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When cruising through Europe, your cruiser acts as a traveling hotel, saving you from repeatedly packing and unpacking your suitcases, and avoiding all the hassles of traveling between destinations.

We recommend river cruising as the absolutely best way to sightsee in Europe.

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All About European River Cruising

The most convenient way to travel in Europe

Long sleek river cruisers give you a wonderfully convenient way of traveling through Europe.

This pictures shows Amadeus Waterways' boat Symphony at Durnstein, Austria on the Danube.

Part 1 of a series on river cruising.  Please also see

1.  All About European River Cruising
2.  How to Choose Your European River Cruise
3.  How to Choose Your River Cruise Cabin



Once you've enjoyed a European river cruise, you'll never again want to subject yourself to a bus tour, or the massive hassles of checking in and out of hotels, unpacking and repacking your bags, finding your own way to and from train stations, and/or driving yourself around in foreign countries.

River cruising is the most comfortable and convenient way to enjoy a European vacation.

And because Europe's historic towns and cities were often built on or close to the main rivers, you can see most of the major interesting places, as short tours from the comfort of your cruise ship.

Highly recommended.

Why Choose a River Cruise

Some people, who have never been on a river cruise, might consider a river cruise to be confining - you travel at a slow speed on a river, and only get to see the sights on either side of the river.  You are locked into a fixed itinerary, and trapped on a small boat with a large number of other people.  Lastly, some people consider river cruising to be very expensive.

While there are understandable reasons for all these perceptions, the reality is very different.  Let's look at each point in turn.

Speed of travel

River cruises commonly do most of the traveling at night, while you are dining, enjoying yourself, and sleeping.

Cruises will include some cruising during the day, both to meet the need to be certain places at certain times, and also to allow you to enjoy some daytime sightseeing, looking at the beautiful scenery and lovely little towns, old castles on nearby hilltops, churches, farms, and all the other elements of life in Europe.

Speed is not needed, and the graceful rate of progress (typically 12 - 15 mph cruising speed) helps convey a feeling of relaxed unhurriedness.  Remember that Europe is very compact - you only have short distances to travel between towns (and even between countries).  You don't need speed, and you don't want speed.


You see much more from a river cruise boat than you do from a bus, train, or car, while hurrying from place to place.  And you see these things tremendously more comfortably, either in your cabin, in a lounge, in a dining room, or up on one of the open decks.

Plus, when you arrive at the various places you stop and visit, when you get off the boat, you're able to sightsee exactly the same as any other way of traveling.  Well - not quite so exactly - you don't have to bother about packing your bags, checking out of the hotel, carrying your bags to your form of transport, traveling to the next place, getting to your hotel, checking in, carrying your own bags upstairs, and unpacking them again in your room!

Instead you find yourself, as if by magic, close in to the center of town in most cases, and with helpful sightseeing material provided by the cruise ship staff, and usually with some free sightseeing included.  This is marvelously convenient.


Of course all cruises work to a fixed itinerary.  But what is bad about this?  You can choose through very many different itineraries and select the itinerary that most suits you, the same as you would if planning your travels any other way.

And, once you've chosen your itinerary, that is all the hard work done.  There's nothing more to arrange once you've booked your cruise.  Your transportation, accommodation, sightseeing and meals are all then confirmed.

(Note that the fixed itineraries can sometimes, but rarely, vary.  If the river is flooding, or if the river is unusually low, there may be a need to change the itinerary.)

Boat size and passenger numbers

River cruisers are typically about 300' - 440' in length and 35' - 40' in width.  They have three or four decks for accommodation, lounges, bars, restaurants, and other public areas.

The ships usually have between 60 and 85 cabins, making total passenger capacity somewhere between 120 and 175.

Chances are you'll find this to be neither too small nor too large.  The ship itself is large enough to be interesting and not to feel confining, but not too big as to make it a hassle to go from anywhere to anywhere else.  Need to go back to your room?  It is only a minute or two from wherever else you are on board.

And the number of fellow passengers is enough as to enable you to anonymously blend into a crowd if you wish, but also is small enough so that ship's crewmembers recognize you and talk to you as an individual, rather than as another faceless passenger.

The passenger count is sufficiently low as to make it easy to get to know other passengers when dining or in the lounges, and then to see and recognize them again on future occasions.  But there are also enough passengers so that if you want to avoid someone, you aren't always running into them!

