European-based fleet. Room Service and Butler Service on Uniworld is at the suite level only.
Viking River Cruises ** A complimentary shore excursion is included in every port; there are also additional optional shore excursions available on every itinerary. Beer, wine and soft drinks included with lunch and dinner. Specialty coffee & teas available anytime. Optional Silver Spirit beverage packages are available for extra fee & makes drinks all-inclusive. Room service, stocked mini-bars and laundry are included for Explorer Suites. Bicycles and gyms are available ashore and arranged by Viking. Airport transfers included when booking air (or receiving free air) with Europe. Some promotions offered prepaid gratuities or shipboard credits.
Hopefully, these six steps will help you come closer to finding the perfect destination on a ship that suits your style. And once you are on your way, keep your fingers crossed for plenty of (but not too much) water beneath the bow and the airlines playing their part in getting you and your luggage to your cruises on time (hint: when you can, arrive a day early for that very reason).
Who Can Help You Book Your Cruise?
By garnering just a few details, notably where and when you want to cruise, the size of your budget and what you’re looking for in a river cruise, I can help match you to a ship and itinerary.