River cruises have become extremely popular in the past few years, and many river cruise lines have seen success in catering to my generation, the baby boomers.
My wife and I recently went on our first ever river cruise. After considering several vacation options, a well-traveled friend recommended a river cruise in Europe and sent me links to a few higher end cruise operators. After doing our own research, we chose the Enchanting Rhine river cruise offered by Ama Waterways, a river cruise company operating out of Europe.
Our seven-night cruise on the Rhine River took us from Amsterdam, The Netherlands to Basel, Switzerland, passing wonderful castles and vineyards and stopping for group excursions at several locations in four different countries. We really didn’t know what to expect, but in the end we were pleased with our choice.
Castles on the Rhine
If you are thinking of going on a river cruise for your next vacation, here are a few pros and cons that you should consider.
Pro – River Cruises Offer Great Service
I’m a cynic and I never expect the best. Even I was very impressed at the level of service.
These guys know what they’re doing. Our ship was the Ama Kristina, the cruise line’s newest ship. It held around 150 passengers and was always kept spotless and shiny. I’ve been to four- and five-star hotels whose level of service was far less impressive.
- Our stateroom on the ship was small but not so small that my wife and I were tripping over each other. The bed was comfortable and we enjoyed a beautiful little balcony with chairs and a table. The room was cleaned several times a day, and the guy who cleaned our stateroom instinctively knew what items to leave in their place and what items to clean up.
- Food and beverage service was always friendly and fast but not too fast so you felt rushed. The wait staff was always responsive to the needs of every passenger. There were just a couple of minor exceptions: bartenders could get busy so occasionally, you had to wait a few minutes; and the omelets took a little too long to prepare for my impatient tastes. But those were minor.
- All excursions on land and other events were always very well-organized without feeling too restrictive. Each evening you received a “newspaper” in your room detailing the next day’s activities, meals, and other important information. They also had a good system based on room key cards so they always could keep an accurate count of passengers and to ensure safety that was unobtrusive and easy to understand.
- Always friendly, responsive and professional, the cruise manager, cruise director and ship captain spoke to passengers en masse regularly to introduce themselves, dispense information about the next day’s excursions and to introduce members of the staff.
- Transfers were not included but were arranged by the cruise. It was very nice to have a taxi waiting for us when we disembarked at Basel at the end our cruise.
Con – River Cruises are Expensive
All that good stuff comes at a price.
The 7-night Enchanting Rhine cruises for 2018 cost roughly between $2,500 to $3,500 per person, depending on room choice and time of year. Now add airfare. Of course, river cruise operators like Ama Waterways offer longer cruises which cost more, and safari cruises to Africa cost considerably more. Everything else is included, plus they give you a couple of freebies like an Ama Waterways baseball cap. All meals and excursions and onboard entertainment (there was something each night) are included in the price. While wine and beer at dinner is free, but alcoholic drinks cost extra.
Tips are not included and the cruise lets you know in the literature they give you what they recommend (approximately 12 Euros per person per day plus an additional amount for the Cruise Director). Personally, I did not object to the amount because the staff certainly deserved it. We even left extra for the guy who cleaned our room.
So for two people in a good room, figure you will spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,000 plus tips and drinks, airfare and transportation, and spending money on excursions. Click here to see the current published prices for the Enchanting Rhine river cruise in 2018, including promotions.
Pro – River Cruise Ships Are Small, Leading to Better Socializing On Board
The ship holds 156 passengers in staterooms ranging in size from 155-235 square feet to larger 350 square-foot suites. There is a lounge with a bar where all entertainment and presentations take place, a separate dining area and a sun deck on top of the ship with tables and chairs, a heated pool and great views of the river. So other than your own stateroom, the cruise is really organized in part to get people to meet, greet and hang out with other.
Image source: https://www.amawaterways.com/Assets/Ships/Large/ship_hero_23.jpg
Every day brings a new set of excursions in another beautiful village, town or city, preceded or followed by down time on the ship. And then there is meal time, where you are kind of forced to seat at tables with a minimum of four seats. During these periods, you will meet people.
