10 Things To Know Before Taking A Christmas Market River Cruise

Visiting Europe at Christmastime is one of the most magical trips you can take. The old city squares sparkle with holiday charm and traditions you won't find anywhere else. While it's possible to explore different cities in Europe by train, bus, or airplane, to really make the most of your festive experience, do yourself a favor and book a river cruise.

As the name suggests, a Christmas market river cruise focuses on visiting locations hosting Christmas markets and is one of the best ways to see as many holiday sites as you can. Many of the ports are located in Europe's biggest and most famous cities, places like Amsterdam, Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, but one particular advantage of taking a river cruise is getting to see smaller towns and villages you might not visit otherwise.

River cruises offer a lot in terms of comfort and convenience. You only need to unpack once, and your floating hotel room will take you to new places daily. The ships are smaller and can dock right in the heart of downtown areas, which means easy access to all the magical markets. Plus, you don't have to worry about hauling your purchases around, either. With the right river cruise, you'll experience the holiday spirit of Europe in a truly magical way. Just be sure to pack your curiosity, walking shoes, and plenty of Christmas spirit!

Prepare for your cruise with thorough planning

There are hundreds of river cruises to choose from, so you should have no problem finding one that's right for you. These expeditions can be as short as a few days or as long as a few weeks, so choose one based on how much time you have available. There are several companies to choose from and different ports to stop at, so it's helpful to chart your travel priorities and what you'd like to see and book based on that. And since Christmas market cruises can only take place from November to the end of December, they tend to sell out quickly. Many insiders suggest booking early to snag a good deal.

When considering a Christmas market river cruise, look at the itinerary closely, as not all cruises are created equal. Look for one that spends two nights in places like Vienna, Budapest, and Nuremberg so you can fully explore these larger cities at a leisurely pace. If you really want to kick-start the festive season, book a cruise where the ship will be in port on the day the Christmas market officially opens, as the excitement will be at its peak.

Don't worry about seasickness

River cruises are much calmer than ocean cruises, which is a big relief for those worried about getting seasick while onboard. Rivers like the Danube and the Rhine do not have strong currents compared to the high seas. Sailing is relatively smooth, and there aren't any waves to worry about either. The routes these vessels take are often shared with other boats, meaning boat captains must maintain a safe, reasonable distance and drive slowly to ensure no accidents occur.

Most times, you might not even realize the cruise has set sail — that's how smooth it can be. Still, it never hurts to be prepared, as the feeling of floating or gliding along a river can be disorienting at first. Feel free to pack some motion sickness remedies, but don't feel like you have to overdo it. If you start feeling queasy, go up to the top deck for some fresh air, keep your gaze on the horizon, and try to stay as still as possible. Keep hydrated as well. With some simple precautions, motion sickness should not prevent you from thoroughly enjoying everything a magical Christmas river cruise offers.

Pack for winter and walking

As these cruises operate during the late fall and early wintertime, packing the right clothes will ensure you're comfortable the entire trip. Weather in Europe can be unpredictable this time of year: Some days may be as warm as 60 degrees Fahrenheit, while others could reach almost freezing temperatures. Hopefully, most of your days will be clear and sunny, but rainy weather and even snow are common in this part of the world. Many of the optional tours provided by the cruise take place rain or shine, so prioritizing comfortable clothes will help maximize your time off the ship.

Sturdy, weatherproof walking shoes or boots will serve you well, but also pack a pair of sneakers for lighter days and a nice pair of shoes for any evening activities, such as going to the opera or a fancy event onboard. You'll definitely want to bring a warm, weatherproof coat with a hood, a warm hat, a scarf, and gloves or mittens. Packing clothing that can be layered — like thermal leggings or long-sleeved shirts and T-shirts — will help make your Christmas trip a pleasant one. Of course, if you forget something or feel your wardrobe isn't warm enough, you'll have plenty of options to purchase items at shops in each port or pick up some hand-knit goods at the markets themselves.

But don't bring too much luggage

Most river cruise cabins are spacious enough to relax and unwind, but they often leave very little room for bulky bags. Depending on the length of your cruise, you can get away with just a large piece of luggage, a carry-on bag, and a small personal item. You'll usually be able to slide one large suitcase under the bed or store it in the closet of your cabin so that it doesn't take up space in your room, but anything more than that could have you feeling cramped.

Don't overpack with unnecessary items. You can always contact your river cruise company to see if things like a hair dryer, shampoo, and bathroom items are included (they almost always are). If you think you might need more bags or cases to bring home holiday gifts, pack soft-sided or expandable bags that can be crunched up in smaller spaces. You can also plan to purchase a new bag at the end of your trip, but keep in mind the more luggage you have, the more you have to maneuver it through cobblestone streets and busy airports, a surefire way to dampen the Christmas cheer.

