Last year wasn't quite A Year Without a Santa Claus, but with Europe's Christmas markets shuttered due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it felt close enough. I grew up going to the markets with my German grandmother, and even though it had been years since I'd done so, just knowing the stalls wouldn't be twinkling and the market square wouldn't be filled with the scent of mulled wine spice made a depressing year a bit more somber for this Deutsch diehard.
But they're back. Despite an up-and-down year of changing travel restrictions and a guessing game of vaccine requirements and testing mandates, it appears that many of Europe's most popular Christkindlmarkts will be open to visitors -- and that means river cruise lines are also officially back to sailing these magical itineraries.
Historically known in the industry for selling faster than fresh gingerbread, Christmas market cruises are not only on offer, but many are still available to book for the 2021 season. I spoke to river cruise operators about what's new and what capacity is on hand for clients looking for an extra dose of holiday cheer.
What sailings are still available this year?
While these time-sensitive sailings can sometimes sell out up to a year in advance, an uncertain time for travel means clients looking to be abroad for the holidays still have a chance to book an in-demand European Christmas markets river cruise. (But don't be surprised if many sailings for next year are already snatched up. AmaWaterways, for example, cited "exceptionally strong demand" for the 2022 season and urged advisors to tell clients to "book now".)
Viking River Cruises offers six European itineraries that celebrate with Christmas markets, from late November through December on classic routes along the Rhine and Danube as well as sailings that traverse the Moselle and Elbe rivers. A Paris to Swiss Alps itinerary visits the region in November just as Christmas markets are being assembled. There is still limited availability on most of these 2021 offerings, ranging from eight to 15 days, but Viking sells these popular voyages as far out as 2023, so there is a good chance clients will be able to find availability on their preferred itinerary -- if not this year than the next.
Uniworld reported capacity on all options this season, with six different 2021 holiday itineraries available, ranging from eight to 13 days, including cruise vacations over Christmas and New Year's. Guests booking select sailings that depart before Dec. 31 are eligible for a two-category upgrade when booking any non-suite room, including five of the 2021 Christmas market itineraries.
Avalon boasts one of the most expansive collections of Christmas market cruises in the industry, with nine itineraries on offer for 2021, ranging from four to 16 days and sailing the Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers. "In a typical year, these cruises can sell out as early as six months prior to sailing," Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways, told me. "This year, there is limited space still available on select Christmas cruises. And 2022 is selling fast, with more than 60% of our capacity already booked. Advisors should encourage their clients to book soon for their choice of dates and staterooms on these special, celebratory cruises for 2022."
In 2021, AmaWaterways has seven itineraries where guests can enjoy what it calls the "sparkle of the Christmas markets," including a new sailing on the AmaKristina that operates between Lyon and Avignon, France.
"The changing travel regulations for visiting Europe did put a pause on new bookings over the past several weeks; however, AmaWaterways is now seeing a return to a much more positive consumer sentiment, and new reservation inquiries have once again picked up," it said.
Scenic and Emerald Cruises also reported availability on their Christmas markets cruises; Scenic has two, one on the Danube and one on the Rhine; and Emerald has three, one Rhine and two Danube.
Family-friendly holiday options
Adventures By Disney is accepting waitlist only for its Danube River departures, but there is still availability for Disney's seven-night Christmas markets cruise on the Rhine River next year, which sails from Basel to Amsterdam on Dec. 22, 2022. This unique cruising experience, chartered on AmaWaterways ships, includes the holiday markets of Strasbourg, Cologne and more, as well as custom family experiences like tobogganing through the Black Forest.
If your clients are looking for a family Christmas markets experience on the Danube River, Tauck offers Holiday Magic departures through its family-centric Tauck Bridges program. These seven-night itineraries, from Regensburg to Budapest, include private excursions to a Viennese palace and the birthplace of the carol "Silent Night." There is still space available on the Dec. 20 and Dec. 27 departures. Capacity is also available on Tauck's 2021 Christmas Markets Along the Danube, and Yuletide Spirit: Brussels to Amsterdam itineraries.
Shorter Christmas market cruises
River cruise enthusiasts looking for a short holiday stint can book CroisiEurope's 2021 Bountiful Christmas in the Black Forest, a three-night hop through France's Alsace region, or Delightful Christmas Markets in the Neckar Valley, a four-night sailing from Strasbourg that also includes Heidelburg. "These programs are particularly special, as they showcase the Christmas markets in Strasbourg, our home city, and our own mini-Christmas market right at the cruise pier," said Michael Da Costa, CroisiEurope's general manager for North America.
"While Christmas cruises make up a small part of CroisiEurope's annual bookings, they are an important part of an otherwise slow winter season," according to Da Costa. "They are also much loved and highly anticipated by guests. In normal years, we tend to see these start to book up by mid-summer."
In 2022, Emerald Cruises is planning five-day Christmas in Southern France, roundtrip from Marseille.
What's new in Christmas market cruising?
On Crystal River Cruises, in addition to the line's core seven-night Christmas markets voyages on the Rhine (sailing between Basel and Amsterdam) and the Danube (sailing between Vilshofen and Budapest, with a pre-cruise package in Prague) new itineraries for 2022 include weeklong sailings on the Danube roundtrip from Vienna aboard the Crystal Mozart and 10-night sailings between Amsterdam and Basel on the Rhine. Looking ahead to 2023, Crystal is introducing three new itineraries: the 10-night Christmas Splendors of the Rhine & Moselle; seven-night Dutch & Belgian Christmas markets, including the royal market at the Hague; and 10-night Rhine Christmas Markets. The new Christmas Splendors combines the best markets on the Rhine and Moselle rivers, according to Walter Littlejohn, senior vice president and managing director of Crystal Cruises, "and has the most charming, authentic markets that are most popular with Germans themselves."
There are eight Christmas market sailings operating in 2021 aboard Crystal Debussy or Crystal Ravel, and there is still limited capacity available. In a traditional year, the line operates its entire fleet during the Christmas market season, so in 2022 there will be 16 sailings across all five ships. "Guests typically start booking more than a year in advance of sailing, and we are usually sold out about five to six months in advance," according to Littlejohn.
Riviera River Cruises is offering 19 Christmas markets departures this December, with good availability on the Enchanting Rhine & Yuletide Markets itinerary, which covers four German ports in five days. Of the line's six markets itineraries, four are new for 2021 and include sailings over Christmas and New Year's.
Also new for 2022 will be Tauck's Rhine River Christmas markets itinerary, from Basel to Dusseldorf. Unlike the line's markets availability for 2021, four of these five new Rhine departures are currently sold out for next year, with the only listed availability for Dec. 20, which cruises over Christmas.
Also: Not your typical Christmas market cruise, but Viking has announced it will offer Christmastime sailings on its new Mississippi River itineraries in 2022, sailing from Memphis to New Orleans.
Are there any Covid-19 restrictions at the markets?
Most cruise lines require full Covid-19 vaccination in order to sail, and for good reason -- many countries, including Austria as of Sept. 15, now require visitors to be fully vaccinated, or else they're subject to a mandatory, 10-day quarantine.
While the markets are all open air, best practices for visiting any Christmas market echo much of what we've all learned in the past year: wear a mask when you can't socially distance (markets should be crowded, so consider keeping on your EU-required medical-grade mask at all times, except when eating and drinking), and keep your hands clean while you shop, sip, and snack.
Unexpected bonus? The mask will keep your nose warm while you browse the stalls and take in the unequivocal wonder of Europe's historic Christmas markets.
Correction: Riviera River Cruises is offering six markets itineraries, four of which are new for the 2021 season. An incorrect number of itineraries was included in a previous version of this article.