I’m a faithful fan of Downton Abbey, but I’ve also become a little obsessed with the river cruise commercials PBS shows at the beginning and end of each show. Could river cruises be as beautiful and memorable as the commercials make them look? Who really goes on river cruises?
I’m not the only one who’s curious, as I’ve fielded questions from lots of friends, family and potential clients asking about river cruises. So, my husband and I decided to undertake some personal research on an AMA Waterways River Cruise on the Seine River between Paris and the Normandy region. In fact, we’re cruising the Seine at this very moment.
As a first-time cruiser, here are my answers to the questions that were foremost in my mind before the trip:
1. Who goes on river cruises? Our cruise includes couples who range in age from mid-thirties to mid-eighties, with a majority of the cruisers (I’m guessing) in their sixties or slightly older. That said, every river cruise will vary depending on who signs up, and some itineraries may appeal more to some age groups than others. There are only about 120-150 guests on board (depending on the ship), and based on our limited experience it really doesn’t matter how old people are, it matters whether you have similar interests and energy level. And, regardless of age, passengers need to be reasonably fit and agile, as there are stairs, cobblestone streets, lengthy walks on some of the outings, and balance required getting on and off the boat.
2. Does the space feel small? I was worried about having a small cabin and feeling claustrophobic. Not a problem. The cabins aren’t huge, but they are really well designed, so there’s a place to put everything, and under bed storage. Plus, most of the newer river cruise ships have floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors you can open for fresh air and a river view, with a railing to keep you from falling into the water (this is something you’ll want to carefully check if you sign up for a cruise, as some of the cabins on the lower levels have square sized windows that are just above water level, and which cannot be opened). Some ships also have verandas outside your cabin that are large enough for a small table and a few chairs.
3. How do you spend your time? Again, it’s important to check the itinerary of your cruise, because they differ quite a bit. In general, though, the advantage of river ships is that they’re small enough to pull right up to the port in the center of town. Typically you can spend the day on a guided excursion or on your own. Sometimes the boat stays overnight in port so you can experience the town in the evening, and sometimes you’re off sailing to the next port. My favorite days have been ones with longer all-day excursions or bike rides, and moving along to the next spot either late afternoon or in the evening when you you’re ready for down time. And it’s nice to relax in the lounge with a drink and watch the view through the panoramic front windows before sunset….
4. Biggest “aha” moments about river cruising?
First, until this trip I never acknowledged to myself how stressful it is to move from location to location, and from hotel to hotel, packing and unpacking multiple times. It has been a revelation to me to soak in each destination without worrying about logistics. The AMA Waterways staff has been absolutely stellar, and since I’m usually the logistics coordinator when we travel, I have loved leaving that job to an excellent team who have it down to a science.
Second, I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed the group aspects of cruising. Some of the excursions have been 5-6 people with a guide on a bike outing for 2-3 hours (to visit Giverny and the gardens of Impressionist artist Claude Monet, for example), and some of the excursions have been on a tour bus with a guide and 20-25 others for a full-day outing with multiple stops (to the D-Day beaches and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, for example). The tour guides have been locals who are knowledgeable and charming, and the other passengers have been a friendly and well-traveled group. And even though the group part has been great, we’ve enjoyed having a table for two at some meals when we’re in the mood for privacy, or having the flexibility to wander around each destination on our own.
5. Who should avoid river cruising?
River cruising is not for you if you want to be in control of your schedule (the cruise has scheduled arrivals and departures and set stops on the river), if you want to try new restaurants at every meal (on river cruises the majority of your meals are on ship and are included in the price), or if you dislike talking travel with fellow passengers who have been all over the world, sometimes twice.
Bottom line: I’ll do another, no question. For me, the only question is whether to continue our research on European rivers, or whether to expand our travels to Southeast Asia (Vietnam and Cambodia look particularly enticing….), Africa or Russia.