Warning For First-Time River Cruisers: This Travel Style May Be Addictive
By Bruce Parkinson
My first river cruise was 30 years ago, on Egypt’s fabled Nile. It was a magical trip and the memories remain vivid. Sitting on the top deck, sipping a cold drink and observing the exotic scenery and daily life on shore was endlessly fascinating.
In the decades since, I continued to write about the tourism industry, and experienced diverse forms of travel, from coach tours to all-inclusive resorts, from sleeping rough and cooking over a fire in the Australian outback to savouring five-star luxury and Michelin-star meals.
As the cruise industry expanded exponentially over those decades, I’ve had the privilege of being on many different ocean journeys. I’ve experienced everything from the basic comforts of a rusting 35-year-old ship circumnavigating Cuba to travelling aboard the largest and most innovative cruise ships in the world, replete with water slides, shopping malls and Broadway-style shows.
Falling In Love With The River Cruise Vibe
But until last year I had yet to return to river cruising, which had evolved and expanded considerably over that time. In 2022, I had the opportunity to travel by river twice, once with AmaWaterways on a summertime Castles of the Rhine cruise from Amsterdam to Basel, and a second time with Viking, the world’s largest river cruise operator, on a late-fall Seine journey from Paris to Normandy.
Something happened on those two trips – I fell headfirst in love with the modern version of river cruising. Now when my thoughts turn to travel yearning, the first images that come to mind are the Viking Fjorgyn, docked in the centre of Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background, or stepping aboard the AmaKristina, just a short walk from Amsterdam’s main train station.
Bottom-Line: The River Runs Through It
With river cruising, you don’t travel to destinations, you travel through them. Rivers are arteries that carry commerce and people, and they are magnets for human civilization. From Paris to Cairo, Rome to Quebec City, Delhi to Shanghai -- many of the world’s most consequential cities are situated on the banks of life-giving fresh water streams that link to oceans and the wider world.
For those who love it – and it’s a fast-growing group -- river cruising is travel on a human scale. Restricted by the size of the rivers and locks they travel through, the vast majority of ships carry fewer than 200 passengers, some less than 50. In many locations, in cities large and small, the river ships dock in attractive central locations, walking distance from key tourist attractions.
With varying arrival times, guests simply walk on the ship, collect their key card and begin their vacation. That’s the true pleasure of this style of travel – it’s just so easy.
Life On The River: Intimate, Laid-Back & Friendly
On oceans or rivers, cruising is a social and convivial experience. But on a river cruise ship with 150-200 passengers and an average of 30-50 crew members, the ability to make personal connections is amplified. By the end of a typical 7-night cruise, you have at least a nodding acquaintance with just about everyone on the ship. And you’re very likely to have new friends.
River cruisers tend to be curious, educated people, who like nothing more than striking up a conversation over a meal, a drink at the bar or while sightseeing on the top deck. River cruise crew members are carefully chosen for their genuine hospitality, and on both AmaWaterways and Viking, they offered a high level of service but also felt comfortable making conversation and sharing their stories.
On a river cruise, the Cruise Manager is a key crew member and a constant presence. Each evening before dinner they give a ‘port talk’ with information, tips and insights about the next day’s adventures. These are always well-attended events, where guests share their stories about what they’ve experienced that day, and anticipate the pleasures of the next.
In A Small Space, Everything You Need & More
River cruise ships are essentially boutique hotels set atop a barge. While the décor on AmaWaterways and Viking was strikingly different, both offered a warm, welcoming appeal.
The AmaKristina featured luxurious contemporary design with vibrant pops of color and extravagant fittings including marble-appointed bathrooms. The Viking Fjorgyn was characterized by an elegantly simple Scandinavian design, with elements of stone, wood, woven textiles, steel and tile creating a strong warmth of welcome.
As with ocean cruise cabins, river staterooms and suites are designed so every square inch has a functional use. Even in an average 150 sq. ft. cabin, there’s plenty of storage space to put the contents of your suitcases, which can then slide under the bed until journey’s end. All river cruise staterooms feature at least a window, and many offer French balconies, full balconies or twin balconies. Larger staterooms and suites are also available, with sitting areas and additional amenities.
