You will trawl through pages of text promising you beautiful scenery, bicycle rides, city walking tours, the option to step straight off the vessel and into the streets of some medieval village - and of course all of this is true, but applies whichever company you choose.
So the first thing to tell you is… you get what you pay for! River vessels cruise the same rivers on the same itineraries so effectively have the same core overheads. This means that cheaper products by their very nature reflect fewer inclusions, smaller cabins, not so many crew to look after you, food which is mass produced and of lower quality. If it is all about the itinerary, this may not matter to you.
If quality is essential choose one of the best European river cruise operators: we love Uniworld, Tauck, AmaWaterways, Scenic and Viking. Narrow down your choice further by itinerary - everyone cruises the Rhine and the Danube, but if you have in mind France or Portugal, or somewhere more unusual, that will reduce your options.
Next it's time to think about accommodation. If you are travelling alone, there are some good 'no single supplement' opportunities, but they are snapped up quickly so you need to move fast. Do you mind being at water level with duck-view windows, or is lots of space important to you? Do you want a balcony you can sit out on, or do you just like fresh air, in which case a French balcony might work? River cruise cabins can be quite small, so when you are looking at pricing, make sure you are comparing like with like.
Dining is also an important consideration - alternative restaurants and on deck options are appealing, but you also might like to consider the specifics of table allocation. River cruise operators speak of 'open seating' but as a rule this means you will join tables as you arrive in the dining room, rather than being able to specify a table for two, or to arrive at any time. Now you are moving into an area where more specialist knowledge is needed - ask your cruise consultant to help you out.
When you start to compare prices, check out exactly what is included in the fare: sometimes it is simply drinks with meals, or no drinks at all. There may be a very limited choice of included shore excursions, with others offered at additional cost, or not at all. Gratuities are not always included, either on board or indeed for the guides and drivers when you take a tour.
On the question of tours, many companies offer the 'quietvox' technology whereby you have a headset on which you can tune in to your guide, so you don't have to jostle your fellow guests to be able to hear what is being said. This sometimes means that you are on a walking tour with 30 or more others: if you prefer a more meaningful interaction with your guide, look for companies offering tours for smaller groups.
And finally, for great service, look for an excellent staff-to-guest ratio to make sure you are well looked after throughout your trip.
To find the perfect vessel for you, the best option is to take advice from one of our knowledgeable cruise consultants, who will painstakingly walk you through the whole process.