The travel landscape has been shifting in recent years as more and more boomers retire and start spending their well-earned retirement as well as Millennials finally earning more and choosing to invest in travel instead of new homes or cars. We’ve seen the reverberations of these trends in almost ever sector, but perhaps none more than in the world of cruising. Cruises are big business and they’ve never been more popular. At every level, cruise lines literally cannot build new ships fast enough to keep up with the demand, and the river cruise in particular has seen a sudden and dramatic increase in interest. Twenty years ago few people would have even considered taking a river cruise, at that time they weren’t all that nice and were filled with people whose next stop would be a funeral home. That’s all changed though of course, led mostly by market leader Viking River Cruises, as well as some other smaller and boutique cruise lines. The net effect is that the rivers of Europe, and the world really, are chock full of long river boats, slowly meandering around the waterways bringing passengers to new towns and cities and showing them a world they never knew existed.
I personally enjoy taking a good river cruise, and while it’s not how I choose to travel on every trip, I think it’s a good option and at certain times can be the best way to get around. Since so many people are booking this style of travel I thought I’d share some things I’ve noticed after having enjoyed several river cruises in Europe and elsewhere.
The most popular river cruise question people ask me has to do with the age of the average river cruiser. The old perception is that people who go on river cruises are grandparents, octogenarians and other elderly types. While I’m sure this varies from line to line and season to season, I can tell you that I have never been the youngest person onboard the ship. Sure, there are a lot of folks that I would put into the 45-65 age group, but there have always been plenty others around my age (41), which is smack dab in Gen X. It’s important to note though that age is just a number. Instead, I think we need to look at travel styles. The people I meet onboard are active and curious travelers, no matter how old they are. No one was content just sitting in a chair all day and watching the world float by, and luckily they didn’t have to. So regardless of our age, I’d say that most passengers with whom I’ve sailed were similar to me in terms of travel style.
That similarity adds a lot to the overall travel experience that I never expected. While there are plenty of stops and diversions, the fact is that you’re sailing on a ship with 189 other people and there are plenty of occasions to chat with most of them. Most cruise lines don’t have reserved seating for meals, so it is always interesting to sit with new folks and learn more about them. I’m old school and I’m always worried how people, particularly older people, will treat me for being gay. You know what though? Not once in similar situations around the world have I been treated poorly and that’s certainly true when it comes to river cruises. I have met many great people, learned about their varied and interesting lives and even made some new friends. By the end of the cruise cliques form, but not in a bad sense of the term. Instead folks tend to group with other people with whom they relate. The social aspect is something I have come to really enjoy, and it is fun to experience parts of Europe with other people and to hear their impressions of cities visited. Like I said, I hadn’t thought about this social aspect beforehand, but it adds a different and fun element to the trip and as it turns out, is an important part of the experience.
Lots of Independent Travel Experiences
I remember on my first Viking River Cruise I met a couple around my age that held the same travel values as I do, namely independence. They confided to me that before the cruise they were nervous. They didn’t want to be treated like cattle and instead wanted to experience Europe like they normally do, by themselves. But they also wanted some of the luxuries that river cruises afford, which is why they were there. By the end of the trip they were converts and told me that the trip was one of their favorites. Funny, I felt the same way too, as did many other first time river cruisers I chatted with during the trip. Even though all of these people booked the trip, they were still fearful that it wouldn’t be independent enough, but we all were very wrong about that.
Not unlike ocean cruising, almost every day features a new stop, a new city to explore. Days start off with (on Viking) an optional and complimentary walking tour of the city followed by independent time. Once again, everything is optional. If you want to wander on your own all day that’s fine, if you don’t that’s fine too. Many stops tend to be in smaller to medium sized towns where a day is more than enough time to spend exploring. In larger cities like Budapest and Vienna, the ship many times stays docked for a longer period of time, acknowledging the fact that a few hours isn’t enough time for such massive cities. But no matter what, I have been able to explore these cities just as I would had I traveled there by car or train. Not once have I ever felt shorted on time and not once has my own unique travel style been hampered. If anything, the cruises allow me to see places I would not have traveled to on my own, and for that I am grateful.
Convenience and Access
A great feature of all cruises, be they ocean or river, is their inherent convenience. There is nothing better than staying in one spot for a week or longer, unpacking only once. I enjoy traveling around Europe and have done it in many different ways. But it can at times be a hassle to change hotels all the time, lugging suitcases in and out of train stations and airports. While I don’t mind it per se, it gets old and annoying very fast. River cruising is fantastic because it’s a floating home for a week as you explore Europe. Most days I’m out and about enjoying whatever city we’re visiting that day, but even while the ship is moving I enjoy the experience. I love to grab a cup of hot cocoa, a couple of cookies and curl up somewhere on board to enjoy a book or just relax. That beats schlepping through busy train stations any day of the week.
