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European river cruising is becoming increasingly popular, and more and more companies are offering more and more cruises.

Here's how to find the best company, cruise, ship and cabin for you.

 
 
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How to Choose Your European River Cruise

Find the best company and cruise
 

There are many variables to consider when selecting a European river cruise.

Most cruises are good.  But some are better than others.

Part 2 of a series on river cruising.  Please also see

1.  All About European River Cruising
2.  How to Choose Your European River Cruise
3.  How to Choose Your River Cruise Cabin

 

 

When you've decided to treat yourself to a European river cruise, you will then need to choose the cruise that best meets your requirements.

The right cruise will be a mix of the right cruise line, the right ship, the right time of year, and the right itinerary.

Here are the various things to keep in mind to help you make the right decision.

Choosing the Best Cruise Company

The good news - most of the major European river cruising companies are of high standard.

There are a few things to keep in mind when selecting your preferred cruising company

Itinerary and availability

Of course, the first issue is to determine which companies offer the itinerary you want.  A related issue is to check if the sailing you wish to take has remaining availability in the cabin category you wish.  Popular cabin categories sell out early - sometimes nine months or more before the cruise departure.

Inclusions

Check to see which tours are included and which are extra.  Historically, river cruises have tended to include all touring in the upfront-price, but some cruise operators (eg Uniworld) are now experimenting with lower priced cruises that have fewer inclusions.

Having fewer inclusions is not necessarily a bad thing, but make sure you understand what is included when you're comparing products from different cruise companies when doing cost comparisons.

Internet Availability

What with the growing ubiquity of Facebook, and email replacing regular mail, most people want convenient access to the internet, even when on vacation.

Some cruise lines offer in-room computers that are connected to the internet, others offer Wi-Fi throughout the ship, and some offer Wi-Fi only in restricted parts of the public areas.  Clearly it is massively more convenient to have Wi-Fi access in your cabin rather than to need to go into one of the lounges.

The internet service is sometimes free and sometimes charged for.  If it is charged for, the fees can sometimes be huge - be very careful and keep a close eye on how much you are spending.

Internet access is often very poor, for two reasons.  First, when the ship goes through locks it often loses sight of the satellite or terrestrial internet station it is connected to, causing the internet to be lost for a period of time.  Indeed, sometimes when going through an area with low bridges, the captain will retract the internet dome and turn it off for hours at a time.

Secondly, think about what happens when everyone gets back from a day of touring.  They go to their cabins, and then, in many cases, log on to check email, update their Facebook status, send pictures of what they did and saw that day to friends, and so on.  The meager internet bandwidth is quickly and massively overloaded.

So, the bottom line about internet on a ship?  Understand if it is free or not, and understand where in the ship you can connect, and anticipate that the connection will be intermittent and usually slow.

Free Drinks?

Some cruise lines offer free drinks with dinner.  In some cases, this is defined as 'one small glass of house wine', in other cases it is defined as 'unlimited refills' and in some cases, the free drinks includes beer as well as wine.

At least one cruise line (Scenic) now offers free drinks with lunch, too.

If you like to have a glass of something with your meal, the ability to have it provided for free can save you an appreciable amount of money on the cruise - even more if you, ahem, like to have two glasses of wine with dinner!

Smoking Policies

Most of the boats have a no-smoking indoors policy (including no smoking in your personal cabin), but allow smoking on the outside decks.

If the ability to smoke is important, or if the freedom from smoke, everywhere, is important, then check with the cruise company you are considering to see what their policy is.

Languages Onboard

Most of the US cruise companies market their cruises primarily to the US and Canada, perhaps with a bit of overflow sales into other English speaking countries, and as a result, they operate their boats with English as the official onboard language, and when they are arranging for shore touring, English is again the sole language of the group.

If you've ever been on a multi-lingual ship, you'll know how tiring it is to be forced to listen to every announcement in four or six different languages.  And when you're on a shore tour, if the guide is having to talk in multiple languages, that reduces the amount of commentary given in English and detracts from the interest and experience.

Another subtle element of this issue is that not only is the language English, but the food style is also English (ie American) in terms of type of menu items offered and style of food presentation.

Cost

Most of the companies have similar brochure costs, so this isn't as large a differentiator as you might think.

However, there can be some 'fine print' tricks and traps.  Are port charges included (as with Viking River Cruises) or not (as with most other companies)?  And are there any other surcharges (eg a fuel surcharge with Uniworld) or not (as with most other companies)?

