Top 10 tips for booking your best European river cruise

Plan a European river cruise and choose one of the best and most tranquil ways to see our continent’s beautiful landscapes and waterways!

Expectations are high, and there are numerous things to think about, plan, and pack to ensure a memorable river cruise vacation. Here are our top 10 tips for your best European river cruise. Our advice is an accumulation of our experiences and valuable information from past river cruise guests.

What to expect on a European river cruise

If you have been on an ocean cruise on a large cruise ship, expect a river cruise to be very different. Unlike oceangoing ships that carry as many as 6000+ passengers, most river cruise ships have around 200 guests on board.

First, it’s a fantastic way to see the heart of a country. You will have real-life experiences visiting small towns, villages, and sometimes big cities. You have the chance to meet the locals and immerse yourself in their culture. A river cruise is a very laid-back, calm, and social way to travel.

Due to the small size of the ships, river cruising is a more intimate experience than ocean cruising. You can be sure of meeting many people and making friends on board.

Most guests are older, often 60+, and there are noticeably fewer activities. Mostly you will find exercise classes, talks and presentations about the region you visit, and live music evenings, often by local visiting musicians.

As you can probably see from the prices, a river cruise is relatively expensive when you compare the average price to an ocean cruise. Solo travelers, in particular, can find it quite expensive as, most often, you will be paying the full price to stay in a cabin designed for two adults.

What is important is that you get value for money. And that means an all-inclusive vacation including a luxury, intimate small ship experience, hotels before and/or after your cruise, transfers, tours, excursions, and not least personal service and attention to detail on board.

Expect a high standard of food and drink on your cruise ship. Often sourced locally, the cuisine will reflect the region, and while menu choices are not wide, the meals are delicious. And there are always vegetarian alternatives.

Note that dinner on board is at a fixed time and is served at your table. There is no room service, buffet options, or specialty restaurants. In fact, in contrast to an ocean cruise, a river cruise is very structured, and you follow a schedule of meal times and entertainment on board.

It’s a hassle-free, reliable, and safe way to explore Europe.

Our best top 10 tips for a European river cruise

1. Region and destination are key

The region, destinations, and itineraries are the most important factors when choosing a European river cruise. The six most popular areas to choose from are :

Rhine – Europe’s second longest river

As the second longest river in Europe, The Rhine offers spectacular scenery on one of the best European river cruises. Many many destinations are UNESCO world heritage sites. Most often, river cruises start or end in Basel, Switzerland. Expect grand castles, vineyards, and quaint villages.

Danube – the romantic route

A cruise on the longest European river, the Danube, starts from various points such as Passau, Vienna, and Budapest. Explore these cities before you start your Danube river cruise and experience the classic sights of medieval towns, elegant architecture, and beautiful landscapes.

Rhône – a journey through French wine country

If you are looking for a river cruise into French wine country, the Rhône region is for you. Stretching from the Swiss alps and down through France to the Mediterranean Sea, your journey includes picturesque towns such as Avignon, Lyons, and Provence on one of the finest river cruises in Europe.

Choose your cruise by carefully looking at what excursions are possible to ensure you don’t miss out on as many breathtaking natural wonders as possible. We recommend you opt to extend your vacation after your river cruise with a train journey through the Doux Valley.

Seine – showing the history and culture of France

Winding through Paris, the Seine river starts in Dijon and ends in the English channel. Expect an immersive experience in French art, history, and wine. We recommend a river cruise from Paris to Honfleur in northern France, where excursions to bucket-list destinations such as Versailles and the Normandy coast are possible.

Loire – the most beautiful valley in Europe

The romantic and picturesque Loire Valley is one of the most beautiful in Europe. It is the longest river in France and boasts cities such as Nantes, Amboise, and Le Puy on its banks. The Loire is a quieter, more shallow river with less visible commercialism.

Duoro – a scenic tour through Portugal and Spain

Starting in central Spain and flowing into northern Portugal, the mouth of the river Duoro is at Porto. This cruise is a wine-lovers dream and a unique way to see the delights of small towns in Spain and Portugal.

2. Pick an itinerary with the most river cruise port stops

A river cruise will take you into the heart of the country. You’ll get a fascinating glimpse into the country’s culture, traditions, cuisine and crafts. To make the most of your European river cruise, choose an itinerary that is port-intensive. That is, you stop in a new place every day.

This will ensure an exciting, destination-rich vacation. There is so much to do and see, you do not want to find that you are on board your river cruise ship for several days without stopping.

3. How to choose the right cruise company for your European river cruise

Choose the cruise line and ship that suits you best. We like to travel on newer ships where possible and all our favorite river cruise companies have at least one new ship in their fleet.

Most river ships are similar in design. There is the main dining room, large lounge, bar area, and open deck. And most cruise companies offer the same type of excursions at the same stops in the region you choose.

