I had not seriously researched river cruising before my husband agreed to ramble along with me. But as river cruise literature filled our mailbox and spilled over onto our dining room table, I quickly realized that it would not be easy to pick the perfect cruise. And it wasn’t!
River cruising has become amazingly popular in the last decade, mainly I think because it is so comfortable AND because the world’s population is aging. What senior citizen wouldn’t enjoy cruising down a river with mostly awesome views and delightful stops while living in a luxury hotel disguised as a boat. Many river cruise lines also provide bicycles and hiking for the more active cruisers, but since the average age, as I found out, hovers around 60 plus or minus a few years on most river boats, it’s not usually a good trip for children. However some companies have already begun to schedule special family cruises that include activities for young people.
Because of increased demand, a growing number of river boats now sail all the major rivers of Europe during the spring, summer and fall, and even during the winter months. Because of limited dock space in certain parts of the river, the boats are forced to tie up alongside each other and their passengers have to scamper up and over perhaps as many as three river cruisers to reach the shore. Rafting mainly happens during the summer months but is certainly not an usual occurrence.Similar river cruises can also be found in many other parts of the world, where there are navigable rivers, of course.
So which company to choose? I met several folks who had cruised on the Viking line. They all spoke very highly of Viking and certainly their prices are among the best out there. They have the most ships and seem to be constantly launching new ones. My travel agent at AAA, Michelle Shirley, told me that 95% of the river cruises she books are on Viking. So we went on Viking, right? Actually no, ever the contrarian, I decided to chose a smaller company that has been on the river for a long time, Uniworld. This company is part of the Red Carnation Hotel chain and calls itself a “boutique” river cruise line. So what is a” boutique river cruise?” I’m still not sure, but I can tell you that we would thoroughly enjoy all aspects of our cruise on the River Beatrice…except the weather!
Why does one pick one cruise over another. After a while, all the descriptions in the their brochures look the same,. There are variables such as cabin size, all inclusive vs. pay for what you want, the size of the ship, etc. In the end, my gut feeling was to choose the Uniworld Danube Christmas Markets cruise from Budapest Hungary to Passau in southern Germany, and so we did. The cruise we selected also made a stop at Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia where we hoped to meet cousins on my mother’s side of the family.
In the end, almost all of the better river cruise ships are similar, though the size of the cabins varies as does the quality of the food and service, not to mention the cost of the cruise and tours. There are multiple reviews on all the cruise lines, their ships and their cruises on the web. A good place to start is CruiseCritic.com . The Cruise Critic website has reviews not only of all the river cruise lines but of their individual ships. They also separate them into Cruise Critic’s executive reviews, and reviews made by people who sailed on the cruises.
Keep in mind, that one is moved to review something if it was really bad or really good. As a result, the individual reviews range from extremely positive to extremely negative. It is up to the reader to determine which are closest to reality. Some of the best known river cruise companies besides Uniworld and Viking are AMA, Avalon, Scenic and Tauck which features land as well as river cruises.A-Rosa and Croisi-Europe are European lines that cater mainly to Europeans but have good prices and are trying to recruit American passengers.
Finally, unless you are reading this in Europe, you will probably have to fly to your embarkation point. That can be an adventure and an expense in itself.
After a while, all the boats look alike but there are subtle differences, both exterior and especially in the interior.