River Cruise Review from a First-Timer
I recently took an Avalon Waterways river cruise with my 13-year-old daughter, Molly. We were able to cruise aboard the Avalon Felicity on the Rhine River from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam and for me, it fell into “trip of a lifetime” status. It was also a “first” on several levels:
- It was our first father/daughter trip (my wife had to stay home and look after our twin boys so I owe her big time)!
- It was Molly’s first visit to Europe. Her mother is German, so it’s really part of her own story to see some of the German towns and cities along the Rhine.
- It was the first river cruise for both of us. I’ve probably been on 20 or so blue-water cruises (not counting when I was a crewmember) and my daughter’s been on four, so we have a pretty good handle on that experience for comparison.
In this post, I’ve summarized the overall trip but have tried to keep the focus on what the brochure or website can’t really tell you about it, as well as some insider tips, having ‘been there, done that.’ And since most river cruise guests have at least one blue-water cruise under their belt, I also wanted to draw out some of the contrasts, so that’s where I’ll start.
Blue-Water vs. River Cruising: No Point Trying to Compare
First and foremost, I think it’s important to really do away with all expectations of similarities and really look at a river cruise as a truly different vacation choice. Beyond the fact that a blue-water ship and river ship both float, they are quite unique in virtually all other aspects, perhaps with the exception of the staterooms.
The biggest and most obvious difference is size. Space is at a premium on a river ship—they are ALL built to fit through the locks on the various rivers, and this dictates that the ships can’t exceed a maximum length or width. There is no ability to “build it bigger”–nor is there any real need. Most people understand that a river cruise is really about the destinations and any perceived lack of things to do on the ship are quickly dispelled once you’re aboard and understand the actual pace and itinerary. I’ll come back to this topic later, but first, let me share what we loved about being on a ship this size:
- Boarding and exiting the ship is a breeze. . . there is no waiting in line and running a gauntlet. It’s almost as if the ship is your private yacht where you can come and go as you please. In fact, on embarkation day we took a taxi from the hotel (we came in a day early) to where the ship was docked. . .the was no terminal! We just walked right aboard and checked at the lobby desk, similar to a hotel.
- Lines don’t exist anywhere. Both breakfast and lunch are buffet style and even though they begin at a set time, there’s simply plenty of room for the number of guests aboard the ship.
- Dinner meant meals that were hand-crafted, fresh and hot. When you’re serving 100, (vs. 1,000 or more) at a seating, you can really provide a personalized dining experience and on Avalon, every plated and buffet meal was hot and fresh. You won’t find the variety compared to blue-water ships (which have specialty restaurants, etc), but what was served was excellent. The menu changed daily to include regional/local cuisine and there were a few “fall-back” staples (steak, salmon, chicken) for those so inclined. Wine, beer and soft drinks are poured complimentary with lunch and dinner—although I’m no wine expert I know what tastes bad. . . and what was poured was very nice in my opinion.
- There’s a real sense of community that starts with the crew and quickly spreads to include the guests. This is something that just simply can’t happen on a large blue-water vessel. The service just feels so much more personalized when you really get to know everyone’s name. This is also true with our fellow guests. . . we really got to meet and know more people than we typically do on a larger ship, because we participated as a group—whether dining, touring or just hanging out while the ship cruised. But because the tours are structured to break the guests down into smaller sub-groups (which are not assigned), we never felt ‘herded’. With no assigned tables, meals are a chance to meet and dine with an ever changing group of tablemates. We tended to arrive a bit late for dinner each night, resulting in us finding “leftover” seats and meeting new people each night. There was one couple that was particularly special to us and I’ve written briefly about them at the end of this post.
Since a blue-water cruise is something most people will have done before taking a river cruise, I think it’s important to put away any preconceptions and come into a river cruise expecting a very different experience. What you won’t have are shows, casinos, games, or really much entertainment as you come to expect on a big ship. But if you’re looking for a true destination and social experience, then you won’t miss any of what the river ships don’t have.
What I Know Now that I Didn’t Know Then
I could write at length about the size of the cabins, the specifics of the public rooms, and a blow-by-blow recap of the itinerary, but that’s all available elsewhere, so I’ll focus on what surprised me and the “insider” knowledge that I gained having just experienced the cruise.
Cabin differences aren’t that vast.
You will likely spend VERY little time in the stateroom and while the French Balcony is nice, it’s not super critical unless you’re a bit of a cabin ‘hermit’ and really plan to spend a lot of time there. If you do, you’ll be missing a lot. That said, when choosing a cabin, here’s what I’d look for.
- Go for mid-ship. Not because of motion since there’s virtually none, but for these reasons:
- Forward puts you right at the lobby—not loud by any means, but why not go further back. Also, sometimes when docked, another ship is rafted alongside and the guests from that ship will actually pass through the lobby to get to shore, so that could add some potential for noise (although we didn’t experience any ‘rowdy’ river cruisers)!
