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A Viking Longship sails the Middle Rhine (Credit: Viking)

8 Mistakes to Avoid When Preparing for a European River Cruise

A Viking Longship sails the Middle Rhine (Credit: Viking)
Rachel Hartman
Marissa Wright

Aug 24, 2023

Read time
7 min read

River cruises in Europe have grown in popularity during the last several years -- and it's easy to understand why. Cruisers get to enjoy old-world charm during the day and return to their ship, where new-world comforts await.

When you set sail on a European river cruise, you'll take in tucked-away towns, incredible castles and European countryside without having to pack and unpack every night. With ample excursions and stops, you get an on-the-ground view of Europe's best sites.

While this all sounds wonderful, a few errors early on can lead to a less than delightful European river cruise. In fact, without solid preparation for your first river cruise in Europe, you could have a dreary voyage.

Steer clear of these eight mistakes, and you'll have smooth sailing on your next European river cruise.

Mistake 1: Not Prioritizing the Destinations on European River Cruises

Wooden booths offering souvenirs during Christmas Market in Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: Rostislav Glinsky/Shutterstock)

Unlike ocean cruises where the ship itself is a huge attraction, river cruises tend to focus on the places they go. The best river cruises in Europe stop at exciting cities or towns and allow travelers to explore the best locations.

We recommend doing some research before booking river cruises in Europe. Ensure you'll enjoy the stops, and take some time to read through the itineraries offered. Then you should select one that lines up with your interests and hobbies.

If you like wine, a cruise that sails along the Rhone and takes you to world-famous wineries might be a good fit. A trip with stops in Berlin or Prague could be intriguing for history lovers as well.

Itineraries that wind through the Douro River course through rocky outcrops from Porto, Portugal, to the Spanish border will yield fantastic scenery.

Mistake 2: Skipping a European River Cruise Extension

Many river cruises start and end in spectacular cities like Budapest, Vienna, Amsterdam or Paris. To make the most of your trip to Europe, consider arriving a few days early to the port city where your cruise begins -- or stay longer at the place where your trip ends. Don’t make the mistake of many first-time river cruisers and skip the extension altogether.

The best river cruises in Europe offer pre- or post-trips that you can easily connect to your cruise (many also include ship transfers). You can also arrange an extended stay on your own before sailing.

An added bonus: If you arrive a day or two early, you'll have a built-in safeguard. If your initial flight is delayed and you arrive late, you won't miss the European river cruise departure time.

Mistake 3: Packing the Wrong Gear for River Cruises in Europe

Packing for a river cruise is an art form. To pack your suitcase just right, start by checking the average temperature for the places where you'll travel. On many European river cruises, you'll need a sweater or light jacket even during the summer months, as an evening breeze could create a chill on the boat.

Bring comfortable shoes as there is typically a good deal of walking involved on excursions. Pack a raincoat and compact umbrella so unexpected rain showers don't catch you off guard, especially if you’re visiting rainy countries like Belgium, the U.K. or the Netherlands.

As you fill up your suitcase, remember that even the best river cruise cabins will likely be smaller than you'd find on an ocean cruise ship. The less you bring, the less you'll have to unpack in your space. To make the most of your clothing, think in layers; you might be able to dress up an outfit with a simple scarf or coat.

Don't forget power adapters, battery packs for all-day exploration and to leave room in your suitcase for the souvenirs you'll purchase.

Mistake 4: Forgetting Important Documents You Need to Travel in Europe

In addition to having a travel-ready passport, you'll want to ensure you have all your cruise documents in place before heading out. The smartest thing to do is to have your document copies printed and available on your smartphone.

Along with your passport, bring your driver's license (and international driver's license if you plan to rent a car). Also, take medical insurance cards, a copy of your prescriptions and a list of your medicines.

Have a list of emergency numbers and contact information readily available, such as the phone number to call if your credit card gets lost or stolen.

Mistake 5: Choosing the Wrong Season for a European River Cruise

The peak cruising season for European rivers generally runs from April to October. But not all months are the best for European river cruises.

The shoulder season months can give you the best deals, but the weather can also be chilly. If you're cruising Europe during shoulder season, like in April and May or October and November, make sure you pack plenty of warm layers and a rain jacket.

Outdoor activities might be less fun than museum visits during this time, so if you're set on biking your way along the Rhine, take your cruise in the summer when you are more likely to have better weather.

Water levels can also fluctuate depending on the time of year, which can make it difficult for boats to pass through certain areas. If you're concerned about high water levels on your river cruise, avoid cruising in the springtime. Very low levels can happen in the heat of the summer, in August or September.

Mistake 6: Planning for Quiet "Sea" Days on European River Cruises

If you've cruised on the ocean, you might be used to relaxing days at sea while the ship moves along to the next cruise port.

On a river cruise, boats often sail to the next destination during the night. This means if you want a full schedule, you'll have it. Taking advantage of the shore excursions often means getting an early start to tour cities, castles, vineyards and other local sites.

You might also choose to explore on your own some days and skip the river cruise line’s available shore excursions. Consider meandering through a town, stopping at a local cafe and simply people watching occasionally to vary the touring pace.

The best European river cruises allow travelers to explore each port while enjoying a blend of autonomous adventure and exciting group shore excursions.

Mistake 7: Thinking Europe’s River Cruises Are the Same Size as Ocean Cruises

AmaMagna (Photo: Colleen McDaniel/Cruise Critic)

River cruise ships are significantly smaller than ocean liners. In fact, you'll likely be sailing with fewer than 200 people onboard your river ship.

Due to the massive size difference, you won't find the same amenities, like several restaurant options each night or activities such as mini-golf and big shows. Most river cruisers have room for one or two restaurants, bars, lounges, ample cabins and space for a few extra amenities.

The smaller ship size has distinct advantages: You'll have the chance to meet and get to know fellow cruisers, and the staff, too. And, while there may not be a long list of events onboard, plenty of scenery and sightseeing will fill your time.

Mistake 8: Not Reading the Fine Print When Booking Your European River Cruise

Just like other cruises, you'll want to read through the details before booking your European river cruise. While some cruise lines offer all-inclusive packages, it's best to find out exactly what is covered -- and what is not -- in these deals.

Check to see if shore excursions, dinners and drinks, such as wine and beer are included, or if they come a la carte.

Along the same lines, be aware that certain cruise packages cater to specific demographics. Some will offer features that line up with a senior crowd, while others will include appealing perks for young adults who have just finished school.

To properly plan your trip and budget, look carefully at all costs listed. Make sure the cruise offers features that appeal to you and sights you are longing to see.

After doing your homework, you'll be ready for one of the most engaging ways to tour Europe.

Updated August 24, 2023
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