With the surge in popularity of river cruises, many traditional ocean cruisers are giving waterways like the Rhine and Danube -- even the Mekong and the Amazon -- a first look.
But when you're accustomed to Caribbean cruises from $399 and Alaska cruises from $699, river cruise prices can seem expensive and incomprehensible. So how do you know if you're getting the best deal?
The first thing you should know is that the river cruise experience is vastly different from what you'll get by cruising on mega-ships in the Caribbean, Mediterranean or South Pacific. Instead of thousands of passengers, each riverboat typically carries fewer than 200 cruisers. And because of its nimble size, a river ship can dock in a town center -- on the Seine, just blocks from the Eiffel Tower, as an example. There is an intimacy to the travel experience that involves not just the size of the ship, but the destination itself. That may translate to higher starting prices, but you'll get a lot for your vacation dollars.
The other thing to remember is that river cruises, particularly European and Southeast Asian ones, typically offer more inclusions. Beer, wine and soft drinks are usually offered with lunch and dinner, and some lines include all beverages as part of the cruise fare. A sampling of excursions will be included as well, and some lines throw in airport transfers and pre-cruise hotel stays.
The bottom line: You're buying a different product with its own price structure. Leave all your preconceived notions about cruise fares, based on ocean trips, at your travel agent's door. And when it comes time to make a decision, "It's best to focus on the product and its inherent value, not the price," advises Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises, which sells river cruise vacations almost entirely to first timers.
Here are some factors to consider as you evaluate river cruise prices:
Tips for Pricing a River Cruise
River cruise prices are more inclusive than ocean cruise prices
In 2011, Tauck became one of the first river lines to go all-inclusive, including beverages and tips. Others have followed suit, though "inclusive" doesn't always mean that all extras are included. Some lines include port charges, gratuities and alcohol in their base fares; others do not. Still, ocean cruisers will likely be surprised at what river cruise fares do include.
"The biggest difference between ocean and river cruising is that daily shore excursions are included," says Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking. "You do not get nickeled and dimed once you are onboard. The vast majority of what you are going to do is paid for, so you can budget well in advance."
Wine and beer included with dinner? Imagine that. Complimentary airport transfers? Free Wi-Fi? On river cruises, these are staples.
Some regions of the world cost more than others
By far, Europe is the most affordable, with the majority of first time river cruisers booking there.
Editor's note: Read below for brief breakdowns on river cruise prices in Europe, the U.S. and exotic destinations like China and Vietnam, South America and Egypt.
Just as with the ocean cruise lines, there is a strata among brands
In the popular European market, according to industry observers, Uniworld is the "luxury line," followed closely in that top tier by Tauck, Scenic and AmaWaterways. Avalon Waterways and Viking River Cruises are considered contemporary mass-market, and Grand Circle, known for its high-quality program directors and older ships, has a reputation for being the most affordable.
Before shopping for a river cruise, consider creating a checklist
"Price is clearly a part of it, but within that price are a lot of things that can add value," observes Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways. "I would look at the age of the ship, the size of the cabin. A lot of prices starting at the lowest category look very similar, but on a newer ship you may be getting 35 percent more space in your cabin."
(A rule of thumb: The lower the deck, the cheaper the cabin and the cruise fare itself.) Other questions to tick off: Are there nice bathroom amenities? What is storage like? Can you fit luggage under your bed? What are the optional tours, and how much do they cost?
"If you don't have a list of things to ask about," Clark adds, "you may get a similar price at two operators, but one of them may be giving you a lot more in terms of value."
Look for deals -- they're out there
Early river cruise bookings -- generally 12 months in advance for peak season departures and nine to 12 months for other periods -- tend to get you the best prices. There are also discounts for groups of typically eight to 10 people. The lines will post last-minute sales when a ship doesn't fill to capacity.
But that 11th-hour "good deal" is often offset by airfare, which can be pricey when purchased on a last-minute basis. While river cruise companies do charge a single supplement of 50 to 100 percent for solo travelers who book cabins designed for double occupancy, some companies offer a "roommate" program, where a passenger is paired with another solo traveler, thereby quashing the single supplement.
Occasionally, the lines will announce single supplement waivers or discounts on their websites. They're worth watching out for, as they're becoming more common.
Keep in mind that the cruise fare doesn't cover the entire cost of the trip
Other considerations include airfare, travel cancellation insurance, visas, and pre- and post-cruise land stays in places like Prague, Budapest, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg. Viking's Marnell says the trip extensions have become so popular that "almost a majority" of Viking passengers now take advantage of them. (Many lines bundle cruise-and-stay packages, too.)
The lines generally recommend that shoppers check out their websites and then consult travel agents
In many cases, the website will have a link to preferred travel agents within the shopper's zip code. (Editor's note: Grand Circle sells its cruises directly to consumers, bypassing travel agents completely). "River cruising is still a relatively new concept," notes Wesley Bosnic, senior vice president of Uniworld. "Consumers have a lot of questions." A travel agent can point you toward the best river cruise fit for you and help you get the best price with the most value.
If you've got a specific destination in mind, here are some pricing tips for the most popular river cruise itineraries.
