River Cruising Q & A
We ask the experts about their favorite waterways and itineraries
By Jennifer Davoren
(Scroll down to see a slide show.)My introduction to the world of river cruising came through an irresistible offer: the chance to join the inaugural sailing of an Avalon Waterways Suite Ship, the 128-passenger Avalon Visionary.
In addition to expansive cabins, eateries and lounge space galore, the Visionary was a showcase for a new booking concept, Avalon Choice. The program has grown into an avenue for customization, allowing guests to choose from three themes when selecting shore excursions: "classic," often in the form of guided tours of historic treasures; "discovery," interactive activities like cooking demos that highlight local culture; or "active," a collection of hiking, biking and other blood-pumping expeditions available in appealing ports of call.
Sailing through Holland during "tulip time," when the countryside erupts in colors lent by millions of iconic blooms, my first river cruise demonstrated the flexibility of this kind of escape. Guests can do as much or as little as they want while sailing the world's most enticing waterways, including Europe's Danube, Rhine, Seine and Duoro, Southeast Asia's Mekong, South America's Amazon or America's own Mississippi, Columbia and Snake rivers.
Read on to learn more from past passengers here at Vacation Publications as well as the experienced river cruise counselors of Vacations To Go.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE THE BIGGEST BENEFITS OF A RIVER CRUISE?
J.R. Hernandez, master travel counselor, 10 years with Vacations To Go: You don't have to pack and unpack, hopping from hotel to hotel, since your hotel and restaurants -- your cruise -- take you from city to city. All of your food is included and, with most cruise lines, wine, beer and soft drinks are included with lunch and dinner.
Ginger Williams, master travel counselor, 18 years with Vacations To Go: Small ships. It's easy to get to know other people on a smaller ship, and service is normally exceptional.
Bruce Godwin, master cruise counselor and luxury specialist, 16 years with Vacations To Go: It's great to be in the very center of most of the towns and cities visited. You can just walk off your riverboat and explore at any time. And, since almost all river ships include your tours, sightseeing is a breeze.
Annette Fuller, editor, six years with Vacation Publications: On my river cruise, I called the shots myself, from beginning to end. I strolled, I sat, I lounged, I walked, I toured, I ate and I drank just as I pleased all the while meeting pleasant folks (if I wanted to).
HOW MANY RIVER CRUISES HAVE YOU TAKEN? CAN YOU PICK A FAVORITE ITINERARY OR PORT?
Fran Davis, small-ship and river cruise specialist, 13 years with Vacations To Go: Eighteen river cruises so far, with AmaWaterways, Tauck, Viking, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours, Avalon Waterways and Emerald Waterways. My husband and I have loved all the itineraries, but the two we keep going back to are the Danube between Nuremberg, Germany, and Budapest, Hungary, and the Rhone River in southern France.
Brandy Navarro, river cruise team manager, nine years with Vacations To Go: I've taken two -- with Tauck, Holland during tulip time, and with Viking, the Danube Christmas markets. I loved the Christmas markets. It's beautiful there, tons of small, outdoor shops with amazing Christmas ornaments and decorations, and they offer local foods from huge pretzels to yummy gingerbread and, of course, the mulled wine keeps you warm in the freezing weather.
Michelle Brown, master travel counselor, 10 years with Vacations To Go: I have traveled on six rivers through a total of four river cruises. Favorite itinerary: "Castles Along the Rhine" from Uniworld. Favorite port: Rudesheim, Germany. It's a small town with very friendly locals, and the infamous Rudesheim coffee is amazing!
WHAT DO YOU TELL THE OCEAN CRUISING FAN WHO IS HESITANT TO BOOK A RIVER CRUISE?
Davis: They are completely different. A river cruise is an immersive tour where you are docked in enchanting towns most of the day and you can typically just step off the boat and walk into town. No stress, no lines, just relaxation while being treated like a king or queen.
Navarro: River cruises take you where large ocean cruises are not able to get to. It's for the seasoned traveler who wants to see more than the main cities, but also for the new travelers wanting the in-between of an ocean cruise and escorted tour.
Hernandez: Most are concerned about the price, so I tell them the differences of what's included on a river cruise that you have to pay extra for on an ocean cruise (tours and drinks, mostly).
IS THERE AN IDEAL TIME TO CRUISE CERTAIN RIVERS?
Navarro: For tulip time, I would say mid- to late April. They offer it in early April, which is when I went. There were tons of blooms, but not everything was ready. It's still an amazing experience either way.
Davis: I would say any time from April through October is great. Keep in mind that Northern Europe is on the same latitude as Canada, so the weather is cooler than you might think. So, summer is a great time!
