European River Cruise Advantages and Disadvantages
By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert
I write all the time about Europe river cruising and its value. But there is no vacation option that is right for all. Many who have never taken a European River Cruise, have no idea how much is included and the many benefits of this travel opportunity.
So, let me defend my thoughts—is a European River cruise the right option for you? What are the advantages and disadvantages of sailing on a rivership?
Ready?—let’s go find out together!
You will cruise on smaller ships, with more contact with the crew.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to new cruisers is how compact and well organized a rivership is—somehow putting 130-200 folks on a vessel that generally must meet size limitations to fit through the various locks with luxury accommodations and venues is hard to fathom even from pictures or videos. Before I went on my first Europe river cruise in 2009, even after studying river cruising, I had no real concept of the overall experience. It was even better than I had imagined and still is after 18 river cruises in Europe.
You can expect--impeccable, warm and friendly service by an English-only speaking crew. You are with a European crew, eager to help you learn more about the destinations you are sailing to on your trip.
Here is what facilities to expect on your vessel--some ships have a gym, a sauna, massage pallor, a hairdresser, a pool, free internet and free use of bicycles.
You see more in less time
You usually dock very near or right at the destination of the day and there is a tour or place to see every day—no sea days like on a big ocean cruise ship. Being near or in the center of the city, town or village you are about to explore is a big advantage. In five minutes all guests are off the boat and seeing the sights. Most lines also offer different groups during the tours—regular, active walkers or gentle walkers, so your desired way to see the destination is matched with your tour.
River cruising is all about the destinations. Even though I have been traveling to Europe for over 48 years and led several group tours, I could not do what the river cruise companies do in one week—these folks are experts in showing you the best sights in the least amount of time. It is truly a unique way to see the interior of a country. It is different from a land based tour and different from an ocean cruise.
This gives you the ability to see more of a region and experience the local culture in-depth. While some excursions cost extra, the variety of offerings usually satisfies most guests and the extra excursions are often unique and worth the money.
Maybe the best part of a river cruise is the flexibility. Want to skip the tour—no problem! We often go off on our own, love walking the quaint towns, using the provided map or even a GPS device. In the larger ports, it is easy to really go off on your own using subways or buses or even a taxi if time is the critical factor.
How about a bike ride? Many of the better lines feature escorted bike rides or you can go on your own.
It is Almost All-Inclusive
Excursions, all meals, accommodations are included. On most lines, the meals are great and there are enough choices that even the pickiest eaters will find something they enjoy. On river cruise lines, your food, meals with wine or beer at lunch and dinner, your cabin and even occasional entertainment is included in the fare. There is even champagne or sparkling wine at breakfast on many lines.
The clear, upfront pricing helps make it easier to budget for your vacation. River boats are small (only 100 to 197 passengers) friendly and comfortable. Food is generally very good to excellent but some lines are better than others.
There is Always Something to See
Even when you are sailing during the day (most cruising is done at night), there is something to see—sometimes great, quaint villages, perhaps a castle, or maybe a rural setting and even larger industrial buildings—it is always interesting. You can actually often hear the folks on the bank talking as you slowly sail past. You will not get motion discomfort, as river cruises are slow paced with little to none rough water. Remember, every cabin has a view—there are no inside cabins like on an ocean cruise vessel.
Your Floating Hotel Combines the best of a cruise and land tour in a causal setting.
Don’t like to pack, go to a new location, and unpack on a traditional tour—then river cruising is the answer. On the right lines (AmaWaterways and Scenic, are our 2 favorites), you get a luxury floating hotel, great food and wine and experiences that you will remember for a lifetime.
River cruising is casual. No formal wear is required. For the dinner meal, most men wear slacks and a nice shirt. Some men will wear a sports coat--maybe a tie for the Captain's dinner, but it is not required or even expected.
Women usually wear comfortable clothes during the day for sightseeing. At night you will see the ladies a tad bit more dressed up with blouses, slacks or dresses but seldom will you see formal wear.
Maybe the best way to define the dress code is casual elegant for dinner and comfortable day time wear during the day.
Higher Prices than some other Vacations
While there is a great range of prices for European River Cruises, they often range from $3,500 to $6,000 per person or more for 7 days.
Some cruise lines (Scenic, Uniworld, Tauck and newcomer, Crystal) are completely inclusive (all liquor, gratuities and even optional tours), but cost more than other companies. Viking, Emerald and Avalon offer more optional choices, but usually have lower starting prices. Our favorite river cruise company, AmaWaterways does not include gratuities, liquor outside of meals (but they have added a free cocktail hour prior to dinner). On AmaWaterways, there may be an extra charge for some optional tours although there is at least one tour included at every port at no charge (many times there are 2 or more at no charge). This is important, as you may visit more than one port on a given day and some lines only offer only one tour per day, not a tour at ever port stop.
