How to choose a European river cruise

DSC_0007As with any vacation, when it comes to river cruises, there’s more to getting the best value than meets the eye.

Nearly all European river cruises include Wi-Fi, meals, coffee and tea throughout the day, and some excursions. But some include only the most basic city tours in groups as large as 40 or 50 people, charging extra for experiences that are unique; others include a wide range of excursions in the fare. Some lines charge extra for dinner wines and gratuities, while others include them. Cabin designs and menus also vary.

What matters, of course, is what matters to you.

Our group of 12 decided on the river less traveled — the eastern Danube, then traveled overland on our own to the easily reached cities of Vienna and Salzburg.

Once we decided on a destination, we made a list of all lines that sailed that route. Then we created a group spreadsheet on Google Docs to ensure that we were comparing features correctly. Each couple was assigned a line; some called the company directly, while others consulted with cruise travel agents recommended by national magazines.


Our categories:

  • Number of cabins onboard
  • Range of cabin costs (low to high)
  • Total number of nights included (some included hotel nights)
  • Driving time from embarkation city to ship (in our case, one to five hours)
  • Cabin design (some open to provide balconies, others don’t)
  • Types of excursions included in fare
  • Maximum number of guests per excursion
  • Sample menus
  • Wine included?
  • Cocktails included?
  • Airport transfers included? (yes, or if not, average cost)
  • Bicycles on board?
  • Pool?
  • Tips included? (yes, or if not, the amount recommended)
  • Any special features
  • Potential extra costs

Once we had narrowed to a handful of lines, we consulted our favorite of the river-cruise specialist travel agents we’d spoken with. She served as a reality check against our own research, so we felt confident.

More importantly, she alerted us to a special airfare that was far cheaper than anything we could book on our own, and another promotion that allowed us to book into a higher cabin level at a small premium. She also arranged a group discount and handled the air bookings and payments — no small matter with this group.

Everyone in our group agreed we would recommend her: Angelica Berwick at Fine Voyages.

When we added up inclusions and promotions, we found the value of upscale Scenic Cruises outweighed lines with lower base fares. Included were all tips, house liquors and wines, butler service, a wide range of small-group tours and electric bicycles. Because we booked on the “Diamond deck,” a rave-worthy degustation dinner and laundry were included.

What you need to know before you book a river cruise

A view of the Rhine

A decade ago, river cruising vacations weren’t even on the radar. Today they’re high on the wish list of nearly 60 percent of North American travelers, according to an industry survey. Why the shift? A fleet of sleek new ships, a growing list of itineraries – and attention-grabbing ads shown during Downtown Abbey – have brought inland sailing front of mind. Travelers who previously traveled only by land are now turning to the waterways, says A-list cruise agent Scott Kertes of Long Island’s Hartford Holidays. “The newest river cruise ships are well appointed with new amenities and levels of food and service that have come way, way up.”

Rhine river cruise

Our Emerald Waterways ship

In 2015, major river cruise companies are adding even more routes on a worldwide flotilla of more than 200 vessels. Most carry guests to the medieval villages of Germany’s Rhine, the Danube’s Imperial cities of Vienna and Budapest and the wine-producing regions of France. and Portugal. A handful navigate through the rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon, while ever-more ships are returning to the Egypt’s Nile. The newest river journeys explore the Far East, taking guests to untrammeled villages and ornate temples of Burma’s Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers, Indochina’s Mekong and India’s Ganges.

Rothenburg on the Rhine

Rothenburg, one of the towns visited on our Rhine River cruise

Wherever they travel, river voyagers sail on boutique vessels sized for narrow rivers and locks; most carry a maximum of 190 passengers, and some accommodate as few as 36.
Though prices are higher than on many ocean cruises, amenities such as city tours, onboard wifi, tips and wine and beer with meals are included in most river fares. And while multi-service spas and elaborate show lounges don’t fit onboard, most river-going ships moor within walking distance of towns. Expert local guides leave travelers raving about the experience, says Morgan Scully of McCabe World Travel in McLean, Va. – and coming back for more.

To find out more about river cruising, see my story in this month’s issue of Travel + Leisure magazine.

On the Rhine