River cruising can be the perfect way to experience the countries of Europe! Guests travel along rivers that were the thoroughfares of culture and commerce for thousands of years and dock right in the heart of these lovely cities. There are pluses and minuses when comparing the river cruise experience to ocean cruising, with the main difference being that river cruises are more expensive than a standard cabin on a standard ocean cruise, but the more intimate and personalized experience and the chance to be in the the heart of theses magnificent cities, really make it one of the best values when it comes to a luxury vacation experience.
I have taken two river cruises over the last few years and I will tell you about my impressions of each and a few things that folks should talk to their travel advisor about when it comes to differentiating the value of one cruise line to the next.
First for those of us that are Ocean Cruise lovers, the river cruise offers a different experience, not necessarily better or worse, because for each trade off, there is a pro and an con. River cruise ships are smaller carrying maybe 158 to 198 guests. One key points to keep in mind when choosing your river cruise is that the ship that carries 198 passengers is the same size as the ship that carries around 158 passengers. This is because all river ships need to navigate the same waterways and locks. One big difference between those two ships is the size of the cabins and especially the size of the bathrooms. Some ships have cabins as small as 150 sq feet in the French Balcony category, while on the Avalon ship we traveled, on all cabins were 200 sq feet. Ocean ships now carry 5000 people or more on some of the mega ships or 300-750 on a luxury boutique ship. With most of the newer ocean cruise ships the cabins are a generous 185 to 200 sq feet plus a balcony. With the Panama Canal being enlarged, there is no longer a size constraint on those ocean cruise ships in theory. With fewer people onboard, there are not the economies of scale that one gets on a mega ship, so the price of a river cruise tends to be higher than a standard or premium cruise. However, there are upsides including fewer guests, less queuing, no crowds and a more personalized experience. Another big difference between a river and ocean cruise, is that while an Ocean cruise is a floating city with so many amenities right on board like pools, casinos, multiple restaurants, shops, bars, dance venues and Las Vegas style shows, a river cruise is more like an intimate boutique hotel in the heart of your favorite European city. The entertainment is more about getting to know your fellow guests or hanging out with new friends or those who traveled with you. There are also no casino’s onboard, but there were plenty of card and board games in the aft lounge, so guests might be able to play cards or other games together.
My most recent river cruise was in Oct of 2021, The Danube from Budapest, Hungary to Degenndorf, Germany. It was definitely that intimate personalized experience that we enjoyed the most. We loved sailing down the Danube and taking in the breathtaking views where every village featured a lovely church spire and a ruined castle on a hill. Avalon, along with most river cruises, includes complementary beer and wine with meals. The Avalon difference was that often the wine and beer served were regional specialty wines and beers, along with a selection of wines from around the world. We also loved the fact that even with buying a glass of wine or a beer outside dining hours, our onboard bill was extremely small compared to ocean cruises.
Our experience with Avalon Waterways was first class all the way. The rooms were a spacious 200 sq foot with Panoramic Balconies. Avalon features this size room in 85% of their cabins. On other lines, the typical cabin is only 150 square feet of space. That more generous cabin space gave us even slightly more space than on a typical standard or premium ocean cruise, with the most noticeable increase in space being in the full size bathroom on Avalon. Had we sailed on one of the lines that feature the smaller cabin size, this would have been a compromise in cabin size from our typical ocean cruise experience.
The front of the ship is the typical two level river cruise design, with three levels on the back where the suite/cabins are located. That configuration allows for generous ceiling height in the public areas of the ship. River ships have to fit under very old low bridges, so there is a max height that the ships can reach and still be able to navigate the rivers. The open use of space and generous state rooms with full size bath made the whole experience uncompromising in comfort. We had a very small group on the cruise due to folks not being ready to travel as the pandemic lingered on. However, there was generous space on the ship even if it were to be at full capacity. The service was very professional, courteous and friendly.
The food was exceptional, probably more on the level of the luxury ocean cruise lines, rather than contemporary or premium lines. One of the aspects of the food that made it so exceptional was that it included regional dishes and locally procured ingredients at every meal. That little extra effort makes all the difference and not all river cruise lines pay such special attention to those types of details.
Avalon offers a choice of Shore Excursions in each port with most ports including a choice for two or more at no extra charge. For example, in Austria we had a choice of an active hike up to Durnstien Castle or a Leisurely Walking Tour of the town. Later that day there was a choice of the classic tour of the Melk Abbey, or a Bees and Baking experience where guests learned about the local honey business and had a chance to learn how to bake a typical Austrian pastry. Everyone came back from both experiences loving what they had seen and done. While some luxury ocean cruise lines are including shore excursions in the price of the cruise, for 95% of the ships sailing, guests must pay an additional charge for all shore excursions. Those included excursions can make a big difference in the way that guests come back from the trip having experienced a destination rather than just visited where they could by walking off the ship. So again by including excursions that connect guests with the destinations, it makes the whole river cruise experience a more meaningful travel experience.
