Why Inclusive River Cruises are the Best Way to See Europe

I can’t keep the secret to myself after experiencing an all inclusive European River Cruise with Emerald Cruises for the first time on the Danube River.

Retirees have been taking advantage of the BEST way to travel Europe for years and now it’s time to let Gen Xers in on the secret.

All inclusive river cruises are definitely a hidden gem and the best value for travelers who enjoy maximizing their vacation time. This is definitely the way to go if you want to see a lot of Europe without compromising on comfort.

Emerald Destiny in Budapest

We were guests of Emerald Cruises. All opinions are my own and this article contains affiliate links.

Passau from the Emerald Destiny

You Don’t Have to Do Any of the Planning Or Research If You Don’t Want to

With our crazy work and family schedules in recent years, we really don’t want to do a huge amount of extensive planning when it comes to our vacations.

We wanted to experience a memorable trip without exhausting ourselves with the scheduling logistics involved. I also tend to overthink things when I haven’t been to a destination before. That can turn into hours of endless research.

It was so nice to have the best experiences at each destination on the river cruise itineraries already planned out for us to enjoy from a local guide who is already familiar with the area.

Prior to your river cruise you’ll receive an in-depth email that goes over everything you need to know to prepare for trip.

Adventure mom Nedra McDaniel and husband in Passau Germany

You Can Customize And Choose Your Own Adventure For Each Port of Call

You have an itinerary provided to you prior to the start your river cruise. Each evening during the cruise, the director focuses on what you need to know for the following day.

He also let us know if there were any special excursions with limited space that we needed to sign up for in advance.

Melk Austria

If you are a bit of a vacation rebel and don’t like being told suggestions of what to do each day, that’s totally ok too.

colorful bricks in alley in Passau Germany

You can choose your own adventure and customize your experience once you reach the river bank. You don’t have to go on any of the group tours included with your cruise if you don’t want to.

man playing violin next to dog in Passau

Or you can pick and choose what you want to do in each city; just make sure you are back on the ship before the departure time. Your pace and travel preferences are up to you.

I would suggest taking a picture of the itinerary each day on your phone as a reminder for all of the times, locations to meet and if you need to bring your audio sets (which are provided at the beginning of your cruise).

Nedra McDaniel at Mozart statue in Vienna Austria

Small Group Tours Provide A Great Overview

We enjoyed taking advantage of all of the small group tours provided by Emerald Cruises to help get an overview of each city that we visited.

people walking across bridge in Passau Germany

I think that group tours are the best way to see and learn a lot about the culture and history of a city in a condensed amount of time.

Scenic view near the Abby in Melk Austria

The walking tour groups were divided into smaller groups and there was an additional “gentle walker” group for anyone with mobility issues who needed a slower pace.

bikes next to Emerald Destiny Ship

The Ship Can Be Your Base As A Floating Hotel

In several cities that we visited we had ample time to take one of the guided tours AND we explored on our own. 

It’s so convenient because river cruising takes you to directly the cities you want to see, without the stress of driving from city to city. (And driving in a foreign country can be really stressful between unfamiliar roads, language and even determining which side of the road they drive on.)

The ship also has loaner bikes available to check out if you want to cover more ground in less time at each of the ports.

view of Bratislava from top of Emerald Destiny

Everything is Covered From Door to Door

You could, in theory, experience your Emerald River Cruise without any additional out of pocket expenses because your transfers, gratuities and tours are all included in your booking fee.

beer and wine on river cruise

As an added bonus, soft drinks, beer and/or wine is also served complimentary with your lunch AND dinner each day which is a good value. An all inclusive cruise from Emerald Cruises helps you stay on budget while also allowing for special splurges.

Of course, there are additional amenities available for guests. A popular option is to extend your beverage service with one of the elevated drink package options for an additional fee.

Emerald Destiny in Melk Austria

What Was Included in Our Danube Delights River Cruise With Emerald Cruises?

