11 reasons why we love river cruises in Europe

My wife and I have taken two European river cruises so far. One was on the Rhone in France. The other was on the Douro River in Portugal. Both were on AMAWaterways ships. And we hope for a third on the Garonne in the Bordeaux region of France. And a fourth on the Rhine for the Christmas markets. Needless to say, we enjoyed each one immensely and look forward to further adventures. River cruises are fun, educational and easy on the soul. They are also easy on the body. Here are 11 reasons we love them.

A luxury river boat on the Danube (Photo credit: Fabio Michele Capelli / Shutterstock.com)

1. Welcome aboard

River cruise ships are mobile hotels. Although they vary in size, most are between 260 feet and 443 feet in length and can accommodate 100 to almost 200 passengers. These purpose-built vessels all have low profiles in order to pass under bridges, many of which are notoriously low to water in Europe. (We went under a bridge near Lyon with a two inch clearance.) Being hotels, although mobile, they have comfortable cabins. Not big but well arranged. And there is a common lounge big enough to accommodate all passengers. There are also one or two dining rooms. One thing we really appreciated: there was no need to carry luggage or pack and unpack daily. Climb aboard and rest for the duration of your cruise.

2. Intimate Settings

Given the relatively small size of these ships, they are able to provide more informal and intimate settings compared to ocean cruise ships, which are usually much, much larger. It is impossible to get lost on these river vessels. They are comfortable without being cramped. Unfortunately, despite the elevators, these ships are generally not really wheelchair accessible. Check with the cruise line before booking.

3. Cast off all lines

One of the best parts of these cruises is being on the river, so to speak. Whether in your cabin looking out the window or sitting on your (small) balcony, in the saloon or taking in the fresh air on the upper deck, it’s fun to watch the world go by – the changing textures of the sky, of land and river as well as other boats and ships making their own voyages. River cruises offer a superb opportunity to relax, watching the sights and hearing the sounds as you ‘pass’, which is reason enough to take them.

4. Something for everyone

It’s easy to meet new people thanks to the many activities organized both on board and ashore. At the same time, it’s easy to find quiet spaces in the shared public spaces, especially on the open-air upper decks where there are walking/exercise tracks and canopied seating areas. I met very few people up there. (Of course, this could have been linked to the brisk November weather on both of our cruises as well as the mistrals, cold north or northwest winds, on the Rhône.) But I found it lovely, especially at night enjoying the stars and fires on land and on passing boats and barges.

5. Stand Up and To Them

One of my favorite times on river cruises is early in the morning. I often got up around 6 a.m., had a cup of coffee, and went up to the patio to meet the new day. There’s plenty to do: check the weather, watch the river, then take a few laps around the walking track, enjoying the quiet, the solitude, and my coffee. At 7 o’clock sharp, I went to the dining room to be one of the first in line. Tables are first come, first served, so I’d grab one by the windows and read while waiting for my wife. She usually arrived a few minutes later and we planned the day around breakfast. It’s a simple and pleasant start to the day.

Douro river and landscape in cloudy weather.
Douro River (Photo credit: John Edwards)

6. Rest or recreation

Each day brings a new port and a new optional day trip. We found these day trips both fun and educational. Skipping an excursion is not a bad idea if you need a break from the routine. Being on a quiet ship docked at the pier is a great way to spend a day. However, most passengers go on day trips. These shore excursions are led by knowledgeable and friendly guides. They are invariably well organized, well planned and, in our experience, well executed.

Pro tip: Sometimes an excursion may have difficult steps for those with walking difficulties. Also, getting on the transport bus can be difficult. Ask your guide for alternative activities. They are often available.

Excursion to the Pont du Gard during a cruise on the Rhône.
Gardon River (Photo credit: John Edwards)

7. Does the size of the river matter?

Certainly not. The Rhône, in terms of cubic feet of flow, is almost three times more massive than the Douro River. And while the Rhône is impressively wide in many parts, offering far-reaching views, the Douro River is noticeably narrower, compressed by steep cliffs or vineyard-covered hills on either bank. Our experience on each was exceptional, which surprised us. We thought the little river would be less exciting. Less attractive. Less attractive. We were wrong on all counts. Larger rivers may offer more expansive views. Maybe more drama. But small rivers are more available. Banks are closer. Views are more detailed. We loved both. And we hope to return for cruises on every type of river in the future.

Vineyard at Quinta Da Avessada in the hills of the Douro River.
Vineyard at Quinta Da Avessada from the hills of the Douro River (Photo credit: John Edwards)

8. Day trip

One of our favorite things to do on these cruises was the day trips. As stated, the excursions are interesting, well planned and well executed. Places we visited included notable nearby towns and villages, museums, wineries, restaurants, buildings, churches and structures of historical and cultural significance, even a truffle farm with a truffle hunting demonstration. truffles and a truffle tasting to follow! All at no additional cost. The duration of each outing varies. Some last a few hours. Others are all-day affairs. But either way, you’ll be back on the ship in time for dinner and evening entertainment.

9. Speaking of entertainment…

Most evenings there is entertainment of one sort or another. It’s usually local bands or singers, but it can also be a disco party, photo contest, quiz contest, or just happy hour at the Ancient. All were fun and an added bonus to our overall experience.

10. The Crew!

The crew members were the sine qua non of our pleasure. Overall, on both cruises, the crews made the difference. Shared between the ship’s operating staff (captain, navigation, engineering) and hotel staff (cruise director, excursion guides, catering, housekeeping), we had some exceptional experiences. They were first and foremost professionals. Additionally, they were friendly, fun, attentive, honestly caring, and available when needed. Humorous too! Without the excellence of the crew and staff, our cruises would have been lesser experiences.

11. Add to the fun

If you want to extend your trip, you can inquire about pre- and post-cruise extensions. Several cruise lines offer them. They organize transport, food and accommodation to interesting nearby destinations accompanied by outings of one kind or another. While you’re there, you might as well see everything you can. It’s like the proverbial icing on the cake!

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