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Christmas market cruises are a gift that jump-starts holiday shopping and saves you money

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your toes… or is it your nose? Whatever the case, it’s refreshing to think about Christmas images when it’s so that hot your car interior feels like one of Dante’s circles of hell.

Give into those pleasant holiday daydreams, but then get busy and make it happen. It’s as easy as signing up for a Christmas market river tour in Europe.

The other good news: Because it’s off-season, your cruise may cost you less.

The holiday markets, a custom that dates to the Middle Ages, generally run from mid-November through December in picturesque town squares in such cities as Prague, Czech Republic; Nuremberg, Germany; Budapest, Hungary; Strasbourg, France; and Vienna, Austria.

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Visitors find lots of good cheer, plus hot mulled wine, fresh gingerbread, handcrafted gifts and a festive atmosphere.

It’s a great way to get in the Christmas spirit.

“I liked it a lot and I’m Jewish,” Alice Bisno of Culver City said, laughing. “It’s colorful and fun; there’s wonderful music, good food, chilly temperatures and lots of things to buy.”

Bisno, who traveled with family members, took a Uniworld markets cruise last year.

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“The ship was small and lovely with good food and service and everything was included,” she said, “We’d come back from a really cold day at the market and they were waiting with hot wine.”

Summer is still the most popular time for European river cruising, said a spokesman for industry heavyweight Viking, but added that the line is seeing increasing interest in Christmas market cruises because prices are lower and travelers with adult children may be looking for new holiday traditions.

Nearly every line that sails in Europe offers Christmas market cruises, including Ama Waterways, Avalon Waterways, Crystal Cruises, Scenic and Tauck.

Cruises last four to 16 days, with itineraries on the Danube, Rhine, Main and Seine rivers the most popular.

If you want to stay in the United States, you also can find holiday river cruises on the Mississippi River.

Alternatively, if you’re partial to oceangoing vessels, you’ll find that a few offer winter European cruises that stop in ports that have holiday markets.

But most market cruises take place on Europe’s rivers, where the boats can dock at cities large and small.

Viking, which has the largest fleet on Europe’s rivers, offers 11 itineraries, including 33 sailings on the Danube between Budapest and Nuremberg, and 37 sailings on the Rhine between Basel, Switzerland, and Amsterdam.

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Many are already sold out, but you’ll find availability on others.

Here are two examples, both on Ama, from CruiseCompete.

A seven-night Christmas Markets on the Rhine cruise departs Nov. 25 from Amsterdam to Basel, from $2,899 per person, or a seven-night Christmas Markets on the Danube from $2,149 a person, departs Dec. 1 from Budapest to Nuremberg.

If you’re planning such a voyage, here are some suggestions from Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of Cruise Critic:

Take cash. Small vendors often don’t take plastic, so stock up on local currency. Consult this list to see which countries use the euro: lat.ms/eurousers.

Buyer beware. If your heart is set on genuine hand-crafted local gifts, watch for artisans making their products. That way, you know you’re getting something locally made.

Try the mulled wine, or Glühwein. It’s delicious and flows like water at Christmas markets, but note that it’s stronger than you might think, thanks to fortification from such spirits as brandy.

Book now. Tours fill up early so consult a travel agent.

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travel@latimes.com

@latimestravel


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