If you’re considering a river cruise – especially river cruises Europe – then you’re in good company. European river cruises have never been so popular. There is a myriad of companies operating river cruises on all the major European rivers including the Danube, Rhine, Duoro and Seine. You can even combine river cruising with a wide range of popular activities such as visiting historic castles, art appreciation and wine tasting.

According to figures from the Cruise Lines Association (CLiA), river cruises have seen a surge in popularity for Brits. It reported a 21% increase in river cruise bookings in 2017 compared to 2016. In 2017, just over 210,000 British holidaymakers went on a river cruise, with river cruises Europe making up around 90% of all river cruise bookings. Leading river cruises include the Rhine and the Danube, though the Douro is gaining in river cruise popularity.

Cruises are also getting longer, especially European river cruises. The average length jumped from six days to nearer eight days in 2017 compared to 2016 and 11 new river cruise boats where launched in 2017.

River cruises Europe – what to expect

The surge in popularity for European river cruises makes choosing the best river cruise for you more difficult. There are lots of choices. River cruises are diverse in terms of activities, type of cruise – from historic tours to floating luxury – and the river you choose to cruise on.

Choosing the right river cruise requires plenty of planning. While ocean cruises are seasonally driven to some degree, European river cruises are tied to seasonality. Typically, river cruises run from April to October in Europe. In winter, high water can prevent boats from sailing under low river bridges, though some firms operate Christmas and winter river cruises.

It’s worth knowing that not all views will be spectacular. Some sections of a river cruise may see you travel through industrial areas of cities, for example. However, there are amazing views to be had. Popular river cruises include sailing the Rhine which is lined with fairytale castles and dotted with historic medieval towns, while the Danube takes in the glittering sights of imperial Vienna and Budapest. Prepare for a magical sailing trip through the historic and cultural heart of Europe.

River cruises Europe – duration and itineraries

Most river cruises in Europe last seven days, though some firms offer ten or 14-day cruises. Compared to ocean cruises, river cruise boats are small and narrow in order to navigate the locks and bridges of the Rhine and Danube.

The price difference is all down to the number of passengers on board. As all river cruise boats are similar in size, fewer passengers mean more space for floating luxuries, such as gyms, cinemas and spas to pamper passengers. Price also defines the level of service on board, for example, whether all drinks are fully inclusive along with staff tips. Price is also reflected in itineraries, number of shore excursions and activities provided by a cruise.

Most river cruises will include a number of standard onshore excursions, usually in the form of a coach tour. These include trips to castles and other historic and cultural sights, as well as wine tasting and food tasting expeditions. However, there is plenty on offer for the more adventurous river cruise passenger from trips in vintage cars, fencing lessons, cooking classes, black tie concerts and dinners onshore.

It’s worth knowing that most river cruises start in major cities such as Amsterdam or Budapest. If you want to extend your stay, look to book a few nights onshore in a hotel to explore the start or end city. Most river cruises will feature one overnight stay with activities and entertainment in the host city at the start of the river cruise.

With over 20 different river cruise lines operating on the major rivers throughout Europe, it’s best to have a good idea of what you want from a river cruise before you start your planning.

River cruises Europe – budget and season

Figuring out your river cruise budget and when to go can help with river cruise planning. A luxury, top-of-the-range river cruise will typically cost around £500 per person per night – and that’s cruising as a couple. Travel as a single, and you have the added cost of a single supplement. However, you can get cheap river cruise deals if you know where to look.

Read our guides to cheap cruise deals and last minute cruise deals.

Luxury river cruises Europe. Budget around £7,000 – £10,000 for a luxury river cruise over seven days. You’ll get true all-inclusive at this price, including round-the-clock drinks and all tips to staff included. Shore excursions will be top notch as well. River cruise companies worth investigating in this price band include Crystal and Scenic.

Cheap river cruises Europe. If your budget doesn’t quite stretch to a luxury river cruise, around £350 per person per night (based on a couple sharing a cabin) will get you a excellent river cruise. Cruise companies in this price band include Riviera TravelViking and Emerald. River cruises at this price won’t include 24/7 drinks and may not include gratuities but will offer a fantastic river cruise experience for around £5,000. For example, the Grand European Tour on the Rhine, Danube and Main Rivers from Amsterdam to Budapest with Viking costs from just £3,095 per person for over 15 nights in September 2019.

Bargain river cruises Europe. To pay even less, look for less familiar cruise companies that specialise on less-popular rivers. CroisiEurope, for example, is the sole operator on the Loire – and cruises can be as low at £250 per person per night. The Christmas on the Loire (port-to-port cruise) costs from just £890 per person for six days will all meals included with drinks and included drinks at the bar.

Decide when you want to cruise. You’ll need to book well ahead for popular events, such as seeing tulips in bloom or visiting Christmas markets. These are all popular events for river cruises, and tend to be pricier, busier and book quickly.

If you’re flexible, then be prepared to either book a last minute cruise or choose a less seasonal river cruise. You’ll benefit from lower prices and fewer crowds.