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While major cruise lines are wowing families with mega-ships with cool features like bumper cars, rock-climbing walls, 10-story waterslides, surf simulators, iFly skydiving and more, river cruise lines are slower to catch up in that department. Especially popular in Europe, river cruises meander slowly down rivers like the Danube and the Rhine, stopping in intimate ports as well as larger cities to offer passengers an easy way to visit multiple countries without packing up bags, dealing with train transfers, flights, etc.

Some river cruises don’t allow children at all, but a few river cruises lines — such as Uniworld and AmaWaterways (which partners with Adventures by Disney) — are teasing parents with family sailings on itineraries that take you through the fairy-tale castles of Germany or follow the “Sound of Music” in Austria. But, are river cruises actually a good vacation option for kids? Sadly — not really.

Adventures by Disney
(Photo by Chloe Rice / Adventures by Disney)

Unlike Ocean Liners, River Cruises…

Do not have family cabins. Riverboats are much smaller than cruise ships that ply oceans. Riverboats navigate lower depths and narrow passageways so they have to be somewhat small. They also have predominantly been for the older set, so cabins offered on river cruises, even suites, usually lack pull-down berths, sofa beds and bunks in which kids can share a room with their family. On river cruises, families often have to book multiple rooms to accommodate everyone, which increases the cost of the cruise.

Do not have kids clubs. As river cruises do not cater to families year-round, the smaller ships save all of its space for adult lounges and dining rooms. Even when offering a family voyage, the boat often houses kids’ programs in spaces originally intended for adults. You won’t find video games, movie nights, craft making or fun character interactions — even on an Adventures by Disney river cruise. Not only are there no kids clubs, but save for the upper deck, there simply isn’t a lot of space for kids to run around.

AmaWaterways
(Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways)

Do not have swimming pools. Only a rare few river ships have a “pool.” That’s in quotations because the pools are often so small they aren’t bigger than a large hot tub. Kids will not have a place to splash and play during the day — intentional on river cruises, where passengers are expected to spend the day exploring quaint villages.

Do not have baby-sitting. A perk of ocean cruises and even all-inclusive resorts are the baby-sitting options so mom and dad can enjoy a quiet, romantic dinner on their vacation every once in a while. On river cruises, you do not have the option of having some couple time.

Limited kid-friendly options. River cruises are great for offering bicycles for passengers to enjoy along paved river paths. Alas, these don’t come with infant or toddler seats, and kid-sized bikes are a rarity. Also a rarity? Foods kids can easily enjoy at dinner. Kids’ menus may be offered, but are extremely limited. Even excursions offered to passengers don’t have kids’ top of mind. Some excursions require four-hour bus rides and meals with groups can last for hours.

Adventures by Disney
(Photo courtesy of Adventures by Disney)

Can be very expensive. While you can pay for a river cruise with a card like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or Discover it® Miles and then use miles from those cards to offset the charge, there aren’t as many options to use miles and points for cruises as there are for flights and hotels. River cruises, often luxury in nature, will generally cost thousands of dollars per person — and do not discount the fare for children.

Still Want to Take a River Cruise? Here Are the Best

Adventures by Disney. Cruising on AmaWaterways ships, the (expensive) Adventures by Disney cruises provide bubbly, family-friendly Disney employees to serve as your own tour guides through the sites along the cruise route. Disney has set up some special excursions on each cruise (like strudel making in Vienna), and also provides that extra-special Disney touch accounting for every last detail. But — don’t let the Disney name fool you as some Adventures by Disney are adult-only and others have a minimum age for the sailing that is much higher than say on the Disney Cruise Line.

If you really want Europe + Disney + cruising, the actual Disney Cruise Line does have some European itineraries on the large Disney Magic ship that may be better suited for young families.

Disney Magic
Disney Magic (Photo by Matt Stroshane / Disney Cruise Line)

Uniworld. The uber-luxurious cruises provided by Uniworld open up in the summer and holiday seasons for 10-day itineraries for families. These work well for multigenerational groups, offering a little something for everyone during excursions — including cooking classes with the chef for kids. Butler service in the suites is nice, but kids probably won’t appreciate the ornate, gold-leafed décor found on many ships.

Uniworld
(Photo courtesy of Uniworld)

Tauck. Adventure cruises by Tauck will take families to exciting destinations like the Galapagos and small boat tours of Alaska, as well as some river options. Look for Tauck Bridges sailings, which are designed specifically for families.

“Budget-Friendly” Alternatives

If you’ve been thinking about a family river cruise, also look into this alternate options.

Instead of a Danube river cruise: Instead of cruising the Danube, consider visiting Budapest and Prague without a cruise. They are lovely European cities where you can find great points deals on hotels. In Budapest, you can check out a castle, swim in the natural hot springs at Szechenyi Thermal Bath and explore the zoo, while in Prague, there are more castles, parks and puppet shows that will entertain the kids. A comfortable train ride through the countryside connects the two, with food and drink service, for a whole lot less than a cruise.

Viking River Cruises
(Photo courtesy of Viking River Cruises)

Instead of a Rhine river cruise: A trip down Germany’s Rhine river can be done by renting a car, where you can stop at one or dozens of castles. Rhine river tours typically begin in Amsterdam, which is very kid-friendly. Visit Vondelpark for play time, rent bicycles, try a canal sightseeing cruise and explore one of the museums in the city, many with special programs for kids.

Instead of a Po river cruise: Italy has so much to offer families, there’s no need to see it by boat. Trains will take you from destination to destination, with kids loving a visit to Rome’s Colosseum, a ride in a gondola in Venice and even enjoying kid-friendly wineries in Tuscany, where you can picnic and sample local wines.

Instead of a European river cruise: Europe is filled with all-inclusive resorts for families, from beachfront destinations in Spain and Portugal (the Martinhal resorts are fantastic) to alpine ski resorts in Switzerland and France (think Club Med). At theses resorts, you’ll get all of the perks — kids clubs, baby-sitting, larger accommodations — and all of the benefits of Europe. These resorts can arrange sightseeing excursions and are likely much less expensive than a river cruise (and of course at some hotels you could use your hotel points).

Bottom Line

River cruises are truly a wonderful way to see Europe, but until they make a ship that is kid-friendly from head to toe (with discount fares for kids), save your pennies and go for the alternative unless you really think your kids are the right age and temperament for a more adult vacation and you have a hefty budget to work with.

Featured image by Tu xa Ha Noi / Getty Images

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