Ready to try a river cruise? Here’s what you need to know.
From A to Z, Amazon to Zambezi, there’s a river cruise somewhere in the world for every taste, style and budget. But you want Europe. So how do you begin to plan a Europe river cruise? With many river barges, boats and ships launched every year, it’s never too soon to start to plan a Europe river cruise. For now, let’s talk about a river cruise on the major river cruise lines, mainly in Europe.
I’ve logged over four months of river cruising in Europe. From Bucharest to Amsterdam, Luxembourg to Vienna and all points in between, on the Rhine, Main, Danube, Mosel and Seine. Though not a long cruise, I spent a week up and down the Amazon from the Atlantic Ocean to Manaus, Brazil and back again. Here are some of the things I learned from experience.
There are many choices to plan a Europe river cruise.
A European river cruise experience is totally different than being on the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi or even the Amazon. It’s one huge territory with dozens of major rivers and tributaries to explore. Finding the itinerary that’s right for you can make or break your expensive holiday.
Who goes on Europe river cruises?
Most Europe river cruise passengers have already taken an ocean cruise and they are ready for a change. The average age is sixty-one and a median income of $80,000/year. These are folks with both the time and money to view Europe up-close and personal.
The stereotype is slowly changing. River cruise lines want and need to lure a younger demographic to keep the expansion moving forward. To accommodate the under-50 working people and multi-generational passengers, there are more active shore excursions, special charters for families and even shorter “taster” river cruises.
If you’d prefer a 15-mile bike ride rather than an hour motor coach tour, help is on the way. AmaWaterways is one of a few river cruise companies that still offers complimentary bicycles and bike tours. Some river cruise lines charge a fee to use their bikes. Others have eliminated all onboard bikes and work with a bike rental company in various cities, for a fee of course. Scenic Tours, a luxury river cruise company, has complimentary electric bicycles, for their older guests, I’d imagine. Crystal River Cruises also offers complimentary electric bikes.
What are the advantages of a European river cruise?
While cruise ships only touch the edges of continents, river ships take you to the very heart of magnificent cities and ancient towns. Quietly glide past hillside vineyards, medieval castles and historic ruins and monuments. Disembark and walk right into town for a café lunch. Stroll along the pier or borrow one of your cruise line’s bicycles to explore further.
With so much to do and dozens of 3- to 28-days river cruises to choose, these are my Top Ten suggestions for getting the most enjoyment from your river cruise with the least amount of stress.
1. Pack light.
Three to four days before you leave home, pack, then unpack and pack again. Not just for the airline requirements but for convenience and keeping your luggage light. There are no formal nights on a river cruise. Men need only a collared shirt and sport coat. Women can leave their long dresses and high heels at home. Attire is country club casual even at dinner. Best of all, there are do-it-yourself launderettes on many of the river boats. Complimentary laundry service is included with many suite-level accommodations. Or you can always toss your dirty clothes into the laundry bag and have the ship take care of it.
Cobblestone streets, walkways and uneven stairs can be a bit tricky to navigate if you are unsteady on your feet. Europe doesn’t subscribe to the Americans with Disabilities Act, although many major cities are getting better. If you are out of shape or have a heart condition, you might want to reconsider that 200-step climb to the top of the castle.
Pace yourself. Most river boats that cater to North Americans have elevators but they do not reach the lowest deck or the sun deck. If mobility is an issue, reserve a cabin on an elevator deck. Alternatively, once ashore, many river cruises lines offer a choice of walking tours; from fast to easy-pace walking tours and even a late risers tour option.
3. Wine and dine.
River boats have open seating, unlike ocean cruise ships. On a river cruise, guests stroll into the dining room (7am-9am) for a leisurely buffet breakfast. Lunch is relaxed, too; mainly buffet-style dining with a few à la carte items. Dinner however, begins at a set time. To facilitate good service and freshly prepared entrees, you are expected to arrive when the dining room opens, usually 7pm. Dinner times can vary based on shore excursions, so check your daily planner.
On some river cruise lines, the complimentary wine with dinner tends to abruptly stop when your entrée plate is removed. So if you like to sip wine after dinner be sure to flag down your waiter for a refill before your plate is cleared.
Nothing garners a warmer welcome than saying hello in the local language. Say “hello,” “thank you” and “excuse me” in as many of the countries’ languages as possible. Write it on a cheat sheet and keep it handy. Chances are that the local shopkeeper will want to speak to you in English. But you’ve made the effort and it won’t go unrewarded.
5. Cash is king.
Make a list of the countries you will visit and at least a week before you leave home, order foreign currency from your local major bank. Mostly you’ll just need Euros. But if you can get any of the other currencies before you leave (and there are quite a few on the lower Danube river) you can avoid a lot of inconvenience and high commission exchange fees. Some river ships’ front desk may exchange currency, but there are some limitations. Remember: Tipping at the end of your cruise is expected to be in Euros or on a credit, not a debit card. Check the river cruise guide book that you receive with your cruise tickets.
A spring or autumn Europe river cruise will certainly vary in temperatures and precipitation. Bring that nerdy plastic pancho and a folding umbrella. Leave that big bulky backpack at home. Nothing says “American Tourist” more than an Eddie Bauer backpack. If you must carry belongings, a dark colored tote bag is much more European. When taking a motor coach tour, when you step off to see the sights, the bus is locked. You can leave that extra sweater or bag on your seat.
7. Bring at least one electric current adaptor or converter.
The front desk on some of the river boats may be able to lend out a few converters but it’s a good idea to bring your own. I always bring one of each: an adaptor and converter. Most of the major river cruise lines have two 110v and two 220v outlets. With an adaptor, you can charge all of your 110v devices at once. Usually you may only need a converter for heating appliances like a flat iron or heating pad.
8. If you want the perfect sunrise or sunset photo, adjust your dining accordingly.
Photographers know the Golden Hour is that perfect moment just after sunrise and just before sunset. You’ll most likely be in the dining room at or near sunset. To capture a river cruise sunset, bring your camera with you to dinner and keep a watchful eye on the passing scenery. When you think the moment is right, quickly walk outside and snap those gorgeous sunset photos. It’s not like being on a huge ocean vessel. On a river boat, it’s only a two minute walk from the dining room to an outdoor viewing area.
At least once on your river cruise, go outside just before sunrise. A fog-like mist rises from the quiet river, birds slowly begin to chirp and the water looks like liquid silver. It’s a not-to-be-missed experience.
10. Arrive early or stay late.
You’ve traveled far for this river cruise. Try to spend at least two full days in your arrival or departure city. Taking a Danube cruise from Vienna to Budapest? You could spend two or three days in both cities! There’s so much to discover.
You can plan a pre- or post-cruise extension on your own or reserve it through you river cruise company. Booking with your cruise line can be a good choice as the itineraries also include your transportation to/from the ship to the hotel plus a city tour. Investigate your options and try to include a few extra days on land to fully appreciate the cities along the paths of the great rivers of Europe.
European river cruise passengers aren’t just a bunch of old fogies in rocking chairs. While your fellow Europe river cruise passengers may be older, they’re certainly not sedentary. They keep the lounge open and the dance floor crowded til 1am. If 1am sounds too early to close, remember, days on the river begin early.
Seniors and younger travelers looking for a way to tour Europe without the pack and unpack routine plus honeymooners and multi-generational families are becoming aware of the advantage of a European river cruise. You’ll love it!