The decor on board can vary. Some cruise ships favor the classic, glitzy style, others the more modern, minimalistic, Scandinavian style. Take Viking River Cruises, for example. Their ships have clean lines, with light wood and different texture in their styling – a trademark of their Nordic heritage.

But you should expect the same high level of service on whichever cruise you choose. One of our favorites is Uniworld boutique river cruises, which enjoy a reputation in the river cruise industry as a leader in the cruise market offering luxury cruising across a wide variety of itineraries.

Before you choose your cruise line based on price, check what is included in that price. On average, you will find that a cruise on a premium cruise line is around £400 (GBP) and $500 (USD) per person per day. But be sure to know what is included as it varies depending on the cruise line you choose.

4. Make the most of your departure city and arrival a few days early

No matter what type of ocean cruise or river cruise you choose always arrive a few days before you climb on board. That way, you avoid panic if your flight is suddenly delayed. We recommend at least 2 or 3 nights of hotel accommodation in your departure city.

It’s a great way to experience the city before you start your cruise. Take, for example, the city of Amsterdam. Many river cruises begin here, and what a remarkable city it is. Explore the City of Canals and the beautiful Dutch countryside.

Many cruise lines will offer a pre-cruise package. That means your transfer from the airport to your hotel, guided tours and excursions in the city, and a transfer from your hotel to the port is included. Avalon Waterways, for example, have a great package that includes a canal boat tour in Amsterdam, and a day excursion to the windmills at Zaansche Molen.

5. Pack light and pack smart for European river cruises

Cabins on a river cruise ship are compact. You will have everything you need; however, space is limited. Try to avoid taking a multitude of oversized suitcases as you will have trouble storing them. Opt instead for a standard suitcase and hand baggage.

The dress code on board is casual and relaxed. Even on more formal evenings, smart casual is most often worn. Pack lightly, with plenty of layers and a rain jacket, as European weather can be unpredictable. Comfortable, sturdy walking shoes or sneakers for shore excursions, a small backpack, and a refillable water bottle are good to have with you. Don’t forget to place any medicines in your hand baggage.

6. Expect the unexpected and be flexible

A river cruise is a luxurious and unique way to travel to inner Europe. But as with all travel, there is sometimes extreme weather or situations entirely out of our control. It can happen that in very hot seasons, water levels are low in parts of the river.

If this happens, you will be transferred onto tour buses to reach your next destination, where you will pick up the cruise ship again.

Many river cruises offer similar itineraries with the same stops. And that means that your ship could be docked at the same time as others. Ships can sit right next to each other. You may find yourself walking over a connecting walkway and through another cruise ship to get to shore. Strange but true.

7. Activites and excursions

Many guests are surprised at the level of activity on a river cruise. While the experience on the cruise ship is very calm, excursions can be very active.

There are a lot of walking tours, which are not a great option if you have limited mobility, especially when many towns and villages have uneven paths, cobblestones, and sometimes steps to climb.

And while there are elevators on board, the ships between the floors, corridors, and cabins are small. If you need an accessible cabin, check with the cruise line and, at the same time, ask if there are suitable excursions to join. In our experience, you must be relatively fit and active to make the most of a European river cruise.

8. Is All-Inclusive really what it says?

The beauty of a European river cruise is that you get an all-inclusive vacation. The only challenge is understanding what all-inclusive means. It can vary depending on the cruise company you choose to travel with.

For example, drinks included could be all types of beverages, including wine and beer, at any time of day at the bar and restaurant. However, it could also mean only those drinks served at meal times. It’s essential to check what you are paying for.

Generally, most river cruises include accommodation, all meals, free wifi, at least one excursion, gratuities, drinks with meals, and activities on board.

Optional extras include a beverage package that covers drinks at any time from the bar, on land excursions, pre-and post-cruise hotels, transfers, flights, or additional train journeys. Anything more you want to tailor-make your river cruise vacation to suit you.

9. Pay attention to details in your river cruise documentation

Read all the emails and documentation the cruise line sends you before traveling.

Do not miss out on filling in all the necessary forms, ensuring you have all your travel documents, a valid passport, etc. Entry rules to different countries can change (for example, vaccination status), so read and re-read everything. Know how to check in online and what documentation you will need at the airport, your hotel, and finally, to get you on board your river cruise ship.

10. Meet the locals, try the local cuisine

While all your meals are provided on board the cruise ship, there is no nicer way to enjoy a new destination than visiting one of the local restaurants, bakeries, or cafes.

On a river cruise, you very often stop at a small town. Locals are friendly, and even if they cannot speak perfect English, stop and have a chat and buy some souvenirs. It’s a great way to find out more about the local town.

Meet the author: Sarah has created and booked hundreds of travel itineraries for thousands of customers during a career in the travel industry that spans 20 years. Having worked hand in hand with cruise lines, hotels, airlines and tour operators worldwide, she offers inspiring & detailed insights in the world of travel and tourism.