ADVERTISEMENT

Europe's Dreamiest River Cruises

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
January 12, 2022
Eiffel Tower, Seine, Paris, France
Sam74100/Dreamstime
The best way to see Europe this year just might be a leisurely river cruise down the continent's most storied waterways, where the crew will serve up amazing food and wine, fascinating tours of beautiful cities, and the opportunity to pack an awesome variety of sights into one extraordinary week.

There's a good reason why we chose European river cruising as the cover story for Budget Travel's March/April 2015 "Dream Trips" issue. A vacation odyssey on one of Europe's great rivers is like cruising in a floating B&B. You'll savor distinctive local cuisine and the fruits of the continent's vineyards, make daily stops for guided tours (or alone time!) in gorgeous, historic cities, and appreciate the warmth and expertise of a crew that loves introducing travelers to some of Europe's most desirable destinations. Ready to get started?

SEE THE RIVER CRUISES!

DANUBE

There's a reason the world's most famous waltz is named for this dazzling river-music and history come alive as you pass through some of Europe's most beautiful towns.

Why it's a dream trip: Say the word Danube. Do you hear music? Maybe that's because the river's namesake waltz, Johann Strauss's "On the Beautiful Blue Danube," is as famous as the river itself. Or maybe it's because a cruise on this historic waterway (which stretches more than 1,700 miles from Germany's Black Forest to the Black Sea) can take you to two European music capitals, Vienna and Salzburg, and send your spirits dancing like one of Vienna's stately Lipizzaner horses. You'll drink in Central and Eastern Europe's dramatic landscape and history on one of the many popular Danube cruises. Depending on which cruise you book, stops along the way may include Germany's storybook cities such as Passau and Nuremburg, Budapest, Hungary (with its iconic Castle Hill, Buda Castle, and Chain Bridge), and Austrian locales like Vienna (where you can see the Lipizzaner horses in action, as well as visit the Hapsburg Palace and sample one of the city's irresistible tortes), Melk's 1,000-year-old Benedictine monastery, and the music-mad city of Salzburg (home to Europe's biggest music festival, and where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born and The Sound of Music was filmed).

Make it happen: You'll find the Danube on the itineraries of several major river cruise lines, and Viking (vikingrivercruises.com) and Avalon (avalonwaterways.com) make it possible to cruise a portion of the river for a week, making stops for guided tours and day trips, starting from under $2,000 per person.

Insider tip: Longer, more ambitious Danube cruises (as well as cruises on other iconic European rivers) are available from Viking and Avalon, as well as from Scenic Cruises (sceniccruises.com) and Emerald Waterways (emeraldwaterways.com) for those who want to see as many of its 1,700-plus miles as they can!

RHINE

See the real-life forests and castles that inspired fairy tales (not to mention Disney movies) along a river that's been mythologized for centuries.

Why it's a dream trip: You can sail from the Netherlands to Switzerland, passing through ancient cities, forests, and castles that transport you to another place in time. When your Rhine cruise starts in Amsterdam, as many do, you can immerse yourself in gorgeous colors (both natural and man-made) with flower-field panoramas and the exceptional art collections at the Rijksmuseum (known for its Rembrandts, Vermeers, and more) and the Van Gogh Museum, each of which has undergone a major renovation in recent years. The Anne Frank House is a touching reminder of Europe's troubled past, and the Oude Kerk is one of the classiest churches you'll see on the continent. Sail along the "middle Rhine," where you can ogle riverside vineyards, the forests that inspired tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin, and mind-blowing castles that teeter on precipices over the water. Spend some time getting to know the castles and cathedrals of smaller German and French cities such as Cologne, Heidelberg, and Strasbourg before arriving in Basel, Switzerland, for a visit to the incredible Fondation Beyeler art collection and day trips to the Alps.

Make it happen: The Rhine is a staple of the European river cruise business, and you can find cruises starting from under $2,000 that will take you from Amsterdam to Basel over the course of a week, including guided tours.

Insider tip: If you're planning to visit in the spring, ask whether your trip will coincide with Amsterdam's eye-popping Tulip Time.

