River cruising is hot. From A to Z (Amazon to Zambezi), there’s a river cruise for every taste, style and budget. With dozens of new river boats being built, it’s no doubt that river cruises continue to gain in popularity around the globe.
I’ve spent two months on the great rivers of Europe. The most exotic river cruise for me was the 2,000 miles up and back adventure along the remote Amazon River. From the picturesque St. Lawrence River in Canada many times to the muddy Mississippi and a week spent cruising the Columbia River across Oregon from Portland to Clarkston. Suffice it to say, I love river cruising.
However, a European river cruise experience aboard a 150-passenger river boat is totally different than being on a cruise ship on the St. Lawrence or the Amazon. 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.
First, though, 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, as river cruise lines want to lure a younger demographic, look for shorter seven-night cruises and more active shore excursions.
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.
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 to explore further.
With so much to do and from three to twenty-five days to experience a river cruise, here are my Top Ten suggestions for getting the most enjoyment.
1. Pack light. Then unpack and pack again, taking only half as much. 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. Some of the river boats do not have elevators, so make sure the boat you choose has one if you need one. Alternatively, once ashore, many river cruises lines including AMAWaterways, offer an easy-paced walking 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. 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. 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 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 find a local bank that will order your foreign currency. Mainly, you’ll need Euros. But if you can get any of the other currencies (and there are quite a few on the lower Danube river) you can avoid the high commission exchange fees. Of course, the boat’s front desk will also exchange currency, but there are some limitations. Tipping at the end of your cruise is expected to be in Euros.
6. Weather reports. If you travel on the rivers in the spring or fall, there will certainly be a variance in temperatures and precipitation. Bring that nerdy plastic pancho and a folding umbrella. And leave that backpack at home. Nothing says “American Tourist” more than an Eddie Bauer backpack. If you must carry belongings, a 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 an electric current 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.
8. Getting the best scenic photos. If you are after the perfect photograph while cruising the river, remember the Golden Hour Rule and adjust your dining accordingly. The Golden Hour is that perfect moment near sunset and sunrise. 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. A fog-like mist rises from the river, birds slowly begin to chirp and the river 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! Sometimes the river cruise companies offer a pre or post cruise extension. These are good too as they also include your transportation to/from the ship to the hotel. 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.
11. You want to have fun! European river cruises aren’t just for retired folks. Younger travelers who want a relaxing way to tour Europe (no pack/unpack routine), honeymooners, multi-generational family reunions and gatherings are all becoming aware of the European river cruise advantages.
Recommended river cruise companies:
Tauck River Cruises
Photo credit: Sherry Laskin
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