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Relaxing River Cruises Through Europe’s Picturesque Landscapes: The Ultimate Comparison Guide

Europe is home to some of the world’s most iconic waterways, from the Danube to the Rhine, offering travelers a unique perspective on the continent’s captivating landscapes, architecture, and culture. River cruising has become an increasingly popular way to experience Europe’s beauty and history while enjoying luxurious amenities and relaxation.

This comprehensive guide provides an overview of Europe’s top river cruise itineraries and lines, plus tips for choosing the right river cruise for your travel style and budget. We’ll compare the major cruise lines’ key features, routes, ships, cabins, dining, amenities, shore excursions, and more. Read on to plan your dream voyage along Europe’s serene waterways.

Overview of Popular River Cruise Itineraries in Europe

River cruises in Europe typically follow major waterways like the Danube, Rhine, Seine, and Rhone rivers. Most itineraries are 6-15 days and focus on specific regions. Here are some of the most popular routes:

Danube River

  • Danube Delta – Black Sea to Eastern Europe
  • Lower Danube – Between Budapest and the Black Sea, through the Balkans
  • Upper Danube – Vienna, Austria to Budapest, Hungary through Wine Country
  • Christmas Markets – December sailings from Nuremberg to Budapest

Rhine River

  • Lower Rhine – The Netherlands and Cologne, Germany
  • Middle Rhine – Rhine Gorge, most castles and UNESCO sites
  • Upper Rhine – Between France, Germany, Switzerland
  • Christmas Markets – December cruises visit charming markets

Other Key Itineraries

  • Seine River – Paris to Normandy, visiting sites like Claude Monet’s home
  • Rhone and Saone – France’s Burgundy and Provence wine regions
  • Elbe River – Berlin to Prague through Germany and Czech Republic
  • Douro River – Travel through vineyards and Port wine estates in Portugal
  • Italian Waterways – Venice, Lake Como, Po River

Comparison of the Top River Cruise Lines in Europe

There are over 20 river cruise lines operating voyages throughout Europe. The major players specialize in European itineraries and offer the widest range of routes, ships, and onboard amenities. Let’s compare the key features of the top five river cruise lines in Europe.


Line Regions Visited # Ships Passenger Capacity Inclusive Fare Options Notable Features
AmaWaterways Europe, Africa, Asia 25 102-196 guests Very inclusive with meals, drinks, tours Modern fleet with multi-country itineraries
Viking River Cruises Europe, Asia, Egypt 76 190 guests Most include some meals, drinks, tours Award-winning Longships design and Scandinavian aesthetic
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection Europe 17 130 guests All-inclusive with drinks, excursions, transfers High-end boutique style with lavish decor
Avalon Waterways Europe, Asia 15 166 guests Select all-inclusive packages Panoramic views, spacious cabins
Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours Europe, Asia, Africa 17 169 guests All-inclusive with excursions, drinks, transfers Butler service, private balconies


Below we’ll explore what sets each of these top lines apart.


Overview: AmaWaterways offers luxury river cruises throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. Their European fleet has over 25 custom-designed ships that can accommodate 102-196 passengers.

Regions Visited: Danube, Rhine, Main, Moselle, Seine, Garonne, Dordogne, Douro, and Dutch waterways

Notable Features: Contemporary, elegant ships with amenities like massage and hair salons. Multi-country itineraries, such as Amsterdam to Budapest. Award-winning dining with choice of venue.

Viking River Cruises

Overview: Viking is the world’s largest river cruise line, with 76 sister ships offering scenic voyages in Europe, Asia, and Egypt. Their award-winning Longships carry 190 passengers.

Regions Visited: Danube, Rhine, Main, Moselle, Seine, Rhone, Saone, Garonne, Elbe

Notable Features: Understated, Scandinavian design with serene ambiance. Best shore excursion opportunities with Culture Curriculum. Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant and wide food choices.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

Overview: Uniworld operates 17 boutique river ships in Europe modeled after luxury hotels. Ships hold around 130 guests for a high-end, intimate experience.

