If you're expecting your European cruise holiday to be all about lazing around on the deck, think again. There is a lot of sightseeing involved once you dock at a port, which includes a lot of walking, much of it on Europe's famous cobbled streets. Get fit beforehand, lest you face a burnout while on holiday.
At the cost of sounding very ill-informed, it must be admitted that cruise ships were, until recently, considered to be a perfect holiday for those who found themselves on the wrong side of 50. It involved a comfortable setting, with lots of time spent bobbing up and down on the calm waters of the Danube or the Rhine, seeking the most wonderful photo ops of continental Europe. It still is all this, but you'd be surprised to know the extent to which cruise companies have reinvented themselves to cater to a more younger and hipper crowd.
So, before you dive right in and book one for yourself, here are a few things that you've got to keep in mind.
Pick one that is all-inclusive
With group holidays, most itineraries are not all-inclusive, which can be a shame, as the traveler has to be mindful of what he can or cannot do. Therefore, it is better to pick a cruise that gives an all-inclusive deal, upfront. This should include all of the following―airport transfers, tips, meals, drinks, excursions, and on-board facilities like spas, specialty restaurants, pools, gyms, etc. Try to evade the "conditions apply" deals as far as possible, as it is really hard to keep a track of what you're allowed or not allowed to do.
Screen their specialties
With their growing popularity, cruises are now catering to all kinds of travelers; gone are the days when it used to be the 'elderly' way to see Europe. Once you dock, there are ample opportunities for doing whatever it is you want to, be it cycling, exploring, clubbing, or simply taking the designated walking tour conducted by in-house tour guides. You've got to be clear about the kind of excursions that are offered, as some companies can be quite rigid about their itineraries, and not allow patrons to go off on their own, for safety concerns. If you're more of the outdoorsy type, and the cruise offers a lot of museum visits, you know you ought to bypass it.
Don't forget your budget and your purpose
European cruises can be quite heavy on the pocket. Does it seem any surprising that they've been the preferred way to travel for well-off retirees? An all-inclusive, two-week cruise can easily cost you in the range of USD 6,000 or thereabouts per person. Which can amount to nothing, provided you are the type who'd want to travel in style. But if you're a backpacker at heart, or for whatever reason your mind's not in it, you won't be able to enjoy it, no matter how lavish the setting.
Know that the weather can be a complete dampener
April to October is the cruise season in Europe. But mind you, the weather in April and early May can play spoilsport at times. It can be wet and chilly, which means that you may have to spend most of your time indoors, rather than being on the deck to enjoy the views. Also, the rains may cause the water level in the rivers to rise, making it impossible for ships to pass under bridges. Conversely, in case of a drought, the low water level would also mean that ships cannot pass through. Late May to July, therefore would be more appropriate than April.
Pick a cruise that's right for you
Rhine? Danube? Seine? No, all European cruises aren't the same; in fact, they do cater to very different kinds of clientele.
The Rhine-Moselle-Main cruise is more about exploring the picturesque side of Europe, as it takes you along the historic corridor of the continent, viewing the most breathtaking castles, mountains, and landscapes. This cruise charts the course of the Rhine, from Switzerland to Amsterdam, into France and Luxembourg, and culminates in Germany. Fans of fairy tale landscapes and history buffs will immensely appreciate this route.
The Danube crosses the Iron Curtain, entering Eastern Europe, which offers a fresh perspective into Europe for those who have had enough of the western part of the continent. The Danube flows from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, passing through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
The Rhone cruise is made for wine lovers, since it sails through Provence and Burgundy, two of France's top wine-making regions. You'll have ample visits to vineyards along the way, sampling the local produce, and enjoying the gorgeous views.
The Douro is another exciting option for those wanting to explore Portugal and Spain, two very unique and distinct destinations in the western corridor. The Douro river rises in north-central Spain, and flows southwards into northern Portugal, and finally emptying into the Atlantic at Porto. Stops along the way include the Golden City of Salamanca, and the sleepy fishing hamlet of Pinhao, as you take in the vine-covered, rugged hillside along the banks of the Douro.
The cruise you pick should foremostly, reflect your choices about the kind of holiday you wish to go on. Therefore, conduct thorough research before you take your pick.
Cruising through the rivers of Europe is one of the most amazing ways to appreciate the beauty of this picturesque continent. Remember to book your trip at least 8 months in advance, though, as the best of these get filled up before you would imagine.