Amy Stoltenberg is a staff writer covering all things travel, shopping and lifestyle. After earning a BA at Savannah College of Art and Design, she worked as technical designer in corporate fashion before opting for a career with unlimited travel time. When her laptop's closed, you can find her wandering around Los Angeles looking for hole-in-the-wall eateries and plotting her way to all 50 states (she's currently at 28).
On intimate voyages to lesser-known towns and villages throughout the European countryside, you’ll tour off-the-beaten-path castles and wineries and indulge in a leisurely pace of life.
I can confidently state that there is nothing else like these cruises on the market.
To me, European Waterways epitomizes the gratifying nature of slow travel. You get to really dig into the culture of each region — rather than skim the surface. You’ll experience the soul of Europe as indigenous people have for centuries. Artfully-prepared meals paired with local wines only enhance the sights and sounds encountered each day.
Still, European Waterways cruises aren’t for everyone. If you aren’t big on socializing, you may feel overwhelmed by the small quarters and chatty atmosphere on the small hotel barges. Also, these aren’t necessarily luxury cruises that cater to your beck and call. For instance, you might get frustrated with the small menu and few drink options.
Finally, cruises are pricey — especially when you factor in airfare.
Simply put, European Waterways offers deeply satisfying sojourns, not quick-and-lively getaways. Whether or not it’s worth your dollar depends on the type of vacation you’re craving.
European Waterways ships
European Waterways’ fleet of “barge hotels” are more akin to houseboats than typical cruise ships. There won’t be more than 20 passengers on board — some only have room for six, plus the crew. Still, the decorations are comfortable and thoughtful, with white tablecloths on dining tables and leather couches to curl up on after a day of exploring.
Each barge is designed specifically for the region it sails: The elegant and airy L’Impressionniste winds through the vineyards of Burgundy, while the dark wood-paneled Scottish Highlander cruises through the Great Glens of Scotland. Most have a hot tub on deck, so you can relax and unwind while the countryside passes by.
European Waterways cruises tend to depart from smaller port towns around Europe. Usually, the itinerary actually begins at a hotel or restaurant in a major city like London, Paris or Dublin so you can meet the crew and travel to the port together. These transfers are complimentary on private chauffeured vehicles and usually include a tasty beverage or two.
Not surprisingly, European Waterways primarily sails around Europe. Its itineraries include rural ports that even small luxury cruise ships can’t access. You’ll get up-close-and-personal with medieval villages and stately châteaus with private, guided tours through each stop. Keep in mind that most of its trips are scheduled between April and October, so each itinerary only has a handful of departure dates to choose from.
It also has themed cruises available for private charter. So wine lovers, golfers and more can indulge their hobby in the company of like-minded friends.
Here’s a general taste of where European Waterways cruises can take you:
Belgium, France, England, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Scotland
What’s included on my European Waterways cruise?
European Waterways cruises cost a bit more up front, but your fare covers the gamut:
Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks
Alcoholic drinks — open bar policy
Bicycles to use when exploring port
Transfers to and from the port
Wi-Fi when available
Pretty much the only thing your European Waterways fare doesn’t cover is gratuities. If you’re satisfied with the service, it’s recommended that you tip about 5% of the cruise fare.
However, unlike many major cruise lines, European Waterways won’t automatically charge gratuities to your onboard account. Instead, you’ll tip the captain directly to share with the crew.
Why you should (or shouldn’t) cruise with European Waterways
Before funding the fare, weigh the benefits and drawbacks of European Waterways:
Very unique cruising experience — fewer tourists allow the authenticity of each locale to shine.
Gourmet food inspired by the itinerary
Expertly guided tours
Transfers to and from the port included
Each ship is designed to reflect the nature of its environment
Pricier than regular large-ship cruises
Itineraries tend to be seasonal, so options are sparse from November to March.
Ships may feel claustrophobic for folks that prefer big-boat cruising.
Fewer onboard activities than larger cruise lines
No US departure ports
Frequently asked questions
No — kids under 12 are not permitted on standard European Waterways cruises. And on its Athos ship, you must be 18 or older to cruise.
However, children and infants are allowed on board private charters.
Yes. All European Waterways ships are equipped with AC and heating.
Yes. But European Waterways offers select itineraries where the single supplement is waived. The intimate size of European Waterways ships provides a wonderful atmosphere for solo travelers to meet and mingle with others.
Traveling during COVID-19
The CDC continues to advise caution when traveling within or outside the US, though it no longer requires self-quarantine or a COVID-19 test for fully vaccinated travelers as of April 2021. It recommends that you delay travel if you are not fully vaccinated to protect yourself and your family from getting or spreading the virus.
When traveling, follow safety measures that include wearing a mask in public, social distancing and washing your hands. If you are diagnosed with, have symptoms of or are waiting for COVID-19 test results — or are otherwise at risk of illness — do not attend gatherings or travel for 14 days.
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