By Wendy Perrin
Remember how I took to three European rivers—the Rhine, the Danube, and the Seine—on three different ships last spring? You can now read the article I was on assignment to report: “The River Cruise Revolution,” just published in Condé Nast Traveler’s August issue. Americans are flocking to river cruises in record numbers, making it one of the hottest trends in travel and leading river lines to launch a whopping 11 new ships on European waterways this year and 12 more next year. But will river cruising float your boat? You can click to see photos from my trips on Grand Circle Cruise Line’s M/S Bizet on the Seine, Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette on the Rhine, and AmaWaterways’AmaBella on the Danube, and you can read my article, but I thought I’d also lay out ten specific pros and cons to consider before committing to a river cruise:
1. River cruising removes the work and the risk from travel.
It’s a no-brainer vacation, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the level of adventure and challenge you want from your trips. On a river cruise you need never struggle with a foreign language, decipher a map, read a road sign, or even pick up a guidebook. The down side is that your fellow passengers may be the sorts of people who don’t want to struggle with a foreign language, decipher a map, read a road sign, or pick up a guidebook.
2. You can’t plan around the weather.
The ship has to leave port when the ship has to leave port—which means you can’t wait till the fog clears to visit the castle with the stunning vistas or tailor your indoor versus outdoor activities to the weather forecast. Also, river water levels rise and fall; your ship could literally get stuck because the water level is too high or low.
3. You needn’t schlep from hotel to hotel.
You check in and unpack once.
4. Your time in port is limited to a few hours.
You get a tasting menu of many different places, but you can’t dive deeply into any.
5. There’s always something new to see out your window.
The shoreline is always changing, as are the vessels gliding by.
6. Depending on the cruise line, the port sightseeing can be slow-paced and tour guides mediocre.
There can be waits and delays while everyone is loaded onto and off buses, handed off to local guides, and moved as a group through famous landmarks. With most people aged 60 to 80, some ships—the Antoinette, for instance—offer a “gentle walkers” group for the less mobile. AmaWaterways sometimes offers an “active walkers” group, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great guide. For me the exception to the lackluster sightseeing was on the Bizet: Passengers were always punctual, and the superlative guides orchestrated the exploration so that you could always go as quickly or slowly as you wanted and easily venture off on your own.
7. You spend a lot of time eating. And not in local restaurants.
Most people dine onboard because they’ve paid for three meals a day on the ship, and dining is at communal tables with other cruisegoers. Usually at breakfast and lunch there is a buffet as well as a menu, so you could grab something in 30 minutes, but dinner always takes two hours.
8. You meet few locals.
When you have only a few hours in a place and you’re with a group, you end up spending more time talking to people from the ship than to locals.
9. There may be bikes.
Some river ships carry bikes that you can use for free in port. In some spots AmaWaterways lets passengers bike from one port to the next and rejoin the ship.
10. There are no kids.
There may be the occasional teenager accompanying a grandparent, but child-friendly river cruises are uncommon: Cabins fit two occupants only, there’s little play space, and dinner is a drawn-out affair.