(Updated June 12, 2015)
Now that the warmer weather is settling in everywhere, the river cruise season has officially started in Europe! It’s not too late to book for 2014, but 2015 sailings are already available and have started booking. I have a bit of insight into river cruising beyond most passengers or travel agents. Not only am I a travel agent who books clients on river cruises, I’ve also been a passenger on river cruises, AND my fiance and I happen to work on a river cruise ship. (HIs sixth year, my first year.) So I have some tips and insider info from a lot of different perspectives that not everyone is privy to. I thought I’d share some of my suggestions for everyone out there getting ready to take a river cruise for the first time. Or heck, maybe even give some new info for those cruising for the seventh time. Or perhaps you’re wondering if a river cruise is right for you. Well, you’ve come to the right place! Why river cruising?
Simple. You get to visit historic European villages and cities all along ancient trade routes (the rivers!) without ever having to pack and unpack. The ships are small and dock right in the middle of the cities, allowing you to easily come and go at every location. It’s the easiest way to see so many European cities in one vacation. On top of that, add the delicious food, comfy beds, and excellent service, and you’ve got the ingredients for a great trip! And your tour excursions are included at each location – I challenge you to find an ocean liner cruise that does that.
If you’re still trying to figure out which river and which route to take, I have several thoughts to help guide you. Do you have a family connection to any of the countries in Europe visited on these cruises? When my parents, my sister, and I chose the Danube for our first river cruise, it was for a very specific reason. My dad was born in Austria, but his whole side of the family was part of the German minority that settled in Hungary a few hundred years ago. So that cruise covered part of Germany, Austria, and Hungary – helping us to feel more connected to our heritage. And the Rhine was a natural choice for the next cruise, as it went through more of Germany. We have family in Heidelberg, Germany, which is a stop on that Rhine cruise itinerary. We had a wonderful time visiting with my dad’s cousin!
Or, is there somewhere in Europe you’ve always dreamed of going? Perhaps you’ve dreamt of seeing France, or the windmills and tulips in the Netherlands. Maybe your grandfather fought in WWII and you want your cruise itinerary to include the Normandy Beaches. Or perhaps you want to really get off the beaten path and sail to the Black Sea out through Bulgaria and Romania. These can all be factors in your decision. (Here’s a link to my article personally comparing the Danube to the Rhine: Danube River vs. Rhine River)
When should you go?
The cruise season usually starts at the end of March or beginning of April. It ends around the end of October/beginning of November. (Except for the Christmastime cruises!) Prices can fluctuate throughout the season, so it’s best to research which times might be the best deal. (Or have your helpful travel agent do that for you! 😉 ) And pretty much all cruise companies offer loyalty discount programs for those who have sailed previously. There are also often specific sailings with promos – for example, sometimes you can save $1000 per couple, or get the single supplement waived. And often if you have larger groups (10 or more), there are excellent deals to be had on group rates as well.
What documents do you need?
All you really need is your passport. Americans traveling to Europe do not need to get a visa to visit. You can stay up to 90 days in a 6 month period without a visa. (Essentially, those 90 days are under an ‘implied’ visa.) But check the expiration date on your passport. Usually it needs to be good for an additional SIX months after your travel dates. So if it’s getting ready to expire, don’t put off getting it renewed!
Packing: Space on the ships is limited, so please stick to the company’s suggested packing guidelines as you prepare for your cruise. Your suitcase must fit under your bed or in your closet. (Or else, you just have to be okay with it sitting out in the open next to your bed.) There is not a special storage room somewhere else on board for your luggage. I suggest looking at the weather trends for the cities you’ll be visiting for the time of year you’ll be there, and pack accordingly. You might want to bring at least one nice/dressy outfit, but otherwise, casual is just fine. Bring some good walking shoes so you can get around in the different cities. (But if you have mobility issues, there will usually be excursions with minimal and slow walking to accommodate you.) No matter the time of year, always bring at least a light jacket, in case it gets cool in the evenings. (Plus, you’ll usually want it on the plane!)
Languages: The river cruise companies that cater to Americans, Brits, and Australians all have English as the official ship language. However, if you’re sailing through Germany and you think you’ll be able to practice your German on board, you may be a bit disappointed. Just because your ship is in Germany or Austria, doesn’t mean the crew speaks German. Same thing with France. The crew are assembled from all over – usually Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Asia. They are expected to speak English on board. They can’t be expected to the learn the languages of all the countries their ships sail through. That would be daunting for even the most advanced academic linguist. Just last season alone, Miloš’ ship sails regularly through Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia. (That’s a LOT of languages!) My advice? Practice your language skills off-ship at all the various ports. (Although on our Danube cruise, one of the crew actually spoke the weird German dialect that my dad grew up speaking, so he spent some time chatting with that crew member while the ship was sailing.)
Tips/Gratuities: I’m going to tell it like it is here. The crew really relies on the tips they get on each sailing. The average crew member is NOT making big bucks in salary, and that tip makes a HUGE difference to them in their lives. Some of the cruise companies are now offering pre-paid tips/gratuities as part of their packages. Listen, these people go away for many months at a time (the average contract is for 8 months straight with one vacation in the middle.) They work every single day with no days off – all the while, they are away from their loved ones. It’s terribly difficult. Can you imagine having to leave your family and your significant other for 8 months of the year for work? Some of these people leave their kids behind for that long just so they can make a living. They are not robots, but real human beings. I’m obviously biased on this subject, and am not going to hide my thoughts on the matter. Please give at least the minimum suggested tip. Reward the crew for all the hard work they are doing to make your vacation so wonderful.
Internet/Wifi: Yes, most of the ships advertise their wifi. But just a heads up – when you’re sailing, the wifi is not very strong. The ship is picking up the signals from random sources along the river, so obviously that signal is going to be weaker. And you will sail through sections that just have no wifi at all. Nada. No wifi. There is nothing that the crew can do about this matter, so just consider those moments to be your motivation for going up on deck and watching the world go by! Or socialize with some of the other human beings you’re traveling with!
Preparation: You’ll get some great info from your cruise company before you leave, but I highly recommend doing some research ahead of time on your own. I love downloading maps onto my smart phone every time I travel. That way I can explore without worrying about getting lost anywhere. (And I just really love maps anyway!) There are great apps for all kinds of locations out there – take a few minutes to do some looking around. And many are made to be used offline, so you can use them even when you’re somewhere without wifi. And it wouldn’t hurt to download some language apps too.
Some other tips on general European travel? Just follow THIS LINK to one of my past articles. Last but not least, I would like to remind every one to travel with kindness. A smile goes a long way, and a friendly word goes even further. (Don’t be a jerk!) 🙂 Stop and smell the roses, or the tulips, or the lavender. Take in the world and the new places around you. Think about the wonder of this Earth and how you’re getting a chance to see it! Smooth sailing and bon voyage! (The following pics are all my own!)
*****If you want some help planning YOUR river cruise, drop me a message! Remember, there are NO fees for my services, and I help you every step of the way!*****