Europe's Dreamiest River Cruises
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cruises of a Lifetime You Can Actually Afford
Whether you're an experienced cruiser or a newbie, we all have one thing in common: We're on the lookout for that knockout, can't-miss cruise of a lifetime—that we can actually pay for! For a lot of us, that means we want to sail somewhere rich in natural beauty or history (or both!); enjoy living, playing, and eating on the ship itself; and bring home great stories and souvenirs. If that can be wrapped in a neat weeklong package for under $1,000, I'd call that a smashing success. So, what's your dream cruise? We identified three categories that get most travelers' adrenaline buzzing: a string of knockout Mediterranean ports of call, venturing up Alaska's Inside Passage to see glaciers, and, of course, sailing to the Caribbean's inviting ports and beaches. But when you start wading into the sea of cruise itineraries, styles, and prices, those dreams may start to feel out of reach. I turned to some experts to ensure smooth sailing. MEDITERRANEAN ODYSSEYS "Mediterranean cruises are popular from early spring through the late fall, and you can find cruises that include memorable ports like Barcelona, Istanbul, or Santorini," suggests Linda Garrison, About.com expert on cruises. "You can definitely find a seven-day cruise for less than $1,000." (Airfare to a European cruise port like Barcelona is another matter, of course, and part of your Mediterranean cruise planning may have to include using some frequent flier miles to get you across the pond!) "This year, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Costa Cruises, and MSC Cruises have the most seven-to-12-day Mediterranean cruises selling for less than $1,000 per person in an inside cabin," Garrison notes. "The Norwegian Epic sails from Barcelona for seven days and visits Naples, Rome, Florence, Cannes, and Mallorca." The Mediterranean also raises the possibility of adding a continent to your collection of passport stamps: "The MSC Splendida, which sails from Barcelona for seven days, not only visits Marseille, Genoa, Naples, and Sicily, but also La Goulette, Tunisia—in North Africa," Garrison says. To explore a little farther east, the Costa Fascinosa sails round-trip from Venice to ports of call in Italy, Croatia, and the Greek isles. And you can save even more money by sailing in the off-season—either early spring or late fall: "The Norwegian Jade and Norwegian Spirit sail 10-, 11-, and 12-night cruises of the Mediterranean in November or December 2014 starting at $999 or less. Imagine boarding the Norwegian Spirit in Barcelona, stopovers in Italy, Greece, and Turkey, then disembarking in Venice 12 days later!" If you're willing—and able—to pay a little more ($1,149), you can even get an inside stateroom on Cunard's fabled Queen Elizabeth for the seven-night Pearls of the Adriatic cruise, embarking from Rome and visiting the ports of call Corfu, Kotor, and Dubrovnic before disembarking in Venice this June CHILLIN' IN ALASKA If weather predictions hold true, El Nino may mean that 2014's exceptionally cold winter may be followed by an exceptionally hot summer. The cure for the summertime blues? Head north—way north. "Alaska can be expensive," cautions Garrison, "but at least five cruise lines are sailing to Alaska on seven-night cruises during the months of May through September for less than $1,000 per person, including Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, and Royal Caribbean." In some cases, the price tag can be even lower: The popular Celebrity Solstice sails seven-night cruises round-trip from Seattle to the Inside Passage of Alaska for 17 weeks this summer, with prices as low as $649 per person for a week in May. Garrison assures us, "Even mid-summer cruises can be had at a good price." CARIBBEAN DREAMS When most people think "cruise," the first thing that comes to mind is a Florida departure for Caribbean islands—browsing colorful markets in exotic ports like Nassau. The good news is, there are more than 2,000 Caribbean cruises to choose from in 2014 and competition is fierce, which helps to keep prices relatively low (except during holidays). "Disney Cruises caters to families," notes Garrison, "so obviously its prices are best during the school year." The Disney Magic was significantly renovated in 2013: "Cruisers can sail round-trip from Florida's Port Canaveral for seven days in late October/early November for about $1,000 per person." If you want to try a really big ship, you can sail on the world's largest—Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and the Allure of the Seas—for about the same price. "This year is the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal, and the Holland America Zuiderdam sails a dozen 10- or 11-night cruises of the Caribbean that include a partial transit of the canal." An inside cabin will run you less than $1,000. "You can keep costs down on a Caribbean cruise by driving to the embarkation port," says Garrison. Of course, south Florida, where many Caribbean cruises embark, is a long drive for most Americans. Midwesterners, rejoice: "Carnival Cruises has two of its newest ships based in ports easily accessible to those who live in the middle of the country. The Carnival Dream sails from New Orleans, and the Carnival Magic sails from Galveston, TX, on seven-day Caribbean cruises at affordable prices—often less than $100 per day per person." MAKE PRICE WARS WORK FOR YOU This year may be one of the best to embark on your affordable dream cruise. Especially in the Caribbean. New mega-ships (see "New Ships," below) will add more than 15,000 berths to the