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Frommer's EasyGuide to River Cruising

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No segment of the travel industry is growing faster than river cruising. But how can you pick the right boat or itinerary? This book answers those questions and more, giving detailed, opinionated advice on the varying characters of the boat companies; why one river or itinerary will likely have more of interest than another; and how not to get taken when booking one of these often pricey vacations.

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the best of river cruising

River cruises are a hot vacation choice for good reason. You cruise calm waters to discover the interior of countries in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere, often docking right in town (or in world-class cities).

Views from your ship might include castles and chateaux and hilltops covered in vineyards, or, on exotic itineraries, such sights as water buffalo, rice paddies, and houses built on stilts.

It’s slow, casual travel on a comfortable ship, an easy way to see landmarks including UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and it’s especially well suited to older travelers or busy boomers who like the idea of having most of their vacation experiences (including accommodations, meals, and excursions) well organized and well planned even before they leave home.

River cruises are not about rushing here and there. You visit key sights and explore the culture in places on and near a relatively small geographic stretch of river (though that stretch may take you through several countries). There’s also time for languid afternoons on the sun deck, time to observe life along the river—kids swimming, fishermen, farmers tending their crops, passing cargo barges—while your ship cruises by at 5 mph (or even slower on the small barges in France).





Why Take a River Cruise?

These days, a lot more people have become familiar with the concept of river cruising, and that’s thanks in large part to Viking River Cruises having plastered our TV screens, and filled our mailboxes, with promos portraying a river cruise ship floating past picturesque European cities. But river cruising hasn’t always been on travelers’ radar. Compared to other vacation forms—ocean cruises, resort vacations, tours—river cruising (in its current form, as there was plenty rollin’ down the river happening in the 1800s) has only more recently become a popular travel style, having only really started to take off, especially with the American market, in the early 2000s.

There are currently some half million Americans who hop the pond each year to take a river cruise in Europe, more than double the number who were river cruising in 2007 and more than seven times the number of North American river cruisers who sailed through Europe in 2001. And that number continues to grow. Consequently, more players and ships enter the river cruise game each year in an effort to capitalize on the novelty and buzz surrounding the river cruising industry. In other words, river cruising is having a moment.





Booking Your River Cruise

Okay, you’ve thought about what type of river cruise vacation experience you might like. You’ve decided when and for how long you’d like to travel. You know what sort of itinerary interests you. And after reading through our ship reviews in the following chapters, and narrowing your focus down to a couple of river cruise lines that appeal to you, you’ll be ready to get down to brass tacks and make your booking. Here’s what you need to know.

Booking a Cruise: The Short Explanation

Every river cruise line has a brochure, often many different brochures, full of beautiful glossy photos of beautiful glossy people enjoying fabulous vacations. They’re colorful! They’re gorgeous! They’re enticing!

They’re confusing!

They’ll include rate charts with published prices that may be nothing more than the pie-in-the-sky wishes of cruise execs. Or those same rates may be crossed out in the brochure so that offers of 2-FOR-1 pricing and such can be included. Did we mention cruise brochures can be confusing?





The Cruise ExperiencE

Now that you’ve made most of the hard decisions—choosing and booking your river cruise vacation—the rest of your planning should be relatively easy. From this point on, the cruise lines take over much of the work, particularly if you’ve booked a package that includes hotels and air travel.

With river cruises it is particularly important to read the pre-trip information sent to you by your chosen cruise line. The river lines do a good job in addressing commonly asked questions—in addition to printed materials sent to your home you can find details on the line’s website. Because the lines know their customers to be inquisitive sorts, they may also recommend additional reading material, both fiction and non-fiction that we highly recommend you check out.

Packing for Your Cruise

Our main advice here is to pack light. Use the old pile-a-bunch-of-stuff-on-a-bed method before deciding what you really need—the principle at play being “If in doubt, leave it out.”






Seven dominant players got into the river cruise game early on in Europe and together carry the bulk of North American river cruise passengers along Europe’s inland waterways and beyond.

Some of these lines, such as Grand Circle, Viking and Uniworld, have been doing this since the 1980s and 1990s, while the remainder entered the market in the early 2000s, when river cruising started to boom. These cruise lines represent some of the most extensive and comprehensive river cruise fleets in the business. They are in this chapter because they’ve either built a shocking number of new ships in the last few years (Viking, we’re looking at you), because they are very popular despite not having built many new ships recently (Grand Circle comes to mind), or because they have been consistently expanding their fleets, introducing innovative new concepts on and off-board, and have established large and loyal followings among an increasingly avid river cruising public.





OTHER RIver cruise lines

As we stated in the previous chapter, there are a lot of river cruise companies out there (more than you probably ever realized or imagined!). In this chapter we are going to introduce the other major players.

Many of these companies are specialized in a specific region of river cruising, such as U.S. rivers (American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company, for instance) or Southeast Asia rivers (such as Pandaw River Expeditions). Some of them are also predomi nantly “wholesale” river cruise lines, meaning they own and operate the ships but most of their inventory is actually leased or chartered out to river cruise lines or travel companies you’re more familiar with—Chinese company Century Cruises is a perfect example of this as it sells its ships through Uniworld and Avalon, among others.

If you go online to search for river cruises, and you find a company that is not listed in one of these two chapters, chances are it either doesn’t cater to American travelers (we aren’t the only ones who are crazy about river cruising), is very, very small, or, most probably, is a river cruise reseller, companies that contract with river cruise lines for a certain amount of inventory and then resell that inventory (see box on p. 146 for more on those companies).





Barge Cruising

If a river ship is a small hotel on the water, barges are more like fancy little B&Bs—intimate, casual travel with such luxuries as a wonderful private chef preparing meals accompanied by endless wine.

