Europe is comprehensively covered by all the big river cruise lines and many small ones. Whether you’re looking for a bargain break, a barge, a family adventure, the last word in luxury or an epic journey right across the continent to the Black Sea, a river cruise will fit the bill.
Shearings Holidays offers European cruises on 10 riverboats, some chartered exclusively for its mainly over-50s clientele. 2012 brings new itineraries on the Dutch and Belgian waterways; the Moselle; and the Scottish Highlands. Shearings offers great flexibility in transport arrangements, with options to travel by air, rail or coach.
The company is also offering the annual Rhine in Flames festival, a chance to cruise the Rhine by day and enjoy spectacular fireworks over the castles and vineyards by night, and cruises to the Floriade exhibition in the Netherlands.
Take me Too
Take Me Too (formerly Phoenix Holidays) also sells affordable, fully escorted river cruises aimed at the type of passenger who might also enjoy a coach tour.
The strength of these tours on the Rhine, Neckar, Main, Danube and Seine, apart from their low price tag, is the coach service, which has 500 pickup points all over the UK, perfect for those who want an easy journey and no flying. The ships used, the MS Arlene and MS Renoir, are fairly basic – expect Pullman berths and small cabins – but the price reflects this, at well under £100 a day.
River Cruise Line
The River Cruise Line has a similar offering: escorted coach tours from the UK to the Rhine, Main and Danube, as well as the Seine and Scottish waterways. One advantage of these older ships, like the River Cruise Line’s MPS Lady Anne, is that they have single and triple cabins, which cuts the price right down for solo travellers, or a group of friends.
Page & Moy
Page & Moy also offers a wide variety of rivers and itineraries, on chartered ships. Rivers featured include the Danube, with options to stay on in Prague, Budapest or Salzburg; the Douro in Portugal; and the Rhine, including Christmas markets cruises.
CroisiEurope is one of the biggest cruise lines in Europe, with 25 boats in a distinctive green-and-white livery. The line is French-owned and operated, and carries mainly French guests, but also caters for English speakers and is sold by tour operators including Cosmos Tourama, VFB and Voyages Jules Verne.
EWaterways, an online river cruise specialist, features a huge range of rivers and riverboats across all budgets. If you’re looking for a more obscure river, you’ll find it here: the company features the Guadiana and Guadalquivir in Portugal and Spain, for example, as well as the Po in Italy.
Saga, which enjoys an extremely faithful following for its ocean cruises, produces its own river cruise brochure, featuring a variety of ships, ranging from basic to luxury, sailing on the Rhine/Main/ Moselle, the Douro, Danube, Elbe and French rivers.
Another line that’s successfully moved from ocean to river cruising is Swan Hellenic, which brought its culturally led product to the Rhone and Danube in 2009 and has since added the Rhine and, for 2012, the Rhine combined with the Moselle.
These cruises sell fast (2011 was full, the line claims, six months before the first departure), so if you enjoy cultured company and lectures by expert speakers, book early. The line-up for 2012 includes diplomats, historians and academics, all experts in their field.
Noble Caldedonia, which specialises in small-ship, off-the-beaten-track cruising, probably offers more rivers than any other operator, in Europe featuring cruises on the Rhine, Rhone, Danube, Seine and Douro.
Viking River Cruises
Viking River Cruises, the world’s biggest and probably the best-known river cruise operator, has vessels on all of Europe’s major rivers. An enormous programme of upgrades and newbuilds has transformed the line into one that competes with the most luxurious operators.
Australian-owned APT packages many of the AmaWaterways ships (and others) into escorted tours, including flights, a choice of excursions and its own APT Signature Experiences, which includes activities like wine tasting or special dinners ashore.
The line is particularly single-friendly, with a cabin share programme. European rivers offered include the Rhine and tributaries, the Danube and the Rhone.
American-owned Tauck offers the last word in cosseting on four beautifully appointed ships operated by Switzerland-based Scylla Tours, each with a country-club atmosphere.
Scenic Tours’ four European river cruisers – Diamond, Emerald, Ruby and Sapphire – sail on the Rhine, Main and Danube and are marketed mainly to Australians and New Zealanders. They and are contemporary in look and feel, with leather chairs in the bar, and teak and rattan deck furniture.
AMA Waterways has some of the smartest ships of the big US-based lines and is almost fully all-inclusive.
Ama Waterways operates on the Danube, Rhine-Main, Moselle and the Rhone. Special itineraries in Europe include Christmas market cruises throughout December and themes including Jewish heritage and wine.
Avalon Waterways has an ultramodern fleet that ticks all the boxes for luxury, having launched ten ships since 2004 on the Rhine, Main, Danube, Seine and Rhone.
Two ships, Avalon Felicity and Luminary, were launched in 2010, offering spacious staterooms with floor-to-ceiling panoramic sliding glass doors, bathrobes and slippers, flat-screen televisions and open-air lunchtime dining at the Sky Deck Grill all adding to the boutique feel of the ships, while the jewel in Avalon’s crown, Avalon Panorama, launched in 2011.
Uniworld is also investing heavily in new ships, spending $100m over three years in new vessels and upgrades. Its style is completely different from its competitors: the line is affiliated to the boutique Red Carnation Hotels group and the interiors of the ships reflect the designs of the hotels, so expect chandeliers, faux fireplaces and sumptuous fabrics.
Hebridean Island Cruises
Hebridean Island Cruises is dipping a toe into river cruising in 2012 with a series of four all-inclusive cruises on the Dutch-owned Royal Crown: two on the Rhine in spring and two on the Danube in autumn. The 79-passenger Royal Crown was built in 1996 and refitted in 2010 in an art deco style.