HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR CRUISE
To a great extent, where you want to go will determine which ship you'll choose. According to Susan J. Young, today's "hot" itineraries include Russia (specifically the "Journey of the Czars," sailing between Moscow and St. Petersburg), Holland tulip cruises, the Black Sea, and longer-than-normal journeys, such as 14- to 21-day trips. The Danube, meanwhile, is considered a great choice for first-time cruisers.

River-cruise ships range from simple to spectacular and are priced accordingly. River­ Cloud and River Cloud II, from the folks who operate the legendary Sea Cloud, are among the most upscale vessels, offering a sophisticated, international atmosphere. (Ellen Sack calls both ships "Ultra Deluxe," her highest rating; CruiseCritic.com calls River Cloud "the premier passenger vessel navigating Europe's waterways.") On both ships, large cabins, all outside, have minibars and bathrobes, TVs and VCRs, and marble bathrooms with gold-plated taps. The ships' mahogany and rosewood fittings - and Steinway baby grand piano in the lounge - were all chosen to conjure the elegance of '30s-era ocean liners.

Avalon Waterways caters to American tastes with queen beds, balconies, and mini atriums. The nonsmoking ships all have English-speaking crews, larger-than-normal cabins, and meals designed with U.S. palates in mind. According to CruiseCritic.com, Avalon's MS Artistry, marking its first anniversary last year, just might be the highest-rated European river-cruise ship. Her sister ship, the 176-passenger MS Poetry, will debut next month. Viking River Cruises, born in 1997, now has 17 ships on European ­rivers. "We tailor the environment exclusively to American tastes," says marketing coordinator Megan Wygant. "It's the little things like serving ice in the drinks … and bigger things like a nonsmoking environment."

And then, of course, there are those who prefer to cruise with a "foreign" company: They find it gives them a more diverse and culturally authentic experience. Peter Deilmann Cruises, a Germanline, opened its U.S. office in 1995. The company's nine river ships draw a mix of nationalities; anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of passengers on any given cruise are Americans. The company is known for its high-quality onboard service, with passenger crew ratios of 2.5 to 1. (Condé Nast Traveler named Deilmann one of the 10 best small-ship lines for five of the last six years.) Deilmann's Mozart has the largest cabins - 203 square feet - of any river ship in the world. Their Heidelberg, new last year, follows close behind with 190 square feet.

Another company, Croisi Europe (www.croisieurope.com), with 24 ships, caters almost exclusively to Europeans - of 150,000 passengers carried last year, only about 1,400 came from North America - although international sales manager Michel Grimm says that the number of U.S. and Canadian passengers has grown sub­stantially over the past three years. "Many of our clients feel it would be silly to travel all the way to Europe to meet a boatload of other Americans," Grimm says.

To help you find the right cruise, there are brokers, travel agents, websites, and other specialists who can help. Ellen Sack, for instance, spends a month each year cruising European rivers and canals; she says this hands-on experience helps her match clients to the right ships. CruiseCritic.com, an online cruise-planning guide, reviews ships, profiles lines, and posts readers' ship ratings, message boards, and more. For the smoothest sailing, though, the experts advise choosing carefully and booking early.