A First Timer’s Guide to River Cruising

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Have you been thinking about a river cruise? Maybe you have seen the ads or had a friend tell you about them, or likely with recent marketing efforts from river cruise lines, you have received brochures and flyers in the mail. Most everyone has heard of Viking River Cruises, especially if you were a Downton Abbey watcher. Lately there have been ads from Avalon Waterways and Scenic River Cruises on other Masterpiece series shows. There are a lot of options out there and people I meet are often asking me to help decipher these options.

Let me start by saying, I have no particular alignment with any of the cruise lines. I can offer my clients any of the many lines available. I have attended training and am a certified specialist from the major cruise lines. I have sailed some of the lines. I have listened to feedback from my clients as they return from their trips and from other travel agents. The summary below incorporates all of this information, and to the best of my ability I will share what I know.

Who takes a river cruise?

River cruises are traveled by couples, groups, people celebrating special events, friends traveling together and on some lines solo travelers can book with no solo supplement.

River cruises are designed for people who want to get closer to ports and cities without having to be transported on a coach tour (unpack once in your floating hotel) or navigate public transportation or rental cars. They provide itineraries with multiple country stops, themed focused cruises, for example wine or wellness, and some offer family focused itineraries.

Age range is typically 40-80. You should be physically able to walk independently, navigate uneven pavement, cobblestones, etc. River cruises are not for kids. There are a couple of lines that cater to families, like Disney who has partnered with AmaWaterways and offers specially designed itineraries and ships for families and Tauck has family focused cruise tour options as well.

Typically people you meet on a river cruise tend to be well traveled, like to immerse themselves in a destination, feel like a local, sample local food, wines and spirits, and learn about local customs. River cruises will delight travelers who like a sense of independence when they travel. They offer the option of exploring independently or tours and guides which you can choose when you want to learn more about history, arts, culture of a destination, or do both. Maybe a morning tour and then explore on your own in the afternoon.

River cruises are great for people who want a relaxing and hassle free floating hotel atmosphere. No packing up every night to get to the next destination. Incredible service. Staff that makes you feel like you are coming home each day. High quality food and accommodations.

NO planning and navigating through your vacation, on a river cruise the biggest worry is which excursion to pick on a given day or whether to stay onboard and relax, or which table to sit at for dinner.

Benefits of a river cruise

  • No driving, packing, unpacking, trying to find the best place for meals, figuring out trains, buses, or maps.
  • Sailing is smooth, no sea sickness, with spacious and elegant accommodations.
  • NO crowded decks, no buffet lines, no added expense to get off the ship and explore the destination. Excursions are included.
  • Wine and beer included at every meal. Some cruise lines, like Emerald Waterways, even include gratuities so it is all inclusive.
  • Travel to small towns and cities on the river, off the beaten path, with the option to take lovely motor coaches to a larger city in the area if you choose.

Very active, some cruise lines have different levels of activity offered on excursions. Often you can bike along the river if you choose. You can learn to cook, do a wine tasting, visit local families, go dancing, go to concerts, and more (on some lines these special options are an additional cost). There is even a wellness focused cruise where you can canoe in the river along with the ship!

Best of all, a true benefit is the amazing scenery that changes every day as you gently float on the river.

Who would not enjoy a river cruise?

Someone who wants ocean cruise types of ship board experiences like casinos, Broadway shows and entertainment, night clubs, etc. There are no, activities like rock climbing walls or miniature golf, no sports centers, huge spas and fitness areas. There isn’t a huge list of participant activities like bingo, talent contests, etc.  Think of what you do at a luxury hotel, you eat in the restaurant, have a drink in the lounge, sleep in your comfortable room, and a river cruise adds a lovely sun deck to get 360 degree views while lounging. I have had clients give me feedback that they didn’t love their river cruise because they missed all the action around them and the fun people watching, etc. That you experience on a big ship. A river cruise is very quiet and the destinations are your main entertainment.

Is there internet onboard? Pretty much every cruise line offers internet and some provide a computer in your stateroom. In small towns internet can be spotty, but once you are sailing again, you can connect.

How regimented are my days?