SEINE

From the City of Light through Claude Monet's favorite natural setting to the historic beaches of Normandy, a cruise on this river packs an emotional wallop.

Why it's a dream trip: Frankly, a cruise on the Seine, typically beginning and ending in Paris, is one way Budget Travelers can stand in solidarity with the people of the city in the wake of this winter's terrorist attacks. Now more than ever, we echo Audrey Hepburn's famous line in Sabrina: "Paris is always a good idea." As seen from the water (whether you're on a multicity river cruise or one of the many local river tours available) the City of Light is perhaps more beautiful than ever, with its many bridges, the peerless façade of Notre Dame beckoning from shore, and of course must-see museums such as the Louvre, Musée d'Orsay, Musée de Cluny, and Musée Picasso, and that well-known tower (once derided as an eyesore!). But wait till you sail out of Paris on your way to Monet's garden at Giverny, where, surrounded by the flowers and botanicals depicted in Monet's paintings (water lilies, anyone?), you'll feel as if you've literally stepped into an Impressionist painting. Spend some time in charming towns such as Rouen (don't miss its half-timbered houses and distinctive astronomical clock!), Conflans, and Les Andelys, and then sail on to the beaches of Normandy on the English Channel, where the largest fleet in history made its historic landing on June 6, 1944, turning the tide of WWII. A stop at the American Cemetery is a moving reminder of the sacrifices made here just over 70 years ago.

Make it happen: A Seine cruise, offered by all the major river cruise lines, will often make a round trip, taking you from Paris to Normandy and back (making different stops on the return leg), and a weeklong cruise with guided tours will start at under $2,000.

Insider tip: When you're on your own in Paris, you can get closer to some riverside sights by hopping on a local boat tour. Ask your cruise director for recommendations.

RHÔNE

Visit the South of France's wine country, historic palaces and towns, and the countryside Vincent Van Gogh helped make famous.

Why it's a dream trip: A stunning natural setting, inspiring art, and some of the world's finest wines! The walled city of Avignon has been protecting staggeringly beautiful works of art and architecture since the 14th century, when it was home to series of popes. Don't miss the Palais des Papes and the incredible interior of Chapelle St.-Jean. Your boat will then wind its way to Arles, perhaps best known as the site of some of Van Gogh's most famous landscape paintings, but also home to the ultra-contemporary architecture of the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh building and the ultra-ancient (and well-preserved) Roman theater and amphitheater. You'll stop in Lyons, where the meticulously restored old city ("Vieux Lyons") beckons with winding streets, antique shops, tempting charcuterie (cured meats) and selfie-worthy covered passageways known as traboules. Ready to wet your whistle? You'll cruise through wine country, which can include a Burgundy wine tour and tasting before heading back to Avignon.

Make it happen: Round-trip cruises on the Rhône out of Avignon are a little pricier than other weeklong river cruises, but you can still pack in several days of guided tours starting from just under $2,000.

Insider tip: Instead of loading up on French wine to bring home, have it delivered instead. You'll save yourself a hassle and save the wine from unpredictable temperature changes that can destroy its flavor.

ELBE

From Berlin's museums and awesome monuments to Prague's architectural wonders, this lesser-known cruise option is a true odyssey across centuries of European history.

Why it's a dream trip: Stand in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and pinch yourself: Once the epicenter of Cold War tensions, the majestic monument now stands as a proud symbol of the new Berlin. The city is welcoming visitors, including families, like never before, with bicycle-friendly streets, cutting-edge cuisine, and many museums, including the Gemaldgalerie am Kulturforum, reward visitors with boastworthy works of art your friends haven't seen yet. On your cruise, you may stop in Potsdam (where Frederick the Great's Sanssouci is said to have been built to rival Versailles) and Dresden (with its amazing Zwinger Palace, which includes a major museum featuring Old Master paintings). Then it's on to Prague, whose beauty and imaginative architecture often surprise the first-time visitor: In fact, many Budget Travelers report back that the city's historic Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, and Old Town Square were their very favorite sights in Europe!

