10 Reasons to Consider a European River Cruise

Fewer passengers, more destinations and a much more personalized experience make these all-inclusive voyages incredibly fulfilling.

Seine river
A cruise on the Seine will not lack for romance, fun and special views that all travelers should want to check off their lists.Shutterstock

You’ve probably seen the TV ads, received catalogs in the mail and have had friends return from a river cruise offering rave reviews. But you’re an island person, right, so even visuals of ships sailing past the beautiful Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest or scenic vineyards in southern France can’t convince you that a European river cruise is right for you.

Yet if you love being on or near water, you might want to reconsider. Here are 10 reasons why.

It's a Lot Like Ocean Cruising—Just on a Much Smaller Scale

If you’ve taken an ocean cruise, you already know the ease of unpacking once but visiting multiple destinations. And yet on river cruise ships, which accommodate just a fraction of the passengers that ocean ships do, the experience is much more finessed. Most vessels carry between 80 and 150 guests, so there aren’t long lines for buffets and shore excursions and there’s a more relaxed camaraderie between guests and the crew.

It's a Mostly All-Inclusive Experience

The joy of an all-inclusive vacation begins the moment you book it, continues as you enjoy your holiday without having to sign for anything and culminates when you arrive home knowing everything’s already paid for. Depending on which company you book, European river cruising is much the same.

Uniworld, Tauck, Scenic, Emerald, Crystal and CroisiEurope are the most inclusive—meaning activities, excursions and beverages (including alcohol) are all part of the cruise fare—while Viking, AmaWaterways and Avalon include everything but alcohol (although complimentary wine or beer is served with lunch and dinner).

Some Itineraries Actually Visit the Sea

Many rivers empty into the sea, so some cruise itineraries do visit coastal destinations. Enjoy a Rhone River cruise in France with CroisiEurope, for example, and experience the Mediterranean ports of Martigues and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. In Italy, the company even offers an itinerary that cruises the islands of the Venice Lagoon and the Po Delta. Venture up the Seine River with Uniworld, Tauck, Viking, CroisiEurope and other lines and see the WWII beaches at Normandy.

Itineraries on Portugal’s Douro River begin in Porto or Lisbon, both located on the Atlantic. And if you have 24 days and a healthy budget you can even cruise the Danube from the Black Sea (in Romania) to the North Sea (in Amsterdam).

You Can See Four Countries on a Single Cruise

Danube river
The Danube running through Serbia’s Djerdap National Park.Shutterstock

If you’re looking to check off a few more European countries—but don’t feel comfortable driving and think lugging baggage on and off of trains is too much of a hassle—a river cruise can be the answer. Most cruise lines offer multi-country itineraries: Sail from Amsterdam to Basel on the Rhine River and visit The Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland, for instance. Or cruise the Danube from Budapest to Vienna and call on Hungary, Austria, Germany, Slovakia (and often the Czech Republic).

River Ships Have a Sun Deck

Summer in Europe, especially in southern France and Portugal, is ideal for catching some rays. All river ships have a top Sun Deck lined with chaise lounges that are a perfect spot to enjoy the passing scenery while sipping a cocktail. Some Sun Decks even feature a hot tub or small pool.

You'll Savor the Flavors of the Region

Most river cruise lines design their culinary offerings to reflect regional cuisine along the rivers. Enjoy fresh local seafood in Belgium, France and Portugal, for example. If you love cheese, pork and sausages, the menus along the Rhine and Danube in Germany, Austria and Switzerland are sure to please. Cruise into Eastern Europe on the Southern Danube to get to know the favorite foods of Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. Of course, more familiar fare (chicken, salmon, hamburgers and steaks) as well as vegetarian options are also available.

You Can Combine a River Cruise with an Island Stay

You’re flying all the way to Europe, so why not combine a one-week river cruise with a hotel stay on a nearby island? Options abound, but great combinations include a cruise along the Rhone River in southern France with a stay on the Mediterranean island of Corsica or a cruise on the Douro from Porto to Salamanca, Spain, followed by a visit to Mallorca.

Days Can Be as Active or Relaxing as You Want Them to Be

While most river cruise lines include excursions (typically via bus or walking tour), you can opt to explore independently or even stay onboard and relax with a good book—which is delightful when the ship sails to the next port to meet touring passengers and you’re one of the few people on the sun deck enjoying the passing scenery.

You Can Sip Your Way Through Europe's Top Wine Regions

Douro River
The Douro River boasts some stunning views of Portugal’s vineyards.Shutterstock

European River cruising and wine appreciation go hand in hand, as rivers run through wine regions and tasting is an integral part of itineraries. In France, cruise the Rhone and the Soane to experience Beaujolais, Burgundy, the Rhone Valley and Chateauneuf du Pape or the Garonne to sip the wonderful wines of Bordeaux, Medoc and Saint-Emilion. In Germany, the Rhine runs through vineyards producing Riesling, Grauburgunder and other varietals, while Portugal’s Douro River is all about the country’s robust reds and aged ports.

The Scenery is Spectacular

While the bottom line with river cruising might be ease, the bonus is the superb scenery that’s just outside your stateroom window and always on view from the sun deck or panoramic lounge at the front of the ship. Come to think of it, rivers ships are just like a floating island, complete with everything you need to feel relaxed and pampered.