Our Danube River Cruise with Emerald Cruises included the following:

  • 7 nights on board an Emerald Cruises Star-Ship
  • Airport transfers to and from the ship
  • The services of an Emerald Cruises Cruise Director
  • Port taxes and charges
  • All tipping and gratuities
Guided walking tour in Passau with Emerald Cruises

Excursions Included on our Emerald River Cruise:

  • Guided tour of Regensburg, Germany
  • Guided tour of Passau, Germany
  • Guided tour to Melk Abbey in Austria
  • Guided tour of Vienna, Austria
  • Walking tour of Bratislava, Slovakia
  • Guided coach tour of Budapest, Hungary
Home-hosted coffee and cake with a Slovakian family

EmeraldPLUS Unique Experiences Included With Our Tour:

  • Traditional Bavarian band onboard
  • Home-hosted coffee and cake with a Slovakian family
  • Traditional Hungarian folklore show onboard
Guided walking tour in Bratislava with Emerald Cruises

EmeraldACTIVE Included Tours Included in Our Emerald River Cruise

  • Hike to Veste Oberhaus in Passau, Germany
  • Guided bike tour along the Danube River
  • Guided hike to Dürnstein Castle in Durnstein, Austria
  • Guided bike tour in Vienna, Austria
  • Guided hike to Bratislava Castle in Bratislava, Slovakia
  • Hike to Buda Hill in Budapest, Hungary
entree on Emerald River Cruise

Drinks and Dining Included With Our Emerald River Cruise

  • 20 incredible meals (7 Breakfasts, 6 Lunches, 7 Dinners), including a Welcome and Farewell Reception & Dinner
  • Complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks served with lunch and dinner onboard

We experienced great service from crew members from around the world.

rose petal ice cream from Gelarto Rosa in Budapest

When you don’t have to budget for meals or tours everyday it’s much easier to justify splurging on a special treats or souvenirs during your day trips.

Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite

Enjoy Luxuries on a European River Cruise

We’re at the age where we have no interest in staying in hostels and backpacking around Europe.

I want to explore during the day and come back to a comfortable bed in a private room at night. I also don’t want to switch my room every few days.

Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite

The Emerald Destiny ship can be your home base as it functions as a luxurious boutique hotel that floats. There are 72 suites and 20 staterooms.

We stayed in the Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite on the Emerald Destiny ship.

Even though I travel a lot, I ironically don’t pack light. I find comfort in having options available.

There was plenty of room to store our suitcases under the bed along with anything else we wanted out of sight.

bathroom in Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite of Emerald Destiny

We also had drawers and shelving in both the bedroom area and in the bathroom.

Rooms are stocked with the following toilettes: shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, shower gel, soap, body lotion, ear plugs, cotton wool, a shower cap and a mini sewing kit. A hair dryer is supplied for you to use too.

desk area with mirror in the Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite of Emerald Destiny

The desk area had a chair and a lift up vanity mirror where I applied my makeup each day.

closet inside room of Emerald Destiny river cruise

Inside our closet we were provided with a bathrobe, slippers, walking poles, and an umbrella.

audio sets for group tours Emerald Destiny river cruise

The audio sets were supplied in our cabin for use on group tours and sat on a charging base overnight.

All cabins, suites and staterooms have individual climate control systems so you can relax and sleep at your preferred temperature.

mini fridge and safe in the Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite of Emerald Destiny

You can keep your valuables secure in the room safe next to the mini bar. Each suite is provided with refillable excursion bottles to use on or off the ship.

The ship uses European plug sockets providing a voltage of 220V so I would also recommend packing a travel adapter and a power strip, allowing you to plug in multiple items at once.

Nedra McDaniel Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite on Emerald Destiny

Beautiful Balcony Views

One of my favorite features in our Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite was the floor-to-ceiling window that lowers to a halfway point at the touch of a button.

Nedra McDaniel in Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite

The floor to ceiling window allows you to enjoy the scenery and beautiful places throughout your journey.

floor to ceiling window in suite on Emerald Cruises

I also enjoyed the fresh air from the opened balcony in the morning while enjoying a cup of coffee from the comfort of our bed. If you are sensitive to light, there are dark window blinds that you can pull down so that the natural light is on your terms.

Emerald Destiny in Bratislava

Small Ships Are More Personal

When you travel on a river cruise you can actually get to know the people you are traveling with because there are less than 200 guests on the ship.

Emerald Cruises have a maximum of 182 passengers on their five Star-Ships. 

giant tic tac toe board on deck of river cruise ship

It’s Easy to Relax on the Ship

It’s very easy to acclimate yourself to the ship in a short amount of time.

