It’s the ultimate river cruise route. The 15-day river cruise in peak or shoulder season from Amsterdam to Budapest is where many river cruisers start their love affair with the world’s most relaxed holiday.

But not many realise sailing the route costs half of a 1400km road trip with self-booked equivalent accommodation, luxury car hire, fuel, insurances and meal costs.

River Cruise Passenger investigated the savings on similar trips – one by river and one by car, for a couple.

A comparison of current 2024 European river cruise season offerings shows prices from as low as $7307pp on Avalon in June or $8563pp for an Ama Waterways standard room departing in 2025.

Dare to compare

So let’s examine what you get.

First, the accommodation. Given the appointments in an Avalon ship, you’d need an equivalent. Somewhere lovely to stay, for at least six nights anyway, in Europe can set you back an average €250-€500 per night, that’s €7,500 at the top end for your trip ($12,129).

An Avalon ship cruises along a river.
We put river versus road to the test.

Road-tripping takes its toll

Then, you have to hire a car, as opposed to walking up a gangplank. A 1400km road-trip would take about 15 hours on the autobahn non-stop direct. But via a road trip parallel to the river destinations, it would be a much longer journey. Hertz charges $3138 for a 15 day car hire of a Volvo XC90.

Fuel costs in Europe vary between €1.5-€2, per litre depending on the country. Hiring a Volvo XC90 with a fuel efficiency of 6.7L/100km, the estimated fuel cost would be €1846 (AU$3849) with the potential for tolls and additional fuel costs with side trips. Add car rental insurance €50- €100 per day or €1,500) ($2438) for the whole journey. Take in parking fees, tolls, souvenir snow globes and you of pocket change by an estimated €200 (about $330)

Adding up the estimated driving times, the total trip from Amsterdam to Budapest with the same stops of Cologne, Koblenz, Miltenberg, Würzburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg, Regensburg, Passau, Melk, Krems and Vienna would be about 20 to 26 hours. That’s not including time spent at each stop for sightseeing, meals, rest breaks and overnight stays.

Add two to four coffees a day between a couple, say €3- €6 each, as you top up fuel then there is another cost to calculate – $150!

APT couple on the balcony accommodation with their butler pouring coffee
And your coffee is already paid for on most river cruise lines.

Fine wining and dining

While a luxury river cruise usually includes breakfast, a two-course lunch and a three-course dinner, both with wine, you’d be up for a bit more on the road. Look to pay a minimum of 50 euros for a two-course lunch in a restaurant, while a decent dinner, and maybe even a Michelin-star splurge dinner or two would set you back even more. 

Take, for example, Cologne’s Phaedra restaurant and its 4-course menu deal that is €82pp, or $270 a couple – minus wine. Let’s round that out to say $300. Add a few of those dinners on your road trip and you’d not get much change from $4,500. Want a few more Michelin stars, or dine a la carte, then that would increase the cost quite a bit more. Add the occasional breakfast outside your hotel buffet, lunch and some mid-level restaurant experiences, including at your hotel and your F&B bill would be grazing the €7,200 ($11,703) mark.

Splurge on a high tea at the hotel, €30-€50 per person, say two in your trip and that’s upwards of $300.

Colognes Phaedra edited

Meanwhile, back on the water

Avalon’s Magnificent Europe covers four countries over 15 days starting with an overnight docking in the Dutch capital with dinner to welcome you aboard Avalon Impression, Avalon Imagery II or Avalon Illumination.

The following day passengers cruise to Cologne in the Rhineland before heading to the Rhine Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage site, en route to Rudesheim. 

Passengers then take in the breathtaking views of ancient castles perched on cliffs high above the water, and pass the legendary Rock of the Lorelei where the mythological siren’s songs lured ill-fated sailors. 

By Day 5 you are in Miltenberg on the Main River before an overnight cruise to Wurzburg, having had your fill with breakfast, lunch and dinner included.

Rhine cologne river cruise
Rhone or road. We weigh up the cost.

Sightseeing at 130kmh

Alternatively, on the road trip you’d be zooming down the A3 Motorway, sightseeing at 130kmh past Dusseldorf, Cologne and then on to Frankfurt. 

Meanwhile, cruisers would be taking in the wonders of Wyurzburg’s Old Main Bridge, towering fortress and baroque Bishop’s Residenz with the largest known ceiling fresco. By Day 7 Avalon guests would be in the storybook settings of Volkach where they would bike along the Main Danube Canal or join a walking tour of the quaint town with its half-timbered houses and cobblestoned streets.

Other cruise stops along the way include the City of Seven Hills, the Wonders of Bamberg and its more than 2400 historic buildings, plus a walk in Roth’s Lauter Valley, including the Historical Forge and Ratibor Castle.

Abbey road versus Danube by bike

Then it’s off to Bavaria’s oldest abbey, 7th-century Weltenburg Abbey, then on to Salzburg, the city of Mozart before heading to Vienna and seeing Danube Island by bike.

With a little white line fever, after a long drive with stops at Regensburg and Passau, road travellers would eventually hit Vienna.

Those onboard Avalon, meanwhile, would be considering a tram ride to Vienna’s Prater amusement park or to one of the many museums nearby. Later, they would be enjoying live entertainment as they sail to Budapest. Then it’s a guided sightseeing tour of the Hungarian capital, including the iconic Heroes’ Square before returning to the dock for an overnight stay.

Many of the guided tours are included in your fare onboard a river cruise, but if you were to hit the road each tour would set you back about €50-€100pp, so $2,438.

So here’s how the road trip pans out:

Accomodation: $12,129

Car hire: $3138

Fuel: $304

Insurance: $2438

Food: $7314

Total: $28,391

Oh, and the car hire companies will charge you €100-€300 ($165-300) to drop the car back on a one-way trip, unless you want to do it all over again and drive back to Amsterdam. 

All-inclusive cruiseRoad-trip
Car RentalNot needed3138
FuelNot needed304
Rental Insurance Not needed2438
Parking and tollsNot charged330
Fine wining and diningIncluded7314
Car Drop off Not applicable300
Final price$14,614 per couple$28,391 per couple

You decide.

  • Prices correct at time of writing.