Take me to the riverboat
Insider tips on how to choose the best options for carefree European voyages
1. PLANNING: River cruising is leisurely and booking it should be similarly stress-free. Compare alternatives carefully and ask questions before you commit. Book about eight to 12 months ahead and you may obtain socalled earlybird discounts, which can represent substantial savings. 2. Where to go: The Danube and Rhine are the most popular European rivers and offer high value because your vessel is likely to dock close to the action. Other options include the Moselle, Rhone, Saone and Seine rivers in France, the Neva and Volga in Russia and the Douro in Portugal. Cruise itineraries are not confined to riverside destinations; some involve sectors by coach or train to stay in cities such as Prague, Barcelona or Paris. Others form part of a larger escorted European holiday. 3. Price: Costs fluctuate seasonally and according to deck and cabin. The published figure may not tell the whole story. Inclusions are paramount, flights being an obvious one. All-inclusive cruises (with price covering all meals and accompanying wines, shore excursions and sightseeing) can prove to be the best value. Check to see what extras the price includes: refreshments, tea and coffee, laundry or pressing, in-cabin dining, tips to crew or guides, return airport transfers, internet access, port taxes or fuel surcharges.
Shore excursions are generally covered by the cruise price but longer daytrips may be optional and a separate expense. 4. Seasons: High season extends from mid-May to the end of September, with cheaper cruises available before or after those periods. The fast-growing popularity of European river cruising means high season can be busy, particularly on popular rivers at northern summer’s peak. Later cruises have their own magic, though the weather is chancier. 5. Accommodation categories: River vessels are unlikely to offer windowless ‘‘ inside cabins’’ but location of your accommodation is still important. Upper decks offer better views and can be quieter. To find the size of your cabin and what it contains, download a guide from the relevant website or request a deck plan. It will show where cabins are situated (in relation to lifts, for instance).
If you want a cabin balcony, a plan will show you whether it offers enough space to sit. You may prefer to have the extra space within the cabin with sliding doors that look directly out. Rhine and Danube passenger vessels are restricted to a maximum width of 11.6m to fit through the RhineMain-Danube Canal. Ship designers place two cabins across the width, one on either side of the boat, with a corridor between.
It’s also worth checking how big your windows will be: not all are full length. For views and photography, the best place is usually in the open air on the top deck. 6. Sightseeing: Brochures may mention ‘‘included sightseeing’’. Find out what that means. Will you be taken to the venue and left to pay entrance fees or will you be escorted in ahead of the queue, with fees prepaid? Does the trip have a dedicated cruise director, are local guides used, or a combination of the two?
If you prefer to do your own sightseeing ashore, a hand-held GPS device (or GPS smartphone app) can help prevent getting lost. River cruise vessels sail exactly when they say and getting lost ashore is not difficult. Koblenz, a city at the northern end of the Rhine Gorge, stands on an elbowshaped corner between two rivers, the Rhine and the Moselle. If you emerge on the Moselle side of the city, you may think your Rhine cruiser is close at hand, only to realise you are beside the wrong river with five minutes to go before your boat sails. 7. Atmosphere, companions and dining: If the nationality of your fellow cruisers is of concern, check whether they are likely to hail mainly from Australia and New Zealand, or from North America, France, Britain, Germany, or represent a mix of nationalities. Ensure the cruise is attuned to your interests. Some involve a theme — say, wine, music or seasonal elements such as pre-Christmas festivities — while others offer fun options such as cycling.
Check that the type of food served will suit you and ask whether dinner is served at one or two sittings, and whether you’ll be restricted to group tables or if you can make up your own table of two or more. Look for public areas that are spacious and light-filled, with good views. 8. Downstream or upstream: Downstream cruises are slightly smoother and river travel time is reduced. Seasoned river cruise buffs check the courses of rivers in advance, find out which side of the boat the afternoon sun will shine on, and book the other side. You can then leave your curtains open and take better photos or videos, with the sun behind you as you look out of the window.
Using that formula on the Rhine, the starboard ( right) is preferable when sailing downstream and the port side ( left) when heading upstream. The advantage is less pronounced on the Danube, which follows a more west-east course. 9. The big question: River and canal widths keep river cruise vessels small compared to their seagoing cousins. Most vessels carry between 120 and 200 passengers; smaller capacity boats offer a more intimate experience. Luxurious smaller vessels cruise through Normandy, Burgundy and Provence, for instance. Passenger barges are smaller still. Barging along European rivers delivers a personal, bespoke experience and can suit families.
Narrowboats of distinctive design chug around the canals of England and Wales. Crewed passenger barges, graded from moderate through to luxurious, carry anything from four to 22 passengers. High passenger-tocrew ratio can mean exceptional service. 10. Age counts: Newer or older? Ask when the boat was launched. Major river-cruise operators regularly add new vessels to their fleets and some are fabulous. The very latest, Avalon Waterways’ deluxe vessel Panorama, was launched in Mainz, Germany, last weekend.
There are many rivers to choose from in Europe, but it’s wise to book well in advance and to avoid the high season