The popularity of river cruising, particularly in Europe, is growing rapidly. We all have seen the television ads, read about them in magazine and I have attended more than a few training sessions from leading river cruising companies. However, I wanted to hear more from someone who has river cruised multiple times. Preferably someone who has done extensive research into the offerings out there. I found that person in Linda Alexander.
When it was time for me to plan my first river cruise, she was the first person I went to for answers. Now I can share some of her wisdom with you! Thanks so much, Linda taking the time to share your experiences.
What River Cruise itineraries have you traveled?
We did these tours:
1. Blue Danube, with Tauck – from Budapest to Prague. Loved Budapest and Vienna tremendously, but for me, Prague was my favorite. We stayed on five extra days on top of the two with the cruise and it was time well spent.
2. Rhine/Moselle, with Tauck – though they have a Rhine only passage, we did the longer one (we look for the cruise with as many days as possible; favorite mode of travel) that includes veering off the Rhine down the Moselle into Luxembourg for an extra day or two.
3. Budapest to Bucharest, with add on in Istanbul, with AMA – having lived through the Cold War, it was interesting to us to see the countries we’d heard so much about during this very dark period. Although not as scenic on the river itself, except for one section, the countries we visited were beautiful, interesting and not as well known as the “usual” Western European ones. We traveled though Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria – fascinating. Istanbul was unbelievable – the history, architecture, food, culture, “East meets West” feeling. Sadly can’t really go there at the moment so feel fortunate to have visited.
4. The Rhone and Saone, in France, with Tauck – this began with a couple of nights in Paris with touring, always great to be there, then TGV to Lyon to board boat. Not as long a journey as you go south, then turn around to see other sights northbound, ending in Lyon again. Very charming small towns.
What was your favorite route and why?
My favorite route, though difficult to choose one, was the Rhine/Moselle tour – that was with Tauck. The beauty of the countryside as you cruise, places you in the midst of a fairy tale. The Middle Rhine section is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an afternoon is devoted to sitting on deck hearing commentary about the castles and other vistas as you cruise past. You can just imagine being back in the days of knights, castles and kings.
I also loved this cruise as it was about 9 days as opposed to the usual 7 day cruise. There are longer journeys as well of course. This particular one took us off the Rhine for a sail down the Moselle to see Luxembourg.
Note: Most river cruise companies travel the same routes, sometimes varying city or town dockings here and there. For instance, on our Tauck cruise, we did not dock in Cologne, Germany, though I know other companies do so. This may have to do with the docking space availability in the various towns.
What were your top three River Cruising ports/tours?
My three top tours were Rhine, Upper Danube, Lower Danube; the fourth was on the Rhone from Lyon, France to Provence and back.
All ports were pretty interesting and worth visiting so it is hard to select only three. What’s great about river cruising is you see the big cities, but also many of the small towns you wouldn’t see on a land tour necessarily. Lots of charm, great food, easy access on/off ship to walk around at your leisure when in port. River cruising offers a great combination of time on ship and at destinations, and your hotel room floats along with you, so no constant unpacking, and if you want to skip a tour, you simply stay onboard and enjoy the ship.
On one cruise, I became ill and missed an entire day’s touring. I and one other passenger were literally regaled with a multi course lunch in the ship’s lounge while the pianist entertained us! Having an entire ship to yourself is a heady feeling!
How does a “typical day” look on a river cruise?
Most days are broken up into two excursions – you arrive in a port overnight or early morning. After breakfast you depart for your morning tour of a town/city, then back on board for lunch and off again for an afternoon tour if in a big city, or sail away to the next town for the afternoon tour. Lunch is always a wonderful buffet. You can relax and digest your morning experience, then prep for the afternoon. If you’re too tired, you simply nap and skip it – no one cares! Very flexible vacation.
Are there any “formal nights”?
What surprised you most about River Cruising?
The intimacy of life aboard a river boat: it feels as if you are on a floating hotel. Space is not abundant and so you see your fellow passengers often. Many ships carry only 100-175 or so passengers, depending on their length and ports of call; dining is one seating and you choose whom to sit with. It’s all very casual and fun; no stuffiness, you become friendly with the staff – your room steward, the bartenders, waiters, reception desk, cruise directors. The atmosphere on board is cozy, relaxed, fun.
