River cruises in Europe – which is the right cruise for you?

Many cruise guests who love to cruise but want a more low-key, intimate and leisurely cruising experience with – dare we say it – less children and families around – opt for river cruises in Europe. It’s a chance to easy experience the spectacular scenery of European rivers.

After the endless activities and lively atmostphere of big ship cruising, river cruises seem demure by comparion. But they could be exactly what you are looking for.

First of all, choosing one of the many river cruises in Europe means you are guaranteed to see some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. You visit the local towns of a country, not just it’s major ports. You get an an immersive experience of the culture, cuisine and local folk along the way.

River cruises are a wonderful way to travel the imense network of beautiful rivers throughout Europe. It’s an easy way to visit towns and cities for a cultural, historical, and gastromic imersion into the region of your choice.

If you are considering opting for river cruises in Europe for the first time, or a switch from being a cruise guest who usually enjoys ocean cruises on large cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line or Celebrity Cruises, then the this article to help you make the decision about booking a river cruise.

We answer the most common questions we are asked by our cruise guests.

How do river cruises differ from ocean cruises?

Size – river cruise ships are much smaller than ocean cruise ships

If you are used to the largest cruise ships at sea that carry from around 2000 up to 6000 passengers at a time, you will understand that the size of ships for river cruises is vastly smaller than for ocean cruises. This means that:

  • Fewer passengers, and a more intimate experience
  • A more personal service however fewer activities and amenities on board
  • Smaller cabins, but still with everything you need for a comfortable vacation
  • Your cruise ship can navigate the narrowest of rivers and reach destinations that are unique to European river cruises.

Dining & Entertainment – less choice but good quality

On large ocean cruise ships there is a huge array on dining venues to choose from on board. With different types of dining experiences from a la carte, buffet, fast food, casual eateries and specialty restaurants. On board most river cruise ships there is one dining room with a small menu and fixed dining times. There is also no room service.

The entertainment on board a big cruise ship varies greatly from ship to ship, but you will often find big Broadway productions, musicals, stand-up comedians and dance shows. River cruising means that the entertainment is most often destination presentations or local musicians or dancers that come from the region you are visiting.

Amenities and Venues

River cruise ships are small with less common areas. Only one or two river cruise companies offer splash pools on board or small gyms. There are no casinos, theaters or shopping malls. You will not find kids clubs and there is often 1 large lounge and 1 bar area. The focus of river cruises is the destinations themselves.

Destinations – explore unique villages and towns on European river cruises

River cruising really come into itself when it comes to destinations. Throughout Europe we have an abundance of castles, forts, churches, wine-growing regions, unique local industries and artisans, and a huge array of cultures and cuisines. River cruises in Europe focus mainly on the historic sights of art and religion, the culture and cuisine.

Ocean cruises on large cruise ships take you on the open seas from country to country in regions such as the Mediterranean, the Greek Isles or Scandinavia. You can even cruise between continents on longer voyages such as from North to South America. And even to remote regions on expedition cruises such as the Antarctic.

River cruises, on the other hand, take you to smaller ports, often docking close to town centers. You choose your region by river – it’s a wonderful way to explore inner Europe.

Shore excursions – is there a choice and what if you want to do your own independent excursion?

Shore excursions offered on a river cruises in Europe are the reason we choose a river cruise in the first place. It is rare to stay on board the cruise ship when you have docked. There is, quite simply, not a lot to do on board when everyone else is on land.

This doesn’t mean to say that you have to follow the shore excursion organized by the cruise line. Very often there is at least one excursion that is included in the price of your cruise. Indeed many river cruises offer all inclusive packages so you do not have to think about purchasing any extras once you are booked and on board.

But this also means that if you choose not to join the excursion, you miss out and will not be offered an alternative. Very often the excursion included is an excellent walking tour with a local historical guide. There will also be the opportunity to have free time during the day.

But by all mean do your own thing though and explore in your own time. Not everyone wants to follow the crowd when river cruising and visiting new places. We do however, recommend you take a good guide book and stay on the beaten path to ensure you get back to the ship in good time.

And if you are more independent, then look for the cruise lines that actually offer cruise only prices, instead of package prices, there are a few of them to choose from, see more information below.