My first river cruise was in April of 2017 in Bordeaux with CroiseEurope. CroiseEurope offers a very different product at a budget friendly price and great value, but they have a few features that may not appeal to American tastes.
The ships are custom built for each river so they would all be different depending on where your are sailing. However the quality of the food, all French style meals, was excellent. Our tours in Bordeaux to different wineries and towns were excellent, some of the best tours that I have had in my years of cruising. We got to visit innovative and historic wineries through-out the Bordeaux region as well as castles and walled cities.
May favorite day of this cruise was our trip to see the oyster farms of Archachon and the Dune du Pilat. This was an all day excursion that included a tour at oyster farming museum, an oyster tasting, a boat ride out to the oyster harvesting areas, and a visit and climb up the Dune du Pilat, Europes larges sand dune. I loved this day and I don’t even eat oysters. I just had wine when others were eating their oysters. That type of inclusive all day tour would have been hundreds of dollars per person on other lines, or maybe not even offered, but it was part of the included package for Americans and a highlight of our visit to Bordeaux.
The Bordeaux itinerary is also unique to the region and probably similar across all river cruise lines in the area. It is more of a “spoke and wheel” cruise with most of the places visited only being about an hour from the city of Bordeaux. There are no locks to pass through on the Bordeaux rivers unless going into a small canal off the river. We spent several nights docked in Bordeaux after our day of of scenic cruising or visits to other areas up the river.
The crew was amazing in their high level of service, very friendly and took great care of all of us on the cruise. For American’s, the CroiseEurope experience is sold as all inclusive of beverages and excursions, so we were able to imbibe and tour without worry about cost.
However there were a few down sides to the Croise experience. The big one is one of the reasons I have trouble selling the product to the American market. Lunch and Dinner are the “Plat de Jour” which means you could look at it as a chef’s table every meal or that you just don’t have a choice of what is going to be served. That being said, everything that was presented to us during the cruise was fresh, mouthwatering, and well prepared. One person described it as going to a friends house for dinner and your friend happens to be a gourmet chef. Not having to take orders, certainly made the food service more efficient. They do have exception option for each course for folks with food allergies or aversions, so folks that didn’t eat fish, for example, got a different dish on those days. Entertainment was also interesting.
We had the typical river cruise entertainment of a local folkloric dance group come aboard to present to us the typical dances of Bordeaux. We also had an older gentleman French cabaret singer, sort of a French Frank Sinatra. On a couple of the nights, the lively crew entertained us with sketches, audience participation, and trivia nights. One of the folks in our group and I took trivia very seriously, and were a little over the top with our competitiveness.
Also on the down side, the rooms were pretty small. While I was unable to find the exact size of the cabin online, I would estimate that they are way smaller than the 200 sq foot cabin on Avalon. Another minus of this particular ship, was that with the way it was built for the rivers in Bordeaux, the ceilings were extremely low, and there was one man who was about 6 foot 6 inches that had to be careful not to hit his head on the low ceilings.
Finally, CroiseEurope is a bilingual line with the cruise being in both French and English. Our English speaking group was much smaller than the majority Native French speakers, and perhaps if we hadn’t had a small group of 12 traveling together, we would have been in a very small minority as English speakers. All of our tours were in English as they had one bus for English speakers and one or two for the French speakers. Croise would be great for a travel group that wants to see their destination in a budget friendly way and who aren’t super picky eaters.
So for the two river cruise experiences, they were quite different, but both had plusses and minuses. For those who want a full luxury experience, with local food, and generous size cabins, Avalon and several other similar lines are good choices. For those who need a budget friendly option, I can work with my clients to find an option where the cabins might be smaller and the food not as authentic, but where the sights along the river are just the same. In summary, when considering a river cruise, travelers should look to work with a knowledgeable travel agent who can help them compare cabin sizes, quality of food, quality of wines, group size, ships’ capacity, inclusions, and overall feel of the river cruise line. The worst mistake that guests can make is calling a river cruise line directly, thinking that they will get a better deal than through a travel agency. The river cruise company will not offer them different options and explain the difference between the different cruise lines. Also, the price that they will pay going direct will not be any lower than working through a professional travel agency, like mine. If you book direct, the commission that is paid to the travel agent is built into the price of the cruise whether you use one or not, so you are paying for the service of a travel advisor and not getting any of that all important advice. So the one take away that I want my readers to have is that when booking their river cruises, always work with a travel professional.