We talked to our fellow passengers in the lounge, we swam with a small group in the heated pool on one warm day, and most everyone was very warm and friendly. With only 150 people, you remember faces and names and become “cruise friends.” You’re not on top of each other either; there’s plenty of space to avoid conversation if you prefer. We met a very nice and interesting couple a few years older than us that we ended up eating with at every meal and were our best pals on the cruise.
If you like meeting new people when you travel, you definitely will on a river cruise!
Con – River Cruises Attract an Older Crowd that Separates Into Cliques
I’m 60 and my wife is in her early 50s. All of our friends are in their 50s or younger. I have one group of friends who are mostly in their 30s. We have children in their teens, 20s and 30s. We are used to younger people. Most of our fellow passengers were in their 70s. There were maybe two or three couples in our age group or younger.
I’ll be honest – I found the age difference offputting. I was not completely comfortable with such an older crowd and had second thoughts about the cruise at the beginning. On the ship, they even offered free canes and other medical condition-related accessories for older folks. The river cruise operators know that this older group is their biggest market and target their river cruises to this demographic. The river cruise industry is expanding its fleet of ships by 7% in 2017, so they must be on the right track.
In addition to the age difference, the passengers had a tendency to go off in their own small social groups. “It was like high school all over again,” my wife commented.
Even though I overcame my initial discomfort and grew to enjoy socializing with some of my fellow passengers, I still think I would have enjoyed it more with a slightly younger crowd. If the age of your fellow passengers is an issue, you will want to find river cruises that cater to a younger crowd.
Pro – Everything is Done for You
On a river cruise, all you do you arrange your own airfare. The cruise takes care of everything else for you:
- No checking in and out of multiple hotels. No packing and unpacking every few days. You check in once and unpack in your stateroom once.
- No looking for restaurant recommendations every day. You only have to choose your lunch and dinner from a menu after you’re seated in the dining room. Meal service times are clearly listed for you in the Daily Cruiser, the onboard printed newspaper delivered to your room every night. There is always plenty of time to get a meal to avoid the initial rush.
- No deciding which things to see or which place to go or how you will get there. It’s all planned out for you. Also, you don’t have to worry about tickets for sites and attractions. They’re included when required.
- Less chance of getting lost if you stay with your tour group. They have an audio device that lets you listen to the guide at all times, tour guides have clearly marked color-coded signs, and meeting points are easy to find.
- Alcohol is always available on the ship, if you like to drink on your vacations.
- Want to just sit and watch the castles go by in the Rhine Gorge? You can do that all you want up on the sun deck.
- Need an umbrella? Or anything else for that matter? It will be provided for you.
- They arrange transportation for you at the beginning and end of the cruise (you pay for your own transportation but they set it up for you).
Part of The Enchanting Rhine river cruise itinerary.
Con – River Cruises Do Everything for You
For a planning and research guy like me, relinquishing control of my vacation to the river cruise people was a critical issue and I found it a little difficult to adjust to this at first. Even though I learned to go with the flow of the cruise and enjoy it, there were some negatives:
- You either went on a tour or you stayed on the ship. There were limited options if you didn’t like the excursion that day.
- There often wasn’t a lot of time on the tours to stop and chat with locals.
- There weren’t really any tours for very small groups of people; each tour guide had a busload. This wasn’t really a problem but you were dependent on the quality of your specific tour guide for the interesting cultural or historical information.
- There wasn’t time built in to just go off the ship and do your own thing since excursion schedules were tightly controlled (often influenced by the docking requirements of the ship).
- Some excursions were boring (Rudesheim wine tasting) and, though our last village Riquewihr in France was absolutely charming and beautiful, after a while it all seemed designed to separate tourists from their money. Shopping was everywhere.
- Limited vegetarian food options. My wife is a vegetarian and while there was something yummy for her to eat at each meal, she felt that the choices were limited.
- It would have been nice to be able to see more castles. On one day, we sailed through the Rhine Gorge without a land stop and there were dozens of beautiful old and newer castles on the hills as we sailed by. We only toured one castle, the one in the Heidelberg, Germany excursion.
If you are like me and enjoy researching and planning your own vacations, a river cruise may not be the best vacation choice for you, unless you also have the ability to let somebody else run your vacation.