Regions Visited: Danube, Rhine, Main, Moselle, Seine, Rhone, Po, Douro

Notable Features: Lavish decor with original antiques and artworks. Butlers and fine dining at multiple venues like Le Bistro. All-inclusive luxury with drinks, transfers, excursions.

Avalon Waterways

Overview: Their Suite Ships feature huge panoramic windows in 67% of the cabins and public spaces. Avalon has 15 ships navigating Europe’s major rivers.

Regions Visited: Danube, Rhine, Main, Moselle, Seine, Rhone

Notable Features: Light-filled cabins and lounges with river views. Flexible itineraries with choice of excursions. Self-guided mobility tours and bikes available.

Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours

Overview: Scenic operates luxury, all-inclusive European river cruises with butler service. Their Space-Ships feature private balconies in 85% of cabins.

Regions Visited: Rhine, Danube, Douro, Rhone, and more

Notable Features: Luxurious amenities like a salt therapy lounge. Tailored excursions with interactive Scenic Enrich. Dining at specialty venues like Table La Rive.

How to Choose the Best River Cruise Ship

River cruise ships in Europe are smaller and more intimate than ocean liners, ranging from under 100 passengers to around 200 guests. Here are key factors to consider when choosing your ideal ship:

  • Size and Guest Capacity – Are you looking for a cozy, boutique setting or more dining and amenity options?
  • All-Inclusive Fare – What’s included, such as drinks, shore excursions, and transfers?
  • Luxury Features – Assess dining, cabins, amenities, service based on your preferences.
  • Deck Plan and Cabins – Pick the right room type and location for you.
  • decor and Ambiance – Modern or more traditional old-world styling?
  • Itinerary and Excursions – Make sure ports match your destination wish list.
  • Onboard Activities – Wellness options? Enrichment talks? Entertainment?
  • River vs Ocean Cruising – Decide which better suits your travel style.

Balancing your budget with desired amenities and destinations will help determine the best river ship for you.

Comparing Cabin Types and Locations

River cruise cabins are smaller than on ocean cruises but cleverly designed for efficiency of space. Here’s an overview of the main cabin types and locations to consider:

Entry-Level Cabins: The most affordable choice located on the lowest deck or “Category E” on ships. Pros are lowest rates, usually under 200 square feet. Cons are fixed windows and limited views.

French Balcony Cabins: Feature a sliding glass door that opens to a railing. Pros are river views and light, about 155-205 square feet. Cons are smallest bathrooms.

Full Balcony Staterooms: Highest demand for full private balconies, usually 150-355 square feet. Pros are best views, privacy, fresh air. Cons are limited supply, sell out fast.

Upper Deck Cabins: Found on upper decks, often with French balconies. Pros are elevated views and low noise, around 150-200 square feet. Cons are smaller, no outdoor space.

Suite Cabins: Spacious like hotel suites with sitting areas, 350-500 square feet. Some have two balconies. Pros are extra room, amenities. Cons are highest cost cabins.

Location: Forward and aft cabins experience more motion but have unique views. Midship cabins are closest to public areas yet avoid engine noise.

Consider room location, views, and balcony access along with size and rates when booking.

Dining, Cuisine, and Beverages

One delight of river cruising is enjoying regional cuisine and fine wines from Europe’s renowned wine regions. Here’s an overview of dining options on Europe’s top river ships:

  • Primary Restaurants – Elegant complimentary dining rooms serving continental cuisine or buffets. Open seating and set meal times.
  • Alternative Restaurants – Many ships offer an additional specialty restaurant, usually with an ethnic or regional cuisine theme. Reservations or surcharge may be required.
  • Casual Dining Venues – Such as a café or bistro for lunches, snacks, and coffee throughout the day. Room service often available.
  • Bar & Lounges – Cocktails, wine, beer, and soft drinks available in main lounge areas and smaller bars on most ships. May have a nightly happy hour.
  • Beverage Packages – Can purchase all-inclusive drinks package on some ships for unlimited beer, wine, cocktails, sodas, etc.
  • Complimentary Beverages – May include bottled water, coffee, tea, juice during breakfast. Beer & wine with lunch and dinner is common. Restrictions apply.
  • Regional Influences – Menus focus on freshly prepared local ingredients. Feature regional wines, cheeses, and specialties from ports of call.
  • Themed Meals – May have a Captain’s Gala Dinner or Oktoberfest theme night. Reflect different cuisines like Austrian, French, German.
  • Dietary Restrictions – Advise cruise line ahead of special dietary needs. Most offer vegetarian, gluten-free, low-sodium options.

