European River Cruising
The most convenient way to travel in
Long sleek river
cruisers give you a wonderfully convenient way of traveling
This pictures shows
Amadeus Waterways' boat
Durnstein, Austria on the Danube.
Part 1 of a series on river cruising.
Please also see
All About European River Cruising
How to Choose Your
European River Cruise
How to Choose Your River Cruise
Once you've enjoyed a European
river cruise, you'll never again want to subject yourself to a
bus tour, or the massive hassles of checking in and out of
hotels, unpacking and repacking your bags, finding your own way
to and from train stations, and/or driving yourself around in
River cruising is the most
comfortable and convenient way to enjoy a European vacation.
And because Europe's historic
towns and cities were often built on or close to the main
rivers, you can see most of the major interesting places, as
short tours from the comfort of your cruise ship.
Why Choose a River Cruise
Some people, who have never
been on a river cruise, might consider a river cruise to
be confining - you travel at a slow speed on a river, and only
get to see the sights on either side of the river. You are
locked into a fixed itinerary, and trapped on a small boat with
a large number of other people. Lastly, some people
consider river cruising to be very expensive.
While there are
understandable reasons for all these perceptions, the reality is
very different. Let's look at each point in turn.
Speed of travel
River cruises commonly do
most of the traveling at night, while you are dining, enjoying
yourself, and sleeping.
Cruises will include some
cruising during the day, both to meet the need to be certain places at
certain times, and also to allow you to enjoy some daytime sightseeing,
looking at the beautiful scenery and lovely little towns, old
castles on nearby hilltops, churches, farms, and all the other
elements of life in Europe.
Speed is not needed, and the
graceful rate of progress (typically 12 - 15 mph cruising speed)
helps convey a feeling of relaxed unhurriedness. Remember that Europe is very compact - you only have short
distances to travel between towns (and even between countries).
You don't need speed, and you don't want speed.
You see much more from a
river cruise boat than you do from a bus, train, or car, while
hurrying from place to place. And you see these things
tremendously more comfortably, either in your cabin, in a
lounge, in a dining room, or up on one of the open decks.
Plus, when you arrive at the
various places you stop and visit, when you get off the boat,
you're able to sightsee exactly the same as any other way of
traveling. Well - not quite so exactly - you don't have to
bother about packing your bags, checking out of the hotel,
carrying your bags to your form of transport, traveling to the
next place, getting to your hotel, checking in, carrying your
own bags upstairs, and unpacking them again in your room!
Instead you find yourself,
as if by magic, close in to the center of town in most cases,
and with helpful sightseeing material provided by the cruise
ship staff, and usually with some free sightseeing included.
This is marvelously convenient.
Of course all cruises work
to a fixed itinerary. But what is bad about this?
You can choose through very many different itineraries and
select the itinerary that most suits you, the same as you would
if planning your travels any other way.
And, once you've chosen your
itinerary, that is all the hard work done. There's nothing
more to arrange once you've booked your cruise. Your
transportation, accommodation, sightseeing and meals are all
(Note that the fixed
itineraries can sometimes, but rarely, vary. If the river
is flooding, or if the river is unusually low, there may be
a need to change the itinerary.)
Boat size and passenger
River cruisers are typically
about 300' - 440' in length and 35' - 40' in width. They
have three or four decks for accommodation, lounges, bars,
restaurants, and other public areas.
The ships usually have
between 60 and 85 cabins, making total passenger capacity
somewhere between 120 and 175.
Chances are you'll find this
to be neither too small nor too large. The ship itself is
large enough to be interesting and not to feel confining, but
not too big as to make it a hassle to go from anywhere to
anywhere else. Need to go back to your room? It is
only a minute or two from wherever else you are on board.
And the number of fellow
passengers is enough as to enable you to anonymously blend into
a crowd if you wish, but also is small enough so that ship's
crewmembers recognize you and talk to you as an individual,
rather than as another faceless passenger.
The passenger count is
sufficiently low as to make it easy to get to know other
passengers when dining or in the lounges, and then to see and
recognize them again on future occasions. But there are
also enough passengers so that if you want to avoid someone, you
aren't always running into them!
Most cruises seem to be
priced in the range of about $200 - $300 a day. When you
first see $2000 for a one week cruise, it might seem like a lot
of money, especially when you compare it to what you'd pay for a
one week cruise in the Caribbean.