Caribbean in 2014, likely leading to price wars that can mean big savings for cruisers. Sherri Eisenberg, editor-in-chief of Bon Voyage, a digital cruise magazine published by Cruiseline.com, says "Competition is going to be fierce in the Caribbean. The new ships are going to try to outdo one another to get people onboard. You'll probably find bargains on older ships trying to fill occupancies." Eisenberg suggests that if you're considering booking a bargain on an older vessel, make sure to read recent customer reviews (rather than the reviews published when the ship debuted—that can mean an outdated review from 10 or more years ago). Of course, Eisenberg knows customer reviews—Cruiseline.com is a carefully curated source of authentic reviews (read: not public relations posts masquerading as customer reviews). In addition to thousands of brand-new berths, the Caribbean is also seeing an influx of ships that formerly cruised the Mediterranean due to the high cost of airfare from the U.S. to Europe. The MSC Divina offers seven nights from $429 with kids 11 and under sailing for free; the Norwegian Getaway offers seven nights from $649; Regal Princess offers seven nights from $749; and Quantum of the Seas offers eight nights from $1,059. NEW SHIPS! Just when you thought cruising couldn't get any more elegant... These new mega-ships not only offer every comfort and convenience you'd expect from world-class vessels. They are also bumping up the activity and adventure factor, says Eisenberg. Skydiving, racing, top chefs, and unique shore experiences are just the beginning. MSC Divina. Give a hearty North American welcome to this Italian ship, which arrived in the Caribbean from Europe in November 2013. Sailing year-round out of Miami, 3,500 passengers can enjoy an Eataly restaurant, Formula 1 racing simulators, infinity pool, and an authentic Italian-style espresso bar. And in deference to its new home in America, smoking is now prohibited in most onboard areas. Norwegian Getaway. Want to explore the Eastern Caribbean aboard a ship that pays homage to the culture of its native Miami? The Getaway is Norwegian's second "Breakaway" Class ship and will allow 4,000 passengers to indulge in restaurants from star chef Geoffrey Zakarian, an Illusionarium magic-themed show, and an offshoot of Los Angeles's Grammy Museum, "The Grammy Experience." Water slides, more than 20 bars, and Broadway-style theater and dance productions will encourage you to carpe every diem. Regal Princess. Debuting in May, this sister ship to the Royal Princess will help introduce 3,500 guests to the "next generation" of vessels. Princess's biggest-ever top-deck pool will host nightly water and light shows, the ship will show "movies under the stars," and the jaw-dropping SeaWalk lets guests walk 28 feet beyond the ship's edge to savor sea views (including the water 128 feet below!). The ship will also balance kid-friendly amenities with adults-only fun. Quantum of the Seas. Sure, you have to wait till November for this ship's "firsts," but it won't disappoint: The RipCord by iFLY is an onboard skydiving adventure; North Star is a glass capsule that extends 300 feet above the ship), and SealPlex is an immense sports and entertainment center that will feel more like an onboard amusement park. Want an inside stateroom bargain and an ocean view? "Virtual Balconies" will do the trick!
It's never too early to start planning your next cruise, and Disney Cruise Line has sweetened the 2014 pot by rolling out expanded European cruises and adding two new knockout homeports—Venice, Italy, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Some highlights of the family-friendly cruise line's 2014 offerings include: New Mediterranean cruises. Ah, Venice! It often tops favorite-city lists, and will serve as the homeport for the Disney Magic when it returns to the Mediterranean from May through August next year. That means that before embarking you can take a gondola ride on one of the city's canals, see iconic St. Mark's Square, and check out one of the world's best collections of modern art at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. While Disney cruises have always featured encounters with fairy tale characters for little ones, its new Mediterranean cruises will now offer Percy Jackson-crazed tweens the chance to step into the land of Greek mythology with stops in the Greek Isles, Crete, and Sicily. (And, of course, the gods of sun, sights, and shopping will smile down on you, too.) San Juan and the Caribbean. The Disney Magic will also be exploring the southern Caribbean from its new homeport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. With more U.S. carriers than ever, including JetBlue, making San Juan a destination, it's a convenient embarkation port—not to mention an intoxicating place to explore hundreds of years of Caribbean history, winding old-world streets, and shopping deals. Seven-night cruises in September and October will visit Antigua, St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Kitts, and a new port-of-call for Disney: Grenada, known for its snorkeling, waterfall-laced mountains, and Creole cuisine. Alaska. The Disney Wonder will depart from Vancouver to explore such Alaska ports as Sitka, Tracy Arm, Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan, featuring Disney's Port Adventures programs created in partnership with local tour operators who are experts on Alaska's natural history and environment. Seven-day cruises will run from June through early September. For more information on these and other Disney cruises for 2014 (including sails to the Bahamas and western Caribbean), visit disneycruise.disney.go.com.