Your days are your choice. You can stay on board and read a book and lay on the sun deck. You can take the transportation into town and wander around yourself, coming back for lunch, then venturing out a gain. Many have bikes and you can ride up the river paths which are flat and easy. Or you can partake in the excursions. Some lines have multiple excursions and you can do them all if you want!

Day in the life of a river cruise passenger

   

Begin your day with a lovely breakfast during designated hours. At meal time, in the dining room, you can choose to sit where you like. Move around the dining room and meet new people, experience service from different waiters, etc. Look out a different window. Some cruise lines offer champagne and mimosas at breakfast. Then you are off on your excursion. You may be joining a group on a planned excursion, talking a bike ride, or exploring a town/city on your own. For lunch, you can eat lunch out and about, it may be included in your excursion, or your excursion may be half day, you return to the ship for lunch, and then head out again in the afternoon. Lunch can be in the dining room (wine and beer included), lighter lunch in the lounge, on the sun deck, or in a café (depends on the ship). In the dining room, be aware, the buffet, which is huge, is just a starter, you will also be offered full meals from the menu. The first time I cruised, we laughed, after eating what we thought was lunch from the buffet, the waiter brought over a huge menu and asked what we would like for lunch! (AmaWaterways) After lunch, some cruise lines offer additional excursions or you can explore the destination yourself or relax on the sun deck (maybe go in the pool, get a massage, etc. If offered on your ship) Many cruise lines will offer on board afternoon delights like, local beers to try, maybe a sausage BBQ if you are in Germany or Austria, etc.

Return to the ship in the late afternoon, be welcomed back on board with delicious fruit flavored water, a cool (or warm, depending on area) cloth, and delightful staff. Between your late afternoon arrival back on board and dinner, you can enjoy cocktails (included on some lines) or a cappuccino (complimentary and offered all day on most ships) with a light snack, some cookies, tea, etc.  Often there will be an afternoon lecture focused around learning about the next port, a local historical site or monument, a local custom, etc.

Dinner is between designated hours. Again, sit where you like, enjoy a 3-4 course amazing meal. Most cruise lines have a standard menu and then include menu items from local cuisine. Wines and beer are provided, again from the ship’s cellar and offerings from the local area you are visiting. Several cruise lines have an included specialty restaurant. Seating may be limited so you are asked to reserve a spot and everyone on the ship will get a chance to eat there if you want to.

After dinner, most nights a local cultural program will be held. Local dancers, singers, story tellers, musicians will provide great, entertaining and educational programs. Some evenings, you may be in port until 11:00pm or so and then you can take a stroll through the town, sample local beer or wine or a late night snack from a local eatery.

Then to bed and do it again!  The format is similar but every day different with new destinations, activities, and local life.

Excursions

Excursions are included on major cruise lines. Some lines have more options, more per day and leveled capability, (slow walkers, active, etc.) Excursions are designed as learning experiences, helping you delve into the destination and learn about its history, people, customs, etc. From wine tasting to historical castles or fortresses, from cooking at a family home to hiking or biking to a monastery. Some of the specialty excursions, like cooking classes may have an additional fee.

Many cruise lines offer themed cruises, wine, active, family, biking, beer tasting, music, art, etc. And excursions are designed around the theme.

The riverboats themselves

You should know that all river boats are created equal in terms of size. They have to fit through the locks, under bridges, and through narrow parts of the rivers. The difference between cruise lines is internal ship design and décor. Every room has windows facing out to the river, although window size can vary from portholes to full sliding doors to a balcony. Another consideration is number of passengers. Since the ships are the same size, more passengers means smaller cabins. Finally amenities like a pool, spa services, exercise equipment, salons, etc. which are not as important on a river cruise, not really the focus, but nice to have if they are available.

 

Summary

No matter which cruise line you choose, you will have a wonderful experience on the rivers. It is truly a relaxing, interesting and luxurious way to travel. When you are ready for a river cruise, give me a call and I will compare the lines, current promotions, itineraries, etc. to help you find the one that matches best to your budget, travel style and interests.

Looking forward to helping you plan your river cruise vacation!

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