European river cruises: How to cut costs and hassles of traveling
Pack a card with credits for Global Entry and that charges no foreign transaction fees
covering travel, budgets and credit card strategies
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A European river cruise – with stops in enchanting ports and a crew that pampers guests – can be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, and your credit cards can help you get there, cutting your costs and making your travel more enjoyable.
What is a river cruise?
A river cruise is a unique way to explore the incredible cities and countries across Europe, sailing from destination to destination, taking in the sights and sounds directly from the water, says Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of Cruise Critic.
“Rather than being transported by bus, or needing to pack and repack from place to place, river cruises are a comfortable and convenient way to cover just as much ground,” she says.
Many river cruise lines, like the wine-themed Viking River Cruise my husband and I took recently through the French countryside, include complimentary excursions in ports of call. Because the sight-seeing tours are small, you are able to learn more about the port from your tour guide.
While big ships sail along the coasts, river cruising is more intimate. Far fewer passengers (190 on our river cruise) and a “long-ship” design make for a smoother, more soothing way to savor the food, wine and sights outside your window.
Cruising in a smaller ship has a bigger price tag, too. Depending on your departure city, number of days and type of cabin room, a European river cruise can cost between $2,500 to $4,000 per person for a balcony stateroom.
That river cruise price, though, includes the costs of shore excursions, drinks and other perks that would be ala carte if you had booked an ocean cruise instead, according to Sherman’s Travel.
Tack on your airfare and any hotel stays and you can see why it helps to save up for a European river cruise.
Here’s how your credit cards can cut your costs and make your river cruise adventure, including getting there and back home, more enjoyable. (I’ve included a few card tips, too, based on my river cruise experience.)
See related: 10 credit and money tips for travel abroad
Save your money: Pack no foreign transaction fee cards
Before you go, get a credit card that doesn't charge a foreign transaction fee. Whether you’re traveling outside the U.S. for a river cruise, a business trip or just ordering something online from a retailer based abroad, pay with a credit card that doesn’t tack on 3 to 5 percent charge for purchases outside the U.S.
Think of all you’ll be charging prior to, during and after your cruise – your flights, snacks on the plane, hotel stays, meals, maybe a carriage ride the night before you embark, the shops at your cruise stops or the costs of any excursions. Paying extra every time you dip or swipe to pay adds up fast.
Tip: Call your card issuers to let them know of your travel plans, especially if you are going out of the country to prevent your cards from being blocked due to suspected fraudulent activity.
Travel stress-free: Airline cards
No matter how you fly to Europe for your cruise, your credit cards can cut your airfare costs and spare you the hassle of long lines at security checkpoints and the hubbub of the crowd as you relax ahead of your flight in the airport lounge.
A credit card with a big sign-up bonus can cut your trans-Atlantic airfare by half or more.
For example, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard is currently offering 70,000 miles if you spend $5,000 in the first 90 days – a bonus worth up to $700 in statement credits. The Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard also has a hefty sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after making $2,500 in purchases within the first three months of account opening, which could jumpstart your way to a free flight.
An airline card or flexible travel credit card that offers a credit for Global Entry will speed you through security and customs when you return. Cards with this perk include the Bank of American Premium Rewards credit card and United Explorer Card (each with a $95 annual fee), the Capital One Venture Rewards Card ($0 annual fee in first year, $95 thereafter) and the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Platinum Card® from American Express (with $450 and $550 annual fees, respectively).
Once through security, you can avoid crowded gate areas by waiting for your flight in the quiet and comfort of an airport lounge. If you’re famished from your flight, grab a meal and drink before you catch a cab to your hotel.
Credit cards with airport lounge access include Chase Sapphire Reserve (with access to the Priority Pass lounge network), United MileagePlus Club card (access to United Clubs or Star Alliance Lounges) and the Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card (10 complimentary lounge visits a year after a one-time enrollment in Priority Pass Select).
Tip: Another perk of your airline credit card? Priority boarding and usually at least one free checked bag (depending on your credit card).
Rest easy before (or after your cruise): Hotel cards
After a long flight, you might need a long nap, or at least a good night’s sleep. A hotel credit card often can unlock a free room upgrade if not a free room altogether if your card includes an annual reward of a free one-night hotel stay or enough of bonus points for a free night.
Depending on your port cities at the start and end of your cruise, pack the hotel card with the properties you where you plan on staying.
The big hotel groups, IHG, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and SPG (and their related credit cards), are likely to have hotels wherever you’re looking to crash or to revive yourself before touring the city before or after your cruise.
For example, ports like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bordeaux and others all feature great hotel picks in the Marriott portfolio.
Or maybe you just want a great place to lay your head without having to worry about any allegiance to a particular brand or family of hotels. If you want a good night’s sleep and a heap of points, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card might be just the ticket. Each card earns 10x miles on purchases made at Hotels.com/venture.
Your river cruise: Enjoy the ride (and score some points, too)
The thing I’ll most remember about our nearly weeklong Viking River Cruises tour of Chateaux, Rivers and Wine is the feeling of being pampered.
An example? In the omelet line at breakfast, the chef soon knew exactly what I wanted.
When you travel aboard a ship with dozens of passengers instead of thousands, you get to know your fellow cruisers much better, and everyone is neighborly.
For instance, when I left my handbag in the shipboard lounge for six hours, it was still there when I realized where I had left it. And not one thing – my phone, my credit cards, my few euros – was missing.
One couple on our cruise was charging everything to earn rewards with every purchase. They had no cash at all – not even a few euros for tips.
Chelsea Hudson, personal finance expert at TopCashback.com, says this can make sense.
“Everyday purchases while traveling can earn you a free flight for your next vacation if done correctly,” she says.
Hudson also suggests all that charging on a trip to Europe can help you to meet the minimum spending to earn a big sign-up bonus on a new rewards card – giving you a heap of points for your next travel adventure.
After our wine-themed cruise through the French countryside, we extended our stay with a first-time visit to Paris.
The river cruise and stay in Paris made for a wonderful trip, full of memories.
If you’ve ever dreamed of a river cruise, don’t let some popular misconceptions hold you back.
“Because river ships don’t have the bells and whistles that ocean-going ships do – things like water parks and Broadway-style shows – some might think that they will get bored of the more laidback experience onboard,” McDaniel says.
“When comparing the alternatives – like a bus tour – a river cruise can actually be far more enjoyable. There’s plenty of room to spread out, delicious restaurants in which to dine and oftentimes really engaging onboard enrichment programs.”
That definitely was the case on our European river cruise – it was full of smooth sailing, beautiful views, friendly passengers, great food and wine and top-drawer customer service from the crew.
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