Note also that some companies offer early booking discounts.  These can sometimes be very generous, and expire at different times.  Today (2 Feb 06) most companies no longer have 2006 early booking discounts, with the discounts having expired anytime from September last year through the end of January this year, but one company is still offering discounts for 2006 (Avalon).

Although you may qualify for an early booking discount, we haven't seen any 'last minute discounts' on river cruises, so it does pay to book in advance and to take advantage of any early booking discounts.

Most companies also offer a returning passenger discount, so if you've been on one cruise with a company, be sure to ask about discounts when you consider booking with them again.  Indeed, chances are you won't have to ask - chances are you'll be getting regular promotional mailings from the company for many years after you return home!

Costs can also vary when you move from the 'lead price' (lowest cabin price) to the price of the actual cabin you'll be paying for, and can also vary if the cabin type you want to buy isn't available and you instead have to pay more for a more expensive cabin category.

Single Policies

If you're traveling as a single passenger, some companies charge 150% of the per person (share twin) rate for a single person in a cabin (eg Amadeus) while most other companies charge double the per person rate.  This can make a big difference in cost.

Some companies have a guaranteed singles share scheme which can be helpful if you'd like to keep your costs down and/or would enjoy having some companionship on the cruise.

Insurance

Many travelers choose to purchase some form of travel insurance prior to going on an international vacation, and the cruise companies all offer an insurance option.

Coverages vary from company to company, and so too do the prices, by as much as $100/person, for similar sorts of policies.

The cruise company policies will probably only cover the travel items you buy from the cruise company.  If you arrange your own air, and/or an extension of your time doing other things in Europe, these extra costs may not be included if you buy the insurance from the cruise company.

Many policies will allow more generous terms for cancellation protection if you buy your insurance at the same time you pay your deposit.

You'll often find the cruise company policies are more expensive than policies you can get from third party insurance companies, but there is clear advantage and convenience to having your insurance provided by the company who is also providing your arrangements.

We discuss travel insurance in detail in this two part article, and in the second part of the article, provide links to a couple of helpful insurance shopping websites that cost out the best deals on your insurance.

Leading Cruise Companies

The following cruise companies appear to operate good quality European river cruises and have good reputations.

Amawaterways

This company is relatively new, having been founded in 2003.  It has gone through several name changes - Amadeus Waterways, AMA, and now Amawaterways - its original name being too confusingly similar to other competing companies and to other travel companies in general.

It is headed by an industry veteran, and they are quickly rolling out excellent ships and itineraries and now (2010) have something like 8 ships (it being a bit confusing which of their ships they own, which they lease, and which they own but then charter out entirely to third parties).  If they offer a cruise in an area you want to travel, you'd be well advised to closely consider them.

Their US staff are all competent, knowledgeable, and helpful, and their policies and application of them are all very fair.

TTheir values are good and they even include free wine with dinners (a policy now largely copied by most other cruise lines too.  Speaking from personal experience, this can be a considerable saving!  Recommended.

Amadeus Waterways website

Scenic Tours

This is an Australian owned company that made a name for itself in the second half of the 1990s, offering excellent quality coach touring, and at appreciably better values than their established competitors.

TThey have now extended to offering European river cruises as well, with four (growing to five in 2011) lovely new 'super-sized' ships (135 m long, rather than the traditional 110m length) including many cabins with outside balconies, two different dining venues, and the usual range of itineraries, with heavy emphasis on coach touring before/after the cruise, revealing their coach touring background.

Their rates include all tips, and, besting Amawaterways, they offer free drinks with both lunch and dinner.

(2013 Update) :  Scenic has continued to innovate with its fine river cruising products.  This year they even offer not just regular bicycles but electric power assisted bicycles, as well as a huge number of additional amenities and innovations.

While their cruises are appreciably more expensive, and also generally of longer duration, we increasingly feel that for people wanting the most polished cruise experience with the broadest range of extras, this is the company to choose.

Highly recommended.

Scenic Tours website

Viking River Cruises

I enjoyed a Viking cruise in Nov/Dec 2004.  The ship was of a very high standard, the food was good, the itinerary excellent (what a shame they no longer offer the same itinerary), and the crew ranged from average to good.

