Not that long ago, if you wanted to take a cruise in Europe, you’d fly to a port city like Rome or Barcelona, board a ship with a thousand passengers or more, and spend a week or so sailing from one Mediterranean port to the next.
Nothing wrong with that. Except that many of Europe’s great cities — Paris, Berlin, Florence, and Prague — are inland. And in order to reach them, you’d have to find transportation or buy a shore excursion from the cruise line.
The other drawback is that you’d arrive in your destination with hundreds, maybe thousands of fellow passengers — which completely transforms what you came to see. Instead of experiencing a Tuscan village, you experience an American herd, moving through a Tuscan village.
European travelers had a better way of exploring the continent. And now Americans have discovered it too. In fact, it’s the fastest growing segment of the cruise industry — European river cruises.
River cruises offer a slower, more intimate way to savor Europe’s unique experiences. And the sights are never far out of reach. They’re either just across the river or a short stroll down the gangway.
Unlike conventional cruise ships, river boats rarely carry more than 100 passengers. So the impact on the places they visit is minimal. Most European river cruises include shore excursions, so it won’t cost you extra to learn about the sights you’re seeing. And since the boats often dock in town, you can go ashore after dinner and enjoy a glass of wine or attend a concert.
With so few passengers on board, it’s easy for the staff to get acquainted with all the passengers and learn their likes and dislikes. As a rule, dining is open seating, and because almost everything is cooked to order, food is usually better than on ocean-going ships. Most river cruise lines include wine with meals in the cruise fare. And since these cruises go through some of the world’s great wine regions, it’s often very good.
Most river boats have bicycles available for passengers’ use, which is a great way to venture further afield. And since the center of town is usually right on the river, all the main sights will be within walking distance of the boat.
The most popular cruise lines for European river cruises are Avalon, AMA Waterways, Uniworld, and Viking River Cruises. Cabins and public areas on the river boats are smaller than on ocean ships, and deluxe cabins have sliding-glass doors, known in the industry as French balconies.
Interesting itineraries are available throughout the year. The Christmas Market cruises in Germany and Tulip Time cruises in Holland are some of the most popular. Many cruises include a night or two in Paris, Prague, or Budapest at the beginning or end of the cruise.
Competition among the major cruise lines if stiff. So two-for-one deals, discounted airfare, early-booking discounts, and shipboard credits aren’t uncommon. Since the cruises are very similar, be sure to shop around for the best deal.