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Discovering Europe by River Cruise

Europe is on the bucket list of many travelers, and for good reason. Standing atop the Eiffel Tower or sipping wine in the Italian countryside are unforgettable experiences that will leave you planning your next adventure to the continent. While there are many ways to explore Europe, one of those gaining the most popularity is river cruising.

Many travelers are familiar with ocean cruises, but fewer travelers tend to know much about river cruises. I’m going to talk about what a river cruise is like and why it might be a good fit for your next trip to Europe (or elsewhere!).

Why take a river cruise versus an ocean cruise?

One of the key differences between ocean and river cruises is the size of the ship and life on board. While ocean cruises are generally on large, bustling ships, river cruises are on small, intimate ships (more on that below!).

The other key difference is where you are able to go on each type of trip. While ocean cruises bring you to the shores of a destination, river cruises will take you right through the heart of it. You are able to much further immerse yourself in your chosen destination and see not only the popular sites, but many smaller lesser known gems as well.

Essentially, river cruising offers many of the conveniences of ocean cruising -- like only unpacking once, having meals available, and not having to navigate -- but river cruising offers a much more immersive cultural experience throughout your trip. River cruising is a great choice for those that are looking for a relaxing way to see much of Europe or for those who would like to explore Europe beyond its cities.

Where do river cruises go?

There are a total of 14 major rivers in Europe that are served by river cruises, taking you all over the continent the whole way from Russia to Portugal.

However, some of the most popular rivers for cruising are:

Danube: Covering Germany, Austria, and Hungary, taking you through cities like Budapest and Vienna and the towns in between, as well as Germany’s Black Forest.

Rhine: Covering Netherlands, Germany, and France, ending in the Swiss Alps. You might explore Amsterdam and the tulips and windmills of Holland. Or, you might focus your stay in Germany’s traditional cities and smaller villages.

Seine: Covering France, from Paris to the beaches of Normandy. A great choice for history lovers.

Douro: Winding through the wine country of Northern Portugal. Need I say more?

What are the ships like?

Unlike ocean ships, which on average hold about 3,000 people and have at least 12 decks, river cruise ships are small and intimate and on average hold about 150 people and are two decks high. They are designed to fit through narrow canal ways and under bridges.

Suites are very comfortable and roomy, always with nice finishes, and many have panoramic windows and open air balconies so that you can really enjoy the views around you.

Life on board a river cruise ship is typically very laid back (although there are some specifically for those looking for more action). Dress on board is casual. Food, drinks, and onboard entertainment are typically focused around the culture of wherever you are so that you can experience your destination more deeply. And fewer guests means more personalized service throughout your stay.

The food on a river cruise is delicious and tends to be more gourmet than what you might expect on an ocean cruise. River cruise lines often bring local chefs on board to allow you to sample the regional cuisine of wherever you are. Have food allergies or aversions? Not a problem. Once you’re on board, you’ll be able to meet with the head chef to design a menu that’ll be perfect for you throughout your trip.

In addition to the dining area, there is typically a sun deck with a pool where you can enjoy the incredible scenery, as well as a fitness center and a spa.

It’s important to note that most river cruises do not allow young children, although the age varies by ship.

What’s included?

River cruises tend to offer a great value because most components of your trip are already included in the price that you pay upfront. You won’t find yourself needing to pay extra for things like meals, onboard wifi, or entertainment. Activities are also generally included at each port stop (no need to pay more for excursions), and if there’s a different activity that appeals to you, it can easily be added on to your trip to make it perfect for you.

What will I do each day?

Each morning, you can expect to wake up at an incredible new destination.

An activity is included at each stop. Activities are varied, and that might be anything from a city walk with an English-speaking guide to a hike to Count Dracula’s prison tower to wine tasting in the Austrian countryside. There are a range of options for every interest. You are also free to explore each spot on your own, whether on foot or by bike or kayak (sports equipment is also included). Your guides on board will be able to give you suggestions that might appeal to your interests.

Since you are covering less ground than the average ocean cruise, you’ll be able to enjoy more ports along the way and more time in each port. River cruises may spend some time sailing during the day, allowing you to sit on the sun deck and enjoy beautiful countryside. However, you’ll never spend a full day on board waiting to arrive at the next stop.

More time in port also means you might be able to enjoy things like dinner onshore and an evening stroll through town.

For time that is spent on board, there might also be some planned enrichment activities related to your destination (also included in the price). For example, you might have the chance to sample local German beers and learn more about their production while sailing down the Rhine River.

When should I go on a river cruise?

Any time! The summer months are the most popular time to visit much of Europe, although the most crowded. Cruises are possible all year round, and each season presents its own benefits. I personally think spring or fall are the best in much of the continent.

You can also plan your visit with a specialty cruise. These sailings align with various festivities and holidays. In the spring, you can cruise through Holland and enjoy the tulip fields blooming. In December, itineraries may be based around the famous Christmas markets through Germany, France, Austria, or Hungary.

Where else can I go?

Most river cruises are at least a week in length and will start and end in different beautiful cities, although it is certainly possible to find some shorter trips for those pressed for time.

Looking for more? Before or after your cruise, it’s easy to extend your vacation on land and visit other European destinations that are on your bucket list. Imagine spending a week cruising down the Danube exploring charming German castles and small towns, then jetting off to London or Rome to conclude your grand adventure. If you can dream it, we can make it happen.

I also just want to throw in one more thing here. The sky is really the limit when it comes to cruising! You can also take some really incredible river cruises through the heart of the Amazon Rainforest or through the temples of Thailand and Cambodia. You don’t have to stop with Europe.

Think you’re ready for a river cruise? It is important to choose the right cruise for you, as they are not all the same. There are tons out there, and they vary in terms of things like quality, inclusions, accommodations, itineraries, and more. I’ll help match you with the trip that’s exactly right for you.

If you’d like to chat more about exploring Europe (or beyond!), whether by river cruising or land, send me a message any time. I’m here to answer any questions you may have, remove the uncertainties, and help you put together a trip that’s perfect for your travel style.

You can contact me here or email me directly at



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