There are no big bands, Broadway productions, or casinos on riverships—they are not the 24 hour party ships, with multiple entertainment venues.
Here is what you can expect on a river cruise--daily free onboard evening entertainment, usually a piano player, sometimes local groups that come on board. Often the groups that come onboard are outstanding—it is more a cultural experience than a gaudy production on ocean cruise ships.
But never fear—there are special themed cruises that focus on entertainment—we are going on a smooth jazz cruise this December (2019) that features Rick Braun, so if entertainment is important for you, there may be a cruise that solves this problem.
Folks with Mobility Issues could be limited
While we have seen some in motorized wheel chairs, mobility issues do limit the river cruise experience. Since the river boats often dock in the heart of older European Cities and villages, the older towns are often cobble-stoned streets and require managing a lot of stairs and walking. For a person in a wheel chair, this is a huge problem. The walking distances sometimes are very long, often a couple of miles or so, and folks with limited mobility may have problems. Some companies have a slow walker type tours that can help this problem.
Often River Cruise Ships Have Smaller Cabins
If cabin size is important, space can be limited on a rivership.
There are no inside cabins on riverboats—they are just too small width-wise to have more than 2 cabins per deck. There are really 4 types of cabins on riverboats.
The first type is at the water line and often is a small fixed window, although one company has designed an elevated sitting area for the window. There are usually a small number of these cabins, as a portion of the lowest deck is used for the crew. They are the least expensive but often clients find these cabins not as inviting as the upper deck cabins. Some cruise lines have fixed windows on the upper deck cabins.
The second type is a French Balcony type cabin which opens in some fashion. It could be a sliding glass window type or a window type that open all the way up or opens partially. This is an area of major competition between lines.
The third type is a balcony area. It could be a complete balcony or a split outside balcony/French balcony. One factor about an outside balcony—the cabins do not get bigger with the balcony, since the riverboat width size is restricted in order to get into the locks, the cabin will lose some square footage taken up by the balcony.
The forth type of cabin is a suite. Often these have more square footage than other cabins and may even have 2 separate rooms. A word of caution—these are not like the huge cabins on an ocean cruise going ships and some cruise companies call a cabin a suite but it may not really be a true suite. The new double wide cabins on the AmaMagna are more comparable to an ocean cruise ship.
Cabin location is also a consideration, engine noise could be a problem for some. For those with limited mobility, if the ship has an elevator and if it goes to all decks is an important consideration
High water or low water can change the Experience.
Perhaps, the biggest limitation is the amount of water on the river you are sailing on—sometimes the vacation can become a bus tour for the excursions, or in extreme cases, force you to change ships to complete the cruise.
Water levels can really change the river cruise experience. In the late summer and fall of 2018, the water levels in Europe fell to record lows. Many companies had to cancel or change routes or make the cruise a bus tour when they could not sail their original itinerary. Some lines handled the situation better than others. It seems that water levels and the resultant changes to the scheduled trip route are the most common complaint about river cruises in Europe.
Water levels are unpredictable and all river cruise lines have developed extensive plans to make these difficult situations as best they can. These include cancellations, refunds, busing and swapping ships.
High water is another problem—sometimes the ship cannot pass under the low bridges.
We have experienced both high and low water on AmaWaterways. They handled these situations exceptionally well. All lines have received some criticism for the water levels, but the reviews on line are very harsh for some companies on how they have handled this difficult situation. At the best, the situation is well handled and only causes minor problems. At worse, you still are in Europe, so all is not lost but to be candid, some folks have said the experience and disappointment of the changes has caused them to decide not to river cruise again. Some lines have guarantees that cover water levels.
Some rivers just have consistent water level problems. If you want to cruise the Elbe River, the brochure makes it sound like it will be perfect, yet the consistent low water situation often results in small cruising distances and a lot of long, disappointing bus rides. The same goes for the Po River in Italy—short distances for the cruise, a difficult river to navigate due to swift water and unfavorable river banks that impede docking operations in some locations, turn a river cruise into a glorified bus tour.
Rafting can Limit Your View
Another limitation is called rafting by the river boat companies. Rafting means due to limited dock areas, river boats often tie up next to one another. This can cause problems getting off the boat, may cause cabin privacy issues and most importantly, limit the view from outside your cabin.
My Final Thoughts
For me, and most folks we work with, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. If you can afford this type of vacation, most will be thrilled beyond their wildest expectations.
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HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 48 years. He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years. He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees. His other Certifications:
AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
Viking River Cruise Specialist
Scenic River Cruise Specialist
Emerald Waterways Specialist
Avalon Waterways Specialist