Pro – River Cruises Visit Places You Probably Would Never Visit On Your Own
There was a land-based excursion every day and there were versions for different activity levels (gentle, moderate and active). There were bike tours and hiking for the more active people. If you didn’t like biking or hiking, you went on a faster-paced tour.
We toured the great cathedrals in Cologne and Strasbourg. In Strasbourg, we marveled at the colorful charm of Petite France. We watched the castles go by on the Rhine. We enjoyed a very large beer at a cafe after touring the great castle in Heidelberg. We sailed past the bridge at Remagen, sight of a critical battle in World War II. Riquewihr was a colorful little village right out of medieval Europe. We did a wine-tasting and went to a fun little musical museum in Rudesheim. Germany.
The river cruise took us to some very cool places that I probably never would have thought to visit on my own.
Petite France, Strasbourg, France
Con – River Cruises Offer Limited Activities Outside of Planned Excursions
In addition to the planned excursions, which never took up an entire day, there was at least one day spent entirely on the river and other stretches of several hours sailing from port to port. In other words, there was extra time on to fill on the boat.
Only a couple of tours took place in the evening, and they had some form of entertainment every night in the lounge. The idea was that nightly entertainment represented the country or region in which we were sailing. So in France they brought an accordion player with a woman singing French style. On another night, they had an ABBA tribute act. You get the idea. I thought the entertainment was okay, a little hokey but not great.
Other than that entertainment, there really wasn’t much to do on the boat. The weather in late September to early October was too cold for swimming in the little heated pool up on the deck, although there was one day that was warm enough for it. There was a small exercise room with a couple of treadmills and a very modern-looking workout machine, and there was a little spa for massages.
Some of our fellow passengers made a few good suggestions, including small cooking classes on board with the highly skilled chefs, other classes in arts and crafts of each region, lectures and more music.
I understand that they can only do so much on a 7-day river cruise, but this is definitely an area that could be improved. Of course, you could be the type of person who likes a fair amount of down time for reading or other solitary activity, in which case you probably won’t mind the lack of extra activities.
River Cruise Tip – Extend the Cruise On Your Own
Because I simply could not give up control of the entire trip, and because our schedules allowed it, my wife and I extended our trip at the front and back ends with two days in Amsterdam on our own and a day and a half in Lucerne, Switzerland at the end. We were really happy we did this, and the extra travel hassles were worth enduring.
We really loved Amsterdam, and because our river cruise started there with a daytime activity, we really had three days in that great city. At the end of the trip, we took a train to Lucerne and stayed in a hotel on Lake Lucerne, with the Swiss Alps in the distance behind the lake. We took a day trip up to Mt. Pilatus via cogwheel train. The views were incredible and so was our impromptu hike down part of the mountain. That day turned out to be a highlight of our entire vacation.
So if you would like to do a river cruise but still want to reserve some vacation to doing your own thing, consider extending your cruise on your own.
River Cruise Summary
A river cruise is without a doubt a fun way to see a different part of the world without a lot of the hassles, and a cruise on a luxury or high-end cruise line offers a level of service that’s worth the money.
All in all, I enjoyed our river cruise a lot. When we returned home, my wife and I looked at each other and said “I would take another river cruise.” If we do decide to take another river cruise, we both agree that will look for a cruise that attracts a younger crowd. And we will extend the cruise with a couple of days at the front or back end on our own.
For More Information About River Cruises
If a river cruise sounds appealing to you, you really can’t go wrong with an Ama Waterways cruise. Here are some links to their different cruises:
- The Enchanting Rhine river cruise we went on: https://www.amawaterways.com/destination/europe-river-cruises/2017/the-enchanting-rhine
- All Ama Waterways European river cruises for 2018: https://www.amawaterways.com/destination/europe-river-cruises/2018
- Ama Waterways’ Cruise Finder (they have river cruises in Asia and Africa as well as Europe): https://www.amawaterways.com/river-cruise-finder
There are other high-end cruise lines that get consistently good reviews. Here are links to river cruise review sites that I found helpful in my own research:
- Cruise Critic – https://www.cruisecritic.com/memberreviews/styles/river-cruises/
- River Cruise Advisor – https://www.rivercruiseadvisor.com/comparisons