Booking your first river cruise? Here’s what you need to know.
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The pre-pandemic perks of a river cruise — passengers numbering in the few hundred rather than the few thousand, à la carte versus buffet dining, small-group excursions and personalized attention — are the same ones making it an attractive choice for many people’s first post-covid vacation.
Travelers who find mega ocean ships daunting or just don’t like fighting their way through throngs of crowds — especially these days — might instead find themselves right at home on these boats, especially since there are so many exciting new vessels being launched this year.
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River cruising has recently become even more appealing to first-timers, according to Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder of AmaWaterways, who has also seen an uptick in bookings among families, multi-generational travelers and those who had to put off marking celebrations with loved ones. Last summer, AmaWaterways was the first U.S.-based river cruise line to complete a successful reduced-capacity charter on the Rhine River for German guests, allowing staff to improve health and safety measures and gain back travelers’ trust during the ship’s four-month run. This year, they will review the status of regular embarking approximately 45 days before departure and continue the reduced capacity of 100 guests if required, and plan on announcing testing and vaccination requirements closer to sail dates.
Crystal River Cruises resumes sailings on July 3, 2021, accommodating just 106 guests on its Rhine Class Ships with maximum space as the focus, according to senior vice president and managing director Walter Littlejohn. The line has made the decision that guests must be fully inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine (with both doses if recommended by the manufacturer) at least 14 days prior to boarding any Crystal ship and will be asked to provide proof of vaccination before embarkation. That new requirement is in addition to those already required by the Crystal Clean+ measures like a negative covid test and health screening questionnaire.
Uniworld Cruises plans to begin sailing again in late spring or early summer. An average capacity of 120 passengers onboard inherently allows for physical distancing, comfort, safety and cleaning measures. Technology enhancements include E-mist, an electrostatic disinfectant sprayed every ten days on surfaces and coach buses, contactless payments, and facial recognition on key card scanners at the gangway for a seamless and touchless experience getting on and off the ship.
Viking Cruises’ river departures remain scheduled beginning August 1, 2021, and suggests consulting its Health & Safety page for the latest information.
Whether you are a newbie or an experienced river cruiser here’s what to expect — and what might be different since the last time you sailed.
Dining options and seating have been tweaked…
River cruisers tend to be friendly, well-traveled, and eager to meet and learn about their fellow passengers, especially during mealtimes. Cruise lines know this and have traditional eschewed tables for two or four by configuring dining rooms with larger convivial seating, which can be daunting for introverts, small groups of friends or couples looking for a romantic dinner à deux. Despite seating logistics, dining is usually table service, which brings peace of mind these days to vacationers skittish about sidling up to a buffet and making a salad with tongs touched by countless other cruisers. These days, lines have also responded to dining concerns with socially distant seating and other changes.
Crystal River Cruises now requires guests to undergo touchless temperature checks and use hand sanitizer prior to entering restaurants. Open seating remains, albeit socially distant, self-service dining has been eliminated, contact-free dining has been implemented on all onboard venues, and in-suite dining is offered 24/7. AmaWaterways, which used to offer breakfast and lunch buffet service, has moved to full-table service with expanded menus and culinary stations to encourage customizable menu options. AmaSiena, AmaLucia, AmaVerde and AmaBella will be the first vessels to display these innovations as well as feature a screened sundeck area for more outdoor dining options. Viking Cruises continues its 24-hour room service and has revamped dining rooms for physical distancing, replaced self-serve stations with staffed ones, and added more table service at bars and lounges.
…but cuisine and wine still reflect the local culture.
River cruises can pretty much roll up close to the town center, and chefs are known to frequent farmers’ markets to procure local ingredients for regional specialties. Expect Hungarian goulash and glasses of crisp furmint or luscious Tokaj in Budapest and bratwurst, sauerkraut, and hefeweizen in Passau during Viking Cruises’ Danube Waltz and all the rosé during AmaWaterways’ Colors of Provence. Wine and beer at meals (including regional selections) are generally included on all lines and flows freely. Confirm with your cruise line to be sure, but if you happen upon a cozy wine shop in Porto or visit a winery in the Loire Valley, you are welcome to bring bottles onboard to enjoy on your stateroom or balcony — a welcome contrast from ocean cruise lines, where alcohol purchased ashore is held until you disembark at the end of the trip.
A high crew-to-passenger ratio means service is very personal
Viking River Cruises’ longships are known to have a high staff-to-guest ratio, and Uniworlds’ two ships — dubbed The A and The B — each hold 120 guests and 31 crew members. But the all-inclusive luxury line Crystal River Cruises holds the distinction of having the highest staff-to-guest ratio of all European river cruise lines: one of its newest ships, the Crystal Ravel, has an impressive crew that numbers 68 for just 106 passengers. No matter which river cruise you book, you can be assured of highly attentive and personalized service, with your server automatically bringing you your morning cappuccino at the breakfast table and the bartender stirring your Negroni the minute they spot you entering the lounge.
