From A to Z, that’s Amazon to Zambezi, there’s a river cruise somewhere in the world for every taste, style and budget.
With dozens of new river barges, boats and ships launched every year, it’s no doubt that river cruises continue to gain in popularity around the globe and especially in Europe. It’s never too soon to plan.
Top Ten Tips to Plan Your Europe River Cruise
I’ve spent over a year cruising on the great rivers of Europe. From Bucharest to Amsterdam, Luxembourg to Vienna and all points in between, on the Rhine, Main, Danube, Mosel and Seine.
Globally, the most exotic river cruise I’ve experienced was 2,000 miles up and back along the remote Amazon River, from the Atlantic to Manaus, Brazil. Many days have been spent on the picturesque St. Lawrence River in Canada and on the muddy Mississippi. Two separate weeks cruising on the Columbia River across Oregon from Portland to Idaho and the Snake River. Suffice it to say, I love river cruising.
A Europe river cruise has a lot of choices
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 over a dozens major rivers and tributaries to explore. To help you properly prepare for your Europe river cruise, I’d like to share some helpful advice that I’ve learned along the way.
Who goes on Europe river cruises? Is it right for you?
Statistics indicate that most Europe river cruise passengers have already taken an ocean cruise and they are ready to move inland. With an average age of sixty-one and a median income of $80,000/year, these folks have both time and money to view Europe up-close and personal.
However, that stereotype is slowly changing. River cruise lines want to lure a younger demographic to keep the expansion moving forward. To accommodate the under-50 working people and multi-generational passengers, look for more active shore excursions, charters for families and even shorter “taster” river cruises.
How about a fifteen-mile bike ride? AMAWaterways is one of a few river cruise companies that still offer 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 now has complimentary electric bicycles, for their older guests, I’d imagine.
What are the advantages of a European river cruise?
While cruise ships only touch the edges of continents, river boats take you to the very heart of magnificent cities and ancient towns. Quietly glide past hillside vineyards, medieval castles and historic monuments. Disembark and walk right into town for a café lunch. Stroll along the pier or borrow one of the river boat’s bicycles or to explore further.
With so much to do and from 3- to 28-days river cruises to choose, here are my Top Ten suggestions for getting the most enjoyment with the least amount of stress.
1. Pack light.
Then unpack and pack again. Not just for the airline requirements but for convenience. There are no formal nights. 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.
2. Acknowledge your physical limitations.
Cobblestone streets, walkways and 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. 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 accordingly. While most river boats that cater to North Americans have elevators, 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.
Unlike cruise ships, river boats have “open seating.” Stroll into the dining room (7am-9am) for a leisurely buffet breakfast. Lunch is fairly relaxed, too, as it is mainly buffet-style dining with a few à la carte items. Dinner however, doesn’t operate the same. To facilitate good service and freshly prepared entrees, you are expected to arrive fairly close to when the dining room opens, usually 7pm. Dinner times can vary based on the timing of the 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.
4. When in “Rome…”
Nothing garners a warm welcome quicker than saying hello in the local language. Learn to say “hello,” “thank you” and “excuse me” in as many of the countries’ languages as possible. Write it on a cheat sheet and put it in your pocket. Chances are that the local shopkeeper, upon hearing your broken German, French or Romanian will immediately 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 your foreign currency from your local major bank. Mostly you’ll 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. The river boat’s front desk may also exchange currency, but there are some limitations. Tipping at the end of your cruise is expected to be in Euros.
6. Weather reports.
A spring or autumn Europe river cruise will certainly have a variance in temperatures and precipitation. Bring that nerdy plastic pancho and a folding umbrella. And 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. Also, when taking a motor coach tour, the bus is locked and you can leave that extra sweater or bag on your seat.
7. Bring at least one electric current adaptor or converter.
While the front desk on some of the river boats may be able to lend out a few converters, it’s always a good decision to bring your own. I always bring two. Most of the major river cruise lines have two 110v and two 220v outlets. With an adaptor, you can charge all of your electronics at once.
8. If you want the perfect sunrise or sunset photo, adjust your dining accordingly.
The Golden Hour is that perfect moment just after sunrise and just before sunset. Since you’ll most likely be in the dining room at or near 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.
9. Stop and smell the roses.
At least once on your river cruise, get up and outside just before sunrise. As 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 come so far for this river cruise, it seems like a waste if you don’t spend at least two full days in either your arrival or departure city. Taking a Danube cruise from Vienna to Budapest? You should definitely spend two or three days in both cities!
River cruise companies offer pre- and post-cruise extensions. These stays 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.
Bonus Reason – You want to have fun!
European river cruises aren’t just for old fogies in rocking chairs. While your fellow Europe river cruise passengers may be older, they’re certainly not sedentary. They’ll keep the lounge open and the dance floor crowded til 1am. If it sounds too early to close, remember, days on the river begin early.
Seniors along with younger travelers who want a relaxing way to tour Europe without the pack and unpack routine, honeymooners, multi-generational family reunions and gatherings are all becoming aware of the advantage of a European river cruise.
I’m the editor and creator of CruiseMaven.com, a solo traveler cruising the world on waves and wheels, collecting recipes along the way. I hope my articles and photos entertain, advise and inspire you to travel the world without flying. Take a breath…stop for a local meal and a glass of wine along the way.