1. BOOK EARLY By reserving six to 12 months ahead of your cruise, you can lock in an early-bird rate that's 25 to 50 percent lower than the published "brochure" rate most lines advertise. You'll also have a wider selection of itineraries, dates, and cabins, and possibly get better deals on airfare and hotels. If prices go down after you book, a good travel agent—or the cruise line itself—should help you get the new lower rate. See the 10 Most Popular Cruise Ports on Earth 2. OR BOOK LATE Yes, it runs completely counter to what we just said about booking early, but if you wait 60 to 90 days before you want to sail, cruise lines often drop prices significantly to fill any remaining spaces on their ships. If you're willing and able to white-knuckle it, this is when you can nab a weeklong Caribbean cruise for under $500. But of course, you won't have as much choice of itinerary or cabin, it may be tricky to find a low airfare to your port, and last-minute fares are typically nonrefundable. 3. REQUEST A DISCOUNT Asking the right questions can work magic. If you're a return customer, mention it when booking and politely inquire whether you're eligible for a discount—it can shave 5 to 15 percent off your fare. Since cruise prices are based on double occupancy, a third or fourth person in your cabin should get a 30 to 60 percent discount. If you're 55 or older, don't be shy about asking for a 5 percent discount; likewise, active and retired servicemen and women should always ask if the line offers them savings. 4. USE A TRAVEL AGENT Sites like Kayak and Expedia have put you in the driver's seat—sometimes literally—but don't underestimate the role a good agent can play in finding you the right deal. Many have reserved spaces they can sell you at a discount, and they can explain whether an advertised "free" upgrade or all-inclusive package is for real or just a ploy. They can also advocate for you if rates drop after you've booked your cruise. 5. GO BIG Large groups—like family reunions at sea—can be complicated to pull together, but they can also knock big bucks off the price of cabins. A group of 16 people in eight cabins, for instance, can sometimes get a steep discount on the 16th fare, or in some cases a free berth. For large groups, booking a year in advance is advised to ensure you get the block of cabins you want. 6. TRY SHOULDER SEASON You won't save a ton, but sailing when most folks stay home can nab you a modest bargain—maybe 10 percent off typical high-season rates. Here are the best times to find deals in four highly popular cruise regions: Caribbean. September and October, the non-holiday weeks in December, and early January to Presidents' Day. Europe. Mid-March and April, September to December Alaska. May and September Bermuda. April and October
How Safe Was Your Last Cruise?
For anyone concerned with cruise ship safety, the capsized hulk of the 1,000-foot-long Costa Concordia stands as a grim sentinel in the waters off the Tuscan island of Giglio, where the vessel ran aground in January. In Italy on Monday, pre-trial hearings began in a lawsuit brought by the families of the 32 people presumed killed in the accident (to date, 30 bodies have been recovered). The court prepared to hear data recorded on the ship's "black box," and the goal was to determine whether Captain Francesco Schettino should stand trial next year. While Schettino himself has acknowledged his own blame in the accident—he brought the ship close to shore in a maneuver known as a "salute," and left the ship before all passengers were evacuated—both he and a board of court-appointed experts maintain (in a 270-page report) that some responsibility may lie with the cruise line, Costa Corciere, a division of Carnival Corp. In a finding that should resonate with anyone booking passage on a cruise line, the board noted that some members of the Costa Concordia's crew did not speak Italian, lacked current certification for safety and evacuation, and that some passengers had not been given the chance to participate in evacuation drills. The ship struck a rock off Giglio on January 13, tearing a hole in its hull and rapidly capsizing; in the attempt to evacuate more than 4,000 passengers and crew members at night, more than 30 people died. Schettino was dismissed from Costa Corciere earlier this year, but he has sued the company, claiming his firing was unfair. As more details from this terrible accident come to light, we'd like to hear about your own experiences with cruise safety. When you've sailed, what kind of opportunities did you have to participate in evacuation drills?