Make it happen: Elbe cruises tend to be a little longer and more expensive than those of the better-known European rivers, but a 10-day cruise with guided tours (and bragging rights when you get home!) can be found for around $2,600.

Insider tip: You'll see more of Berlin on a bicycle! It's one of the world's most cycle-friendly cities, with wide bike paths that are off-limits to cars and pedestrians.

Keep reading
Cruises

Hottest New Cruise Ideas

Word on the seas is that cruises are skyrocketing in popularity. The Cruise Lines International Association recently reported that 24 million passengers are expected to set sail in 2016, up from 23 million in 2015. That's the highest number ever recorded. If you've looked into booking a cruise lately, you know that we live in an age of mega ships that consider over-the-top contraptions like rooftop surfing simulators a standard amenity. That would make for an unforgettable memory, to be sure, but if you're seeking a more intimate experience, some cruise lines are banking on going small, with a tight focus on curated activities, excursions to lesser-known ports, and, in some cases, smaller ships. “We’re definitely seeing cruise lines across the board looking to offer more authentic experiences for their guests,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com. “I think the big buzzwords in the industry today are ‘immersion’ and ‘experiential’—and that applies to everything from river ships to the larger mega-ships.” Smaller ports are hot right now. Classic cruise stops like Paris and Amsterdam never go out of style, but lesser-known ports—like Cuba—are trending. Starting in May, Carnival's new Fathom cruise line will offer Cultural Exchange cruises to Cuba (from $1,800 for seven days, fathom.org). On Viking Ocean Cruises, the relatively small Viking Star carries a slim 930 people, as opposed to thousands, which allows for access to less-trafficked ports like Dubrovnik, Croatia; Kotor, Montenegro; Kusadasi, Turkey; and Santorini, Greece (from $1,999 for eight days, vikingcruises.com). “What Viking does particularly well is that it offers a tremendous value-for-money experience,” Spencer Brown says. “There’s so much included in the cruise fare—thoughtful inclusions like free shore excursions in every port, free Wi-Fi, and complimentary wine and beer at lunch and dinner.” Experiences for niche interests are popping up on cruise lines. Royal Caribbean, for example, has revamped its shore excursion program, with specialized categories like Culinary Delights, which offers pizza-making classes in Naples, Italy, and Family Connections, a menu of activities including a family kayak trip in Alaska (from $164 for three days, royalcaribbean.com). Want a really unique jaunt? That can be arranged. Viking Cruises CFO Richard Marnell says Viking’s no-fee concierges have hooked passengers up with bespoke outings like helicopter rides through tulip fields in the Netherlands. Tailored excursions cost extra, but Viking itineraries often offer a Local Life experience, like a trip to a local market, gratis. Artisanal fare is flooding cruise ships. Farm-to-table isn’t limited to dry land, Spencer Brown says. “One great example is Princess Cruises’ new partnership with celebrity chef Curtis Stone, who’s known for creating comfort food out of the freshest ingredients, which will be exciting to see executed on Princess’s ships” (from $59 for one day, princess.com). In a month, Holland America’s Koningsdam will launch a farm-to-table dinner menu out of its show kitchen (from $449 for four days, hollandamerica.com), and in the near-4,000-passenger Carnival Vista’s RedFrog Pub will brew its own beer, complete with tastings and brewery tours (from $379 for five days, carnival.com).  No matter the cruise company, take advantage of shoulder season. Cruising in November, December, January, and February is an excellent way to save, Marnell says. “Although the weather may not be as warm, you have far fewer crowds in many of the sites that you’re going to visit, so it can actually be a very, very pleasant experience.”

