The growth of European river cruises has been nothing short of explosive. In fact, between 2004 and today, river cruising has grown by almost 60%.

What’s responsible for the boom? In a nutshell, river cruising is a relaxed, low-key way to explore an area up-close without the hassles of land-based travel. Instead of traveling from place to place by bus, train or car, and packing and unpacking every few nights, river cruising takes you where you want to go in comfort and style.

You board the ship in a central location, and then your hotel travels with you for the next week or two. The things you came to see are just across the river or right down the gangplank. Because most of the ships carry fewer than 200 passengers, you’ll never be part of a mob, service will be personal and attentive, and you’ll likely get to know the crew and fellow passengers in no time – and vice versa.

Although river cruises aren’t as inexpensive on a per-day basis as their ocean-going counterparts, in most cases, they include a lot more. Things you’ll pay extra for on a conventional cruise – such as shore excursions and beer or wine with meals – are often included on river cruises. And many cruise companies also include deals on airfare, such as two-for-one offers. Your initial purchase price may be more, but chances are that your shipboard account will be much less at checkout.

Because riverboats have so many fewer staterooms than huge cruise ships, they have to manage their inventory much more carefully, so if you wait until the last minute to get the best deal, you may be disappointed. But with four major cruise lines and 200 river boats offering basically the same product, competition is tough. So be sure to shop around for the best deal before booking your cruise.

Spring and fall are especially appealing times to travel in Europe. The weather is pleasant and you’ll miss the crowds of July and August. Since these are off-peak season, cruise fares and airfare are usually lower too. Tulip Time cruises through Holland in spring are very popular.

New European river cruise ships.

Uniworld introduced River Beatrice last year and this year, she was named best new river ship by Cruise Critic. Carrying 160 passengers, she sails on the Danube. Eighty percent of her staterooms have French balconies and she has more junior suites than any other ship of her size. The free bicycles are a nice amenity.

AMA’s MS AmaBella introduced double balconies that include the traditional French balcony and an outside balcony where passengers can enjoy the river first hand. AmaBella also features free WiFi access throughout the ship and an innovative infotainment system that delivers hit movies to passenger staterooms.

Avalon launched two new ships in 2010 – Avalon Felicity and Avalon Luminary. Both feature wall-to-wall windows, WiFi, a fitness center, whirlpool, and Sky Decks.

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