- Aft on a lower deck could mean you experience some residual engine noise, although I could detect none while roaming the ship.
- We were on the top deck which initially concerned me since the sun deck was above us and I worried about being woken by people tromping around. I can’t recall ever hearing a single footfall while in my cabin—either because the ceiling was terrifically insulated OR because there just isn’t a lot of deck action late at night or early in the morning.
- Suites are nice but not hugely different. We were the first to board so I was able to peek into a suite as well as window-only stateroom. The suites were larger with room for in-stateroom “sitting” but otherwise not much different from what our French balcony cabin offered. The entry-level staterooms (with windows vs. sliding glass door/French balcony) were equally appointed and I would have had no problem sailing in that category either.
The Perfect Pace
If your image of a river cruise is a slow-paced amble down a river with a bit of sightseeing along the way, then you need to rethink it! While there was nothing at all rushed about the trip, I never did have much of a chance to read the book I brought along, nor get any “homework” done! In fact, we were both pretty (happily) exhausted by the end of the cruise and frankly astonished at how much we’d done and seen. It was really a full week!
Time ashore seems short, but it’s Not!
On some days, the ship actually made two stops and initially I wondered how we’d enjoy each stop given so little time. In fact, the timing for all the stops was nearly perfect and a real testament to how refined the itineraries are.
On our cruise, a tour was included in every destination. In Amsterdam and Strasbourg, there were additional excursions as well with a relatively modest cost ranging from 30 to 35 Euros. Because we were staying an extra day in Amsterdam we didn’t take any of the optional cost tours there, but we did go on the Black Forest tour from Strasbourg. In each case, the local guides spoke excellent English and provided a lot of depth.
In the case of all the walking tours, the local guide used a radio transmitter for the narration and each of us was issued a receiver with a headset. This meant our guide didn’t have to shout the narration to us (and compete with other groups’ guides in some of the more crowded spots, like Heidelberg). Plus, we could wander a bit and still hear—we didn’t need to be right on the guide’s shoulder to listen to their info. It’s a very effective system and ensures everyone in the group could enjoy without straining to hear or missing out. Also on each tour, the groups were broken down into 20 to 30 guests so we were able to move pretty quickly without having to “herd” a lot of people.
“There” vs. “Getting There”
First of all, those familiar with blue-water shore excursions will know most involve a bus transfer–some of which can be lengthy. For our cruise, we participated in one optional shore excursion and all but two of the included ones. The optional excursion to the Black Forest had the longest transfer time which took us about an hour from Strasbourg to the Black Forest where we made a couple of stops. The second longest bus transfer was from Mannheim to Heidelberg, a trip of about 30 minutes each way. Our tour in Strasbourg had a 10-minute ride at the end (we started via canal tour boat) and the only other bus transfer was a 10-minute ride from the dock in Amsterdam over to another dock to take a canal boat tour.
In Speyer, Mainz, Rudesheim, Cologne, Koblenz, and, we just walked off the ship and into the heart of the town and touring. The point is, you don’t have to go far (if at all) in order to see and be immersed in the heart of where you’re visiting. And as a result, even a modest amount of time goes a long way.
While we enjoyed the tours each day, we were just as enamored with being in the heart of these magical towns and cities and partaking in everyday customs. . . shopping, sitting at sidewalk cafes, enjoying a coffee, pastry, ice cream, or a beer. Everywhere we went, we felt completely at ease and every waiter, waitress, and shopkeeper we encountered was friendly, helpful and thankfully, happy to converse with us in English!
Not much Actual “Cruising”
The other aspect that surprised me was just how little “river time” there was. I was fully expecting a lot more time in transit but other than our trip up the middle Rhine (where the sightseeing really IS best done from the river), a great deal of the river travel was at night. When we were cruising the river during daylight, there were sights all along the way, ranging from quaint towns, vineyards and minor castles to a huge Ford Motors and Bayer factory. I found the sheer volume and pace of traffic on the river to be quite fascinating. This river is truly one of the superhighways of Europe, carrying goods between the sea and Amsterdam, through Germany, France and Switzerland. While loaded with history, the Rhine is also a modern wonder of commerce, river navigation, locks and ports.
Amsterdam to Basel. . .or Basel to Amsterdam?
We did the Basel to Amsterdam route, and if I were to do it over, I’d probably go for the reverse order. Couple of reasons for this:
- We arrived a day early (Saturday) in Basel and were able to get out and about for little while in the afternoon and evening, but turned in early since we’d been flying all night. On Sunday, we had most of the day to kill before we could board around 4 pm, however, we found all the shops closed. Likewise, on Monday in Strasbourg there are some shops that are closed on Monday (as are all banks).
- At the end of our cruise (a Sunday) we found ALL the shops open in Amsterdam, (and late too). So in retrospect, had we flipped to the other direction, we’d have found the shops still closed upon arrival in Basel on a Sunday, but we’d have been going straight to the airport in Zurich anyway.