The barges, some quite elaborately outfitted, are small, flat-bottomed boats, most of which were originally built for carrying freight and renovated to carry guests. These small craft explore the historic canals, rivers and lakes of France and other European countries in spring, summer and early fall.

It’s a decadently slow form of travel, so slow (you may only go 70 miles in a week) that you may be able to keep up jogging, walking or biking on towpaths alongside the canals. Or you can opt to sit on the deck sipping wine or champagne as you pass towns with stone houses and beautiful countryside, admire birdlife and trees and flowers and watch lockkeepers turn big wheels by hand (or the push of a button), raising and lowering locks so your barge can float through. Included tours take you to scenic villages, medieval cities, castles, wineries and other nearby attractions.





EuropeAN River cruises

In this chapter we cover highlights of the main rivers in Europe, by far the world’s largest river cruise destination.

You’ll notice we first detail the most popular riverways, the Danube and Rhine and their tributaries. That’s because these are by far the most popular stretches—taking you past castles and vineyards and to such world-class cities as Amsterdam (via the Dutch canals), Budapest and Vienna. This is not at all to say these are the only itineraries in Europe. In this chapter you’ll also find sought after options in France, including cruises through French wine country and to see the World War II Landing Beaches in Normandy, itineraries through the beautiful Douro region of Portugal and sailings deep inside Russia (these itineraries we have listed in alphabetical order, by river).

Upper Danube

Also known as the Blue Danube, after the composer Johann Strauss II’s waltz of the same name, the Upper Danube is a journey through some of Europe’s most important history, carving a path from Western to Eastern Europe through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.





U.S. River cruises

River cruises on the Columbia and Snake out west and Mississippi river in the south and Midwest give you an insider’s view of the American landscape. Here we explore the top attractions.

Columbia & Snake

The largest river in the Pacific Northwest, the 1,240-mile-long Columbia River begins in British Columbia’s Rocky Mountains and flows out into the Pacific Ocean just west of Astoria, Oregon. The Columbia River forms much of the scenic border between Oregon and Washington, including the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge, which in and of itself makes the trip worthwhile. River cruises along the Columbia River are combined with a portion of the Snake River, which extends the cruises further east towards Idaho.

While most people are familiar with river cruising along the Mississippi River, cruises along the Columbia and Snake are rich with unique local history and culture, and the jaw-dropping views of the Columbia River Valley are not to be missed. Indeed, this fascinating stretch of the Pacific Northwest weaves through beautiful mountainous and forested landscapes, tells a vibrant Native American narrative and essentially follows along much of the final route of the Lewis and Clark westward expedition, which will be an ongoing theme throughout the cruise. Another added draw is the delectable local seafood, such as fresh salmon and crab, and the increasingly popular wines of the region. Not to mention, you get to start or end your cruise in the uber-fun and hip city of Portland.





exotic River cruises

River cruise lines, knowing many of their guests will like the experience and become repeaters, are studying maps and looking to spot every opportunity to expand. They are also hoping to attract new and more intrepid cruisers by offering cruises on such legendary waterways as the Mekong and Irrawaddy. But be aware the cruises in this chapter are very different than what you will experience in Europe. Yes, you will enjoy all the comforts of a nice hotel, but when you step off the ship you will land, in some cases, in muddy, impoverished villages, before returning to your ship for a fancy meal and a fluffy bed. It’s a fascinating and to some a haunting dichotomy (though we like to believe tourism can in some way improve the lives of locals).

When visiting the countries in this chapter, we highly recommend you visit see a travel doctor to inquire about pills for malaria, any shots you might need and such (find information at Prone to stomach upset, Fran also puts herself on a regimen of Pepto-Bismol just in case (the CDC has recommendations in this regard at We also recommend you read any travel warnings at the U.S. Department of State website (





Theme Cruises

by Lisa Matte

Size. That’s the biggest difference between a theme cruise on a riverboat and a theme cruise on an ocean liner: size of the ship, size of the passenger list, size of the theme roster, you name it—it all comes down to size.

What’s right for you? The decision hinges on this: If you’re intrigued by exploring a specific theme or topic in the company of people with similar interests, but prefer a more intimate setting, choose a river cruise. The choice of itineraries and routes may not be as expansive as on an ocean-going megaship, but the experience will match the setting—low key and personal with plenty of hands-on opportunities.

Cruising alone? Theme cruises are particularly attractive to solo cruisers, drawn to the idea of traveling with like-minded passengers. Shared interests ease social integration and options like roommate matches add to the appeal.

A wide select of theme cruises are available on river ships. The chart on the next page shows a sampling.





Wine Education

Wine lovers are attracted to river cruises, especially those that glide through such famous wine regions as France’s Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Beaujolais, the Cote du Rhone and the Loire Valley; Germany’s Mosel and Rhine Valley; and Austria’s Wachau Valley.

These itineraries present rare opportunities to sip unique local varietals both on the ship and on shore; many itineraries include visits to vineyards and vistas of vines. If you don’t find the wine cellar on your ship stocked with all the local varietals you want to try, pick up a bottle in the ports to bring aboard.

Here, Cleveland-based writer and wine lover Christine Jindra looks at wines you can sample along key rivers in Europe.

The Rhine

A cruise on the Rhine River from Amsterdam to Basel takes you through The Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland; and to some of the world's northernmost vineyards.

The Rhine flows through nine of Germany’s 13 wine districts, the Ahr, Baden, Hessische Bergstrasse, Mittelrhein, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, and Rheinhessen. Most of the country’s best wines—which have a surprising elegance—are made from Riesling, the great white grape of Germany and king along the Rhine.



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