Five years ago, we came up with a list of Six Tips for Booking Your 2013 River Cruise. Half a decade later, many of these tips are still relevant – and some of them are even more relevant than they were back then.
As we head into the start of the 2018 river cruise season, there are six things you should consider when planning your 2018 or 2019 river cruise. And as with 2013, the main tips we can provide to prospective river cruisers: plan ahead – and take action.
1. Book Next Year’s River Cruise Now
Already, the 2018 summer months are nearly sold out. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to even casual travelers, as the summer months are always the first to fill up.
What may come as a surprise, though, is how quickly some of the shoulder months filled up for this year. We’re talking about the early spring, when river cruises start operating again in Europe, and late into the winter. We’ve heard that one big river cruise operator may have all of its 2018 cruises sold out within a matter of weeks.
No longer, either, are the bookends of the season the low-hanging fruit. The soaring popularity of Christmas Markets river cruises is driving up demand in December in ways that seemed far-fetched just seven or eight years ago.
This is also true of the springtime Tulip Time Cruises that sail only between March and May (when the tulips are in bloom naturally). Sailing through the picturesque confines of the Netherlands and Belgium, these floral-themed voyages always sell out early.
The take-away? Book as far in advance as possible. You’ll have longer to pay for your cruise, and more time to research the best flight, hotel and transfer options. Keep in mind that “booking far in advance” means booking more than half a year out. Book your 2019 cruises now.
2. Give Yourself The Gift Of A Christmas Markets River Cruise
The weather may be chilly, but Christmas Markets river cruises are hot. Primarily operating between November 25 and January 1, these cozy and festive river cruises operating on the Danube, Rhine and Main Rivers (and sometimes beyond) can fill up fast. A few years back, I would have recommended booking these cruises around July and August. A quick look online, however, shows some Winter 2018 Christmas Markets river cruises are already either sold out or mostly sold out – especially for two categories: suites, and price-leader “riverview” staterooms.
Christmas Markets are truly wonderful. I love the cozy feeling of being on a vessel that transports me along the main arteries of Europe during this festive time of year. The rivers are magical. I’ve cruised through broken sheets of ice, which appeared as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle from the balcony of my stateroom. And although the sky can be brilliant blue, it’s often diffused, giving the sky the appearance that reminds me of an Impressionistic painting. Surely, this must be the most romantic time of year to cruise Europe.
If you’re lucky, snow will blanket the villages along the rivers. One year, I trudged on powder with my family and friends through the uber-charming Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Christmas trees were decorated with red ribbons and sparkly white lights. Branches were laden with clumps of snow that had fallen from the rooftops. Icicles appeared like mini-stalactites from awnings, and under them, shop windows presented everything from wurst to gingerbread cookies, baked in Old World tradition.
Sounds wonderful, right? If you’re set on the Christmas Markets, put a deposit down now for 2018. You’ll secure your spot and get a better pick of available sailings and staterooms.
3. Book Even Earlier To Secure The Best Staterooms
While river cruise lines make plenty of noise about their balcony (French or otherwise) staterooms, the fact is that these make up the bulk of the accommodations on most river cruise ships. As such, top-of-the-line suites and economical riverview staterooms are selling out first.
This is problematic for two sets of river cruise passengers: price-sensitive travelers looking to get onboard for the least amount of money (riverview staterooms are often the “price-leaders”), and travelers looking for the best of the best in terms of accommodations.
If you fall into either of these two categories, booking early is imperative.
4. Consider Going Last Minute
Here’s a contrarian approach to booking early: If you’ve got a ton of frequent-flier miles burning a hole in your pocket, consider booking a last-minute river cruise. Quite often, one or two staterooms are still available on sailings that are ridiculously close to departure, and sometimes these can go for a considerable discount. Before you pull the trigger, though, be sure to look into airfare first: Unless you’re flush with airline points, the air could run you more than the entire cruise.
5. Get My Recommendations
Navigating the myriad of river cruise lines, ships, and itineraries out there can be confusing. I’ve been doing it for more than a decade, and I’m still learning something new about the industry every single day.
While river cruise ships can take you to many places around the globe, deciding where to go and when to go can often be overwhelming. That’s where I come in. Simply answer a few questions, and I’ll send you recommendations for a river cruise that works for you. I don’t sell river cruises, but I will recommend a travel agent if you need one, and only if you ask me to do so. My advice is totally free. My goal is to see you as a happy river cruiser.
6. Give Up On 2018 And Look To 2019
If you can’t find what you want this year, look to 2019. Like oceangoing cruise lines, river cruise lines have gotten into the habit of releasing the next year’s inventory well in advance, which means that booking a year or more in advance isn’t just possible, it’s a good idea.
As always, there are benefits for booking so far ahead. Cruise lines offer incentives and promotions to encourage this and booking in advance provides more time to pay for that cruise (let’s face it – river cruising isn’t exactly cheap). The increased time also allows you to take advantage of better airfare deals, more choice when it comes to accommodations like hotels or Airbnb rentals and to generally enjoy planning your cruise vacation.
An avid traveler and an award-winning journalist, Ralph Grizzle produces articles, video and photos that are inspiring and informative, personal and passionate. A journalism graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ralph has specialized in travel writing for more than two decades. To read more cruise and port reviews by Ralph Grizzle, visit his website at www.avidcruiser.com.