And save room for souvenirs

The Christmas markets are the main event for these cruises, and there is a good chance you'll be charmed by all the sweet holiday items on sale. It's a tremendous opportunity to explore handmade, artisanal items and find gifts for loved ones you won't see anywhere else. Ornaments, trinkets, decorations, and all the rest will boost your holiday spirit, helping you return from your trip with truly special festive memories.

Keep in mind that many Christmas markets, especially ones that stop along multiple markets in the same country, sell the same kinds of items or variations of them. If you miss out on a cuckoo clock ornament in one German town, you can likely find something similar in the next one. If you're on the hunt for items that can only be purchased in a particular place, ask your cruise staff if there is anything unique in the markets you're seeing to focus on those specific things. Save the more conventional souvenirs for later in your trip, especially if you've got a souvenir budget you don't want to overspend on.

Research the markets ahead of time

If you want a sneak peek at what awaits you at each port, you're in luck — a lot of the cities you'll visit have official websites that provide great info for visitors. These will be able to inform you about the city and the culture and highlight sites you might want to visit when you have free time to explore. Destination websites will also be able to answer practical questions like what currency is used. Of course, your cruise ship staff will be happy to answer these questions and help guide you, so don't hesitate to ask them if you can't find what you need online.

Some markets, like the Vienna Christmas Market, even have their own website, where you'll find more specific information related to the market in question. There is usually a calendar of daily activities, and you might even find lists of the vendors and what they sell, which can help you with your souvenir planning. Be on the lookout for local food and drink specialties to snack on as you browse the stalls.

You don't need to take a lot of cash

Even though you'll be stopping at markets that look old-fashioned, you might be surprised when vendors whip out credit card readers to take payment for items, as many cities around Europe have adopted cashless systems for hygienic reasons as well as practical ones. This is especially helpful for more expensive items as well as changes in currency from country to country. If you're looking to pay for most things by card, ask your bank about international transaction fees, as those quickly add up.

The Main Christmas Market in Bratislava, Slovakia, for example, is entirely cashless. Still, some smaller villages might have vendors who prefer cash, so it's worth carrying a small amount, just in case. Most countries along Christmas market river cruise routes use the Euro, but some, like Hungary and Czechia, use their own unique currencies. Your cruise staff can help you suss out what kind of cash you'll need in each place, and they may even have a currency exchange office on board. Keep some small coins handy for tipping where needed.

Save money by eating onboard

River cruises, like ocean cruises, are sometimes all-inclusive. As a result, your vacation package will likely include most of your breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. If you're looking to save a bit of money, take advantage of mealtimes onboard. Breakfasts and lunches are plentiful and usually buffet-style, while dinners include a more formal sit-down service. River cruises have close access to the regions they sail to, so menus typically reflect foods and ingredients and often showcase local specialties. 

Of course, you'll want to save a little room for local delights on land as well. Food and drink are integral to the Christmas market experience, and the tastes on offer generally change from country to country. You'll find snacks like gingerbread, pretzels, unique sweets, and more, along with delicious drinks like mulled wine and hot chocolate. These will give you a taste of local traditions but will cost much less than a full meal. After all, what is a Christmas market without a piping hot cup of mulled wine?

Enjoy the onboard activities

Strolling through the quaint Christmas markets is truly spectacular, but the fun doesn't stop once you're back on the boat. River cruises provide fun activities like game nights, dance parties, and fascinating cultural lectures for guests to keep them entertained during their trip. Most of these will take place while the boat travels between ports, so you won't have to choose between sightseeing offshore and boat-bound activities. It's also a great way to meet and interact with other travelers.

There are likely to be holiday-themed activities that you won't get at other times of the year, another unique feature of Christmas market river cruises. Cruising over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is no less magical than if you were to spend them back home. Sure, you're celebrating with a larger group of people, but who knows? Maybe you'll be inspired to start a new holiday tradition or two!

Tip your ship staff

Each river cruise company has its own policy when it comes to gratuities. Sometimes, these are included in your vacation package, but it's courteous to tip a little extra for exceptional service, especially around the holidays. Staff are working extra hard to keep up the festive cheer, and they may be away from their families during this special time of year. While cash is always appreciated, you can even consider bringing small gifts from home to share your own traditions with the wonderful cruise ship staff you'll interact with each day.

While exploring the towns and cities, be aware that tipping rules vary throughout Europe. You won't generally need to tip at the Christmas markets, but it's always good to research a country's tipping policy if you plan to dine off the ship, take taxis around the city or to the airport, or want to know more about tipping etiquette abroad.