A fairer comparison is to
compare a river cruise with what you'd pay traveling around Europe any other way, for a
week. A daily budget (share twin) for traveling on your
own might include $125 for a hotel each night, $75 for a tour
each day, $50 for transportation each day (a five day in 2 month Eurail Selectpass costs between $383 and $473 - much more than
$50/day), and $50 for lunch and dinner (assuming breakfast was
included in the hotel rate). In other words, regular
touring is going to cost $300 a day - the same as the upper end
of all-inclusive cruising costs.
Now consider the value of
the convenience of only having to pack/unpack and check in/out
once. How much extra would you pay for that?
And consider also the value
of traveling at night, freeing up more time during the days to
sightsee, as well as the extra quality time and energy spared by
skipping all the packing/unpacking etc. What is that worth to you?
There are plenty of other
positive value-adds in a cruise (like the friendly English
speaking staff, free evening entertainment, and with some cruise
lines, even free wine with dinner), but consider these as free
bonuses. A simple comparison shows a cruise to be no more
expensive - and quite possibly less expensive - than traveling
around on your own.
River cruising is not
expensive. It is a very good value way to comfortably and
conveniently see Europe.
River and Ocean
Much of what we write here
is focused on river cruising. But you should be aware that
there are also excellent ocean cruising opportunities in Europe.
With many European countries having a border on the sea, big
ship cruising is also a viable option - most commonly in
wonderful cruises around the Mediterranean Sea, and also up
around the Baltic areas.
There are plenty of positive
reasons to consider an ocean based
European cruise as well as a river cruise. A number of the other big name cruise
companies operate seasonal cruising itineraries in Europe.
More reasons to choose a river
The food is generally of a
high quality on board, and dining is single seating, usually
with no pre-assigned tables. This gives you the
flexibility to meet new people (or to avoid people) at meals,
and also means you're not rushed out of the dining room as soon
as dinner is finished to make way for a second group of diners.
River cruises are almost
always calm and stable, with no problems caused by waves or
River cruises have a range
of daily activities on board - not nearly as extensive as full
sized ocean liners, but enough to keep you occupied and
interested when you have nothing else to do.
River cruises are 'timeless'
- whereas travel by road or rail surrounds you with 20th and
21st century technology, on the river, you're in a more natural
environment. And because the rivers were the original
travel routes before roads, rail, and air, you get to see
ancient buildings and towns - and the parts of these towns
facing the river - that you'd miss when traveling by other
Differences between river
barges and river ships
This article is primarily
about cruising on a river 'ship'. A river ship is very
different to a smaller river barge.
Barge cruising is on a very
small boat, or sometimes a pair of boats (with one primarily for
passenger accommodation and the other with dining rooms, lounge,
and other public and work spaces. Typically a barge (or
pair of barges) carries only 6 - 20 passengers at a time.
Barges meander along at a
very sedate speed, typically little faster than brisk walking
Barge cruises are more expensive
- partially due to the low number of passengers to share the
fixed cost of operation and the high ratio of staff to guests,
and partially due to a lot of deluxe inclusions. Many
times, barges have an open bar, and for shore visits, will
provide private chauffeur driven car touring around the regions
Due to the small number of
passengers and crew, there are limited evening entertainment
activities on a barge.
Barge cruising can also be a
wonderful experience, but it is a very different type of
experience to river cruising, and the two should not be
See also our article on 'do
it yourself' canal cruising in
Britain for a third type of river/canal cruising experience.
Types of River Cruises in
There are several convenient
ways to categorize the wide range of different river cruising
Most of the cruises tend to
be regional; only the very lengthy cruises cover extended areas.
Most cruises are about a
week in length. Some companies offer longer cruises,
which typically are two shorter cruises 'joined together' - for
example a company might offer a one week Black Sea to Budapest
cruise and a one week Budapest to Nuremberg cruise, plus also
offer a two week Black Sea to Nuremberg cruise.
One-way or roundtrip
Most cruises tend to be
one-way, although a few are roundtrip - either in an out and
back type manner, going back the way you came, or in a circle
trip manner, not repeating any part of the route.
