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Many couples dream of a European adventure for their honeymoon. Cities like Paris, Venice, Barcelona, and Prague often top the list, but trying to pack in so many cities in a short amount of time can be a recipe for stress— or at least a lot of time in transit. Enter the European river cruise. River cruising allows passengers to go in-depth in a region, visiting multiple cities and towns, all with minimal stress and easy travel between destinations. Plus you only need to unpack once.
Since the 1990s, river cruising has been growing in popularity. This year, more than half a million North American travelers are expected to take a river cruise in Europe. Here's your guide to choosing a route, picking a ship, and what you need to consider before you book your trip.
Choosing a route
Europe is crisscrossed with rivers, many of which go through capital cities. France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary... you can choose from a dozen rivers in even more countries. Wine lovers may enjoy a cruise on the Douro River in Portugal, home of port wine; on the Garonne through the Bordeaux region of France; or along the Moselle or Rhine rivers through the heart of Germany's wine country. If you have your sights set on Paris, cruise along the Seine, and if the capital cities (Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava) are on your bucket list, the Danube may be more your taste.
To choose a route, pick the main cities, regions, or countries that you are most excited to see and find a cruise that fits. Whether you want to see the vineyards of France, walk along the canals of Amsterdam, or see the great castles of Germany, there's a cruise to match.
Choosing a cruise company
Just as there are rivers for every interest, there are cruise companies for every taste— and almost every budget. Among the major lines, Viking River Cruises, Uniworld, Avalon, Tauk, and AmaWaterways each have their own personality. Tauk is known for being more kid-friendly, Avalon boasts beds that face floor-to-ceiling windows (so you can check out the view without leaving the bed), and Viking River Cruises are renowned for being a relative bargain. AmaWaterways is one of the higher-end options with special amenities— like an on-board pool, free bikes in port, and twin balconies— as well as truly all-inclusive service that includes all tours, wine and beer and lunch and dinner, and free wi-fi. AmaWaterways also offers special themed cruises, such as wine cruises, beer cruises, and Christmas market cruises.
Consider what features are most important to you, as well as your budget. If you're looking for a more frugal option, Viking might be your best bet, while if you want the luxury of a true all-inclusive with plenty of perks, consider an AmaWaterways trip.
The benefits of river cruising in Europe
Size matters: River cruise ships are much smaller than the typical ocean cruise— around 400 feet long and 40 feet wide, or even smaller. While an ocean liner may carry a few thousand people, most river cruises max out at 200. This means ships feel more intimate and are easier to navigate; their smaller size also means they can get into smaller ports right in the heart of the cities, so you don't have to take as many shuttles from the dock to the main tourist attractions. In most cases, you can simply walk off the ship and into the city.
All-inclusive: Many river cruises are all-inclusive, though the meaning of that term varies. On some, it means all food; on others it means all food, plus unlimited beer and wine at mealtimes. Tours are often included, as well as airport transfers and wifi. On Amawaterways, for example, it also includes bikes, Nordic walking poles, bottled water for all excursions, and even "rental" luxuries like a high-quality curling iron for those who've left theirs at home.
Low-stress: One of the most appealing aspects of a river cruise is that all the logistics are planned for you. You don't have to worry about train schedules, rental cars, or arranging multiple hotel rooms. Routes and activities are chosen by local experts, and you can choose how much, or how little you want to participate in organized tours. You can fill your days with tours or opt for more time to relax on board, but that's about the extent of the tough decisions you'll need to make.
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Unpack once: River cruises allow you to see several destinations without having to schlep from place to place. Check in and unpack once, and then you're done.
Safety: Horror stories of ocean cruise liners losing power or becoming stranded are popular news fodder, but disasters on river cruises are virtually unheard of. That's because should something go wrong, the ship is never far from port. Additionally, in many places the river is quite shallow— only a few feet deep— so sinking would be physically impossible.
Good value: River cruises provide excellent value for the money, especially at the luxury level. They typically cost between $2,000 and $4,000 per person, depending on the company, ship, itinerary, and time of year. Spring and fall cruises are generally less expensive and promotional discounts are common.
Variety of locations: A river cruise is like an appetizer platter of Europe— a taste here, a taste there. You'll visit some destinations for an afternoon and find that it's enough, and others that you wish you could stay in for days. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more relaxed way to see as many places in as little time.
A scenic way to travel: While the time in port is, of course, the main point of a river cruise, it's about the journey as well as the destination. And what a scenic journey it is. River cruises are known for offering spectacular views, including sights you simply couldn't see from land. For example, on the stretch of the Rhine between Rudesheim and Koblenz, the ship passes more than a dozen castles perched on the river bank. Heading up to the top deck to watch the scenery with a glass of wine (or from the warm waters of the pool) makes for one of the most memorable days on the AmaWaterways "Enchanting Rhine" itinerary.
Drawbacks of river cruising
Limited time in port: River cruising is the taster platter of European travel, and if you were hoping to take a bigger bite, you may find yourself unsatisfied. While river cruising itineraries typically offer more time in port than the average ocean cruise, it's still rare to get a full day in any city, aside from the starting and ending points. One way to get more time is to add extra days on to the beginning or end of your trip; most cruise lines make it easy to do so.
Limited entertainment: Due to their small size, river cruise ships lack the multiple entertainment venues of larger ocean vessels. Most have a small gift shop, main lounge, dining room, small spa, compact fitness room, and top-floor deck. Some, like AmaWaterways, also have a second dining room, top-floor walking track, pool, and in-room Apple TVs equipped with wifi and programmed entertainment. While many often bring on board local entertainment in the form of singers or musicians, there are no big spectacle shows, casinos, or waterparks.
The demo skews older: It's a common assumption that cruisers, and particularly European river cruisers, are an older demographic. That's certainly true, but river cruising isn't the exclusive domain of the baby boomer generation. With wine- and beer-themed cruises, active excursions, and fast- and slow-walker groups, river cruising is attracting a younger generation of mid-30s to mid-40s travelers, but most cruisers range in age from 50 to 70. That said, river cruising tends to attract travelers who are "young at heart" and who prefer a more active vacation.
High cost: Though river cruises are a good value, there's no denying they are expensive. If you're on a tight budget, and don't mind skimping a bit, you can plan a European trip that's cheaper. By staying in apartments or inexpensive guesthouse, self-catering and limiting meals out, you could plan a Europe trip for about half the cost; if budget is a top concern, try pricing out the cost of doing-it-yourself vs a cruise, considering what features are most important to you, and then determining which is a better value for your preferred style of honeymoon.