Cruises

Cruises: New website predicts when you should book

Buy now or wait for a better price? Cayole.com is a travel agency that uses seven months' worth of pricing records to help you make an educated guess about whether a cruise is likely to go up in cost in the "short- to medium- term." Its predictions are similar to the forecasts that bing.com/travel provides for airfares. For example, the site predicted on Sunday that prices for ocean-view cabins on four-night Bahamas cruises from Orlando, Fla., on the Royal Caribbean Monarch of the Seas are expected to go down in the short- to medium term. That would mean a likely drop from their present prices, which start at $299. Caveat: Cayole covers only about 6,500 cruises, all of which depart from the United States. It's also worth noting that specialized travel agents still have access to more inventory and discounts for cruises than any website. That said, more and more online tools are empowering consumers to make savvier decisions. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Readers' Choice: Tell us your favorite cruise line! (100+ comments) Should tips be automatically added to cruise passenger bills? (100+ comments) Are we ready for another Titanic? (10 comments)

Cruises

Cruises: Two die on-shore in Cozumel, Mexico

Cozumel, the gorgeous Mexican cruise port, has never been more popular, attracting more than 2 million visitors last year—a record. But in recent weeks, one crew member who debarked Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas appears to have been killed on-shore by someone she knew. A passenger on the trip died after she ingested a safety pin. These events have put this Western Caribbean beach resort destination back in the headlines. Cruise lines, including Disney, have recently pulled out of a different cruise port—Mazatlan—due to concerns about violent crime there. Yet Cozumel remains safe overall, as far as major cities go, according to this TripAdvisor safety report. In many parts of Mexico, standards of security, safety, and supervision may be lower than is customary in the United States. Citizens traveling internationally should consider registering in advance with the U.S. State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. In event of an emergency, your whereabouts would be easier for officials in consular agencies to determine. That said, it's important to keep safety issues in context. Crime can happen anywhere. In Mexico, the number one cause of death for Americans has been automobile accidents, followed by falls from balconies, or into unmarked ditches, by drowning. The U.S. government has not updated its travel warning—less severe than travel alert—for Mexico since September. The warning still says that resort areas, such as Cozumel, are relatively safe—but American visitors should always exercise caution while on shore anywhere in the country, and particular in northern areas affected by drug violence. As a side note: Spring breakers, in particular, should know that Mexican law can impose tough penalties for excessive drinking, drug abuse, or drug purchasing, that might be considered relatively minor in the U.S., and U.S. citizenship doesn't get you off the hook from full prosecution under Mexican law. UPDATE: I regret that my original headline sounded sensationalistic to some readers. It was: "Safety questions for cruise passengers in Cozumel, Mexico" I have changed it to the new headline above. Do you think the hype about Mexico's safety for cruise passengers is overblown? MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Mexico: The elusive truth about safety (250+ comments) It's a prime time to visit Mexico, says this expert Mexico's tourism officials say, "C'mon in, the water's fine"

Cruises

Once in a lifetime cruise, once in a lifetime price

Not to sound like a broken record, but Chile's can't-miss travel opportunities just keep on coming. The latest deal to catch our eye is a $690 three-night sail through Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego—the type of trip that generally qualifies as a major splurge—on Cruceros Australis's new 100-cabin Stella Australis vessel. (Let's call this, then, a minor splurge.) The trip departs from southern Chile's Punta Arenas and winds through the Strait of Magellan, Ainsworth Bay, and Alakaluf Fjord (among others), passing glaciers, waterfalls, and—if you're lucky—elephant seals en route to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. And while the relatively roomy cabins, starting around 178 square feet, have generously sized floor-to-ceiling windows for taking in all that dramatic scenery, the cruise also includes glacier-trekking excursions and guided wildlife-watching outings on tiny inflatable Zodiac boats, so you can really get the full frozen-ends-of-the-earth effect. The rate covers an external cabin and all meals and drinks on the 4-day trip—including local Chilean and Argentine wine—and is only available for this particular April 2 departure. (The lowest normal rate for a 4-day itinerary with Cruceros is $840, making this almost a 20% savings.) Still too steep for your vacation fund? Then enter our World's Best Cruiser contest! Send evidence of your cruising expertise (packing strategies, photo galleries, a collection of souvenir seashells from tropical ports of call—the wackier the better) to starcruiser@budgettravel.com by March 15. The winner will receive a free cruise!! See more from Budget Travel Top 5 Money-Saving Cruise Questions Answered How to Bring Wine Back From Abroad How to Take Great Vacation Photos