European River Cruising 101

You may have seen the TV commercials or heard your friends talk about the benefits of river cruising, but you may not be familiar with exactly what a trip like this would entail. River cruising in Europe is a comfortable way to experience the countryside, and cities, of different destinations without a lot of hassle or stress. The ship is a floating hotel where you only have to unpack once - your room doesn’t change but your view does. You typically start and end in a larger port city (like Amsterdam or Budapest - two of my favorites!) but then you get to enjoy 7+ days of sailing in between those ports. You see what life is like along the river - small towns and villages; churches and castles; agricultural fields and vineyards. It gives you a whole different perspective on Europe that you can’t get by train or plane.

Here are some things to keep in mind when planning a river cruise:

The Itinerary: Most first-time European river cruisers choose to sail along the Rhine (between Amsterdam and Switzerland - known as the Castle Route as there are so many castles on this route) or the Danube (between Germany and Prague - the “Romantic” itinerary.) But there are also great itineraries in France - in Northern France (Normandy area), Bordeaux, or in Burgundy and Provence, in Portugal (Duoro River - focusing on Port wine), and even in northern Italy. You could even do the longest itinerary from the North Sea to the Black Sea - going all the way across the continent! The options can be quickly overwhelming but I can help you decide on the best option for you and your traveling companions. You really can’t go wrong when choosing an itinerary - they all have their benefits!

This article is concentrating on European river cruises but there are also trips in Africa, Asia, South America and even the USA (ships in these destinations differ than their European counterparts but they share a lot of the same ideals and values).

What is included: Typically speaking, across the board, the cruise price includes your accommodations, meals on board (breakfast, lunch and dinner plus snacks), and sightseeing tours and excursions while in port. Embellishments on these inclusions vary from cruise line to cruise line. Many now nclude wine and beer with dinner. Some include wine and beer with lunch and dinner. A few nclude wine, beer and spirits all day. Some give you a choice of shore excursions to choose from depending on your tastes and pace, or some have “exclusive” access to experiences like a private opera performance in Vienna. Some have bikes on board you can borrow for free. Most have free wifi. There is even butler service options available! This is where things start to get tricky and confusing. Luckily, I have the experience and resources to advise you on what is the best option for you - and what the best overall value is for you.

How are they similar? Unlike ocean cruise ships, river cruise ships have size regulations. They can only be such-and-such tall (usually just 4 passenger decks) and such-and-such wide in order to maneuver along the rivers since they go under low bridges and through skinny locks. So this means that the size of the ships are all relatively the same. How they use that space is where things start to differ.

How are they different? Since the ships all are roughly the same size, the cruise operators differ themselves on how they use that space. Some fit in as many cabins as possible so they have the most people on board (and thus a higher profit). Some have decided that personal space is a luxury that you deserve and have chosen to do bigger cabins (thus less people) which leads to an enhanced experience. You can also find amenities such as pools, whirlpools, a spa, fitness room or "al fresco" dining areas on certain ships.

Decor: The decor can vary greatly. Uniworld is known for their luxury “boutique” style which is reflected in the floral patterns which are everywhere.. Avalon and Scenic are both known to have a more modern and contemporary decor. Tauck and AMA Waterways are more upscale. The decor can also vary from ship-to-ship even if owned by the same company. This is also where I can help match the right ship to your personal tastes. New for 2017: river cruise ships for Millennials!

Staterooms/cabins: The layout of the individual cabins can also differ widely. Avalon faces most of their beds towards the window (often a floor to ceiling window!) so you can lounge in bed while still enjoying the panoramic views. Other companies have decided to offer “balconies” or French balconies (keep in mind that they can’t extend the balconies too much due to the width restrictions so space is often taken away from the interior of the cabin to create the outdoor space). The suites are the “creme de la creme” and often feature upgraded service like your own personal “Jeeves”  butler (side note - I can’t guarantee that will be his name).

Inclusions: I mentioned this above but just to reiterate that it is wise to understand the fine print of what is included - and not included. Gratuities and extra drinks can quickly add up when not included. To avoid "sticker shock", I'll describe what is included when you inquire about the river cruise options.

Onboard amenities and entertainment: There is typically some type of evening entertainment which can consist of local musicians who come onboard for a couple of hours. Some lines feature local specialists for more in-depth wine tastings, food pairings, or educational seminars about the history or culture of where you are sailing through. You won’t find casinos or a big shopping promenade on European river cruise ships but you may find a small boutique, a fitness room, a spa, a jacuzzi and on some ships, a small swimming pool. There are also numerous lounge areas (both inside and outside) to relax and meet other like-minded travelers.

Isn’t it just for old people? I did hear Torstein Hagen (owner of Viking) say a few years ago that Viking’s ships are for those who live in nursing homes (i.e. who have mobility issues). Joking aside, this is NOT true for the rest of the lines (or even much for Viking anymore). The age demographics continue to fall as the popularity of river cruising expands - I believe the average age is around 55 (when it used to be around 70). Kids are now allowed on many itineraries - Disney has even recently started teaming up with AMA Waterways to offer kid-friendly itineraries which is a great way for extended families to travel together. River cruising isn’t recommended for small kids though (under 5 or so) but can be a wonderful option for any other age. Uniworld has even launched a new brand called U by Uniworld that is geared towards Millennials.

What is the food like? I haven’t really touched on the food aspect yet. Most river cruise chefs will go into the local markets while in port to pick out fresh produce and ingredients while you are out sightseeing. The menus are themed to the region that you are sailing in and are paired with regional wines and beer so you have a similar experience as to what you’d have if you ate ashore. Another note about dining - typically you can choose to sit with whom you want and dining times can be open-timed (i.e. no set time that you have to be there). Dinners tend to be more formal than breakfast and lunch, but a suit and tie is never necessary. Alternative dining spaces are also popping up on some ships including outdoor dining venues when the weather is nice. The food quality is all generally quite good but there are a few lines that outshine the others.

Who is the right candidate for a river cruise vacation? Pretty much everyone would enjoy some aspect of river cruising but I think it appeals most to those who are interested in the history and culture of where they are visiting. It is great for those who may have been to Europe once or twice before but haven’t seen too much of the countryside. I think it is perfect for special celebrations (anniversaries and birthdays) or reunions. Wine, food, craft beer,  jazz, and art enthusiasts will be happy to hear that there are specially designed itineraries around these topics several times a year. These themed cruises feature special guests such as winemakers, brewers, musicians or artists who sail with you and hold seminars, tastings, classes, etc.

Christmas market cruises are also gaining in popularity. Traveling to Europe during the winter might not be on everyone’s radar but it is a special time to go. Imagine spending a week sailing between small towns/cities while exploring the festive holiday markets in each place. Great for gift shopping before the holidays - not to mention trying the local holiday treats!

One other thing to mention is that there is very little chance you will get sea sick. You aren’t sailing on an ocean so there aren’t any waves to contend with! I know this is a concern for some ocean cruisers but it you don’t have to worry about that on the rivers.

I hope this gives you some “food for thought” on why you should consider trying a river cruise for your next trip. As always, I am here to answer any questions that you have, as well as personally assist you in choosing the right vacation solution for your tastes and needs. I hope you do consider a river cruise as they are very special (and can be addicting!).

Want more info? Ready to book? Just send me a quick email and we can start planning your river cruise adventure!


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