River Cruise 101: The ABCs Of European River Cruising

by Ralph Grizzle

River cruising was an entirely new concept to Europe when it was introduced in the mid-1970s: a floating hotel that journeys between destinations. In its simplest form, a river cruiser is nothing more than a barge with a hotel on top. For many travelers, the slow chug along the river is just the right pace for getting the lay of the land. Sitting on the top deck of a ship under brilliant blue skies, you gaze on fabled landscapes dotted with castles, villages, and vineyards. A flight of stairs down you have all the amenities of a modern hotelrestaurants, bars, lounges, fitness facilities, spas, Internet access, and comfortable staterooms.

River cruises offer opportunities to step ashore in fairy-tale towns and major European capitals that cant be reached on a traditional cruise ship. Most river cruisers take these trips to immerse themselves in Europes contemporary culture in a way they cant when traveling between a different Mediterranean port every day and to learn something about the history of the towns along the Continents greatest rivers.

What is it Like Onboard?
The onboard ambience spans such a range that there are ships to suit most travel preferences and lifestyles. While some vessels emphasize elegance, others are much more casual. Travelers can find river cruisers that rival Europes finest boutique hotels at one end of the spectrum while at the other, its possible to cruise Europes rivers much like an independent traveler who opts only for basic accommodations and dining.

When Can I Sail?
The main river-cruising season begins in March and continues through the end of December, beginning with tulip time cruises in the Benelux countries and ending with Christmas market cruises in Hungary, Austria, and Germany. The majority of itineraries are seven nights, though longer cruises are available. For popular itineraries, you may need to book your cruise up to a year in advance, but if you cant deal with so much advance planning, consider cruising from March through May or from September through December, when the crowds are thinner and airfares may be more reasonably priced than during peak periods.

River cruising is perfect for those who want a relaxed grand tour of Europe and for cruisers who want to explore Europe beyond the coastline. River cruising presents the grandeur and charm of Europe as well as the indelible landscapes that inspired Europes great artists. Few things in life can beat the views of Europe over the ripples of its rivers.

Where do river cruises go?
River cruises travel along many of the major rivers in the world. In Europe, the Danube River is second in length only to the Volga River in Russia. The Danube is one of the most popular rivers to cruise along, and many river cruises include the Danube as part of their itinerary.

The Main, Rhine, Moselle, Elbe, Rhone, Saone and Seine are also popular rivers in Europe for river cruising. Read more about Why River Cruising In Europe?

Elsewhere in the world, the Amazon River in Peru and Brazil, the Nile River in Egypt, the Yangtze River in China and the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia are also popular river cruise destinations.

How does barging and river cruising differ?
Barges typically are smaller and with fewer frills and amenities than river cruisers. Whereas river cruisers may carry more than 100 passengers, barges range from a few passengers to few dozen.

What amenities are there on river cruise ships?
Amenities vary, but standard on most river cruise ships are a restaurant, bar and lounge, library and sky deck.

Most river cruise ships have a fitness center with a few pieces of fitness equipment and possibly a sauna. There is often either a hair salon and/or a masseuse on board.

Some ships might have a whirlpool; others, like those on the Nile, almost always have a dipping pool on the top deck.

Increasingly in Europe, ships are adding elevators and smaller, alternative dining lounges at the aft of the ship. Outdoor grilling on the top deck is also becoming more popular on newer ships.

What are the cabins like?
In the past, river cruisers were defined by small cabins and twin beds, not an ideal choice for honeymooners. But cabins have improved tremendously in recent years. They are becoming more spacious and more like luxury ocean-going vessels, with comfortable beds and bedding, and well appointed bathrooms.

That said, there is often more limited storage space for luggage and clothing in cabins than there would be on luxury cruise ships. The cabins generally come outfitted with TVs, safes, bathrobes and slippers, desks and also increasingly more have sliding doors and French balconies. There are also higher numbers of larger suites being built on river cruise ships.

How do river cruises compare to luxury ocean cruises?
Luxury ocean cruises typically are defined by spacious staterooms, as noted above, fine dining, an all-inclusive product, including beer, wine and spirits, gratuities and shore excursions on one luxury cruise line (Regent Seven Seas Cruises).

River cruisers dont quite match the luxury standards of ocean-going vessels, but river cruisers do come close. Refer to the chart at How River Cruising Compares To Luxury Ocean Cruising for comparison.

Will there be a pool?
Not always. Some ships might have a whirlpool; others, like those on the Nile, almost always have a dipping pool on the top deck.

What is there to do on a river cruise?
River cruising consists of three main activities: dining, cruising and touring.

The majority of meals are served on board in the restaurant or in alternative dining areas like the smaller aft lounge or on the top deck. Sometimes meals will be at restaurants or other dining venues at various ports of call.

Cruising from one destination to the next often takes place at night while passengers are sleeping, but sometimes the cruises will also sail during the day, giving passengers an opportunity to relax or enjoy the scenery.

The main purpose for river cruising though, is to tour the various towns, cities and ports along the way. There is a fair amount of walking on river cruising during informative walking tours. There is often usually free time to roam the port towns as well.

Some river cruise ships in Europe carry bikes on board for people to ride into town or from one port to the next.

What is the food like?
The food on river cruise ships in Europe is generally very good. It is European-influenced cuisine.

Breakfast and lunch are usually buffet style. Breakfast usually consists of cereals, yogurt, fruit, pastries, egg dishes, meats, juices, tea and coffee.

At lunch there is often a salad bar, soups, several hot and cold dishes and desserts.

Dinners are generally three-course meals with table service. The cuisine often ties in the local dishes of the region passengers are sailing through. Some river cruise companies include wine and beer during dinner at no additional charge.
What is the river cruising demographic? Who will I be cruising with?

River cruising appeals strongly to baby boomers and matures. That said, a wide range of people river cruise. Some river cruise companies have family-friendly sailings for people traveling with children. The introduction of bikes on board is also enticing younger cruisers. There is a wide range of nationalities on board, generally from English-speaking countries, including from the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

Is river cruising right for me?
River cruising is not for everyone. Non-smokers, in particular, beware. Read more about Why River Cruising Is Not For Everyone

What should I pack for a river cruise?
Pack as light as possible due to storage limitations in the cabins. Pack for variable weather, meaning layers, taking into consideration that even during warmer months river cruising can be windy during sailings. Pack comfortable shoes for walking. And pack for nicer occasions like concerts or performances on shore, or more formal dinners on board.

What companies offer river cruising?
In Europe, the main river cruise companies are AMAWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Uniworld River Cruises, Viking River Cruises, Tauck, Grand Circle Travel and Scenic Tours.

Is river cruising kid-friendly?
Some river cruise companies have family-friendly sailings for people traveling with children. But otherwise, not very. There is not much for younger children to do on board, in terms of games or activities.

Is there Internet on board?
Most river cruise ships in Europe either have wireless Internet access on board or are trying to get it installed. Be warned, connection can be spotty and is often not 100 percent reliable. AMAWATERWAYS recently introduced the more reliable 3G internet.

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