Cruising cost

Most cruises seem to be priced in the range of about $200 - $300 a day.  When you first see $2000 for a one week cruise, it might seem like a lot of money, especially when you compare it to what you'd pay for a one week cruise in the Caribbean.

A fairer comparison is to compare a river cruise with what you'd pay traveling around Europe any other way, for a week.  A daily budget (share twin) for traveling on your own might include $125 for a hotel each night, $75 for a tour each day, $50 for transportation each day (a five day in 2 month Eurail Selectpass costs between $383 and $473 - much more than $50/day), and $50 for lunch and dinner (assuming breakfast was included in the hotel rate).  In other words, regular touring is going to cost $300 a day - the same as the upper end of all-inclusive cruising costs.

Now consider the value of the convenience of only having to pack/unpack and check in/out once.  How much extra would you pay for that?

And consider also the value of traveling at night, freeing up more time during the days to sightsee, as well as the extra quality time and energy spared by skipping all the packing/unpacking etc.  What is that worth to you?

There are plenty of other positive value-adds in a cruise (like the friendly English speaking staff, free evening entertainment, and with some cruise lines, even free wine with dinner), but consider these as free bonuses.  A simple comparison shows a cruise to be no more expensive - and quite possibly less expensive - than traveling around on your own.

River cruising is not expensive.  It is a very good value way to comfortably and conveniently see Europe.

River and Ocean Cruising too

Much of what we write here is focused on river cruising.  But you should be aware that there are also excellent ocean cruising opportunities in Europe.  With many European countries having a border on the sea, big ship cruising is also a viable option - most commonly in wonderful cruises around the Mediterranean Sea, and also up around the Baltic areas.

There are plenty of positive reasons to consider an ocean based European cruise as well as a river cruise.  A number of the other big name cruise companies operate seasonal cruising itineraries in Europe.

More reasons to choose a river cruise

The food is generally of a high quality on board, and dining is single seating, usually with no pre-assigned tables.  This gives you the flexibility to meet new people (or to avoid people) at meals, and also means you're not rushed out of the dining room as soon as dinner is finished to make way for a second group of diners.

River cruises are almost always calm and stable, with no problems caused by waves or swells.

River cruises have a range of daily activities on board - not nearly as extensive as full sized ocean liners, but enough to keep you occupied and interested when you have nothing else to do.

River cruises are 'timeless' - whereas travel by road or rail surrounds you with 20th and 21st century technology, on the river, you're in a more natural environment.  And because the rivers were the original travel routes before roads, rail, and air, you get to see ancient buildings and towns - and the parts of these towns facing the river - that you'd miss when traveling by other methods.

Differences between river barges and river ships

This article is primarily about cruising on a river 'ship'.  A river ship is very different to a smaller river barge.

Barge cruising is on a very small boat, or sometimes a pair of boats (with one primarily for passenger accommodation and the other with dining rooms, lounge, and other public and work spaces.  Typically a barge (or pair of barges) carries only 6 - 20 passengers at a time.

Barges meander along at a very sedate speed, typically little faster than brisk walking pace.

Barge cruises are more expensive - partially due to the low number of passengers to share the fixed cost of operation and the high ratio of staff to guests, and partially due to a lot of deluxe inclusions.  Many times, barges have an open bar, and for shore visits, will provide private chauffeur driven car touring around the regions they visit.

Due to the small number of passengers and crew, there are limited evening entertainment activities on a barge.

Barge cruising can also be a wonderful experience, but it is a very different type of experience to river cruising, and the two should not be confused.

See also our article on 'do it yourself' canal cruising in Britain for a third type of river/canal cruising experience.

Types of River Cruises in Europe

There are several convenient ways to categorize the wide range of different river cruising opportunities.


Most of the cruises tend to be regional; only the very lengthy cruises cover extended areas.


Most cruises are about a week in length.  Some companies offer longer cruises, which typically are two shorter cruises 'joined together' - for example a company might offer a one week Black Sea to Budapest cruise and a one week Budapest to Nuremberg cruise, plus also offer a two week Black Sea to Nuremberg cruise.

One-way or roundtrip

Most cruises tend to be one-way, although a few are roundtrip - either in an out and back type manner, going back the way you came, or in a circle trip manner, not repeating any part of the route.