In terms of public areas, most ships feature a main lounge and bar area, which also serves as the venue for port talks and evening entertainment – often in the form of a small local group playing music of the region. Despite the space constraints of a river ship, clever designers have also found ways to add fitness centers, spas and pools on some ships.
On most river lines, there’s a main restaurant where three meals are served daily. Breakfasts tend to be a choice of buffet or a la carte, while lunches and dinners are multi-course a la carte affairs. Great cuisine, reflecting the bounty of local regions, is a major priority for river lines, and my experiences included some truly memorable meals.
Viking’s fleet of 64 ships are mostly identical, and as well as the main restaurant, they feature the Aquavit Terrace, an indoor/outdoor cafe. Situated at the front of the ship, the space features floor-to-ceiling glass doors, giving it an airy, open feel. It’s a great option for a quieter meal or to take in the sun and the scenery.
AmaWaterways also offers an alternative dining space, which was a major highlight of my cruise. The Chef’s Table seats 28 guests each night over two seatings. That means everyone on the ship can take a turn during a 7-night cruise.
At the Chef’s Table, a demonstration kitchen is part of the entertainment as passengers watch the chef prepare an exquisite multi-course dinner. Each course is paired with a hand-selected regional wine. It’s a meal that would cost a pretty penny onshore, and it’s included in the cruise fare.
The Freedom Of An Inclusive Experience
That’s another big attraction of river cruising – so much is included in the cruise fare that you’re unlikely to depart the ship with a big bill. On AmaWaterways and Viking, all meals, snacks and 24-hour coffee and tea are included. Lunch and dinner come with unlimited wine and beer, and there’s a cocktail hour following the return from afternoon excursions with a menu of no-charge options.
A daily choice of shore excursions are also offered at no extra charge, often with options for more or less active travelers. Some are walking tours that depart right from the ship in the privileged locations where they dock. These are usually led by local guides with great knowledge and storytelling skills.
Others involve coach travel to a museum, landmark or other destination of interest, like the moving visit to D-Day landing sites in Normandy on the Viking cruise. Or, in Paris on the same cruise, a trip on the Metro with a dozen cruise passengers and one harried guide trying to make sure we all got on the crowded subway car to visit Montmartre. The group’s ages ranged from 40 to 90 – and everyone not only survived but had a great time.
AmaWaterways had a fleet of bicycles on the ship, which guests could use on their own or on guided tours. Some lines are now offering e-bikes, mostly through third-party suppliers on the shore. Others offer full-time wellness staff members, who lead exercise classes and energetic excursions.
Shore Thing: Land Is All Around You
If the big water of the ocean is daunting for you, river cruising can be an excellent choice. The speed of travel is slow and there are no swells or waves to worry about. Land is almost always in sight on both sides.
On the river, distances between ports tend to be shorter, so more time is spent docked. While ocean lines do a good job of managing crowds by staggering departure times for excursions and walk-offs, getting on and off a big ship can be a bit of a process.
The ability to walk off the river ship anytime you please – and return without a security process – is one of river cruising’s great pleasures. All you have to do is scan your key card on exit or return, so the ship knows who is and isn’t aboard.
A Travel Style Whose Time Has Come
The river cruising experience really is like staying in a luxurious boutique hotel with an excellent restaurant – except this is one that will carry you to a different destination each day -- a fairy tale castle, a charming rural village, a great city.
You’ll take enriching and educational tours, eat fine food and drink local wine and beer. You’ll travel with nice people and be served by nice people. You’ll go to sleep stimulated and wake up energized. And that’s exactly what travel is supposed to do.
Expert Author: Bruce Parkinson
Bruce has written about the travel industry for over three decades, focusing on ocean and river cruising in recent years. Currently Senior Editor for TravelPulse Canada, Bruce is also a travel communications consultant and contributor to the popular CruiseRadio.net.