Be a canny cruiser
The top 10 tips for planning a European river holiday
1. Don’t rush your booking, but don’t be tardy, either. With the Australian dollar hitting unprecedented highs lately against the euro, value is so exceptional you might even consider extending your stay in Europe before or after a river cruise. Competition among cruise operators is always keen, so it’s worth comparing deals and asking questions before you commit. Some companies offer, surprisingly late in the year, so-called earlybird discounts for the following year’s cruises. 2. River cruise or barge holiday? They are quite different. Barges (not to be confused with the type that haul coal) are usually small, often traditionally decorated and float on man-made canals with little or no current. They may take a week to cover 50km or 80km, moving slowly enough for you to cycle to nearby villages and catch up with the barge later on. A river cruiser, by contrast, may sail from Cologne to Amsterdam in a day, a distance of more than 200km. Barging along European rivers delivers a personal, bespoke experience and can suit families, as barges often carry just four to 12 passengers. River cruise vessels have far more facilities and are more like miniature cruise ships, though river and canal widths keep them smaller than their sea-going cousins. On the Rhine and Danube, vessels usually carry between 120 and 200 passengers. Smaller cruise boats (as in Normandy, Burgundy and Provence) might carry half that number. 3. Check what’s included. The upfront price will reflect the season and the position of your cabin, but what else? Does it cover international flights? It should cover meals, but check whether all or just some. Are wine, beer or soft drinks included? Find out also if sightseeing tours are included, as well as services such as laundry or ironing, cabin room service, tea and coffee, tips, return airport transfers and internet access. 4. If shopping along the way, don’t overload your suitcase. Many shops mail items to Australia for a modest charge. During a Rhine cruise, I bought a cuckoo clock on a whim while visiting a Black Forest workshop. It came complete with carved wooden bird and brass pine cones. The price (about $200) included freight to Australia. The clock arrived a few weeks after I returned home and was fun to assemble with my younger son. (The Schlagabschaltungshebel, a lever that lets you turn off the cuckoo, can be usefully deployed when the novelty wears off.) 5. The Danube and Rhine are the most popular rivers for cruising, but also consider the Moselle, Rhone, Saone and Seine in France. Italy’s River Po is another attractive option, with a higher profile in the Australian market. Po cruises generally include Venice. 6. Having a cabin to yourself may not necessarily cost a lot more. Some cruise lines offer single cabins and others waive single-fare supplements on twin cabins on selected cruises as a promotional move. A waiver gives single travellers more than a third off the cost of travelling alone while enjoying sole cabin use. 7. You can easily combine your cruise with a European stay. Some cruise operators offer pre and post-cruise options; other itineraries include cruises in the context of a larger escorted European holiday. 8. To recharge electrical gadgets on the cruise, take along an Australian multi-socket power board, which generally can be bought at most supermarkets before you leave, but not once you get there. A power board means you need only one adapter for the socket in your cabin. On the subject of gadgets, a handheld GPS device (or GPS app on a smartphone) can help you avoid getting lost ashore, though sometimes the tried and true method of paper maps remains the best. Riverside kiosks sell enormous maps, which open out, concertina-style. I bought one of about 2m on a Danube cruise and spread it out regularly on my cabin floor. It provided a graphic way of following the journey, showing all the towns, villages, bridges and castles along the route, to tie in with views from the window and the top deck. 9. Stops at riverside ports sometimes allow enough time to make your own explorations after — or instead of — the organised sightseeing. Vienna’s U-Bahn subway is convenient for cruise passengers. You’ll probably moor a short walk from Vorgartenstrasse U-Bahn station, four stops from St Stephen’s Cathedral in the city’s heart. As well as its famed coffee shops, Vienna has a quirkier side. In Esterhazy Park, an enormous concrete World War II anti-aircraft tower, too high and immense to demolish, has been turned into an aquarium. The resident fish and turtles don’t fully appreciate the excellent city views, but I warrant you will. Budapest’s metro is also useful, but check with the ship about the city’s system of buying metro tickets before travel and having them validated. Doing it the wrong way round can involve an on-the-spot fine, and you’ll find being a tourist is no excuse. Incidentally, although it belongs to the European Union, Hungary still uses its own currency, the forint. 10. Which direction to cruise? Downstream sometimes means less time moving and more in port. If you want to take afternoon scenic photographs, find which side of the boat the afternoon sun will be on, and book the other side. You’ll take better photos or videos with the sun behind you. Or just go up to the top deck to shoot your pictures.
A suite on the new river cruise ship Avalon Panorama