The difference in on-board experience and offshore exploration varies dramatically between different river cruise brands. But finding a ship with a crowd-free deck, top cuisine and compelling excursions, doesn’t have to break your budget.
An affordable, stellar experience can be found by securing the best river cruise deals and travelling at the cheapest times. In this guide, we reveal everything you need to know before booking your next river cruise trip.
Most river cruise companies that we spoke to told us their best deals are available in advance. You might expect them to say this, and while you should always compare prices to make sure an early bird deal is really a deal, the fares we looked at did appear to be cheaper when booked in advance.
With APT River Cruises, we found an eight-day Rhine and Main itinerary for £1,798pp in July 2018, booking just six weeks in advance of travel. Looking ahead to the same date in 2019, we could secure the same cabin and itinerary for £1,589pp, saving over £200pp.
If you’re open to exploring the world’s waterways with any river cruise company, then you might hope your flexibility will bag you a last minute bargain. But unlike flight tickets, last minute deals can rarely, if ever, be found on river ships. A Riviera Travel spokesperson explained: “We never discount so there’s no last-minute deals available; instead we advise booking early to secure your choice of preferred cabin or suite.”
While ocean liners can feel like floating cities with thousands of cabin options to choose from, river ships have much smaller capacities, carrying between 80 and 250 guests. So if you have your heart set on a particular cabin type, you should probably snap it up by booking early.
However, taking advantage of early bird discounts which can be released up to 15 months in advance of travel, is a risky approach if there are any uncertainties on your horizon, such as ill health that might prevent a holiday from taking place. It’s worth researching cancellation policies before you book anything.
From January until March each year the cruising industry releases a number of promotional special offers, free upgrades, solo traveller savings and BOGOF (buy one get one free) bargains. If you research this carefully and are fairly flexible with dates you might find yourself a deal for the year ahead.
Cruisecritic.co.uk, Travelzoo and Cruiseline.com are just some of the sites that round up these seasonal offers, but you can also search your favourite brand’s website to see if they’re participating in wave season.
Whether you’re travelling solo or in a large group, a travel agent can lessen the burden of trawling the internet for a river cruise deal. Agents can often find you a better deal than booking directly through a cruise line.
For example, we found Riviera Travel’s Danube Delight eight-day cruise from Budapest to Munich, staying in the Emerald Stateroom on Riviera Deck in September 2019 for £1,995pp on the company’s website. But by calling Cruise.co.uk we were offered the same trip for £1,925pp.
The other benefit of calling in the experts is that they’ll be able to compare itineraries across several brands and easily find room upgrade discounts.
Whether you’re chasing autumn sunshine, find cities enchanting in the spring or just want to avoid the summer crowds at popular tourist attractions, travelling off season is the ideal budget option. By plumping for quieter April or October you’ll be able to enjoy your on-board experience and itinerary for less. Several brands confirmed that during the quietest months, fare prices are lowered.
All-inclusive drinks packages can be tempting due to the convenience of travelling cashless on-board and for the peace of mind knowing that whatever tipple you fancy each day, it’s already paid for. Depending on your drinking habits, a package might be appropriate. But in our experience most passengers tell us that they struggled to get good value for money with this add-on.
Take Riviera Travel, it offers customers a seven-night drinking package from £99pp for 2018 departures and £109pp for 2019. By purchasing this package guests can enjoy beer, soft drinks and wine during lunch and dinner, with £14.14 per person to spend each day. On a 2018 European cruise you’d need to drink four glasses of wine (£2.50 each) and two sparkling mineral waters (£2 each) a day, to justify the package. And everyone travelling with you would also need to purchase a drinks add-on package.
If you’re not likely to consume enough to match the cost of the package then you could be better off paying as you go. It’s also worth noting that your ship might not stock your favourite booze brands and that many companies allow you to bring your own alcoholic drinks on-board (to be enjoyed in your cabin rather than at mealtimes).
Most river cruise companies include one free shore excursion per port stop, but these may be general city tours by bus that aren’t tailored to your unique interests.
Whether the quality or cost of your excursion is more important is down to personal taste but one way to save money might be to choose a budget river cruise line with minimal excursions included and to use a third-party company, such as cruisingexcursions.com to handle your port excursions, thus creating a bespoke itinerary.
However, the savings we found between third party tour companies and river cruise line packages were minimal showing that in some instances, the brand’s own add-ons are quite reasonable. It’s also worth noting that the ship's spa treatments are often cheaper while the ship is in port, so this may be something you want to factor into your schedule.