If you’re of a certain age and watch TV you have seen plenty of commercials about river cruising. Long boats ply navigable rivers all over Europe. Some companies are planning cruise itineraries on U.S. rivers too. Like all travel options there are pros and cons. This post examines Kongo’s take on river cruising in Europe.
Serenely gliding down a river with fantastic scenery, exploring a new culture, enjoying gourmet cuisine, and meeting new friends are just some of the attractions of river cruising. Kongo has now gone on two river cruises — one on the Danube and one on the Rhine — and he’s booked one through the Bordeaux wine country in France for 2018.
River Cruising Vs. Ocean Cruising
The biggest difference between river and ocean cruising is the size of the ship. Typically, a river boat has between 100 and 175 total passengers. Ocean cruises have anywhere from 500 to 5,000 passengers. That’s a HUGE difference. If you like more intimate settings where you’re not fighting crowds a river cruise may be for you. Another advantage of river cruising is that you get to visit places you would never see on an ocean cruise. On Kongo’s trips he’s seen cities like Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, Vienna, Heidelberg, Zurich, Lucerne, Cologne, Strasburg, and quaint little villages like Reginsburg, Riquewihr, and Durnstein.
Another advantage of river cruising is that the tours are generally smaller. On a Viking Ocean cruise last year Kongo frequently found himself with 40 explorers or more slogging through big cities like Rome and Venice. The only real way to get away from the crowds was to get there a few days early. In a large group you travel at the pace of the slowest person in the group. It is much easier for the cruise director to organize smaller groups that travel at different paces…like slow walkers, fast striders, late risers, and those with special needs.
Generally it is easier to get on and off a river longboat than a cruise ship, especially if the ship must anchor out and take passengers in by tender. A long boat pulls up to a dock right in the middle of where you want to be and it only takes a brief time to get off and muster up with your group. River cruising really lets you get up close and personal with the countries that you are passing through.
Up Close and Personal
You’re never going to see views like this on an ocean cruise. A river cruise, on the other hand, allows you to get close to the country you’re traveling through in a unique way. You can smell the fields, wave at people as you pass under bridges, count the vineyards, and listen to birds on the bank.
Whether you go on a river or a blue ocean cruise, you’re going to go on tours. Without the tours you might as well check into a nice hotel somewhere and lay around the pool all day. Tours make or break a cruise and it’s something you should really check out when you consider the many options. While ship amenities are important, Kongo’s experience is that there’s plenty of similarities. Nice cabins, great food, pleasant staff, gym, pools, deck space. It’s the tours that make the difference.
When you study the glossy brochures pay attention to the following:
City Overview = Bus ride around town.
Walking Tour = A stroll around the old city center.
Optional Tour = More money.
Wine Tasting = a bunch of people crowding around a musty table sipping thimbles of sweet wine in a plastic glass.
Free Time = 15 minutes to 2 hour opportunity to get lost or sit in a cafe with other tourists.
Be sure to inquire about the size of your shore tours. If there are more than a dozen or so then you’re joining a traveling mob. If you’re visiting someplace like Rome (for example) your group is going to be colliding with several other groups until you have a large, unorganized crowd.
When considering a river cruise Kongo recommends that you also investigate whether or not the offered tours accommodate travelers with disabilities, how much walking (or hiking) is involved, what the qualifications of the guides are, and whether or not they utilize a QuietVox or similar device during tours.
What Happens if the River Runs Dry (or Floods?)
One of the worst possible outcomes of a river cruise is one that turns into a bus cruise. Read the fine print when you book your tour. Sometimes rivers are so low that the waters cannot be safely navigated by the long boats. An unusually high rainfall or snowfall in the mountains can cause the rivers to flood in the Spring preventing the ships from fitting under the bridges. Weather happens.
It is important to know before you board the plane and head out what your options are should weather conspire to ruin your trip. In most cases, your options are few indeed.
Some companies are now building boats with a shallower draft — that’s the amount of boat that extends below the water — and almost all river boats have the ability to raise and lower the pilot house and other obstructions that might scrape the underside of a bridge.
Some rivers are more prone to problems than others so take the time to do some research about historic water levels at the time you’re planning to travel to calculate the odds of having a problem. If you Google river-levels-europe-historic you will find plenty of stories and data about river levels in Europe.
Although a very few river cruise companies may accommodate family cruising most do not. There are not facilities aboard for the little ones and frankly, most of your fellow cruisers will not be happy to see your little darlings scamper up the gangway. The average age on a river cruise ranges from mid-40s to mid-70s with a few outliers on either side. These are empty nesters who love their grandchildren–just not here! If you want to take the whole family on a cruise please look for a cruise ship that specializes in that sort of thing.
Other than a little monkey that’s house trained, Kongo has never seen a pet or service animal on a river cruise. Check with your company but given the potential problems with taking an animal into a foreign country and the lack of facilities on the ship to accommodate pets you should plan on leaving your animals with your kids!
Is a river cruise in your budget? While individual prices may vary considerably, in general a 7-day river cruise is going to cost about $12,000. That is $12,00 per couple. If you are a single traveler its obviously going to be less but if you want a cabin to yourself plan on paying more than half a couples cost. This doesn’t include air fare or all the new clothes your wife is going to need before packing. If you consider that you may want to get there a few days early to have more time in the embarkation city or stay over a few days at the end your cost can quickly get to about $15,000 a couple.
Now, the good news is that there are often discounts available and you really need a good travel agent to help you navigate the options. The father ahead you book the cheaper the fare and it also gives you time to save a little bit each month to cover the costs.
Kongo has booked a Bordeaux cruise for 2018 and got some great discounts for being so far out in front.
Many cruises do sell out a year early so if you wait until the last minute you are going to pay full price and may have difficulty finding the cruise you want at the time you want to go.
Which Cruise Line
There are lots of cruise lines to choose from. Kongo trusts that you will carry out due diligence in researching the various carriers and find one that fits your needs. The monkey is a big fan of AMAWaterways but he realizes there are other options. Viking River Cruises is popular and they have an aggressive advertising program. Check out the various cruise reviews before you decide and talk to your travel agent!
If you have any questions about river cruising, feel free to send Kongo an Email or post a comment. He’ll get back to you!
Travel safe. Have fun!