Is River Cruising the Right Vacation for You?
Dream trip, right?
For many, yes. River cruising is hot right now, with more ships and new lines flooding waterways around the world. Smaller ships and passenger loads make for a more intimate experience than ocean liners. It's arguably more scenic, too, as you're always close to shore.
But it's not a one-size-fits all vacation.
In August I traveled to Europe to cruise the Danube on Viking's new longship Bragi. It was my first river cruise -- and my first cruise of any sort. Here's what I wondered before the trip and what I learned after a week on the water.
Who goes on river cruises?
Most river cruises cater to couples age 55 and older. The passenger make-up on my boat was true to this norm: of the 186 passengers, four were younger than around 40. Nearly everyone was a couple. Nearly everyone was white. About two-thirds were from the U.S., with Great Britain next.
"Does everyone have their spouse? Are any spouses missing?" –Regensburg tour guide, before moving to next stop
So what if you don't fit this mold?
My travel companion and I didn't, and people noticed. We were among the under-40s on the boat, and were unfailingly asked "why are you here?" followed by "can you help me fix my computer/phone/iPad?" (Sigh... Sure.)
But while we didn't look like typical river cruisers (and occasionally jumped ship to check out the local nightlife scene), we enjoyed it as much as the retired couple we shared dinner with one evening. Would I come on one of these trips with my rowdy beer-swilling family? Probably not. Nor would I bring kids, though Paloma Villaverde de Rico, a journalist traveling with her daughter on my boat, reported that the trip can be fun for teens.
I would choose a river cruise if I wanted activity-filled days and early nights. It's a great option for a trip with an elderly parent or a relaxing yet social vacation with a spouse once the kids are grown and you've tired of self-catering. Some cruise companies cater to a younger crowd, with family cruises or single-friendly packages.
How much do you interact with other passengers?
On a 2,000-person cruise ship you may feel anonymous, but on a 200-person river cruise faces quickly become familiar.
The first day felt a bit like the start of a fancy camp, with everyone eager to know my name, where I was from and if I'd river cruised before. Meals, especially dinners, were a group affair, with couples pairing, tripling or quadrupling up at four-, six- and eight-person tables.
As a cruise progresses, you start making cruise friends, people you seek out in the hallways or lounge to catch up and swap stories about what you did with your free time that day. I even heard one pair of couples who had met on the cruise talk about doing another trip together.
How much local immersion do you get?
Like any organized tour or ocean cruise, a river cruise is a tasting menu. You land, tour and maybe have a few free hours or an overnight to explore on your own, then you're whisked away to the next fabulous spot.
In 8 days on my cruise we stopped in six towns and cities. I checked off many tourist to-dos. I sampled sausage from Regensburg's 900-year-old Wurstkuchl, walked Vienna's Ringstrasse and cooled down in Budapest's Szechenyi public baths. But did I really understand café culture or Bavarian beer hall bonding? No, there wasn't enough time.
Cruise companies do their best to add culture to the itinerary, from using local guides to setting up immersive on-shore excursions. Our ship offered a German lesson and a "Taste of Austria" spread of regional sausages, pretzels and pastries.
Before the trip I assumed that river cruises would offer a good sampler, so that you could decide where you'd want to return for a deeper experience. But most passengers I spoke to felt that the exposure to each stop was sufficient and that spending days on the same river helped create a sense of familiarity with the region. Many people were more eager to choose their next river to sail than to plan a return trip to Nuremberg or Melk.
Is flooding a big problem?
It can be. The cruise lines can dot every i and cross every t, but at the end of the day, they're at the mercy of Mother Nature, and she likes to do her own thing. No matter how detailed your schedule is, if the water's too high, as it was in June this year, routes become impassable. (Check out the video below of a close call with a low bridge.)
"River cruising is not like riding on a train track." – Alex Kugler, Viking Bragi Program Director
My cruise encountered the opposite problem -- hot, dry weather created perilously low water levels, causing our boat to have to speed through some shallows. Passengers grumbled that our time in Regensburg was cut short and an optional excursion to Weltenburg Abbey and the scenic Danube Narrows was canceled. But if we had stuck to the original schedule and the water had dropped another 9 centimeters, we might have been bussing to Budapest (or at least to a different boat farther down the river).
What's the food like?
Every ship in every fleet will have different food offerings. Expect buffet breakfasts (on our Viking ship the offerings changed slightly day to day -- cantaloupe one day, watermelon the next -- which kept things feeling fresh) and multiple options for lunch and dinner.
