Senior’s Guide to Exploring Europe by River Cruise

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Senior’s Guide to Exploring Europe by River Cruise

With a smaller ship size, seniors can enjoy smooth sailing on a river cruise while enjoying all the bells and whistles of first-class travel. River cruises are perfect for empty nesters and retirees looking for a relaxing holiday to explore European cities. 

Basically a luxury hotel on water, river cruises have exploded in popularity in recent years. Statista reports the increase of European river cruises between 2013 and 2018 grew 192%, with an estimated additional 6% by 2022. 

These leisurely all-inclusive vacations boast easy planning and seamless execution, especially for seniors looking for convenient travel. Attractions, activities, accommodation, and amenities are all provided with easy access to these vessels.

  1. What is a River Cruise?
  2. How Much Are River Cruises?
  3. What Do River Cruises Include?
  4. River Cruises in Europe
  5. How to Book a River Cruise
  6. Additional Resources

What is a River Cruise?

A river cruise is a leisurely river excursion on a small ship that typically lasts a week or longer. These types of ships hold between 100 and 200 passengers taking guests to several port stops along inland waterways. These micro-cruise ships are the antithesis of ocean cruising, offering a more intimate experience ideal for senior travelers. 

senior river cruises

During a river cruise, seniors may enjoy: 

  • Opportunity to Meet Passengers: You have the choice between a family cruise or an adult-only cruise.
  • Set Schedule: Removing the extra work and risk that comes from a standard vacation.
  • Smooth Sailing: Sea-sick prone adults, rejoice! River cruises avoid the rough waters that may accompany ocean cruising.
  • Easy Access: Enjoy the ability to see different cities without moving between hotels or flights.
  • Gorgeous Scenery: Many sight-seeing opportunities without having to leave the cabin. 
  • No Rush: Slow-paced activities and sightseeing for leisurely exploration.
  • Intimate Cruising: River cruises generally have smaller crowds than ocean cruises and are rarely at full capacity. 

How Much Are River Cruises?

European river cruises run between $200 (€180) and $500 (€452) per night for an all-inclusive trip, according to Cruise Critic. Typically more expensive than ocean cruising, you can expect to average a total of about $2,500 (€2,260) for a 7-day cruise. Expect cruises during peak season between mid-May and late-September, to have a higher price tag. 

  Crystal River Cruises Tauck River Cruises CroisiEurope Uniworld Boutique River Cruises Viking River Cruises
Budget-Friendly Option      
Gratuity Included    
Port Charges Included    
Excursions Included
Airport Transfers Included    

*Cruise lines were selected based on the volume of interest for luxury and budget European river cruises. 

Cruises around the Rhine or Danube rivers tend to be the most affordable routes. Holiday cruises in November or December are off-peak and preferred by price-sensitive travelers. During booking, inquire about extra costs for gratuities, port charges, and alcoholic beverages onboard.

Note that river cruises won’t cover things like visas, airfare, or medical insurance. Build-in these additional costs and visa processing time in your initial river cruise plans. 

Check entry requirements for each city you plan to port frequently. In January 2021, travelers in 57 countries who currently travel around the EU without a visa requirement will need to acquire an ETIAS visa waiver. Find out if you will need an ETIAS.  

What Do River Cruises Include? 

River cruises typically include much more than their ocean-navigating counterparts. In some cases, things like gratuity and port fees are included to make them truly all-inclusive. 

veranda suite on a viking river cruise

Accommodations

Generally smaller than an ocean cruise cabin, river cruise staterooms are designed for traveling couples. 

  • River Cabin Types: River cruises typically have four types of rooms including a river view, balcony, French balcony, and suite. Some cruise lines feature staterooms with full-sized, panoramic windows and walkout verandas. 
  • Stateroom Features: Features in staterooms and suites include French balconies, two-room suites, and more square footage. 
  • River Cabin Sizes: Standard stateroom sizes range between 150 square feet (14 square meters) and 170 square feet (16 square meters). Suites can be as big as 450 square feet (42 square meters), depending on the cruise line. 
  • Cabin Amenities: In your river cruise cabin you can expect a queen-sized bed, closet, couch or dining table, bathroom with a shower and hairdryer, television, air conditioning, and Wi-Fi. 

Food 

Three meals per day plus light snacks, coffee, and tea are provided across river cruise lines during set meal times.

  • Breakfast: Typically buffet style, expect to find personalization options like custom omelet stations on board. 
  • Lunch: After a day of excursions an array of buffet items and a separate menu for specific lunch dishes is provided.
  • Dinner: Dinner onboard includes a menu with a few different appetizers, entree, and dessert options. 
  • Alcoholic Beverages: Some cruise lines offer 24/7 alcoholic beverages, while others will serve wine and beer with lunch and dinner.
  • Unlimited Coffee and Tea: For a midday pick-me-up, head to the unlimited coffee and tea station onboard, which likely will provide small snacks.
  • Cost: The cost of food is included in the price of the trip, however alcohol may be an extra charge, depending on the cruise line of choice.