It doesn’t take long to adjust to the pace of a river cruise. The gorgeous panoramic views help you feel instantly at ease.

paddle boarders in the Danube River

River cruises are a nice alternative for anyone who is prone to feeling motion sick because the passenger experience on a river cruise is so much smoother than on an ocean cruise.

deck of the Emerald Destiny river cruise ship

There are plenty of lounge chairs on the top deck for taking in the scenic views and enjoying the sunshine. The canopies on the deck provide plenty of shady options if you need to take a break from the sun.

putting green on the top deck of Emerald Destiny

If you want to burn off some calories, there is a walking track around the deck or you can use the fitness center. If you like competition, challenge someone on the putting green or a play a game of giant tic tac toe.

pool area of the Emerald Destiny river cruise ship

The back of the Horizon deck has a daytime pool with a retractable roof. We found it very refreshing after a long day of exploring.

movie night at Emerald Destiny

In the evening the pool area converts to a cinema with relaxed seating and popcorn available.

coffee on Emerald Destiny

Coffee lovers will enjoy all day access to the self-serve coffee machine where you can customize your coffee. There is also hot tea available for guests near the refillable water station.

stars in sky over Danube River at night

After dark, we admired stars filling the skies above remote sections of the Danube River.

View of Budapest from Emerald Destiny river cruise ship at night

The twinkling of bright city lights was also pretty magical as we approached the ports of larger cities at night.

walking track on  top deck of Emerald Destiny

Socialize at Your Comfort Level

The ship size is great for both introverts and extroverts… or introverted extroverts like myself, who enjoy meeting people but also need some downtime to recharge.

Scenic views from the deck of the Emerald Destiny

There is plenty of room for guests to spread out on the ship with privacy for alone time to relax or read.

The welcoming atmosphere also makes it very easy to make new friends during the small group tours, evening activities or through casual conversations throughout the day.

contemporary Horizon Bar & Lounge  for Emerald Destiny

You’ll spend the majority of your time on the ship rotating between the top deck, contemporary Horizon Bar & Lounge and the dining room at the Reflections Restaurant on the Vista Deck during your stay.

Reflections Restaurant on the Vista Deck

The dining room has larger tables available if you are with a group or meet new friends on the ship. There are also plenty of tables for two for guests. I would recommend being open to dine with others for at least a few meals.

We really enjoyed the conversations that we had with the people at, or next to, our table.

entree on Emerald Cruise

Memorable Meals

The meals that we enjoyed during our Emerald river cruise were edible works of art.

Thankfully we averaged around 18,600+ steps each day during the week of our river cruise to offset all of our indulgences between the amazing food and drinks.

salmon dish on Emerald Cruise

There were plenty of fresh, healthy options available…we just didn’t always choose them because we were in vacation mode. The chocolate croissants were too good to pass on.

pastries at breakfast on Emerald river cruise

We enjoyed delicious pastries and a full buffet for breakfast and lunch followed by a four course dinner each evening. Guests can order from the menu for breakfast or lunch too.

entree on Emerald River Cruise

For dinner we typically opted for the Chef’s suggestion on the menu, which was always wonderful.

I will warn you that it’s bittersweet once you get to Farewell Reception during your cruise because that means that your time on the ship is coming to an end soon.

dessert on Emerald River Cruise

It’s hard to imagine going back to reality after spending so much time on the ship with a constant flow of great meals served by the wonderful waitstaff and bar staff.

If you choose to sit in the same section for the majority of your meals you’ll most likely be taken care of by the same servers and feel pretty attached to them by the end of the week.

Nedra McDaniel and spouse on Emerald River Cruise

River Cruise Attire

The vibe of our Emerald River Cruise ship was casual and informal. We felt comfortable with business casual attire for the majority of our dinners. If you want to dress up more for the Welcome and Captain’s Dinner you can.

I was also grateful that we didn’t have to stress out about packing extra formalwear just for the cruise.

We did dress up a little more for the private concert in Vienna but the other guests wore an assortment of styles from casual to dressed up.

