Top 10 Tips for Choosing a European River Cruise Line

By Clark Norton
September 1, 2014

They may cruise many of the same rivers, but European river cruise lines, their ships, and the rivers themselves differ in a number of significant ways, so it’s important to know what to look for before making your choice.

1. Find the right cabin

Balcony cabins can get pricey – and in colder weather you may not use the balconies much anyway – so consider compromising on a cabin with floor to ceiling windows for the same great views without the expense. A number of river cruise lines offer them. And if you value space, look for cabins that are at least 170 square feet in size.

2. Check to see what’s included

To judge the best value as opposed to just the lowest price, watch for how many “extras” are included in the base rate – such as port excursions, alcohol, balcony cabins and even free international airfare – that could add considerably to the cost if purchased separately.

3. Avoid unnecessary expense

At the same time, you could easily find yourself paying premium prices for luxuries that you aren’t interested in: butler service, perhaps, or unlimited top-brand spirits, state-of-the-art in-room entertainment systems or crystal chandeliers in the lobby. The most expensive cruises aren’t necessarily the most enjoyable for everyone.

4. Evaluate the shore excursions

The quality of port excursions -- which may or may not be included in the base price -- is especially crucial on river cruises, since you’ll be spending more time on shore than you would on ocean-going vessels. Knowledgeable, personable guides – who speak good English – can add immeasurably to your enjoyment, as can well-planned side trips to nearby cities, towns, wineries, or historic sites.

5. Book as early as possible

European river cruising has gotten extremely popular in the past few years, with demand threatening to outgrow supply (despite an array of new ships introduced every year). If you don’t want to lose out on that balcony cabin you’ve been eyeing – or miss out on some nice early-booking discounts – get your deposit down as soon as possible (on some lines, a year in advance).

6. Consider the clientele

Some cruise lines attract a wide-ranging international clientele, while others appeal mainly to Americans and still others draw from a variety of English-speaking countries such as Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Similarly, some river cruise lines market almost exclusively to baby boomers or retirees aged 50 and up, while others also cater to younger passengers, including families.

7. Compare and contrast the itineraries

While many river cruise itineraries may appear similar for the same rivers, some lines may offer more time in port, some less, or offer a few different ports and side-trip options than their competitors. Or they may offer overnights and tours in cities at embarkation and disembarkation that other lines do not.

8. Review the dining options

Dining options play a major role on any river cruise. On some ships, everyone eats at the same time in one dining room, while others offer several dining choices both as to venues – including alfresco dining -- and hours. Table size can vary, too: are there lots of tables for two, or are there mainly larger tables? Whether you’re looking for a romantic meal -- or are more interested in meeting new people – table size matters.

9. Count up the little extras

Sometimes it’s the “little things” that add up to a lot. Does the cruise line provide free bicycles for passenger use when the ship is in port? Is there a hot tub or pool on the sundeck? Are detailed maps and other materials available for those who wish to explore ports on their own? Is there a self-service Laundromat available?

10. Weigh the costs of going solo

If you plan on traveling alone on your cruise, check into the cruise lines’ policies on charging for single supplements, and whether or not they will match you with a same-sex roommate if you’d like to avoid the extra charge.

Photo credit: Dennis Cox/WorldViews

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