If you're traveling on an out and back itinerary, don't think that it will be terribly boring returning back the way you came.  As long as your shore stops aren't identical, the river scenery is often very much different when viewed from the other direction, and the parts of the river you see during the day (as compared to at night) are likely to be different.  Out and back itineraries are just as interesting as any other type.

Seasonal cruises

In addition to standard cruises (which generally operate only in spring/summer/fall period) some cruise lines offer special seasonal cruising.

The two most common seasonal specials are Tulip cruises around Holland, timed for the early spring when the tulips are in full flower, and the Christmas Market cruises in Austria and Germany, timed for the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, giving you a chance to shop at the various Christmas Markets along the Danube.

Both of these seasonal cruises are wonderful experiences.

When to Travel

Our preference is to travel in May or June.  This gets you the maximum amount of daylight every day, but beats the worst of the summer heat and the summer crowds.  Peak summer crowds can become quite claustrophobic in some of the most popular destinations, and should be avoided at all costs.

And, talking about costs, sometimes you'll find the cruise fares are a bit lower in May/June, too.  Another reason to choose those months.

Avoid July and August if at all possible, for the reasons above.

Cruise Extensions

Europe is a small region with many different wonderful places, all close to each other, and there's a strong temptation to try and see and do more while in Europe.  For this reason, many people choose to add extra touring at the start or end of their cruise.

Some cruises start off and have the ship immediately leaving the city you joined it in, and some cruises finish with you immediately leaving the ship upon arrival in the destination city.

Other cruises have the ship spending as many as three nights moored in your departure city before starting the traveling part of the cruise, and may spend as many as three nights moored in the arrival city before you disembark (this is common with Russian cruises).

Obviously it makes more sense to add extra days at either end in the start and finish cities if the cruise itinerary doesn't already have you spending a lot of time in those places.

Extending before joining the cruise

Whether you are joining a cruise that stays in the departure city for several days or not, we generally recommend you should plan to arrive in Europe at least one day before your cruise starts.  This gives you a precious day up your sleeve in case you miss flights, or have flights cancelled, or have your luggage lost en route.

It also helps you unwind after the long flight(s), and helps you get over the jet lag, so you're at your best for when the cruise commences.

Where to Extend

Sometimes it is sensible to simply stay in the city the cruise starts or finishes in and spend more time there.  This minimizes your extra travel needs, and in the case of a pre-cruise extension, gives you a safety margin of extra time in case of problems getting to the cruise start point.

But if you're spending enough time in these places as part of the cruise, by all means travel further afield as it suits you best.

Cruise company extension or your own

Cruise companies often offer optional extensions before or after the main ship-based cruise.  These can be convenient and definitely enjoyable, but usually you can make similar arrangements on your own for a similar type of price.  Some people use the extension itinerary ideas from the cruise brochures as a guide for what to add on their own.

If you're extending on you own, you'll probably find the cost is the same or lower, and depending on your style of travel, you may find either doing it yourself or having everything arranged more convenient.

Locations of River Cruises in Europe

Click on image for a larger map to open in a new window

It is possible to cruise through much of Europe by river and canal, and to traverse Europe completely from the Black Sea to the North Sea.

River cruises can be found on most of Europe's main rivers, including those listed in the table below :




Cruises visit these countries


1771 miles in length; the major commercial waterway in Europe
Starts in Germany's Black Forest, empties into the Black Sea

Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania


1420 miles from the southwest of Russia, through Belarus and Ukraine, to the Black Sea



561 miles from central Spain, through Portugal and to the North Atlantic

Portugal and Spain


724 miles from the Czech Republic, through Germany, to the Baltic Sea

Germany, Czech Republic


328 miles long, a tributary of the Rhine



341 miles long, traverses France and Luxemburg then into Germany and joins the Rhine

Germany and France


820 miles from SE Switzerland, through Germany and Netherlands, to the North Sea

Netherlands, Germany


300 miles from Switzerland to the Mediterranean



300 miles long, flows into the Rhne



482 miles long, flows into the English Channel



2300 miles - largest and longest river system in Europe.  Starts northwest of Moscow and empties into the Caspian Sea.


Read more in Parts 2 and 3

In the second part, we talk about how to choose the best European river cruise - what to consider when selecting the best cruise company for your cruise, and the best airfare to get you there and back.

In the third part, we discuss the implications of how to choose the best cabin on your river cruise.  This of course will have a major impact on your budget and cruise experience.

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Originally published 3 Feb 2006, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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