All Inclusive – most of the time

With ocean cruise on board large cruise ships, you will often find a basic price covering your accommodation in your cabin, all meals in the main dining room or buffet restaurant, taxes and gratuities. And whilst some large cruise lines do offer all inclusive (such as Celebrity Cruises with their wifi, gratuities and beverage package “always included” campaigns), most of the time you will being paying extra for drinks, excursions, some entertainment and wifi on board.

River cruising almost all the time offer is an all inclusive package. That means that you rarely have to think about buying anything extra. It’s is there from the moment you book. This all inclusive also extends to booking your flights and pre/post hotel packages with transfers if you wish.

Note that there are now some companies offering river cruises who do have “cruise only” prices which are worth looking at if you really do not needs alcohol packages or intend to join in cruise excursions, and do not need help booking flight, hotels and transport.

A little note though to looking closely at the start and end point for your chosen cruise. Sometime cities are not close to major airports as many large cruise ports are that service ocean cruise ships. For example, the port of Passau which is commonly for a Danube river cruise is located on the Austrian border, 160km from Munich airport or 300km from Vienna airport. Sometimes is good to have bus transfers booked in with the cruise line to ensure a seemless river cruise experience.

What are the most popular routes for a river cruise?

Rhine

After the river Danube, the Rhine is the second longest river and one of the great rivers of Europe. Most often river cruises along the Rhine start or end in Basel, Switzerland. The upper river in the Rhine Valley is particularly spectacular with much of the scenery being a UNESCO world heritage site. Expect grand palaces, castles, vinyards, villages from the old world and wild orchards on Rhine river cruises.

Danube

The longest river in Europe offers such pretty views it is often referred as the most romantic of rivers. Cruises on the blue Danube river start from various points such as Passau or Vienna or Budapest so take the opportunity to explore these great cities before you start your cruise. See the classic sights of medieval cities, elegant architecture and beautiful landscapes.

Rhône

The river Rhône is synonymous with French wine country and a cruise on this river promises a gastronomic delight.

The Rhône stretches from the Swiss alps and Lake Geneva in Switzerland and down through France ending in the Mediterranean Sea. You will have fantastic excursion opportunities on Rhône river cruises, including towns such as Avignon, train journies in the Doux Valley and visits into Lyons and Provence. Choose your cruise by carefully looking at what excursions are possible to ensure you don’t miss out of as many breathtaking natural wonders as possible.

Seine

Best known as the river that winds it’s way through the french capital, Paris, the Seine is nearly 800 km long and actually starts in Dijon and ends in the English channel. Expect the focus of Seine river cruises to be art, history and wine. We can highly recommend a river cruise from Paris to Honfleur in northern France. Where excursions to such bucket-list destinations such as Versailles and the Normandy coast are possible.

Loire

At just the mention of the world Loire we think of the romantic and picturesque Loire Valley with fairy tale castles. This region is undeniably 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 it’s banks.

You will find that a cruise on the Loire will take you back in time. It is a quieter, more shallow river with much less visible commercialism. A nice way to explore the Loire is to cruise aboard Croisi cruise ships that paddle ships, designed specifically to operate in the more shallow Loire.

Duoro

Located on the Iberian peninsular, the Duoro river is perhaps one of Europe’s lesser known European river. It starts in central Spain and flows into northern Portugal. The mouth of the river Duoro is at Porto. Famous for producing red wines and port in the many vinyards, this cruise is a wine-lovers dream and a unique way to see the delights of lesser known towns in Spain and Portugal.

What is the best month to take a European river cruise?

The best time of year to go on European river cruises is with a departure date from late May to early October. However if you are looking for a specific themed river cruise then the Christmas markets cruises from Vienna or Budapest are wonderful.

What can I expect on board European river cruises?

A European river cruise offers a tranquil way to see beautiful European landscapes with the focus being on the destinations along the way. Life on board is generally peaceful with fewer activities and amenities compared to an ocean cruise. You will find that most of the time you dock very close to the towns you are visiting, often within walking distance of where you river cruise ship is docked.

A casual dress code

The dress code on board European river cruises is smart casual. You may find your packing list is easier than packing for an ocean cruise as there are not really any formal or themed nights. Even evenings where there may be a captain’s table, most guests are dressed casually. Remember cabins are smaller and there is less room for your belongings compared to a cabin on board a huge cruise ship.