Destinations still include guided tours of cultural and historical highlights
River cruises are all about immersing yourself in the local art, history, and culture. To that end, cruise lines generally offer all passengers a tour after embarking at each location which could be via bus, walking or a combination of both. Traditionally held in relatively intimate groups anyway, covid restrictions mean they are even small, with necessary protocols in place including increased sanitization of and spaced seating on motor coaches.
AmaWaterways offers up to 23 small group shore excursions and exclusive experiences, with no more than 10 to 15 guests per group. Crystal Cruises provides guests with individual Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) kits during the tour, has capped the size of experiences, and only partners with local operators that meet the cruise line’s Crystal Clean+ standards. Uniworld only works with operators that adhere to the line’s standards, and the maximum occupancy per bus is adjusted on the fly to reduce the total number of people together at any given time. Viking will monitor covid-19 numbers at a destination and adjust excursions accordingly, providing free face masks when local guidelines require them.
Some lines give you a larger selection of included excursions, so it doesn’t always have to be about castles and cathedrals, and offer more niche port activities that may or may not incur an additional charge. Sanitized individual headsets and charging stations in staterooms mean you won’t miss a word of the running commentary. Whichever activities you select there will usually still be time for you to explore the city on your own, but if guided tours aren’t your thing, skip them entirely and plan your own outings — or just sit at a sidewalk cafe.
The stereotype about river cruises always skewing older just isn’t true
Now more than ever, with families and friends reconnecting after more than a year in lockdown, there is a river cruise for everyone.
Before U by Uniworld launched in 2018 (it has since been rebranded to U River Cruises), the line set an age restriction of 21 to 45 for passengers. It was quickly scrapped due to demand from a wider age range. Nonetheless, past offerings like drag-queen sailings, silent discos, rooftop yoga, mixology classes and sleeky, edge decor are meant to appeal to a younger, hipper crowd, and they are currently planning sailings specifically for Gen Z.
The average demographic on AmaWaterways, Viking and Crystal definitely skew older, but that doesn’t mean you will feel unwelcome or out of place on any line, though, especially with the uptick of intergenerational traveling. What you will encounter on river cruises are (often) well-heeled, well-traveled guests who are interested in gleaning insight from and really immersing themselves into the destinations you’re all headed to. Keep in mind though that some lines restrict passengers under 18, so families with school-age children may be better off opting for another type of vacation.
Related: The best cards for booking cruises
You won’t find as many diversions onboard as on a large ocean liner
The streamlined size of these vessels allows them to deftly navigate shallow rivers, canals and locks, getting you much closer to both cosmopolitan cities and quaint towns. But that accessibility comes with a price: you won’t find waterslides, discotheques, casinos, or other splashy offerings on river cruises. (Again, in the covid-era where you might want to avoid crowds, this can be a very good thing.)
Though subject to closures or reduced capacity due to social distancing, Viking longships feature a library, lounge and rooftop sundeck; afternoon and evening activities include previews from the cruise director on the following day’s port and post-dinner games in the bar like trivia and name that tune. Uniworld has an onboard fitness center with classes on yoga, meditation and bootcamp, a spa, and an Ice Bar. AmaWaterways offers salon and massage services, bicycles and helmets to use when docked, a fitness room, and whirlpool or heated swimming pool. One of the most exciting new river cruise ships (it launched in 2019), the AmaWaterways AmaMagna is twice the width of a traditional European river ship, translating to not only more personal space but more leisure opportunities like a cinema, shopping boutique, pop-up elevator serving all four decks and the Zen Wellness Studio, an expansive space with a fitness center, massage rooms, and a juice bar.
You’ll get the chance to explore lesser-known locales
Sure, itineraries include some of Europe’s most beloved cities from Prague to Paris. But what about Regensburg, a city in southeast Germany at the confluence of the Danube, Naab and Regen rivers whose medieval center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site? It’s a staple on itineraries like Crystal Cruises’ Dazzling Danube Holiday. You can also discover Nijmegen, the Netherlands’ oldest city, which dates back more than 2,000 and is the site of Kröller-Müller Museum, home to ninety-seven works of art from Vincent van Gogh, part of Uniworld’s Tulips & Windmills.
While it might have been logistically tricky to venture to these and other similar cities on another vacation, a river cruise makes them easy to explore.
Ports and docking times may be subject to change due to traffic, water levels, and covid numbers
These days, cruise lines are closely monitoring port regulations and coronavirus statistics, only docking at safe and open ports of call, which can cause changes to your itinerary — and so can changes in navigable waters.
A few years ago, historically low water levels in Europe wreaked havoc on river cruises, resulting in skipped ports and itinerary changes. Some passengers were even forced to pack up all their belongings, travel by bus and do a “ship swap” to another vessel located in more navigable waters.
Increased canal lock traffic during very busy times like the Christmas market season on the Danube or springtime on the Seine can also put a wrench in your plans. These considerations shouldn’t prevent you from booking a river cruise; just keep in mind that they could translate to reduced time to explore a destination or excursions that are adjusted or canceled outright. The main takeaway is to remain flexible and go with the flow.
Photo by Adenna Roman/EyeEm/Getty Images
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