If you've cruised this way in the past, you may be surprised at how things have changed. Once quite spare, the ships are now loaded with amenities such as terry bathrobes and European-style duvets; in-room phones and satellite TV; minibars, balconies, and sliding French doors. Many now have Internet access, hair salons, massages, Jacuzzis, and even small swimming pools.

While some itineraries rely on nighttime motoring to gain more mileage, all ships cruise for at least part of the day. "Ninety percent of what you see will be exceptionally scenic," says Ellen Sack of The Barge Lady Collection, a Chicago-based broker of European canal and river cruises (www.bargelady.com). "Routes are planned so the most beautiful parts of each river - such as the Rhine Gorge - are visible during the day."

In each port, you have the choice of spending the day on your own or signing up for a variety of excursions, usually via tour coach, and always with a guide. Some companies include shore trips in the fee, others charge a supplement. While history, architecture, and local culture figure prominently­ in all itineraries, most cruise companies offer theme cruises as well: classical music, wine, biking, golf, etc.

And although the dollar is in dreadful shape against the euro, a European river cruise still offers considerable bang for the travel buck. Most voyages are all-inclusive, which means you'll know beforehand exactly how much you'll spend. To lure Americans to Europe, some companies are offering early-booking discounts, while others have eliminated single supplements. The best buys are typically early and late in the season.

"Given the difficult exchange rate, a European river cruise - bought in U.S. dollars - is one of the year's best values for a European vacation," says Susan J. Young, sen­ior cruise editor at Travel Agent Magazine. "You pay a flat rate and then enjoy all meals, accommodations, transfers, cultural pres­entations, and, in some cases, even shore trips and airfare for that one price."

A 12-day Blue Danube and Prague itinerary offered by the cruise company Uniworld, for example, begins at $2,248 per person double. It includes round-trip airfare from the U.S. to Europe, a seven-night cruise in an outside cabin aboard the River Princess or River Countess, all meals aboard ship, seven guided shore trips, an escorted tour from Nuremberg to Prague, three nights' lodging in Prague, and more.

"Cruising has always been a great value in Europe," says Bob Levinstein, CEO of CruiseCompete.com, which works with cruise travel agents nationwide to help passengers find the best fares."River cruising is the best of both worlds. You'll see a lot of places on an intimate basis - like you would with a car or coach tour - but since most towns are built around the river, you usually don't have to walk far to see the major sights."