European River Cruising 2011

Certain European cruise itineraries have become so popular they have nicknames.

The “Eastern Med” starts in Venice and runs through the Aegean Sea to Dubrovnik, Athens, Greek isles like Santorini and Rhodes and always includes Kusadasi, Turkey, for a visit to the ancient city of Ephesus, home of the Ephesians, with whom St. Paul famously corresponded.

The “Western Med” cruise heads from Barcelona to Mallorca, Monte Carlo, Nice, Naples, Civitavecchia (the port for Rome) and Livorno, the port for Florence and Pisa, Italy.

Big-named cities like these are regular stops for larger cruise ships, but if you opt for a smaller ship you see more unusual places like St. Tropez, Portofino, Sorrento and Malta.

Other classic European itineraries include the Atlantic seaboard that stops in London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Cherbourg, St. Michel and Le Havre; or the Baltic Sea itinerary with Copenhagen, Helsinki, Gdansk, Stockholm, Warnemunde (for Berlin) and St. Petersburg.

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In additional to these classic cruises, many Americans are discovering the real jewel of European cruising: riverboat cruises

There are now about 100 different riverboats sailing the waterways of Europe and many of them are adapted for American tourists with English-only tours and menus.

Unlike American riverboat cruising, which is a comparatively tiny business, European riverboats are at the height of their popularity; featuring state-of- the-art balcony staterooms, expertly- guided tours in English and gourmet food purveyed locally and prepared by European chefs.

Dinner is served by waiters while breakfast and lunch are usually buffet style. Since food is included in the fare, if you are off the boat on a tour the cruise will arrange and pay for the meal in a local restaurant.

The riverboat business largely evolved from the days of packaged motor coach tours. In 1980 it was common to see Europe by bus, staying in a different hotel each night and spending a large part of each day riding the roads to popular destinations. But soon the convenience of cruise ship travel caught the eye of tour operators--you unpack only once and your hotel travels with you. Even better, much of the necessary travel happens overnight leaving more days open for sightseeing.

Globus Travel is one example of a motor coach company turned river cruise line. Founded in Switzerland 80 years ago, Globus became the largest coach tour company in Europe after WWII. It began marketing to U.S. tourists in the 1950s and later moved its headquarters to Littleton, Colorado.

In 2003, the company developed Avalon Waterways, which currently boasts nine new river boats in Europe alone--all built between 2006 and 2010. Panorama, the newest Avalon vessel, has beautiful staterooms with open-air balconies, flat-panel TVs, minibars, 24-hour Wi-Fi access and free room service. The boat has a library, fitness center and spa and salon services. There’s an open-top deck for viewing scenery and like most riverboats, all meals and guided tours are included in the fare.

The guided tours on all river boats are a main attraction; a tour is offered almost every day of each cruise, with many offering two.

Viking River Cruises is another popular company catering to American tourists. The company recently announced it will build four brand new vessels to be called the “Viking Longships, ” which will feature the largest riverboat suites in Europe: 445 sq. ft.

Viking River Cruises has 20 boats in Europe alone, and also offers Yangtze, Russia and Nile cruises.

Other well-known and popular riverboat companies for Americans include Abercrombie & Kent, AMA Waterways and Uniworld, which sail upon include the Danube, Elbe, Mosel, Rhine, Rhone, Saone and Seine rivers.

The European river cruise season starts with the “Tulip Time cruises” in early April and lasts through the Christmas holiday season. Most river boats go dark for the winter months.

Most lines also offer cruising in Russia on the Moscow River and the Stalin Canal from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The Yangtze (China) and the Nile rivers – when politically feasible - are also offered by these companies.

Most river cruises are seven days long, although some 10, 12 and 14-day itineraries are also offered. Popular itineraries include:

•         Danube River: Vienna to Budapest

•         Elbe River: Berlin too Prague

•         Main and Mosel Rivers: Prague to Paris (buses and trains included)

•         Rhine River:  Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland

•         Rhone and Saone Rivers:  Marseille to Lyon, France

•         Seine River: Paris to the Beaches of Normandy

European riverboat cruising is especially convenient for road warriors who need constant communication. World-phone users will have 24-hour cellular service and most modern riverboats also offer free Wi-Fi access via cell networks throughout the cruise – a definite departure from most cruise ships where you pay dearly for Internet access because of the use of satellite networks.

You should book your 2011 river cruise as soon as possible for the best airfare.

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CruiseMates Cruise Glossary

I started writing about stock market investing for Motley Fool in 1995, but previously I worked aboard cruise ships. I co-founded from New York City in 1999. CruiseMates, one the Web’s top cruise travel guides was acquired by Internet Brands in 2006. Once CEO, I am now the editor of CruiseMates – Paul Motter.