If you're traveling on an
out and back itinerary, don't think that it will be terribly
boring returning back the way you came. As long as your
shore stops aren't identical, the river scenery is often very
much different when viewed from the other direction, and the
parts of the river you see during the day (as compared to at
night) are likely to be different. Out and back
itineraries are just as interesting as any other type.
In addition to standard
cruises (which generally operate only in spring/summer/fall
period) some cruise lines offer special seasonal cruising.
The two most common seasonal
specials are Tulip cruises around Holland, timed for the early
spring when the tulips are in full flower, and the Christmas
Market cruises in Austria and Germany, timed for the period
between Thanksgiving and Christmas, giving you a chance to shop
at the various Christmas Markets along the Danube.
Both of these seasonal
cruises are wonderful experiences.
When to Travel
Our preference is to travel
in May or June. This gets you the maximum amount of
daylight every day, but beats the worst of the summer heat and
the summer crowds. Peak summer crowds can become quite
claustrophobic in some of the most popular destinations, and
should be avoided at all costs.
And, talking about costs,
sometimes you'll find the cruise fares are a bit lower in
May/June, too. Another reason to choose those months.
Avoid July and August if at
all possible, for the reasons above.
Europe is a small region with many different wonderful places, all close to each other,
and there's a strong temptation to try and see and do more while
in Europe. For this reason, many people choose to add extra touring at the start or end of their cruise.
Some cruises start off and
have the ship immediately leaving the city you joined it in, and
some cruises finish with you immediately leaving the ship upon
arrival in the destination city.
Other cruises have the ship
spending as many as three nights moored in your departure city
before starting the traveling part of the cruise, and may spend
as many as three nights moored in the arrival city before you
disembark (this is common with Russian cruises).
Obviously it makes more
sense to add extra days at either end in the start and finish
cities if the cruise itinerary doesn't already have you spending
a lot of time in those places.
Extending before joining the
Whether you are joining a
cruise that stays in the departure city for several days or not,
we generally recommend you should plan to arrive in Europe at
least one day before your cruise starts. This gives you a
precious day up your sleeve in case you miss flights, or have
flights cancelled, or have your luggage lost en route.
It also helps you unwind
after the long flight(s), and helps you get over the jet lag, so
you're at your best for when the cruise commences.
Where to Extend
Sometimes it is sensible to
simply stay in the city the cruise starts or finishes in and
spend more time there. This minimizes your extra travel
needs, and in the case of a pre-cruise extension, gives you a
safety margin of extra time in case of problems getting to the
cruise start point.
But if you're spending
enough time in these places as part of the cruise, by all means
travel further afield as it suits you best.
Cruise company extension or
Cruise companies often offer
optional extensions before or after the main ship-based cruise.
These can be convenient and definitely enjoyable, but usually
you can make similar arrangements on your own for a similar type
of price. Some people use the extension itinerary ideas
from the cruise brochures as a guide for what to add on their
If you're extending on you
own, you'll probably find the cost is the same or lower, and
depending on your style of travel, you may find either doing it
yourself or having everything arranged more convenient.
Locations of River Cruises in
Click on image for a
larger map to open in a new window
It is possible to cruise
through much of Europe by river and canal, and to traverse
Europe completely from the Black Sea to the North Sea.
River cruises can be found on most of Europe's main rivers,
including those listed in the table below :
1771 miles in
length; the major commercial waterway in Europe
Starts in Germany's Black Forest, empties into the Black
Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania
1420 miles from the
southwest of Russia, through Belarus and Ukraine, to the
561 miles from
central Spain, through Portugal and to the North
Portugal and Spain
724 miles from the
Czech Republic, through Germany, to the Baltic Sea
328 miles long, a
tributary of the Rhine
341 miles long,
traverses France and Luxemburg then into Germany and
joins the Rhine
Germany and France
820 miles from SE
Switzerland, through Germany and Netherlands, to the
300 miles from
Switzerland to the Mediterranean
300 miles long,
flows into the Rhône
482 miles long,
flows into the English Channel
2300 miles - largest
and longest river system in Europe. Starts
northwest of Moscow and empties into the Caspian Sea.
Read more in Parts 2 and 3
the second part, we talk about
how to choose the best
European river cruise - what to consider when selecting the best cruise
company for your cruise, and the best airfare to get you there
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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3 Feb 2006, last update
19 Dec 2013
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.