River Cruising: Do You Get Your Money's Worth?
One of the biggest draws of river cruising is that you pay a lump sum and your entire vacation is handed to you on a silver platter (or a black neoprene travel folder in Viking's case).
Included in the package are your hotel, which travels with you (unpacking only once, score!); all meals, some of which are three courses or more; ground transportation (again, the traveling hotel); and local tours and information. Perks can include air conditioning (rare in parts of Europe that can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer) and a full-service staff to keep you informed and oriented despite any local language and cultural barriers.
The ease of travel is enough to justify a river cruise's price tag for many. Others, myself included, who are used to coordinating every element of a trip, may wonder whether the cost is worth it. If you DIY, how much money would you save?
I did a cost breakdown of a recent Viking River Cruise trip I took. The route, Romantic Danube, followed the river for 8 days between Nuremberg and Budapest. We stopped along the way in Regensburg, Passau, Melk and Vienna and took a lovely cruise through the World Heritage Wachau Valley. At each port there was a guided tour by a local guide, plus some free time to explore. The boat docked right in the heart of most towns, making it easy to return for the included lunch or dinner; we also ate many meals as we chugged along the river.
THE CRUISE PRICE
A standard room in August (when I sailed) on the Romantic Danube route cost $2,556 at this writing; the price covers meals, which include wine and beer. You can pay extra (about $180 on my cruise) for unlimited premium wine, beer and cocktails, but I felt that the drinks included with the meal were sufficient. I could buy a $3 beer at the bar when I was in the mood, and the servers at dinner were happy to top off our glasses at the end of the meal so we could take our drinks to the bar.
Likewise with the optional excursions: there were some great extra activities, including a concert in Vienna, but you could go the entirety of the cruise (like I did) without purchasing any extras and still have a full experience. With that in mind, we'll use the base $2,556 for the official river cruise price.
THE SELF-PLANNER PRICE
To figure out what this trip would have cost had I planned it myself, I tallied up the actual cost of comparable hotels, restaurants, transportation and tours. Here's the breakdown:
What you sacrifice in space on a river cruise you make up in service: rooms are fastidiously cleaned and resupplied with water, fresh fruit and bath products daily. Had I booked 3- or 4-star hotels in each of our stops, plus Melk to accommodate a day Wachau Valley boat ride, the nightly rates would have ranged from $130 to $200.
Total: $1,150* (*price for one person: hotel rates increase a little with an additional person, but the cost per person drops substantially with two people sharing a room)
I expected to be bored by river cruise food, but I was surprised to find a lot of variety. The breakfast buffet changed slightly each day, which made it feel fresh, while lunch and dinner offered two options: a lighter meal on the boat's outdoor terrace deck or a choice of a few three course (though small-portioned) offerings in the dining room. To figure out what the cost would be, I added up breakfast (when not included in the local hotel price), lunch (a lighter meal at a café or pub) and dinner (a more upscale sit-down affair) at popular restaurants in each stop.
Total: $450 (for one person, including drinks)
It's hard to beat the scenic ride that the river cruise provides, but the boat is slow-going. It would've been fast and easy to take the train between stops. I added standard local point-to-point train fares (2nd class), plus a one-way boat ride from Krems to Melk to take in the Wachau Valley (the most scenic stretch of the cruise).
I'm not usually a fan of guided group tours so I probably would've skipped these on my own trip in favor of exploring with a map. But most passengers really enjoyed the guided walks and bus tours, so I've included them in the total. Some cities, like Budapest, offer free guided tours, while others require a fee.
GRAND DIY TOTAL: $1,919 (about $1,400 per person with a shared hotel room)
The only additional fee on the river cruise was gratuity: it's suggested you pay about $20 per passenger per day, which is split among the crew. But there are a few other differences I want to highlight. Local transportation was a nonissue on the river cruise; the boat docks right in town at all stops except for Nuremberg. If you were self-catering and heading to hotels from the train station, you'd have to take a taxi or use public transit to get around.
I didn't include airfare or transportation from the airport to the boat because river cruisers pay an additional price for that.
Air conditioning was another big plus on the boat. Europe was wilting under a massive heat wave during our cruise, which included the hottest day in Vienna's recorded history (and that goes back a while...). Many places aren't equipped for the heat, and air conditioning can be rare, so coming back to a crisply cooled cabin on those hot days was priceless.
Wi-Fi probably evens out if you were to do the trip yourself. The ship had Wi-Fi that worked pretty consistently in the lobby, lounge and restaurant, though it faded in and out in the cabin and was unavailable on the sundeck. A lot of cafés in Budapest and Vienna have free Wi-Fi, and the hotels I "booked" also offered the amenity.
IS IT WORTH IT?
The biggest bang for your buck on a river cruise is the service: your hotel serves as your transportation, someone else coordinates everything for you and you have language (and cultural) concierges on hand. It was the easiest travel experience I've had, mostly because my only responsibility was ensuring I was back on board the ship before its scheduled departure.
This level of comfort is not for everyone. When I travel, I look forward to a bit of challenge, like bumbling through public transit systems, ordering from a menu in an unpronounceable language and getting a glimpse of towns after the wave of tour group or cruise ship passengers has sailed off. Truthfully, if most travelers had 8 days in the region and weren't on a river cruise, it's unlikely that they'd be rushing to each of these stops, changing hotels nightly.
But to most people "easy" is relaxing, and "relaxing" is desirable. A river cruise offers a glimpse of a multitude of places while someone else handles the logistics. You'll learn about the local culture and history, form friendships with other cruisers and see some incredible scenery -- all without leaving your "hotel."
More River Cruise Information
- 5 Tips for River Cruising
- This is What a River Cruise Would Look Like if the Boat Went Really Fast
- SLIDESHOW: Danube River Cruise Through Germany, Austria and Hungary
- Is River Cruising the Right Vacation for You?
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