Amenities

The amenities across cruise companies and their fleet vary, with the most luxury lines featuring up to four restaurants, a wellness spa, and an indoor pool.

  • Restaurants: Expect to find two restaurants onboard, typically offering free-seating.
  • Bars: Most river cruises offer two bars, some open 24/7.
  • Lounges: Generally there is an atrium and viewing deck onboard open to all passengers.
  • Wi-Fi: Most river cruise ships will offer onboard Wi-Fi, but the quality may vary within the cabins.
  • Luxury Amenities: Some cruises offer high-end amenities like a gym, whirlpool or heated pool, onboard massages and hair treatments, and a sauna.

Guided Tours

Excursions divide the passengers into groups based on accessibility. Cruises will offer a variety of half-day tours, or one full day tour, depending on the port.

  • Included Excursions: Most cruise lines offer at least one excursion per port included in the base fare. Expect to experience the culture and history of each port city on the tour. These activities will typically visit the main attractions of each city at a slow pace so seniors can enjoy the perks of each destination without additional mapping. 
  • Paid Excursions: Some lines offer excursions for an additional fee. Most of these experiences require a smaller group. 
  • Option to Opt Out: It’s not required for passengers to attend the excursions, and travelers can choose to explore the city on their own. In these cases, consider skipping dinner to explore onshore while still hitting the main sites toured during the excursions. 

River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises

The differences between ocean cruises and river cruises are subtle, but make a significant impact on the travel experience. For seniors, river cruises offer a smoother trip with an intimate schedule to remove risks and planning. 

River Cruises Ocean Cruises
  • Passenger Size: 100-200
  • Duration: Smooth sailing, rarely overnight
  • Group Type: More suitable for singles or couples
  • Food: 1-4 onboard restaurants featuring local cuisine
  • Season: Seasonal between April and October
  • Amenities: Less scheduled onboard entertainment
  • Extras: Complimentary excursions
  • Passenger Size: 2,000-5,000
  • Duration: Weather dependent, nights and days spent at sea
  • Group Type: More suitable for families
  • Food: 24/7 meal service with a variety of cuisines
  • Season: Year-round
  • Amenities:Wide variety of entertainment options onboard
  • Extras: Paid excursions

Ocean Liners

Ocean cruise ships are behemoths of the sea, taking thousands of passengers hundreds of miles across oceans around the globe. Generally, ocean liners are considered less inclusive than river cruises, with options to add excursions, spa treatments, and alcoholic beverages a la carte. Cruises run year-round in different areas of the world. 

River Cruises

River cruises are a more intimate way to see cities, often with a 200 passenger capacity. Enjoy shorter boarding lines and local fare onboard. Because of the ship’s size, expect less scheduled entertainment than an ocean cruise. The European river cruise peak season runs between April and October.

River Cruises in Europe 

River cruising has disrupted the cruise industry as the premier way to travel around Europe for seniors. These all-inclusive, cultural, and accessible journeys give new meaning to passenger comfort.

With its English-speaking staff, seniors can enjoy some of the top destinations including ports in France, Germany, Netherlands, and Austria with little to no language barrier. 

River cruise destinations were selected based on the volume of interest for European river cruise regions.

Seine River: France

Relish the route between Paris and Normandy with timeless views of infamous French landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. 

seine river cruise

  • For an extended French getaway, book a rail transfer to explore Burgundy or Bordeaux post-river cruise.
  • Find out where the cruise line’s specific port of entry is. Not all river cruise ships fit in the central Parisian port.
  • Paris books up quickly. Make reservations for accommodation and restaurants in advance to avoid disappointment. 

Rhine River: Germany, Netherlands, France, Switzerland

The Rhine crosses six countries and boasts views of more castles than any other European river. With options for cruising in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Austria, you’ll find the most popular route between the Netherlands and Switzerland.

rhine river cruise

  • For a budget-friendly option, book this tour during the off-season winter months to enjoy the Christmas markets.
  • Sail through the Rhine Gorge for the best castle views.
  • Book extra time around your cruise dates to explore Basel’s Alps or Cologne’s cathedrals. 

Danube River, Eastern Europe

The Danube River is Europe’s second longest, behind Volga. This vast river stretches between ten countries in Eastern Europe including Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Serbia, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, and Germany. 

danube river cruise

  • Enjoy Europe’s rural scenery on the Danube, passing through the Bavarian Forest and Iron Gates Gorge.
  • For a less populated route, sail from Budapest towards the Black Sea. 
  • With a maximum twenty-two day sailing time, enjoy the longest river cruise on the Danube. 

Rhone River: France

The Rhone River is the only European river to flow into the Mediterranean. Enjoy classic French cuisine and the landscapes that inspired Van Gogh throughout this passage.

rhone river cruise

  • Book the cruise between mid-June and mid-July to see lavender country blooming during peak season.
  • For wine enthusiasts, enjoy the routes through Beaujolais and Chateauneuf du Pape.
  • Best for foodies, this river cruise tours the South of France and stops in Lyon—coined the food capital of France.