River cruises promote immersion in each destination through dining, with flexible options from casual to fine dining.

Onboard Amenities to Enjoy

While river ships don’t have all the lavish amenities of ocean cruisers, they still pamper guests with services and facilities to make your voyage seamless and indulgent.

Popular amenities include:

  • Spa with massage and beauty treatments
  • Fitness center for exercise
  • Swimming pool, some feature retractable roofs
  • Bikes or e-bikes for shore exploring in port
  • Hair salon for styling and cuts
  • Gift shop selling logo merchandise and sundries
  • Laundry services, self-serve or full-service
  • Zuiderdam Lounge for mingling over drinks and music
  • Library corner with books, games, and puzzles
  • Sun Deck for lounging on cushy chairs or tables
  • Putting green for some friendly competition
  • Restaurant with cooking demonstrations and classes
  • WiFi connectivity, often free or available for a fee
  • Concierge to help plan your perfect excursions

Modern river ships strive to provide every comfort and entertainment option for travelers. Check each ship’s deck plan for offerings.

Booking Shore Excursions

One major benefit of river cruising is the opportunity to join guided shore excursions in each port. This allows for stress-free touring with insider access and historical insights.

Here’s an overview of shore excursion logistics:

  • Wide range of half-day and full-day tours to book
  • Included group excursions vs premium private tours for an extra fee
  • Active options like biking and hiking for adventurers
  • Tailored tours to suit different interests and mobility levels
  • Headsets on most group tours so you can hear guide clearly
  • Small groups under 20 people per excursion bus
  • Knowledgeable local expert guides at each stop or site
  • Skip-the-line entrance fees, tickets included
  • Late-night excursions such as jazz clubs, theater shows
  • Port talks to preview your DIY sightseeing options
  • Hop-on hop-off buses in certain ports of call

Booking shore trips in advance helps ensure you get your top choices for the most seamless, educational touring experience in each destination.

Advantages of River Cruises vs Ocean Cruises

For travelers trying to decide between a river cruise in Europe and a traditional ocean voyage, it helps to compare the key differences:

River Cruise Pros

  • More intimacy with under 200 passengers
  • Dock right in town centers and ports
  • Easy walking and train access from ports
  • Gourmet regional cuisine and wine
  • Excursion inclusive pricing
  • Smaller ships access shallower rivers
  • More inclusive experience

Ocean Cruise Pros

  • More open sea and days at sea
  • Lavish Las Vegas-style productions
  • Large variety of dining venues
  • Nightlife, entertainment, casinos
  • Larger staterooms with balconies
  • More days in each port of call
  • Pools, amusement parks and activities

The choice ultimately comes down to your travel style preferences for a cozier river trip or extravagant ocean cruise.

Best Time for European River Cruises

River cruising in Europe is a seasonal activity from March through December when rivers are open and free of ice. The peak season is May through October. Let’s compare the pros and cons of spring, summer, fall, and the holiday season:

Spring (March-May)

  • Moderate weather, average 60-70 ̊F
  • Fewer crowds at sites and towns
  • Blooming tulips and greenery
  • Affordable low season pricing
  • Easter markets and celebrations

Summer (June-August)

  • Warm weather, can get hot at 85-90 ̊F
  • Long days with extended sunlight
  • Best river views with lush landscapes
  • More families with kids on summer break
  • High peak season rates

Fall (September-November)

  • Pleasant weather, 50-60 ̊F
  • Vibrant fall foliage in wine regions
  • Smaller crowds as kids return to school
  • Good shoulder season pricing
  • November Christmas markets

Holiday Sailings (November-December)

  • Festive ambiance with decorations
  • Christmas and holiday themed activities
  • Cookies, mulled wine, roasted chestnuts
  • Chance of snow and cooler 40-50 ̊F temps
  • Avoid the hectic holidays at home

Plan your ideal time to cruise based on climate, crowds, and seasonal events in Europe.

