Be a canny cruiser

The top 10 tips for plan­ning a Euro­pean river hol­i­day

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - PETER NEED­HAM

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

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