Nedra McDaniel and husband in Durnstein Austria

I packed a lot of wrinkle free dresses and an athletic skirt with shorts underneath because they were perfect for an assortment of scenarios. My husband packed a lot of golf shirts and a variety of short and long sleeve, collared shirts.

We packed a travel steamer and also took advantage of laundry service available for guests for an additional fee.

I observed that in the United States we dress WAY more casual as a whole in everyday life than the general population in European countries.

Emerald Destiny ship on the Danube River in Melk

Small Ships Pass Under and Through Modern Marvels

River cruise ships are long and more narrow than a large cruise ship.

bridge in Budapest over Emerald Cruises river cruise ship

The river cruise ships are only a few stories tall because they need to be able to fit under bridges and go through several locks along the river.

Emerald Destiny ship going under a bridge

Not to worry, the captain and crew will give you a heads up when the ship is traveling under a bridge with low clearance that requires you to stay seated.

Emerald Destiny ship going through a lock on the Danube River

During the river cruise you’ll have many moments where you can witness the modern marvel of how a river cruise passes through a lock system.

The water levels within the lock are raised or lowered to help the ship move to the water levels of the next section of the river.

view of the lock from dining area

We passed through a lock many times during a portion of our dinner time as pictured above.

river cruise ship going through lock on Danube River

The transition is so seamless and gradual that you almost wouldn’t notice the change in elevation if you didn’t look out your window.

Emerald Destiny river cruise ship in Passau Germany

Scenic Highlights Along the Danube River

The landscape along the Danube River is absolutely gorgeous.

castle along Danube River

You’ll pass by picturesque vineyards and medieval castles positioned on steep hillsides along the way.

wine tasting on river cruise

We even did a special wine tasting on the deck of the ship with wine from regional vineyards as we passed by them.

Nedra and Dan McDaniel on the Emerald Destiny

River Cruising Can Be Good for Your Ego

We’ve now reached a season in our lives where we are starting to become the “old ones” in many circles and crowds at events.

Nedra McDaniel and husband in Budapest

But during our river cruise the tables turned and we were known as the “teenagers” or “newlyweds”… and we LOVED it!

Ironically, we’ve been married for 24 years.

deck of the Emerald Destiny river cruise ship in Passau Germany

Experiencing a river cruise that tends to have older guests is all about perspective. If you have an open mind you’ll find that you can learn a LOT from someone who is older than you with more life experience.

Abby in Melk Austria

Seasoned river cruisers are VERY well traveled!

View from High Note Skybar in Budapest Hungary

They have both the time and money to experience many of the destinations that we’ve dreamed of seeing. Many of the guests that we met on our river cruise were taking EPIC extended trips that would be travel goals at any age.

We enjoyed learning from their personal stories, travels and life experience.

View of Budapest from Emerald Destiny river cruise ship

River Cruises are also a great option for families with adult children who want an incredible shared adventure.

I love going on trips with my boys but the kid-free environment for this unbelievable experience allowed us to truly relax without compromising the things we wanted to do during the river cruise.

Deck of the Emerald Destiny River Cruise ship

Your Emerald River Cruise is With Other English Speaking Passengers

You don’t have a worry about the language barrier while you’re on an Emerald River Cruise.

The majority of passengers are from English speaking countries, including the United States, England, Canada and Australia.

group tour in Passau Germany

The tour guides and waitstaff also speak English. You’ll find that, in general, most Europeans know English at some level in addition to several other languages.

It’s wonderful getting to know other passengers from across the globe, making the world feel a little bit smaller.

private concert in Vienna Emerald Cruises DiscoverMORE

Exclusive Shore Excursions Are Worth The Extra Cost

I would suggest looking over the DiscoverMORE optional excursions and picking what appeals to you the most.

Nedra McDaniel and Husband at private concert in Vienna Emerald Cruises DiscoverMORE

My husband exclaimed that the DiscoverMORE private concert in Vienna was one of the top experiences of his life!

We listened to professional musicians play music in the SAME ROOM where both Mozart played and Beethoven debuted his 3rd symphony.

It’s hard to put into words how beautiful this unique shared experience was in a room filled with such incredible history and timeless music.

Home-hosted coffee and cake with a Slovakian family

Another one of our favorite exclusive excursions was coffee and cake with a local family who lived about 30 minutes outside of Bratislava, Slovakia.