The company has a good reputation and a wide range of vessels and cruising itineraries, but over the years, their ships have aged compared to the influx of newer ships being launched by companies such as Amawaterways.  However, they are now (2012) going through a period of aggressive fleet renewal and expansion, with new state of the art ships as good as anyone else's.

Viking seems to typically price their itineraries high to start with, and then offers regular discounting off this high price in an attempt to make it seem like a great value.

Recommended, especially if you can get a good deal on one of their new ships.

Viking River Cruises website

Uniworld River Cruises

A long established large operator with a wide range of cruises in Europe and elsewhere, but one which has struggled to keep up with the times.  They have a few new ships and also some very old (by river ship standards) ships too.

 This is another company we feel comfortable recommending but be careful of the ship you'll be on.

Uniworld River Cruises website

Peter Deilmann Cruises

This is another well established company (formed in 1983), and with a high reputation for quality.  Their cabins, on some boats, are as large as 204 sq ft - the largest of all boats on the European rivers.

Note that shore excursions are generally not included in their cruise rates, and the ships are bilingual, with everything being in both German and English.  Prices are high.

Peter Deilmann Cruises website

This company - a one time leader in the industry, has ceased operation.

Avalon Waterways/Globus

These two companies sell the same cruises in partnership; Avalon is relatively new, while Globus has been around for a long time.

Their ships are generally new and of good quality, with large cabins.  Prices seem good.

Avalon Waterways website

Air Fare Issues

The cruise lines typically give you the option of buying an airfare from them, or of arranging your own airfare.

Which is best?  We suggest checking all your options - seeing if you can cash in frequent flier miles, seeing what the best value fare is on your own, and comparing these options to what the cruise line offers.

If you have a preference for a particular airline (due to frequent flier affiliations) or are seeking to vary your travel dates and cities, you'll probably end up arranging your own air.

Most cruise lines will quote you their fare, and even hold space for you and allow you to cancel without penalty anytime between when you make your confirming deposit and when you make your final payment.  This allows you to secure their fare and then try and improve on it in the months between when you make your booking and have to actually make the full payment.

Included Transfers

If you buy the standard airfare on the day of arrival and departure of the cruise through the cruise line, they will often include 'free' transfers to and from the airport.

This is a nice convenience, for sure, particularly if you're less confident at making your way in a foreign non-English speaking city to the cruise ship.  And it can also save you money, so needs to be factored in to the overall costs.

But if you're flying on other days, or to other cities, the free transfers are no longer available.

Carefully choose the cities you fly in and out of

Some cities in Europe have much better air service than other nearby cities.  For example, your cruise might terminate in Nuremberg, but quite possibly your preferred airline either doesn't fly to that city, or - if it does - the flights are infrequent and the schedules inconvenient.

This might seem like an obvious issue, but remember Europe is very small and so if you can't get convenient flights (or fares) on your preferred airlines to and from the obvious cities at the start and end of your tour, consider flying in or out of nearby airports and then using a train to get between that airport and the city you need to be in.

For example, if you are returning home from Nuremberg, consider taking a short 1 hour train ride from Nuremberg to Munich, and then connect at the rail station to the suburban rail line that travels directly out to Munich's much larger airport.

Similarly, if you are thinking of perhaps arriving into Europe a day or two before the cruise begins, maybe fly in to a nearby city rather than the city you depart from, and enjoy the extra city and experience of traveling to where you start your cruise.

Open Jaws Travel

If you're on a one-way cruise, in theory you need to fly into a different city than the city you return back from.  This arrangement - flying into one city and out of a different one, is termed an open-jaw itinerary.

Most airfares these days usually allow for open-jaw travel without penalty, you simply add one half of the fare for one city to one half of the fare to the other city.  And most frequent flier awards also allow for open-jaw itineraries.

However, if you find a special fare that doesn't allow open-jaw travel, or if your preferred airline doesn't serve both cities, then the chances are there's not too much distance between the cities your cruise starts and finishes in, and you can easily bridge the gap with a one way train ticket, either prior to your cruise, or subsequent to its finish.

Another strategy would be to fly into a midway city and then travel from there to where your cruise starts and back there from where your cruise ends.

RRead more in Parts  1 and 3

In the first part, we talk about the different types and styles of European river cruising and why you might enjoy a river cruise.

In the third part, we discuss the implications of how to choose the best cabin on your river cruise.  This of course will have a major impact on your budget and cruise experience.

 

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Originally published 3 Feb 2006, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
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