The Rhine and Danube are the most popular rivers in Europe for luxury riverboat cruises but also consider the Rhone, Seine, Elbe, Douro, and Po.
The Rhine and Danube are by far the most popular rivers for luxury boat cruises in Europe. However, boat cruises can also be enjoyed on many other European waterways. In Germany, add the Main, Mosel, or Neckar to Rhine cruises or explore the river and canals in the east such as the Elbe, Spree, Havel, and Oder (with excursions into the Czech Republic and Poland possible). In the Netherlands and Belgium springtime cruises to see the bulb flowers are very popular. In France, the Seine and Rhone are the main cruising rivers but also consider the waterways of Bordeaux and canals. In Italy, boats cruise on the Po and Venetian lagoon. In Portugal the Douro River with port vineyards are increasingly popular with a few cruises on the Guadalquivir and Guadiana in Spain possible.
Cruising on Rivers in Germany
Germany offers the widest range or rivers for cruising in Europe. The Rhine, Danube, and Elbe are obvious choices but riverboats also cruise on many smaller rivers, canals, and seas.
More passenger boats cruise on the Rhine River in Germany than any other river in Europe. The classic Rhine boat cruise route is from Basel to Amsterdam but endless permutations are available.
The most popular part of the Rhine is the Middle Rhine, which can be seen on a day-trip cruise as well, and is included in most Rhine River cruises. Many riverboat cruise lines add Rhine tributaries such as the Mosel (Trier), Main (Frankfurt, Würzburg, Bamberg) and Neckar (Heidelberg, Stuttgart) to Rhine cruises.
It is also possible to combine the Rhine and Danube cruises by cruising up the Main River and down the Main-Donau canal (Nuremberg). Danube cruises mostly departs from Passau on the German-Austrian border and continue downriver into Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and beyond.
The Elbe River is also a major river for cruise boats and navigable from the North Sea (Hamburg) well into the Czech Republic (and via the Vltava /Moldau to Prague). Elbe cruises are often combined with cruising on the Spree (Potsdam) and Havel (Berlin). The Oder (German-Polish) border is also navigable with many boats continue onto the generally calm Baltic Sea.
No nation enjoys riverboat cruising more than the Germans resulting in endless options in Germany itself as well as many German tour operators offering riverboat cruises all over Europe. Travelers willing and able to book through a German tour operator will find a wider choice both in terms of destinations and prices than are available in English-speaking markets.
Cruising on Austrian Rivers
The Danube (Donau) flows through Austria and is after the Rhine the top European waterway with riverboat cruisers. The most popular Danube cruise is from Passau on the German-Austrian border to Vienna (Wien) past Linz, Melk, and the Wachau valley. However, many Danube cruises also continue further downstream from Vienna to the ancient capitals of Bratislava and Budapest.
Cruises all the way to the Black Sea are also possible and can take up to three weeks. Upriver, Danube cruise boats can go up to Kehlheim and via the Main-Danube Canal to the Main River and eventually the Rhine.
Cruising on French Rivers
The most popular rivers for cruising in France are the Seine in the north of France and the Rhone in the south. The two rivers cannot be linked by boat but cruises on both rivers are often available as package deals with a bus or train ride linking the two boats.
The Seine River is hugely popular with cruisers due to the routings possible from Paris. Some boats will stay a few nights in Paris itself but more commonly cruise downriver to Normandy via famous sights from art and history such as Rouen and Honfleur.
The Rhone River in the south of France is also very popular, as it not only passes through fine scenery and historic sights, but also the weather is warmer and sunnier for much longer. Cruises often depart from Lyon heading south but cruising further upriver on the Saone is also possible. Popular stops include Avignon, Arles, and the Camargue.
The Gironde, Garonne, and Dordogne in Bordeaux have long been popular with French cruisers but new international offerings will start from 2014 to open this famous wine-growing region to more international boat passengers too. Many will be surprised by the monumental architecture here.
Cruising is also possible on smaller rivers and canals with self-steering holidays and barging very popular too. A small part of the Rhine is the French-German border with many cruises departing from Strasbourg.
Cruising on Italian Rivers
Italy is not generally blessed with major rivers except for the Po in the north of the country. Po River cruises typically depart from Venice with cruising in the Venetian lagoon before turning up the Po.
Cruising on Portuguese and Spanish Rivers
The Douro River has long been popular with boat cruises and the number of international cruises on Portugal’s largest river is increasing. Cruises are typically from Porto on the Atlantic to the Spanish border. Vineyards, providing the juice for Port, cover much of the valleys of the Douro.
A few boat cruises are also available in the south of Portugal and neighboring Spain on the Guadiana and Guadalquivir Rivers. Top sights here include Cordoba, Seville, Jerez, and Cadiz with excursions to Gibraltar and Grenada also possible.
Cruising on Rivers and Canals in The Netherlands and Belgium
The canals and rivers of The Netherlands and northern Belgium (Flanders) have been important transportation routes for centuries. In recent years, many major international cruise boat operators have started to offer springtime cruises to see Keukenhof and the famous bulb flower fields of Holland.
Smaller local operators offer cruises year-round with many interesting permutations. Very popular with Dutch and German travelers are combining boat cruises with cycling excursions.
The easiest way to save money on riverboat cruises is to use a specialized travel agent, who will be aware of when the best times are to book to get the biggest discounts. Cruises promoted in the international market often sell out a year in advance, making early booking discounts or free air usually the best savings option. For cruises promoted in the European market, last-minute reservations may make sense but obviously will only work for travelers with more flexibility, especially if airfares need to be calculated separately.