Just as the ship provides certain conveniences onboard, that extends to the unique access to some of Europe’s most amazing cities and towns as well. The river cruise offers a level of travel access and convenience that would be very difficult to replicate through any other mode of transportation. More than just visit these cities though, I was deeply impressed by how thoroughly Viking in particular helps bring the destinations to life through special onboard cultural activities and of course those famous (and incredibly in-depth) complimentary tours they offer at every stop. Another feature of river cruises that often gets overlooked is the unique point of view they offer. Seeing any destination in a different way is important to not just learn about it, but to notice things you’d never see otherwise. Sightseeing on the water is a personal favorite way to accomplish this and a river cruise in particular is ideal. Whether it’s seeing a new city waterside or admiring the countryside as you gently sail along the river, the views and experiences are spectacular and absolutely unique.
Not Just Europe
Europe is without a doubt the most popular destination when it comes to river cruises. It’s easy to reach, there are plenty of rivers and the sights along the way are beautiful and fun to visit. But Europe isn’t the only continent with dramatic waterways and the same river cruise companies serving the Old World also feature cruises in many other regions. A couple of years ago I took one of these more expeditionary trips to Egypt and it is still one of the best trips I’ve ever enjoyed.
A good cruise, especially a river cruise, will be about just as much the journey as it will be the destination. This is certainly true in Egypt as one sails from Luxor to Aswan over the course of a few days. Cities and towns, villages and small communities all float by at a leisurely pace. Kids race the boat alongshore, and fisherman wave hi as they haul in their catch for the day. Life is what you see on the Nile, a different view of it than you can ever hope to see from land and ultimately I think a more authentic look at the real country of Egypt and not the touristy version. Gone are the hawkers and in their place are people just trying to live their lives as best they know how. Aside from the cultural component, a cruise down the Nile is beautiful, almost impossibly so. The reeds stand tall along the banks and both the sunsets and sunrises are amongst the most stunning in the world. There’s something almost metaphysical about standing on the deck of a boat, watching the sky light up in a million shades of red and gold knowing that people have watched and marveled at the very same sight for millennia. It connects you to the people of Egypt both modern and ancient in a way no other experience can hope to replicate. That’s but one example, whether it’s in China, Myanmar or elsewhere, these same special moments are just begging to be experienced.
They’re Fun But You Should Adjust Expectations
By this point you will correctly guess that I enjoy taking a great river cruise. As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, I do enjoy them and while they’re not how I always travel – far from it – I do think they offer a great option for the would-be traveler. I’m a Type-A personality and when I plan a vacation I plan an active trip and while I’ve gotten better, my vacations can be exhausting. Sailing on a river cruise though means that I’m not in control of the schedule and the cruise lines are thankfully better at combining active travel with moments of relaxation than I am. I tend to fall into a certain rhythm when I’m on a river cruise and about midway I find myself relaxing for once and enjoying the journey in its own right. It’s wonderful not to stress out about logistics and that in turn provides me with the rare opportunity to just sit back, relax and bask in the moment.
That being said, you should also be realistic when it comes to expectations. Ultimately, river cruise ships are not large, accommodating around 190 passengers at the max. Since there’s limited space, certain amenities you’d expect certainly on larger ocean ships simply don’t exist in the world of river cruising. This varies from one line to the next, but spas, gyms and multiple restaurants aren’t always found. Instead of several dining options, there’s usually one, the main restaurant and perhaps a lounge for lunches. Because of this, the onboard culinary teams do a great job at keeping menus varied and interesting. However, you should also keep in mind that you’ll be cruising through some of the best food cities on the planet, and spending a few meals off the boat is an important aspect of the overall travel experience. The staff is also small, and most of them wear many hats so you should adjust your expectations when it comes to what they can provide. The best cruise lines place a heavy emphasis on service but even so, mistakes happen and sometimes you may have to wait to resolve any potential problems. These are minor issues though, on the whole I prefer small ship cruising for this very level of intimacy. It makes the entire river cruise experience more fun and interesting and certainly more personalized.
Taking a river cruise is not for everyone, I acknowledge that. However, I also think that there are many misconceptions surrounding this once-maligned travel style, misconceptions born of ignorance sadly. I don’t mind the fact that people don’t like river cruises, but I would encourage everyone to at least take one before passing judgment. I have met scores of people who before their first river cruise were highly skeptical, I was in that group. But after just a couple of days onboard their perceptions forever changed and they too were quick converts. While a river cruise may not be how you always decide to see the world, I do think it should be an option when you plan your next vacation.