Guests mingles

Expect to be sociable with other guests in the lounge and at dining. Unless you specifically say so when making your booking, you will be seated with other guests and this is one of the best things about river cruising – it’s much more intimate compared to ocean cruises.

Great cuisine & wine

You can expect excellent food, most often with local cuisine from the area you are visiting, and fine wine. The itineraries are packed with daily tours as you stop every day.

Smooth sailing

The cruise itself is very smooth, and it’s a rarity that you will suffer any sea sickness on a river cruise.

What are the most popular European towns and cities a river cruise departs from

There are many starting points for river cruises in Europe depending upon which cruise company yur choose and the region in which you want to cruise. Some of the more popular locations where you climb on board are Paris, Bruges, Pasau, Lucerne, Munich, Basel, Bordeaux, Budapest, Amsterdam, Vienna and Sintra.

Which cruise line has the best European river cruises?

Our favorite cruise lines offer great cruise ships and a range of unbeatable itineraries. Choose one of these and you be offered a wide selection of the best river cruises in Europe:

Viking River Cruises – Viking River Cruises is probably the best known brand for river cruising. They have lots of ships and a huge number of excellent itineraries to choose between. The ships are modern yet still offer a classic sailing experience.

Ama Waterways – This family owned company have been operating for over 20 years. They stand apart from other river cruise companies by offering real balconies on some of their ships is addition to the traditional juliet balconies. They also have a dedicated wellness program and offer a specialty dining option is addition to the main dining menu.

Emerald Waterways Cruises – Emerald you making efforts to attract a younger crowd to river cruises in an industry which has traditionally been for the older folk. Modern, fresh decor on their ships, plunge pools and panoramic windows make this a 4-star experience you should certainly consider.

Uniworld River Cruises – Uniworld market themselves as offering boutique river cruises. What you get is a 6-star experience with a cruise ship that is glamorous, with a focus on quality and luxurious decor. This prestigious cruise line comes at a premium so expect to pay a high price for travelling in real style.
Avalon Waterways – Avalon offered river cruising on 4 different continents so you are spoilt for choice. They have excellent excursions that include the active options such as hiking and ziplining. On board you can opt for standard cabin or a suite, which includes a sofa and chairs in a larger cabin.

Croisi Europe – Croisi Europe are a very long established, French river cruise company. They are experts in the river cruise market and offer traditional cruises, many of which are in specially designed ships for specific destinations. Expect a mix of French and international guests on board. They even offer a cruise only option if you want to eliminate the beverage package and excursions from your package.

Are there any river cruises available in the U.K.?

Absolutely! There is a rich selection of rivers and canals to cruise in and around Great Britain. Popular rivers include the Thames, Avon and Trent. Most charming of all we think though are Britain’s canals. Look at Llangollen Canal on the Welsh-English border or the beautiful countryside along the Kent and Avon Canal.

Should I book my flight or hotel and transfer package independently or with the cruise line?

If you are booking a European river cruise, you need to compare the package price the cruise line offer, with how much it would cost you to book a cruise, flights, hotel and transport separately. Then factor in convenience and what you want out of your vacation.

Consider if you want to spend more days in your start and end destination. Especially if you are travelling from further afield such as the USA or Australia. Perhaps you want to start your river cruise in Amsterdam, for example, but spend 3 days in the city as it’s your first visit to the Netherlands. Or visit Paris after your river cruise ends to see wonders such as the Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum, Sacré-Cœur and Notre Dame.

In this case you may find booking your own flights and hotel is worthwhile. Check with the cruise line if you can book transfers to your origin port even if you do not book a flight and hotel package with them.

Many river cruise companies are more flexible than ever before in their efforts to attract guests back to the cruise market following the height of the pandemic.

Do you need to use a travel agent?

Alternatively you can ask a travel agent for help and guidance. Whilst we usually prefer booking our cruise directly with the cruise company to ensure we have complete control over our bookings, a good travel agent promising a personalized service may be able to put together an unbeatable package for flights, hotel, transport and cruise.

Meet the author: With more than 20 years experience from the travel industry, Mattias offers tips, expert advice and a unique perspective anchored in having worked with market leading cruise lines, tour operators, consolidators, airlines and hospitality suppliers. Read more..