About the Avalon Onboard Experience
Avalon has a young, modern fleet and their ships are more modern to neutral in overall interior design. All the space is well thought-out and there is little that goes unused or is disproportionate to what’s needed. If your tastes run to more ornate or plush, then you may want to consider some other ships, but I think Avalon has done a great job of providing an experience that’s comfortable for a wide variety of travelers. On our cruise, we had four multi-generational groups traveling (grandparents, parents and children) and everyone seemed happy with the ship and the onboard experience.
ENTERTAINMENT: There was a single musician, Gito, who sang and played keyboards. But he still managed to get people up and dancing every night with reliable tunes ranging from Twist and Shout to Moon River.
For us, the entertainment highlight was a string trio that played a 45-minute concert in the lounge just before we departed Koblenz. These two violinists and one guitarist played a wide variety of classical and regional music, ranging from mournful to dynamic.
On the evening before we were to cruise the famous Rhine Gorge/Middle Rhine, a guest lecturer came aboard to present the history of the Rhine. Among the surprising things I learned was that Germany (as we think of it today) was not a country until the 1870s, making younger than the United States by nearly 100 years! Of course, there were Germanic peoples for a lot longer than that.
Toward the end of the cruise, the crew put on a show that was a series of skits that were a lot of fun as well.
Our cruise director, Nico, also gave a daily briefing about each of the towns or cities we were to visit, with a remarkable amount of detail and history. He was also our narrator as we cruised the middle Rhine and learned the history of the various castles that make this passage so distinctive and picturesque.
INTERNET ACCESS: Internet service was remarkably good. From my perspective, it was more reliable and much faster than what I find on blue-water cruises. Certainly the price was better too since it was included!
TELEPHONE: Again, a big difference here is you can use your phone with normal international rates since you’re just using regular land-based cellular service (vs. a cellular-to-satellite uplink as found on ocean cruisers). If you contact your cell provide before leaving the U.S. and arrange for an international plan prior to departure, calls to or from the U.S. are fairly reasonable. But, make sure you know how data is charged while overseas—this can be VERY pricey and you can disable Data Roaming on your phone, using the ship’s free WiFi instead. Make sure you know what you’re doing or you’re in for a big surprise.
LAUNDRY: I sent a few things out to be washed. The form said 24 hour turnaround, but the items were back in two! Prices were reasonable–cheaper than business-class hotels.
GRATUITIES: On Avalon, the recommendation is 15 euros per person, per day—three for the cruise director, and 12 for the rest of the crew. It was money we were happy to spend as we really felt the staff and crew had worked for it, as well as had been so delightful and friendly.
ONBOARD CHARGES AND CURRENCY: You’ll use your credit card to secure your onboard account. . . but in contrast to the big ships, they don’t even bother you about this before boarding. We didn’t get around to providing our card until the third day but were able to charge to our room immediately. In fact, your key card isn’t even used for charging—you just tell the server your room number. All charges are in Euros and the ship can tell you the approximate conversion rate. There’s not a lot to buy onboard. . . for us, it was soft/hard drinks and a bit of laundry.
ELECTRICITY: The Avalon Felicity operates on 220V current so a power adapter is required for your appliances, chargers, etc. We brought our own which worked just great, and the ship had some to lend as well.
The Ultimate Value Proposition of a River Cruise
Although I have never taken a land-tour of Europe, I have a pretty good understanding of what’s involved. In fact, on our cruise there was a group that had just completed a seven-night motorcoach tour prior to the cruise and they were just thrilled to be aboard. No more 6:30 a.m. “bags outside the door” calls!
On paper, a river cruise may be more expensive in terms of dollars, but when you consider just how much you see and how little time you waste in transit, packing, unpacking, etc., it’s a remarkable value. Furthermore, although I’m not a wine buff (and therefore didn’t buy any of the optional wines available) nor a big partier (at least not on a river cruise with my daughter), out total bill for onboard spending was under 200 euros, including the optional tour we took to the Black Forest. Our biggest expenses came before and after the cruise—we extended one night on either end. . . Basel is very pricey, but Amsterdam is quite reasonable.
For me, I’d much rather spend more on a great vacation and take fewer of them vs. spending less but taking more. Compared to the total vacation cost of other options (less up-front but you spend more along the way), an Avalon River Cruise is a terrific value and highly memorable experience.
End Note: We went all the way to Europe and were reminded of the American Dream
In this particularly bitter political season, it’s possible to lose sight of how great America can be–on our cruise we met a couple that reminded us what the American Dream means to others. In 1979, this Russian couple took a huge risk and applied to leave the Soviet Union. If denied permission, they would then also be subject to retribution but in their case they were granted permission to leave. They arrived in the United States (New York) with $90, no friends or family, and no ability to speak the language. And now, having built a life for themselves in America, they are now able to enjoy their hard work and determination . . .and no less, enjoying an Avalon Cruise. It was a great lesson for my daughter and wonderful reminder of how fortunate Americans are as a whole, even when we’re at odds over politics.