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Eight considerations regarding European river cruises

Kids out of the house? College education(s) paid for? No more mortgage payments?

East nave of the Cologne Cathedral.
William Fietzer for
Vantage Rhine River cruise ship, River Splendor

Then you may be in the market for a European river cruise. Thousands between the ages of 55 and 70 already have. And according to Viking River Cruises chairman, Torstein Hagen, the boom in river cruises has become so big that he contemplates Viking alone having 100 ships cruising the world’s river ways by decade’s end. Avalon Waterways managing director Patrick Clark concurs, adding “Unless we screw it up, the [growth in] demand will continue for years."

Clark cited intimacy (150-200 passengers as opposed to 3000+ for European ocean cruises) and guided tours to the top attractions even in small towns as major reasons why many experienced cruise travelers now choose river cruises as their next vacations. They appreciate going "through a country as opposed to around the edge of it.”

But before putting down a several thousand dollars on a river cruise, here are eight travelers’ tips prospective cruise participants should consider while contemplating the location of their first voyage:

  1. When choosing a stateroom, be aware that cruise ships always dock with the bow or front of the ship facing into the current. That means the port or left side of the ship faces the dock while the starboard or right side faces the river. If being within swimming range of shore is important (like when the ship is sinking), choose a port side stateroom; if the view is more important, choose the starboard.
  2. While packing, estimate the number of clothing changes needed for a one-week, two-week, or three-weeks or more trip. Then double it. Accidents happen. A shower and change of clothing feel fine after a sweaty day of sight-seeing. Though cruise ships provide laundry services, the cost of using their facilities mounts up.
  3. Don’t skimp on expenses. You’re on vacation after all, and buying a few souvenirs or bottles of wine promotes friendship among nations. It also creates enough euros to tip travel guides and bus drivers, whose remunerations aren’t included in the stated travel costs.
  4. However long the cruise, a wise move is to include a one or two day extension at the beginning or end of your trip. This practice not only accommodates jet lag but acclimatizes you to foreign customs, like using an extra fork or fish knife during dinner.
  5. Pack sturdy and supportive walking shoes. Cruise brochures may state that a moderate amount of walking is required, but traversing uneven cobblestones is hard on the legs, and the gaps between stones lie in wait to grab and twist the ankles of the unwary who wear clip-clops and sandals.
  6. A related concern derives from touring all the medieval sites Europe has to offer. Realize that the technology of these UNESCO World heritage sites hasn’t been updated for hundreds of years. That means railings, stairs, elevators, and water closets often either don’t exist or don’t meet 21st century standards.
  7. Cruise-line directors promise more a more intimate experience with local sites and relics, but their ships must reach certain ports or go through canal locks on a prescribed schedule which sometimes truncates site-seeing time. These are overview tours, and the adage from the 1969 film “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” still applies. Don’t feel compelled to take every tour, see every site, or socialize at every meal. Allow for some quiet time.
  8. And finally, lose ten pounds before starting your cruise. After enjoying breakfasts that include made-to-order omelets and five-course lunches and dinners that include choosing among three entrées and desert, you’re bound to gain the weight back. And then some.

These recommendations should not dissuade anyone from taking a river cruise, whether in Europe, the Mekong Delta, or the United States. Hagen says that river cruises are designed for “people who have earned some money and haven't had time to see these things on Earth.” He used to think “it was the destination that matters [but] through river cruising we have brought the destination back into cruising." Whether your next cruise sails with the fall colors or occurs next year or the one after that, these cautionary suggestions promise to make the experience even more enjoyable.

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