River Cruising: First Thoughts

I’m not sure when the first time I heard about river cruising was, but I do know that my initial response wasn’t entirely positive. That was a long time ago though and a lot has changed both in the world, the universe of the river cruise and my own personal travel style. A lot of that has to do with Viking River Cruises, a fact I wasn’t aware of until my recent river cruise experience with them in France.

I was invited as their guest; they asked dozens of journalists to join them in France as they christened 18 new Longships and then took us all on a brief, 3-day river cruise to give us all a taste of the experience. My opinions on river cruising had long since changed though before this first time experience, but I can’t say why exactly.

I suspect that it comes down to two factors: friends and family and Downton Abbey. In recent years I’ve chatted with a lot of people who’ve taken river cruises not only in Europe but in other parts of the world too, including Asia. Their personal stories all amounted to the same golden nugget of information: that river cruises had come of age and that I would love the experience. Then Downton Abbey came along and as I watched each and every new episode, the same commercial by Viking River Cruises preceded it. By the 5th episode my partner and I were reciting the commercial verbatim and by the second season, we looked at each other and decided that it did indeed look amazing.

Avignon France

None of this is a matter of chance. Since Viking first emerged onto the market in the early 2000s, they have spent millions not just marketing their own cruises, but the style of river cruising itself. Their goal was (and is) singular, to make river cruising a popular travel option for Americans. And it has worked.

An amazing shift has happened and in just a few years, millions more Americans are venturing to Europe for an experience of a lifetime. But while I was attracted to the clean, Scandinavian design aesthetics and the itineraries, I couldn’t be sure that the experience was for me until I tried it. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity for a preview into this suddenly popular travel option and I’m excited to now share my first thoughts.

I’ve been on every type of cruise except for a river cruise. I’m not sure the exact reason for the oversight, my partner and I have wanted to try it out for a while. I love Europe (where many of the cruises are based) and I love the cultural experiences promised by river cruising; but yet, I hesitated. I think it was because as a largely independent traveler, I was afraid that I would lose the ability to be spontaneous and travel in my own unique way, but as the preview cruise showed me, I can still do that and so much more while on a river cruise.

I have been on several large cruise ships; you know, the kind with 4,000 passengers on board, casinos, and so on. Recently I’ve realized that while I don’t mind them per se, they’re really not my style anymore. I don’t want to be just another number, a cog in a great wheel of money-making for the cruise lines. I have been on smaller ships though and have always loved the experience. They offer the ability to get close not just to the crew but other passengers as well and that surprisingly augments the travel experience.

Saint-Emilion, France

At its heart, that’s what a river cruise is, an intimate way to travel, but also an immersive one. I love Europe dearly and there’s nothing better than exploring a new city, stopping at a cafe for a coffee and snack and just living the city. River cruising gives guests the opportunity to do just that, in towns and cities throughout Europe with the ease of unpacking once and not having to deal with train timetables and other unnecessary stress.

A typical Viking itinerary features cruises that stop at several different cities, offering a mix of new things to do. At each stop there is an included tour, but it’s not too long and allows guests the chance to be introduced to the new stop by a guide. These complimentary tours are of course optional though, so if you want to do your own exploration of the new city you can. Many guests do both though, take a 2-hour tour and then explore on their own. There are also special tours available depending on which itinerary you’re on, from wine tasting to bike tours and everything in between.

This style of travel appeals to me because I am at heart a pretty independent traveler, and I appreciate the opportunity to wander off and do my own thing. What Viking gives me is the chance to do this in several different cities without hassle and to even visit towns I would never have visited on my own.

I’m exhausted as I write this, so I realize it might be a bit rambling. But the facts are these. I expected a lot from my first river cruising experience with Viking; I expected a luxury environment but one that wasn’t a travel bubble. One that allowed me the chance to be myself and to explore in the way I want to. These expectations were met and exceeded, with great surprise. They also provide a certain community feeling that one almost never gets when one travels, but which only enhances the travel experience.

So I’m now gushing, I realize that too. It’s not because they took me on a free three-day tour though. It’s because I really enjoyed the experience. The trip gave me that shiver of excitement I get whenever I discover new places and it is always a wondering feeling to enjoy. I’ll be writing more about the experience in the coming weeks and months, but know this. If you’re like me, a 30-40 something professional that loves to travel and experience the world and are waffling on whether or not a river cruise is for you, don’t waffle. If you have a curious mind, love to explore and still be pampered a little at the same time, this is absolutely a great way to travel and to enjoy an adventure that you’ll always remember.

I’ll post a full review of Viking soon-ish, but I thought I’d share my immediate first impressions with you all to see what you thought.

Do you have any questions about the river cruising experience? Ask away!

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

4 Responses

  1. Monique

    River cruise in Europe is something I really want to do, especially for the facts your mentioned: unpack only once, have a sense of community and visit places you wouldn’t on your own. The only thing that is keeping us from doing that is the fact they are not really the cruise to bring your kids along. I guess we’ll have to wait another 9 years until she goes to college – or maybe Viking will start their own family itineraries before that 🙂
    Loved following your journey with Viking, really great pics!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      No and they’ll be the first to say that they’re not a cruise line for kids. Maybe leave them with the grandparents for an adults only escape?

      Reply
  2. Ellen

    Have been on two river cruises in France, one from Normandy to Paris and the other from Paris to Nice. They were both great as we enjoyed unpacking only once and seeing the cities and towns from the river gave us a totally different view. My only regret is that you tend to eat all three meals on the boat unless you want to spend more to go on your own. We did choose to do that a few times as we enjoy eating at the little local places. Also the river cruises tie you down to three large meals unless you are willing to go out and spend more money on your own. I think many of these cruise are geared to the baby boomers as they seem to be the largest travel population. Many are retired and this type of travel works well for them. Personally, I prefer land tours, ( and i am a baby boomer) but maybe when I am older the river tour will look even better.

    Reply
  3. Barry

    I will be honest I clicked on this post as last summer we took our boat through the French canals and my brain was in small boat cruising. I know the post was about cruising in comfort but the concept is the same just bigger vessels. I love river cruising mainly because there is always something new to see all along your trip. Not like at sea when you may only see land when you are coming in to your next port. Also great fun with the locks as well

    Great stuff Barry

    Reply

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