River cruising: It isn’t just for retired couples.
On a recent Viking cruise through Southern France, I saw extended families, mother-daughter duos and recently married couples exploring the Rhone and Saône, from the ever-so-comfortable floating home base that is a Viking River Cruises longship. I was the solo cruiser; they don’t see too many of those. However, my situation was something everyone could relate to: a last-minute work obligation that required I leave my significant other back home.
This temporary independence left me to explore the famously picturesque Provence region and foodie-favorite city of Lyon as a solo cruiser. Simultaneously, I explored my own assumptions about river cruising, and realized that not everything was exactly as expected. Here’s what I loved, what I learned and what surprised me.
What I loved about river cruising
Regionally focused entertainment and activities
It’s fun when the onboard activities match the landscape. A junior pastry-decorating competition for the teens, a silk-weaving demo that brought Lyon’s textile history to life, and other special activities on board Viking were designed based on the itinerary, and enhanced the journey with local flavor. For instance, the “Taste of Provence” interactive dine-around, with different buffet stations set throughout the dining room and galley. Southern France, specifically the Rhone itinerary, is new for Viking longships, so the entertainment and themed dining change often.
Nerding out and learning lots
Major rivers like the Rhone in France, the Rhine in northern Europe and the Amazon in South America have been the main arteries supporting major civilizations for thousands of years. So it makes sense that populations have clustered around these rivers, which also bodes well for river cruisers seeking a bit of history. Learning about the Gaul during the Iron Age, the Roman Empire and the feudal Dark Ages, I reverted back to student behavior, scribbling notes and snapping photos feverishly. Instead of the guide being a distraction, their lectures were my focal point.
It isn’t just the concierge who’s planning and making arrangements, the staff is also keeping track of everything and everyone when you go on a river cruise — from your stateroom location and your excursion schedule to your lunchtime. On Viking, as with other smaller luxury ships, managers have a list of passengers and know people by name from the moment they arrive and check in. The staff will learn to make a passenger’s favorite drink, go out of their way to find something, like a missing iPhone, or, in my case, set up a table for one on the outdoor deck.
What I learned about river cruising
Bring fewer beach reads and more memory cards for your camera
I brought several mindless paperbacks, thinking I’d spend days on the sun deck lazing away. Not so. River cruising takes you past places that have been hubs of civilization for eons, so keep your eyes peeled and focus on the journey as much as the destination. The cities and towns you’ll cruise past are far more fascinating than any single novel.
On European river cruises, ships often make two stops a day, with one to two excursions included if it’s a higher-end cruise line like Viking. Generally we’d have two free excursions offered each day — one to the port city and one to a nearby wine region or castle. There were a couple of days when we docked at two ports, one in the morning and one in the afternoon or early evening. You’ll be kept very busy just looking toward where the guides are pointing and trying to figure out and learn more about the town you just cruised past.
Always Be Covered — Literally
Once you’re in your cabin, you’ll feel as though you’re ensconced in your own little private space but remember: you’re not on the open sea! When cruising down the river, the ship was often within waving distance of people on the shore — and when traffic on the river gets heavy, it’s normal to be in your stateroom, throw open your balcony curtains and be looking straight into a passing ship and making eye contact with a neighboring passenger. A dressing gown or cover-up is a MUST, or you’ll be giving them a free show.
Be (a Little) Flexible
Depending on water levels in the rivers, some ships may not be able to pass under certain bridges or dock in certain ports, altering the cruise itinerary. On my cruise, the Saône leg was canceled altogether so we remained docked in Lyon and took motor coaches to explore Cluny and the Burgundy region. At the end of the cruise, we’d stopped in six ports instead of the seven, per the original program. Still, that’s a lot for a 7-night/8-day cruise.
Conversely, give yourself the freedom to change plans as you please. Each excursion is a bonanza of information and amazing photo ops, but you get tired. It’s sensory overload. At least one day of the cruise, let yourself decide, “You know what? I can really just skip that historic castle or world-class wine region” and spend the whole time snoozing on the sun deck without an ounce of guilt.
What surprised me about river cruising
River cruises are for more than romance
Because of the scenery, the wine and France’s sensual reputation, I expected a Rhone cruise to be the ultimate romantic experience. But the rich cultures and histories make it more than just a lovers’ float. You can learn, adventure, daydream, and explore as part of a group, a non-traditional family, or even on your own.
European River Cruising 101:
Typical Length: Average length ranges from 7 to 15 days with up to two port stops a day.
Popular Rivers in Europe: The most popular rivers in Europe are the Rhine, the Rhone and the Danube, and most of the cruises will have a theme. You can have a wine and food river cruise through the Bordeaux region of France or an art and architecture river cruise on the Rhone River that takes you through 2,000 years’ worth of architecture, formal gardens and artistic legacy – think Vincent Van Gogh. There are even cruises that will take you to some of the most famous Christmas markets in Germany and Austria.
Top River Cruise Lines: Tauck, Viking, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Grand Circle Cruise Line and AmaWaterways are the most popular river cruises and have the most diverse types of cruises. Crystal Cruises might be a contender on this list once they get their river cruises out on the fresh water.
Who should go: River cruises are perfect for anyone looking for a slower paced cruise where the focus is on what's off the ship rather than what's on it. The misconception is that river cruises are only for retired people or couples. You will find those types of cruisers, but you will also find large families, mother-daughter duos, mid-30 year olds interested in exploring multiple cities on one vacation and even a solo cruiser or two. You really find just about everyone on a river cruise ship, but not the same amount of people as an ocean ship. Where an ocean ship might have anywhere from 2,500 - 4,000 passengers, river ships only have a few hundred passengers.
Interested in learning more about river cruising?
Here's our Beginner’s Guide to European River Cruising.