Volga River: Russia

The Volga River is the longest in Europe, spanning over 2,000 miles (3,218,688 meters). Enjoy the sites of Russia’s two largest cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, on this route.

volga river cruise

  • Laws in place only allow cruise lines to lease their fleets, so the typical luxury of European river cruises may not be present. 
  • Taste one of four species of the world famous caviar on this route. 
  • Get a taste of local life in Uglich with an excursion to taste vodka in a family home.

Main River: Germany

Cruises on this route are typically combined with Danube or Rhine river cruises, and are an excellent choice for experienced river cruisers to see a new part of the territory. A large amount of the area was destroyed in World War II, making this route a unique experience for history buffs.

maine river cruise

  • Attend excursions in Heidelberg for a look into World War II history.
  • For literature enthusiasts, this route is an opportunity to enjoy Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s home. 
  • Stop in Bamberg for the annual beer fest in August and pleasant weather.

How to Book a River Cruise

When booking a river cruise, consider your budget, desired itinerary, passenger demographics, and cruise line. It’s best to book your river cruise as early as a year in advance to reserve the best stateroom and avoid a sold-out ship. 

Themed itineraries are popular with many routes, so write down the most important aspects of your trip, and do some comparison shopping. Most cruise lines will sail on popular rivers like Rhone, Danube, Rhine, and Seine, but many companies will specialize in specific routes. 

booking your river cruise

Length of River Cruise Trip

A river cruise typically lasts for seven days or longer. It’s common to find five day and ten-day cruises along rivers that span across multiple countries. Along the Rhone; the sailing duration can last up to 22 days. 

Account for the additional travel time to and from the original port. Oftentimes, passengers will choose to extend their trip on either end to spend a longer duration in surrounding cities or countries. 

Budget for River Cruises

River cruising peak season is between April and October, depending on the route. Most cruise lines will shut down between November and December, but you’ll find port stops at Christmas markets along the Rhine in that time frame, often at a discounted rate. You’ll find the most expensive routes throughout France.

Most river cruises are all-inclusive, however additional excursions, gratuity, and port fees may not be included. Expect to spend between:

  • $200 (€180) and $500 (€452) per person, per night. 
  • For a five-night river cruise, you can expect to pay between $1,000 (€909) and $2,500 (€2,273). 
  • For seven nights, expect to pay between $1,400 (€1,273) and $3,500 (€3,182), depending on the cruise line. 

Generally, the cruise lines with higher base fees will include extras like unlimited wine and beer, gratuity, and port fees. Travel agents can get discounted rates that are often not shown on websites. Consider comparing companies then handing off the planning to an agent who specializes in these types of cruises. 

How Many People Are In Your Group?

Consider the size of your group when making a reservation. Groups of 10 or more can take advantage of discounted rates. When booked early enough, many cruise companies offer two-for-one pricing.

For larger groups, consider electing a leader to handle the planning. For adjacent rooms, it’s exceedingly important to book as early as possible. Share key dates and flight numbers with the remaining group members so everyone can plan additional accommodation accordingly. 

Choose a Cruise Company 

Choosing a cruise line can be just as important as the river cruise route itself. When making a decision, consider the importance of extra features onboard, reviews, and overall price. 

River cruises where the average age of passengers is over 50 include APT, Avalon Waterways, Scenic, Tauck, Travelmarvel, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises.

The most prominent names in the European river cruising industry present the best-of commodities in their class. Some include:

  • Crystal River Cruises: The premier luxury option with Michelin-inspired cuisine, lavish staterooms, and an impressive crew-to-passenger ratio.
  • Uniworld River Cruises: One of the longest standing cruise lines, you’ll find Europe’s old-world style aboard these extravagant cruise ships.
  • Tauck River Cruises: Leveraging private relationships, expect best-of excursions with the Tauk brand.
  • AmaWaterways: The guest experience takes precedence on this fleet of 23 ships. Expect fine food and a complimentary cocktail hour.
  • Viking River Cruises: Viking’s key feature is its reasonable prices. The ship avoids excessive amenities to offer accessible river cruise travel for every budget.
  Crystal River Cruises Uniworld Boutique River Cruises Tauck River Cruises Ama-Waterways Viking River Cruises
Budget-Friendly        
Luxury Options  
Amenities (Spa, Fitness Center, Pool, Sundeck)  
24/7 Beverages    
Room Service      
Excursions Included
Two-Room Suites      

Additional Resources

The river cruise company, time of year, destination, and the route will factor into the experience. Consider what’s most important before proceeding with the planning stage. 

Think about off and on-board activities, average passenger age, cost, and duration when outlining the holiday, and use the resources below to research destination and cruise line-specific information. 

Cruising the waterways is ideal for first-time travelers and seasoned travelers alike. With the increasing popularity in the last 20 years, expect to see more luxury fleets, more features and amenities, and price-conscious options for European river cruise lines. 

Sources: Statista | CBI | River Cruise Advisor 1, 2 | Cruise Critic | Dream Destinations