With the surge in popularity of river cruises, many traditional ocean cruisers are giving waterways like the Rhine and Danube - even the Mekong and Amazon - a first look.
But when you're accustomed to Caribbean cruises from $399 and Alaska cruises from $699, river cruise prices can seem expensive and incomprehensible. So how do you know if you're getting the best deal?
The first thing you should know is that the river cruise experience is vastly different from what you'll get by cruising on mega-ships in the Caribbean, Mediterranean or South Pacific. Instead of thousands of passengers, each riverboat typically carries fewer than 200 cruisers. And because of its nimble size, a river ship can dock in a town center - on the Seine, just blocks from the Eiffel Tower, as an example. There is an intimacy to the travel experience that involves not just the size of the ship, but the destination itself. That may translate to higher starting prices, but you'll get a lot for your vacation dollars.
The bottom line: You're buying a different product with its own price structure. Leave all your preconceived notions about cruise fares, based on ocean trips, at your travel agent's door. And when it comes time to make a decision, "It's best to focus on the product and its inherent value, not the price, " advises Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises, which sells river cruise vacations almost entirely to first timers.
Here are some factors to consider as you evaluate river cruise prices:
River cruise prices are more inclusive than ocean cruise prices
In 2011, Tauck became the first river line to go all-inclusive, including tips. Others have followed suit, though "inclusive" doesn't always mean that all extras are included. Some lines include port charges, gratuities and alcohol in their base fares; others do not. Still, ocean cruisers will likely be surprised at what river cruise fares do include. "The biggest difference between ocean and river cruising is that daily shore excursions are included, " says Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking. "You do not get nickeled and dimed once you are onboard. The vast majority of what you are going to do is paid for, so you can budget well in advance." Wine and beer included with dinner? Imagine that. Complimentary airport transfers? Free Wi-Fi? On river cruises, these are staples.
Some regions of the world cost more than others
By far, Europe is the most affordable, with the majority of first time river cruisers booking there.
Editor's note: Read below for brief breakdowns on river cruise prices in Europe, the U.S. and exotic destinations like China and Vietnam, South America and Egypt.
Just as with the ocean cruise lines, there is a strata among brands
In the popular European market, according to industry observers, Uniworld is the "luxury line, " followed closely in that top tier by Tauck, Scenic and AmaWaterways. Avalon Waterways and Viking River Cruises are considered contemporary mass-market, and Grand Circle, known for its high-quality program directors and older ships, has a reputation for being the most affordable.
Before shopping for a river cruise, consider creating a checklist
"Price is clearly a part of it, but within that price are a lot of things that can add value, " observes Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways. "I would look at the age of the ship, the size of the cabin. A lot of prices starting at the lowest category look very similar, but on a newer ship you may be getting 35 percent more space in your cabin." (A rule of thumb: The lower the deck, the cheaper the cabin and the cruise fare itself.) Other questions to tick off: Are there nice bathroom amenities? What is storage like? Can you fit luggage under your bed? What are the optional tours, and how much do they cost? "If you don't have a list of things to ask about, " Clark adds, "you may get a similar price at two operators, but one of them may be giving you a lot more in terms of value."