Europe River Cruise Prices
If price is an important consideration, look at Europe first. Fares start at about $200 per person, per night, for budget-priced river cruises and range up to $500 per person, per night, for an all-inclusive luxury experience. Cruise tours typically span seven to 21 nights. Seven-night Rhine or Danube cruises are the most affordable. It's worth noting that France has the highest Europe river cruise prices.
Europe also has shoulder seasons when cruises can be had -- if not on the cheap, then at least more cheaply. Hands down, mid-May through late September are the most popular months for European river cruises, and sailings during that time are usually 15 to 20 percent higher in price. Business slacks off a bit in the heat of July and August, as do prices by as much as 10 percent.
Price-sensitive travelers should consider late March and late fall, when cooler temperatures prevail and crowds thin out -- shoulder-season river cruising is one of Europe's best-kept sercrets.
Holiday Christmas market cruises in November and December are priced lower than those during any other time of the year, offering the best deal in Europe overall -- though these are also becoming more expensive as they gain in popularity. There are no sailings in Europe in January or February.
U.S. River Cruise Prices
A made-in-America river cruise can be more expensive than cruising the rivers of Europe, but there are other benefits to consider, like the absence of international flights.
The pricing structure on U.S. river cruises is similar to that of their European counterparts. Booking six months in advance of peak season departures is advised. That doesn't mean you can't get good deals later than that, though. In addition, some U.S. river cruise lines typically offer group discounts and fare reductions for kids.
On average, U.S. river cruise prices run about $400 to $500 per person, per night. While the U.S. cruise lines tout themselves as "inclusive," it's important to understand exactly what that means. American Cruise Lines' fares don't cover crew tips or port charges, while American Queen Steamboat Company advertises itself as the most inclusive river cruise product in North America, with fares that encompass complimentary wine and beer with dinner, all shore excursions, bottled water and soda, and a one-night stay in a deluxe hotel in the city of embarkation.
Asia River Cruise Prices
The biggest difference in river cruising in places like China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar is that the trip also includes a land component that's often longer than the cruise itself. For instance, a typical three- or four-night Yangtze cruise is generally wrapped in a tour that lasts 10 or more nights. There are additional costs associated with Asian travel that the passenger should consider, as well. Unlike in Europe, visas are required for entry to places like Southeast Asia and China. Visa services generally range from $60 per person up to several hundred dollars, but tend to be easier to acquire now that many countries are issuing electronic visas.
Depending on where you reside, airfare to Asia may also be more expensive, though for those residing on the west coast of North America, fares to Asia may actually be more affordable than European airfare.
However, there are "value" seasons associated with the weather and, consequently, limited demand periods. The most affordable time to cruise the rivers of Asia is between June and August. Yangtze and Mekong river cruise tours can be had for as low as $300 per person, per night, during the low season, climbing to $350 during peak travel times. Trips on the Irrawaddy in Myanmar runs about 20 percent more.
Since the fare includes a lengthy land component, it's prudent when calculating the value of the fare to research the quality of the hotels and excursions. The Mekong and Irrawaddy are still relatively new entrants when it comes to tourism development, so there are fewer choices for hotel rooms (and ships), though cities on both destinations will offer up well-known luxury brands like Sofitel and Shangri-La.
Amazon River Cruise Prices
The Amazon, winding through Peru and Brazil, is the most expensive river in the world to cruise, in large measure due to the cost of getting there. The big takeaway for this river? When pricing the Amazon, it's essential to do an apples-to-apples comparison. Lindblad and Avalon both charter small vessels that were built to navigate remote areas of the Amazon in Peru. These tours, especially in Lindblad's case, will spend days on the river itself.
Some oceangoing passenger lines, including Regent Seven Seas and Oceania, offer itineraries in Brazil that are two weeks or longer and take in far more destinations than an Amazon-centric tour offered by lines like Aqua Expeditions or Avalon, but the latter offers a more immersive, "on-the-ground" style of travel.
The actual Amazon sailing experience itself is scant, with the region explored instead by way of shore excursions. Per-person, per-night fares are competitive, with Amazon River cruise fares starting as low as $416 -- but don't expect a European-style river cruise with days spend lazily drifting down the river.
Amazon cruises take place all year long, and there isn't a lot of play in pricing when it comes to departures. The best way to snag savings: Look for Wave promotions at the start of a new year for both international airfares and cruise fares.
Nile River Cruise Prices
Nile River cruise prices aren't cheap; on average, they're $500 per person, per night. But they offer up a good mix of itineraries -- three-, four- and six-night river cruises with as many as six nights in Cairo. Some of the lines also sail on Lake Nasser. Peak demand is between October and early January, with the shoulder season spanning from mid-January through early April. The low -- and hottest -- season is between May and the end of September. The variance in pricing between high and low seasons can be as much as 25 percent, though prices have been at historic lows as many lines look to entice travelers back to the Nile.
The good news: The price of airfare to Egypt tends to stay pretty stable, even when purchased last minute. Otherwise, plan to travel in low season or at the end of the shoulder. What to watch out for: Many of the tours include domestic flights, which are an extra cost. Egypt also requires a visa, which can be obtained at the Cairo airport upon arrival for $25. Flights from the U.S. to Egypt aren't as frequent or as convenient as flights to Europe, but theycan be cheaper. Round trip fares start at around $700 from the Midwest and East Coast and $900 from the West Coast.