Marco Sedgwick, master travel counselor, 10 years with Vacations To Go: May and September are peak river cruise months because of the weather. Summertime isn't a bad time to go on the Rhine, Danube and even in France, because the temperatures rarely get above 80 degrees. If you want a deal, early April or late October, but you better book early because everybody knows that the prices are best.
Brown: The ideal time is early October for the Rhine or Danube. The weather is very comfortable, there's less congestion and rates are generally lower for river cruising and international airfare.
WHAT'S NEW IN RIVER CRUISING?
Williams: Many river cruise lines are offering more than one included tour in some cities, as passengers are repeating rivers and want to see and do different things.
Navarro: Different types of excursions are being offered for each type of passenger. If you like the opera or are a foodie or even if you want to bike the countryside while in Amsterdam, it's possible. You are really getting the local experiences on these river cruises. And the Douro keeps getting more and more popular. Most repeat guests have done the Rhine or Danube, so now on to Portugal. I haven't done this river yet, but I have been to Portugal and it definitely surprises you, from the scenic views to its culture and history.
Davis: We love the electric bikes that some companies offer, giving you the ability to ride with a group and a guide, or to take off on your own alongside the river.
WHAT ONBOARD ACTIVITIES OR SPECIAL AMENITIES SHOULD PASSENGERS CHECK OUT?
Kathryn E. Worrall, staff writer, four years with Vacation Publications: My first river cruise was a Mekong River sailing aboard AmaWaterways' AmaDara. In between ports, staff put on cultural presentations, like a cooking class for pho and spring rolls. As someone who must carry an evil eye talisman when I fly, I was fascinated by the lesson on Vietnamese superstitions. (Never call a newborn baby beautiful that draws in spirits to steal it so instead say it's ugly, and if you don't own a dog, place a statue of one outside to ward off evil.) Watching our strictly business Hungarian captain belt out karaoke tunes also was quite the experience.
Williams: If your river cruise company offers a visit to the ship's galley, you may want to consider taking advantage of this. The ship's galley is very tiny. It's hard to believe that your wonderful food can be prepared there.
Brown: Definitely check out any specialty dining opportunities. River cruise operators will sometimes offer a dedicated area on board the ship for small groups of eight to 10 guests to experience private dining.
Hernandez: The spa, to get a massage near the end of your trip to rejuvenate yourself after all the walking during your cruise. Not everyone takes advantage of this. It could make the flight home much more enjoyable.
WHAT IS THE DINING SCENE LIKE?
Godwin: Since the dining room is all open seating, it's great to meet and mingle with your newfound friends on board. Since river ships are very casual, you won't be dragging that tuxedo or suit along with you. While the menus are more limited than on an ocean ship, they have great seasonal ingredients and make sure everyone is happy.
Sedgwick: Most people don't know that they can order as much as they want. I've ordered all three entrees at one sitting and, with Viking, they brought out eight more lobster tails to our table.
DO RIVER CRUISES OFFER SPECIAL THEME SAILINGS?
Godwin: Yes, river cruises often have wine themes, especially in France where else! It's impossible to beat drinking a vintage grown on the very slopes you are viewing along the river.
Hernandez: Yes, they offer wine cruises mostly, but you will see some family-friendly cruises to take your children on, and some cruises geared toward art and photography.
HAVE YOU BEEN ON ANY THEMED ITINERARIES?
Fuller: Quilting was the theme on my cruise aboard the American Duchess, a Mississippi River paddle-wheeler operated by American Queen Steamboat Co. We had two quilting seminars, with experts giving lessons on quilt technique and history. We had numerous stitch-and-sit sessions in the library, in which we all worked on our own projects or completed a small project that the experts had prepared for us. I made a delightful pin cushion that proudly sits in my sewing room today.
DO YOU SUGGEST ANY MUST-TRY SHORE EXCURSIONS? ARE THERE PORTS IDEAL FOR EXPLORING ON YOUR OWN?
Sedgwick: Durnstein, in Austria on the Danube, is in the center of the Wachau Valley. It's one big vineyard. It's easy to get around and has gorgeous terrain.
Worrall: The Phnom Penh excursion to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum provides an eye-opening experience delving into Cambodia's past. It's a very emotional day as you witness the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime, when an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people died, but it was an unforgettable history lesson that increased my love and appreciation for the country and its people.
Davis: Many, many ports are ideal for exploring on your own. I always recommend that clients hold off signing up for extra excursions, to allow time to immerse themselves in any and all towns that they like along the way. There is nothing better, in my book, than sitting down in a little cafe, ordering a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and watching the people. I advise clients that you already have a tour included virtually every day, so allow some time to explore on your own without a tour.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Fall 2019. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 510-4002 for current rates and details.