Our ship had a popular daily deck-side buffet lunch, which was generally standard grill fare: hotdogs, cheeseburgers, chicken fingers and vegetarian-friendly sides like pasta salad and French fries. Downstairs, the main kitchen served a multicourse sit-down meal. Dinners were longer sit-down affairs, with an array of appetizers, main courses and desserts.
Regional flavors were represented (there was always a locally influenced dish on the menu), but familiar dishes had a strong presence as well. You could conceivably travel through Germany, Austria and Hungary for a week eating Caesar salads and roast chicken. And people did.
House beer, wine and soft drinks were included during lunch and dinner, as is standard on many cruise lines.
Does the order of your cruise matter?
Yes. Think of your cruise itinerary as the story of your vacation, and consider which stop you're most excited about.
Budapest and Vienna were my most anticipated ports, so it was perfect to save them for the end. The trip was a build-up to the most energetic and explorable stops. Going the opposite direction would have felt anticlimactic to me. Travelers more interested in small medieval towns might prefer to start with the big cities and wind down with some quieter regional discoveries.
What's the dress code?
I expected my river cruise to resemble a country club. Viking's service was on par with that standard, but the dress code was far more casual. (It varies by company though; Uniworld suggests bringing a formal jacket and asks no shorts at dinner.) There was, however, an unofficial uniform: khaki shorts and a polo (often untucked) for the men, linen-y capris and t-shirts for the ladies. Reinforced sandals or sneakers for everyone.
"That's one of the things we like about it -- it's not fancy." – passenger from Northampton
Can you get seasick?
That depends on the route, the time of year and, of course, your susceptibility to seasickness. On our journey, the Danube was calm. We were close to land at all times.
The only motion we encountered was inside the locks. It was a tight squeeze, especially when there was another boat in there. Occasionally at night I could feel the ship lightly bounce off a lock wall, but it was nothing more than a gentle reminder that I was on a moving vessel.
How's the Internet?
This depends on your boat and location. The Wi-Fi on my boat worked fairly reliably throughout the ride except for when I used Instagram. Uploading photos seemed too much for the system. Service was spotty inside locks as well (not surprising, given you're in a giant bunker).
What's a typical day like?
Most mornings begin docked at a port; the ship either has spent the night or sailed through the night to reach its first destination. After a buffet breakfast at your leisure, you'll pick up your tour group number assignment from the concierge and disembark. (Unlike ocean cruises, port tours are usually included in your river cruise price.)
Depending on the stop, a guide leads you around town by foot or on a bus. He or she dishes out about an hour's worth of history, local lore and places to buy or send a postcard, which you can hear through headphones and a portable radio that hangs from your neck. You'll have at least one bathroom break.
Drag your cursor above to pan around the chapel at Melk Abbey, one of the river cruise stops.
After the tour you'll get some time to explore town -- anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours. Just don't miss the boat. You'll re-board and shove off down the river to the next stop, which is sometimes a few hours away, sometimes an overnight ride.
Many passengers choose to lunch on board, even if they have free time in port, because it's already paid for. As the ship sails through the afternoon, people settle in for various forms of relaxation. You can join a lecture in the lounge and learn about things like the UN or German phrases. Politely squeeze through the crowd on the ship's bow to snap a picture (or 30) of canal lock doors opening. Sit in a sun deck chaise lounge and gaze at the passing scenery.
"We did a driving tour and this is just so much more relaxing at our age." –passenger from Rhode Island
A gentle chime announces the omnipresent voice of your program director: it's 5:30 p.m., time for happy hour and an overview of tomorrow's schedule. Buy a drink at the bar and make small talk with the couple on the couch across from you.
Soon it's time to head to dinner. Do you sit with the couple you dined with last night or opt for a table of new faces? Settle in at a six-person table and greet your soon-to-be-new-friends. You may miss the sunset; dinner's more about the socializing than the view.
After the last course is cleared and the waiter has topped off your glass with one more pour of wine (because at dinner it's free!), retreat to the lounge. A piano man sings gentle background music. (He then surprises you with Maroon 5's "Payphone.") A few people may dance, but most trickle off to bed. By 11 p.m. only a handful of cruisers remain; one is asleep in his armchair. You call it a night.
More River Cruise Information
- Is the Price of a River Cruise Worth It?
- This is What a River Cruise Would Look Like if the Boat Went Really Fast
- SLIDESHOW: Danube River Cruise Through Germany, Austria and Hungary
- 5 Tips for River Cruising
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