River Cruise Dress Codes and Packing Tips

River cruising attire is much more relaxed than ocean liners. Here are tips on dress codes and packing:

  • Comfortable, casual smart casual style for days
  • Sundresses, polos, khakis, jeans, shorts
  • Swimsuit if ship has a pool
  • Light jacket or sweater for air conditioning
  • Casual elegant for evening dinners
  • For men, collared shirts, no ties needed
  • Cocktail dresses, pantsuits, or skirts for women
  • Comfortable walking shoes for port excursions
  • Light layers for fluctuating weather
  • Hat and sunglasses for sun protection
  • Binoculars for scenic cruising stretches
  • Extra batteries and memory cards for cameras
  • Prescription meds and over-the-counter remedies
  • Power adapters/converter if needed for electronics
  • Leave extra room when packing for souvenirs

The ability to pack light and casual is a big plus for river cruising in Europe.

Booking Tips: Choosing a Cabin, Getting Deals & Discounts

Here are insider booking tips for getting the best value on your European river cruise:

Book Early For Best Cabin Selection

  • Prices may be lower early on
  • Get top cabin locations before sell out
  • Take advantage of early booking promotions

Be Flexible With Dates and Itinerary

  • Avoid school breaks and peak summer dates for better pricing
  • Similar itineraries may have big rate differences
  • Relax your route preferences for discounts

Check for Deals and Reduced Rates

  • Watch for last-minute promotions
  • Discount sites like Vacations To Go offer deals
  • Consider repositioning cruises with special fares
  • Solo cabins can avoid single supplements

Leverage Past Guest Discounts

  • Returning guests often get $100-$400 off
  • Kids and 3rd guests in cabin may get 25% off
  • Past river or ocean cruisers may get loyalty rewards

Ask About Current Promotions

  • Check line’s website promotions page
  • Sign up for email alerts to receive special offers
  • Mention any current deals you see advertised

Booking early and strategically can help you land the perfect river cruise itinerary and cabin at the best possible value.

Top Questions To Ask Before Booking

Here are recommended questions to ask your cruise specialist when booking a river voyage in Europe:

  • What is included in the base cruise fare, and what incurs extra charges?
  • Is there an all-inclusive beverage package, and what does it cover?
  • What are dining options, dress codes, and hours?
  • Can you accommodate special diets like vegan or gluten-free?
  • What is your elevator/stair situation? Are there ADA accessible cabins?

Conclusion :

River cruising allows you to experience Europe’s majestic waterways, world-class cuisine, fascinating history, and captivating scenery from an intimate perspective. As you plan your dream itinerary exploring the Rhine, Danube, and more, keep the key considerations covered in this guide top of mind.

Choosing your ideal ship, cabin, and amenities will ensure your complete satisfaction as you sail through stunning landscapes and medieval towns aboard Europe’s winding rivers. Comparing offerings across cruise lines like Uniworld, Viking, AmaWaterways, and Avalon can help match your style and budget for the quintessential river cruise.

Consider timing based on climate, value seasons, and festivals you’d like to experience. Reflect on whether you prefer cozier river ships or expansive ocean liners when opting between the two cruise formats. Read up on packing tips, shore excursion options, and dining choices so you can indulge fully on board and on land.

Most importantly, tap into the knowledge of cruise experts to get your questions answered, receive tips for getting the best deal, and ensure you select the perfect river cruise vacation for your needs. From family voyages to solo getaways, Christmas market enchantment to wine connoisseur sailings, Europe’s rivers offer something for every traveler.

River cruising lets you appreciate Europe’s timeless beauty at a relaxed pace, sailing right up to famous attractions without the headaches of arranging transportation and hotels. You can have the convenience of waking up at a new magnificent destination each day while enjoying gourmet dining and five-star service.

Start planning your own idyllic river cruise vacation in Europe armed with the advice within this detailed guide. Let the romantic allure of gliding along peaceful waterways, vineyard-clad hills, and historic villages capture your heart as you discover Europe from its very best vantage points. The river cruise experience provides lifelong memories drifting past European masterpieces and natural wonders.

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