You’ve seen the ads, you’ve heard the buzz, and now neighbors are returning from Europe’s growing number of river boat cruise options. So does all of the hype match the quality of the experience?
At present, not one of the major river boat players delivers anything like a five-star cruise experience. One of the basic problems with river boats is that most of the boats are leased and come complete with crew. It is just difficult to get an eastern European crew just learning English, to provide the levels of service you would find on a top-rated cruise ship. Given current per diem costs, river boats cannot afford to offer the quality of food,wines, entertainment, and staffing found on the top ten cruise lines in our traveltruth ratings.
Then there is the issue of the river boats unique physical plant. Galleys are just not large enough to offer the variety of food you might experience aboard a five-star ocean liner. Lectures and entertainment venues are also seriously downscale of luxury cruise alternatives.
You need to consider river boat cruises for the right reasons. You will be dropped off in a walkable city or village, True, there may be several other river boats sharing your berth, and you may actually have to cross over the decks of other boats to go ashore. But once off the boat that will hardly matter.
For the most part, river boats offer quite good package pricing for products that range from three to four stars. Guests who are concerned about controlling costs will appreciate the fact that most shore excursions are included in the price.
We suggest that river boats be booked with a small boat specialist. A number of European waterways tend to experience low water hardness levels at certain times of year. You need to deal with someone who can advise you as to the best times to travel. River boat cabins are smallish and many feature twin beds in all but the very top suites. Hardly a “Love Boat”. Guests who are over six feet tall may feel cramped.
There are two potential issues with some of the current river boat fleet that are seldom discussed. The necessary low profile of these specially built boats allows them to pass under bridges along the route. But that also means that the funnels are low and diesel engines can cause soot to be blown about in the direction of the back of the boat or out on the open decks. The second issue concerns the rather lax attitude some of these lines have taken toward on board smoking. They do cater to a certain number of European guests and this can result in more smokers than one might find aboard a luxury cruise ship.
Some river boat passengers complain about the weak, even cheesy entertainment. The fact is that river boats are sold at a price that precludes very many guest lecturers or shows of any type. The facilities are inadequate for stage productions. This means that the evening’s entertainment is often a poorly executed “Port Review” or simply talking with one;s fellow passengers. If you are traveling with friends, this is fine. But if you are on your own, it may be challenging.
River boats are neither child friendly or family friendly. This is because, once aboard, you will always feel that you have joined a group. There is little consideration given on river boats for truly independent travelers who wish to see Europe on their own terms.
Statistics are hard to verify, but the average age of a river boat passenger is approximately ten years older than the average guest on a one week Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Sea Dream, or Silverseas cruise.
There are, of course, numerous pluses, almost too many to mention in this space. River cruising is, first and foremost, a wonderful travel value. Consider that the average per diem cost of an outside balcony cabin on a five-star rated cruise ship in Europe ranges from $500-$700 per person. River boats with small, French balconies, are currently averaging $300-$500 per person per day.
The food is good but rarely memorable. The camaraderie is a genuine plus on ships with fewer than 150 guests. Being able to avoid traveling from your cruise ship to your destination is a major plus. It is just so easy to walk into Europe steps away from your home on the river. You will visit places, and this is an important advantage, inaccessible to cruise ship guests can make you feel like a travel insider.
River cruising is generally easy and comfortable. It is the perfect option for those travelers who want to experience Europe in a condensed period of time while maximizing their time on vacation. There is no packing or unpacking.
Think about the possibilities of repeated experiences if you decide you really like river cruising. Just take the Rhine/Main/Danube and consider that it is more than 2100 miles long and connects 14 countries all the way from the North Sea to the Black Sea,
Finally, while we will defend our stance that there are no true five-star European river boat experiences, it is true that river boat products are getting better with each passing year. Many of the ships have raised their dining standards, for example, to include catering by Swiss and Austrian firms. Some lines are experimenting with dining options in restaurants ashore. AMA has pioneered on board culinary programs. In 2012, members of our staff were asked to design special culinary programs for Tauck’s river cruises in France.
The current ratings are as follows:
# 1 – Tauck River Boats
# 2 – AMA Waterways
# 3 – Uniworld
# 4 – Viking River
# 5 – Avalon Cruises
As with cruise lines, certain ships in the fleet are better than others. For instance, early indications are that the new Long Ships of Viking River provide a superior overall experience than their traditional fleet. AMA Waterways tours based on walking abilities and inclinations are a real plus, as is the presence of three Tauck Tour Directors on each of their river cruises. Uniworld has partnered with Red Carnation Hotels to produce new-builds that have the look and feel of lovely English drawing rooms.
For now, a Category Six cabin on a Tauck Riverboat is about as good as it gets on Europe’s rivers. But we expect that our ratings will change, perhaps dramatically, in the next 24 months when a new and broad range of “new-builds” takes to Europe’s waterways.
We think you will love river cruising. But we don’t want you booking with the impression that the staff will know your names and that you will be traveling in the lap of five-star luxury. Once you accept its built-in limitations, accept its value proposition, and approach it with an open mind, you may come to love river cruising as we do. But just don’t compare it with a stay on a floating Four Seasons.