What do like most about the River Cruise Experience?
For me, being onboard floating past vistas I’d read about in storybooks is the best. Sometimes I don’t want to get off ship! The public lounges and restaurant are beautifully appointed and encourage relaxing, mingling, learning. The pace is unhurried as there’s no unpacking constantly, and always a sense of what’s next to come around the river bend.
Anything you do not like about it?
There is nothing I don’t love about river cruising! If anything I wish there were more rivers in the world to cruise, and of longer duration. The experience fits my desire to explore, learn, meet new people from all cultures and backgrounds, but also have time built in for relaxation perfectly.
Any warnings for future river cruisers?
Yes, cruisers need to be aware that there are no guarantees of water levels on the river. If levels are too high or too low, making the ship unable to pass under bridges or through locks, the cruise will most likely be partially done via coach. I have been fortunate not to have had this issue on any of my cruises. Your cruise line will outline this possibility and how they would handle it for you.
Any other things for first-timers to keep in mind?
MOST rivercruisers are in the 50-80 age range. Unless this is marketed as a “family” cruise (which Tauck does I know) you see no children (it’s not really geared for them) and very few young couples, unless traveling with their parents, or a family group. We happened to love meeting folks from all over the US, and sometimes Australia, Canada, Great Britain, from all backgrounds and ages. Some are so well traveled with fascinating experiences plus you glean information on other cruises and land tours that you might like!
I strongly encourage (as do the cruise companies) travelers to arrive at least one day, if not more, prior to the start of the cruise to enjoy exploring more of the departure city or town but more importantly, to acclimate to the new time zone so as to be rested and alert for the tour. I also usually stay a day or two in the final city/town to explore some of that as well if possible.
(I have)another suggestion that many river cruisers take advantage of: make a pre- or post- cruise visit to another city first that you’ve always wanted to see, then fly to your cruise departure city. Often it isn’t much more expensive, if at all, to do this with the airlines, and travel between European cities can be quite inexpensive.
Itineraries can be quite rigorous depending on the river so it’s ok to skip a tour if you’re tired, or just want to relax onboard, or simply walk around the town you’re in without joining the group. You can tailor make the experience to suit your needs entirely.
Any regrets about river cruising?
Absolutely not. It’s my favorite form of travel.
What is your favorite River Cruise line? and why?
Tauck (though loved AMA as well – they are quite similar). You are totally taken care of and guided if you are touring off ship with them. Their local guides are excellent and their groups are smaller than some other companies’ I’ve seen in the towns. For a full ship, they have three tour directors plus a cruise director, therefore are well staffed to handle everyone’s needs. There is usually at least one quite spectacular experience on each cruise that is unique. They go above and beyond with special needs for meals or anything else for that matter.
What was your favorite route with them? Could be more than one:
Both the Blue Danube (upper Danube) and the Rhine/Moselle cruises.
What do you like best about their ships?
The cabins are well appointed with especially roomy closets and drawer space. The ambiance on board is wonderfully casual, friendly and beautiful. The entire staff is caring and committed to making your journey special.
What kind of rooms to you prefer to get on the ships?
For the most part we get a standard cabin, although they do have suites as well. I prefer to be on the middle level (there are three with cabins). Being on the highest deck can be more costly, and to me there’s not much difference on a river ship between decks 2 and 3. Some have expressed possible noise issues if on deck 3 if there are joggers on top deck but I have no experience with that issue.
On some of Tauck’s newer ships, they offer “loft” cabins, which are on the lowest (water level) deck. They are quite innovative, are bi-level, feel spacious and are beautifully appointed with large windows that entirely open, giving an open-air feel to your space.
Do you have any advice for someone considering this River Cruise line?
Trust that you are in competent hands with Tauck – they deliver on every front in my experience, offering a worry-free, exciting experience.
Feel free to add anything else you think would be interesting or useful.
Most of the major river cruise companies offer similar itineraries on all the rivers available currently. It is difficult to comparison shop exactly as each company offers different price structures with varying amenities, tours, cabin types, length of cruise, etc. If you are able to narrow down the river you want to explore, then peruse the offerings of all companies on that river to compare itineraries and inclusions, that’s a good way to begin.