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How to Book the Best River Cruises in Europe

  • How to choose the best river cruises in Europe – from the Rhine to the Rhône and the Douro to the Danube
  • What to consider when picking a river cruise – length, location, itinerary and when to go
  • Tips and advice for booking your river cruise and what to expect on cruising holidays

From the Rhine to the Rhône and the Douro to the Danube, there are a wealth of river cruises in Europe that are suitable for first-time cruisers. Visiting destinations such as Bruges, Budapest, Porto and Koblenz, the best river cruises offer luxurious adventures, cultural excursions and relaxed cruising on board.

best river cruises aerial view of boppard on the rhine

Boppard, Germany

What to expect on cruising holidays

A river cruise is a life-enriching experience, where you stay in first-class accommodation, enjoy exquisite informal dining and embark on engaging excursions ashore. Personal service is immaculate too, with the best river cruises offering five-star care and attention from a professional crew as well as tour managers, cruise directors and English-speaking guides.

River cruises tend to be relaxed and sociable. As ships usually carry a maximum of 160 guests it’s easy to make new friends with like-minded travellers. What’s more, unlike ocean cruise ships, there are no inside cabins, so everyone gets a view of the ever-changing scenery. It feels like you’re staying on a floating boutique hotel where you only need to unpack once, despite visiting new destinations every day.

best river cruises cabins william wordsworth

A Deluxe Balcony Suite on the MS William Wordsworth

Smaller cruise ships are able to dock in the heart of many towns and cities, making it hassle-free to explore the must-see sights – pack comfortable clothing and shoes for this. Tours with knowledgeable experts are often included in your river cruise price, so why not be introduced to new activities such as wine-appreciation. Or learn more about the local history, architecture and culture. Trips, whether for a few hours or a full day, are insightful yet unhurried. River cruises are all about embracing life at a leisurely pace.

With that in mind, there’s no obligation to go on any organised tours. If you prefer to explore independently or wish to simply sit at a café watching the world go by, the choice is yours.

How to choose a river cruise

When choosing your first Europe cruise, think about how long you want to spend on board your ship. The best river cruises offer a good choice. You can opt for a three-, four- or five-day itinerary, though eight-day cruises are very popular and there are some longer 15-day routes available too.

Short European cruises allow you to test the waters, so to speak, with excellent trips to visit Dutch bulbfields or Christmas markets. However, you may prefer to embark on a week-long iconic cruise meandering down the Rhine, seeing the river’s many historic castles. Alternatively, a Danube river cruise is a favourite among first-time cruisers as it stops off in several beautiful cities, allowing you time to discover Vienna, Salzburg, Bratislava and more.

best river cruises budapest night panorama

Budapest, Hungary

The hours spent on board enable you to unwind and relax. A sun deck or lounge with panoramic windows is the perfect place to soak up surrounding scenery, read a book, sip a nightcap or chat to new-found acquaintances. And while entertainment is usually low-key, there may be talks by educational speakers, wine tasting events, quizzes or even live music.

Whichever duration and itinerary best suits you, river cruises are a holiday like no other. Don’t expect your first cruise to be your last.

The best time to go on a river cruise

Europe cruises can be enjoyed all-year round, so when you choose to go on your river cruise is entirely up to you. Sometimes first-time travellers want to commemorate a special occasion, such as a birthday or anniversary, so that dictates a departure date, allowing you to celebrate as you sail on the Seine or mosey along the Moselle.

The weather can play a key factor, too. Some cruise-goers are keen to bask in the hot summer sunshine while others prefer the more pleasant temperatures of spring and autumn when you can also avoid the peak holiday crowds.

Your departure date may also be determined by the joy the seasons bring. The spring is the most rewarding time to set sail on a Dutch Waterways cruise and witness the wonderful bulbfields. Venture along the Rhône in late June or early July and you’ll see the purple lavender meadows of Provence. As for the best time of year to go on a Rhine river cruise, unless you want to shop at a Christmas market, cruising at Easter is an awe-inspiring experience. Not only are tulips in bloom along the river banks, you’ll notice pretty hand-painted eggs decorating idyllic towns and villages.

River cruise booking tips

As small river cruise ships have fewer cabins than great ocean liners, spaces can book up fast. If you’re intrigued by a cruise itinerary, don’t delay. Popular routes and the best river cruises that focus on a particular topic, such as port tasting or fine art, tend to sell quickly, as do river cruises where guests get the chance to meet a TV broadcaster or learn more from a history expert or culinary connoisseur. If a particular cruise is on your bucket list and the price looks right – remembering that a river cruise includes travel, transfers, accommodation, onboard dining and excursions – don’t miss out.

best river cruises first class service

River cruises can go on sale 18 months in advance of their departure date, so it’s a good idea to sign up for email newsletters and regularly check a cruise company’s Twitter and Facebook posts. Contact your preferred cruise company to inquire about any specific itineraries you are interested in, especially if you want to make your holiday more memorable with a tour of the Spanish Riding School or a performance at the Vienna State Opera house.

If you are interested in a Rhine river cruise, remember that booking a trip when the annual Rhine in Flames event takes place is extremely popular and for a good reason. On five separate nights between May and September, the night sky is spectacularly lit up with fireworks. Cruise-goers have the best spot to watch the colourful display from a vantage point on deck. If you are lucky enough to be travelling during this time near the beautiful towns and cities of Bonn, Dusseldorf, Rudesheim, Koblenz and Boppard, you may see the stunning display.

best river cruises rhine in flames

Rhein in Flammen, Germany

Find the best river cruise for you

Riviera Travel has an extensive range of river cruises throughout Europe that tick every box. Explore the many award-winning river cruises for 2019 and 2020 and be inspired for your next river cruise adventure.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.