We got to learn about what life was like during communism and post communism from a family who lived through the transition.

Home-hosted visit with a Slovakian family

The translator shared that my husband reminded the grandmother of her husband who had past away years ago. Her interaction with him was beyond precious despite their language barrier.

man next to a local during Home-hosted coffee and cake with a Slovakian family

This was one of the authentic experiences exclusive to Emerald Cruises that we’ll never forget. The home visit really helped us to put a face on the lives of a family in Slovakia with a genuine connection.

hike to Durnstein Castle ruins

The Active Adventures Are Legit

I’ll have to admit that I pictured water aerobics when I read about “active adventures” on a river cruise because the majority of the guests tend to be seniors. I was so wrong!

hike to Durnstein Castle ruins

We hiked steep cliffs with castle ruins in Durstein and my husband and I were the only ones who even appeared to be breaking a sweat.

people hiking stairs to the Durstien castle ruins

The seniors on our active adventure hikes didn’t need to stop on the way up and didn’t show signs of even breaking a sweat.

stairs from Durstien castle ruins

I can only hope to be in their shape when I’m their age… and that I’m still willing to tackle activities that get my blood pumping!

deck of the Emerald Destiny river cruise ship in Austria

You Can Experience the Local Culture of More Than One City

On the Danube Delights river cruise we experienced 4 countries and 7 European cities.

View the top of the incline from the Buda side

Did you know that the Danube River is the longest river in Central and Western Europe?

statue in Bratislava

The river cruise offered a wonderful mix of historic landmarks, medieval towns, charming villages and major cities in the very heart of Europe.

cobblestone street in Durstein, Austria

After witnessing the beauty of the Old World, I understand why the iconic Danube River cruise is one of the most popular itineraries for river cruises. These are the cities we explored:

  • Regensberg, Germany
  • Passau, Germany
  • Melk, Austria
  • Durstein, Austria
  • Vienna, Austria
  • Bratislava, Slovakia
  • Budapest, Hungary
View the top of the UFO tower Bratislava

My husband and I absolutely LOVED our first river cruise on the Danube River with Emerald Cruises!

Bratislava Slovakia

This itinerary was the PERFECT mix of scenic and city.

The small towns were located in between larger cities along the way which made each port stop distinctly unique.

man with wooden shoe horn

River Cruise Influenced Purchases

There are two purchases that we made as a direct result of our river cruise. The first one was a shoe horn.

Confession: my husband actually made fun of the long wooden shoe horn supplied by the ship in our room…and then he tried it all week and changed his mind.

That resulted in an online purchase of a shoe horn BEFORE we even left the ship!

Seriously, he didn’t even wait until he got home because he was so accustomed to this convenience after a week on the ship.

cocktail with a glass straw on deck of river ship

My river cruise influenced online purchase was a pack of glass straws because I had gotten accustomed to glass straws in my speciality drinks while on the river cruise.

cocktail with a glass straw on deck of river ship

I also appreciated Emerald Cruises’ dedication to cherish the planet and reduce their environmental impact, which includes being plastic free.

glass straw in moscow mule

I also prefer the texture of glass over metal or paper straws that tend to get soggy when they are in a drink for too long.

lobby of Aria Hotel Budapest

You Can Extend Your Stay Before Or After Your Luxury River Cruise

We stayed 2 extra nights at the Aria Hotel Budapest which has previously been voted as “Best Hotel in the World” by Tripadvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards.

couple with chimney cake with ice cream in Budapest

It was so nice to have the extra time to explore more after our European river cruise before flying home. We tried sweet treats and local meals while exploring more of the rich culture and hidden gems off the beaten path.

Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest

We spent time in the natural hot springs at Szechenyi Thermal Bath and enjoyed drinks and dessert at “High Note Skybar.”

View from High Note Skybar in Budapest Hungary

This rooftop bar was voted as one of the best view in the world so make sure that you make a reservation in advance.

View of Parliament building in Budapest from Emerald Destiny

Where Would You Like To Go River Cruising on Your Next Vacation?

I’m already dreaming of my next river cruise. The hardest part is narrowing all of the great options from Emerald River Cruises.

Why All Inclusive River Cruises are the Best Way to See Europe

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