River cruise lines are setting sail earlier and staying longer, passengers are getting younger and there is more for solos as this year’s European river cruise season starts.

AmaWaterways is already underway on the Rhine and Danube, where sailings began in February. The line will also be running into winter in France and Portugal (which was previously unheard of) as travellers look to escape Europe’s hot summers and crowded attractions.

There are new river ships and even more exciting itineraries to discover. Companies are trying to entice first-timers. And notably more younger travellers, families and multi-gen groups, to discover the joys of river cruising.

It’s hard to think of a better way to see Europe; cruising the world’s greatest waterways, exploring hidden towns and villages, discovering different cultures, ticking off several countries, and sampling new cuisines, all on one holiday, while travelling in luxury and unpacking just once.

Uniworld River Cruises president Ellen Bettridge can hardly contain her excitement. “This is the year of river cruising,” she told a conference organised by trade body Cruise Lines International Association in Amsterdam in March.

Solo travel is also tipped as another growth area as river cruise lines abandon single supplements to lure lone travellers. Tauck has dropped the supplement completely on lower deck cabins on all its European river cruises in 2024. While Avalon is waiving the charge on selected cabins on nearly every sailing.

It’s a smart move. River cruises are an excellent holiday for solo travellers. This is thanks to the friendly size of river ships. They average just 150 passengers – and the inclusive prices, with all or most excursions covered and often drinks and tips as well. Avalon Waterways president Pam Hoffee expects around 10% of the line’s guests to be are solo cruisers.

Europe rules

Cruise the top-selling Rhine, its Main and Moselle tributaries and the Danube. You’ll travel through the heart of Europe. You’ll visit castles, cathedrals and world-class cities as you go. All the while taking in centuries of medieval history and culture.

To meet on-going demand, Uniworld has taken on an extra ship to sail its one-week Castles on the Rhine cruises between Amsterdam in Holland and Basel in Switzerland. The SS Victoria, which previously sailed as Crystal Bach, is about as luxurious as it gets. The ship has all-suite accommodation for just 110 passengers. And not to mention exclusive wining and dining for a select few each evening in the intimate Vintage Room.

Following a Seatrade report into industry trends, river cruise lines are also betting on huge growth for France and the Douro in Northern Portugal for the 2024 river cruise season. Specifically, the report forecasts French rivers would see a 52% increase in passengers in the near future. And the Douro up 13%, level pegging with the Danube.

Porto on the Douro is a big river cruise destination 2024 colourful building
Porto on the Douro is a big river cruise destination 2024 colourful building

Avalon Waterways’ experience on the Douro bears that out. It made its debut there in March with new vessel Avalon Alegria. And despite a lot of competition from other lines, says bookings have gone through the roof. The cruises – eight nights sailing from the city of Porto to Barca d’Alva and back – are almost sold out for 2024, says Hoffee. And 2025 is more than 60% full.

She is not surprised given it is a ‘stunning’ river. With spectacular scenery that veers from picturesque narrows where you can almost touch the sides as you sail through to river banks blanketed in vineyards, some as small as a pocket handkerchief.

There are also tours in Porto and Spain’s Salamanca. These are the two cities that book-end the cruise, stories of kings, queens and dictators, and a transit through Carrapatelo Lock, the deepest in Europe, which never fails to thrill as it lifts or lowers vessels a vertiginous 35 metres.

Wine and dine as a big trend for the 2024 river cruise season

Oenophiles will have a ball this year as AmaWaterways sets sail with 20 Celebration of Wine cruises on the rivers of France, the Rhine, Danube and Douro. Each is accompanied by a wine expert, who joins guests on tours to vineyards and cellars, and hosts talks, tastings and food-and-wine pairing dinners on board.

Tauck is thinking more about your stomachs, with exclusive evenings of music and dining in historic chateaux, castles and palaces on six new cruises.

Food and dining and wine with Tauck with cheese
Tauck has a range of immersive shore excursions, particularly around food and wine

Hop on a 12-day Danube Kingdoms cruise to be wined and dined at the opulent Palais Pallavicini in Vienna or a 10-day Three Rivers cruise from Amsterdam to Regensburg to dine out at Schlosshotel Kronberg, once the home of German Empress Victoria Friedrich, the eldest daughter of the UK’s Queen Victoria. Prices are from AUD$10,130pp and AUD$8,680pp respectively excluding flights.

In line with the growing trend for active river cruises, AmaWaterways has new one-week Flavours of Burgundy voyages on the Saône in France on AmaCello, with bike tours most days, including a couple that cover 33km. If that sounds too much like hard work, rest assured there’ll be plenty of wine-tasting en route. This is France after all.