How I Discovered River Cruising

This week, we launch a new series of articles on River Cruise Advisor. Designed to guide you through the often bewildering array of itineraries, ships and options available to river cruisers, these articles have been created to appeal to both experienced and novice travelers alike.

Before I discovered river cruising, I’d been a cruise fanatic for more than a decade. My travels on deep-ocean cruise ships had taken me all around the world, from the glaciers of Alaska to the blue-capped buildings of the Greek Islands. Yet it wasn’t until a little over a year ago that I began to seriously look at river cruising.

My friend Ralph Grizzle needed help developing River Cruise Advisor, and always eager to learn more about the various aspects of cruising, I jumped at the chance. Given my background in Deep Ocean cruising and the fact that both my parents and my sister had taken a river cruise, I figured that getting up to speed, and becoming an expert at river cruises, would be a walk in the park.

River cruising is our favorite way to see the interior of countries, from the rivers of Europe to those in the Asia, and points between. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

After a trip to my local travel agency to round up all the river cruising brochures I could, I realized I was treading in deep water. Each brochure offered a mind-boggling array of itineraries, operated on a diverse fleet of ships. To make my job a little more challenging, these ships changed almost as frequently as the seasons: As soon as I’d get one profile up on the site, the ship would undergo a refurbishment, a décor change, a name change — or all at one time.

It was overwhelming.

But the more I read about these sleek, elongated vessels, the more intrigued I became. The river cruise industry was — and still is — exploding in popularity, and river cruise companies were responding by designing, building, and launching new vessels as fast as they could.

The brand-new Viking Idun docked at the Port of Amsterdam for its inaugural ceremonies in March 2012. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

For those acquainted with ocean cruises, river cruising may be difficult to fully conceptualize. If you’ve ever talked about river cruising with friends and family, there’s probably one person who has said, “But the ships are so small!”

Indeed, they are, but as I soon learned, there is good reason for the somewhat uniform size of river cruise vessels: They work under rigorous length, width, height and even draft conditions. River cruise vessels that operate in Europe can’t be longer than about 443 feet to ensure they fit into the many locks that connect Europe’s waterways.

European river cruise ships often can’t span more than than four decks due to high water levels and low-hanging bridges. In fact, the entire Sun Deck — the uppermost deck of any river cruise ship — is designed to collapse on itself, with the Navigation Bridge lowering flush with the deck. Ships can have no more than a few meters of draft due to the shallow water beneath their keels.

Of course, this makes river cruising all the more impressive: With size limitations, the focus becomes not what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside. Many river cruise ships feature some of the most lavish interior décor imaginable — just check out what Uniworld Boutique River Cruises is doing with its boutique river cruise ships.

Benefitting from its partnership with Red Carnation Hotels, Uniworld undertook a massive refurbishment program that saw each of its ships emerge with vibrant new interior designs. In a sense, these refits gave each ship its very own personality, right down to the pattern on the carpets and the linens on the stateroom beds. The resulting design resonated with customers, who appreciated the bold colors and beautifully appointed public spaces.

Bold colors and distinctive decor pushed Uniworld Boutique River Cruises into a category of its own, winning accolades from passengers and media alike. Photo courtesy of Uniworld.

As recently as the 1990’s, a river cruise offered a rather Spartan experience. Ships tended to be bland and uninspired, and many lacked amenities found in even moderate land-based hotels. Staterooms could politely be described as cramped, with uncomfortable beds that couldn’t be combined into a Queen.

The river cruise industry is making great strides in areas of service and on-board amenities. A few years ago, river cruise companies even began to emulate some of the practices of ocean-going luxury vessels. For example, complimentary beer, soft drinks and wine are served with lunch and dinner on river cruise vessels operated by many companies. Onboard cuisine is often locally influenced, and wine selections may be from the vineyard you just sailed past earlier in the day.

Shore excursions, often overpriced on deep-ocean cruises, are included in your fare on a river voyage, and river cruise operators have been fairly innovative in adopting special audio systems to ensure you can always hear your guide.

Similar to ocean cruises, but unlike land tours, a river cruise offers the ability to unpack once, sit back, and be whisked every day to a new port of call.

In the shadow of Stift Melk at Christmas. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

In December 2011, I was able to put some of my research to practice, when I set sail on my first river cruise, a Christmas Markets voyage aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaLyra from Nuremberg, Germany to Budapest, Hungary. During the transatlantic flight to Germany, I was still privately wondering: Will I be bored? Will I like this?

A driver was waiting for me at the Nuremberg Airport. There was no snow on the ground, but it was cool and crisp out, and jaunty Christmas carols sung in another language played on the radio as we sped toward the AmaLyra at her berth just outside the Medieval city center.


Suddenly, there she was: not looking so small at all in person, her white-and-blue hull contrasting with the dark brown of the river. When I stepped on board, the crew welcomed me like an old friend, and probably 60 seconds elapsed from the time I stepped on until I was strolling down the corridor, keycard in hand, to my stateroom.

It was then that I realized I didn’t just like river cruising — I loved it.

During the next week, I met people, just like me, who had wondered whether they would like river cruising. Some were on their second, third and even sixth voyages, while one couple was taking their fourth consecutive Christmas Markets cruise with AmaWaterways. As they said to me, “We don’t do Christmas anymore. We do this instead.” Well, the truth is that river cruising is doing Christmas in perhaps the best of possible traditions.

Enjoying a warming cup of Gluhwein at the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

In seven days, I enjoyed bratwurst at the oldest sausage house in Germany in the port of Regensburg. I explored the old Medieval town of Nuremberg. I strolled through Christmas Markets, with their delectable Gluhwein, gingerbread, spices, and old-world charm in Passau and Linz.

I experienced the vibrant city of Vienna by night and day, and I found myself seemingly alone under the shadow of the imposing Stift Melk in the sleepy town of Melk, Austria. In Budapest, I ran my hand over a stone wall scarred by Russian gunfire during World War II, while our guide regaled us with stories about the “good old Communist times.”

It was an experience that left me wondering, Why didn’t I do this sooner?

River cruising

The fact that you’re reading this indicates that you too have an interest in river cruising. Maybe you’re reading only to introduce yourself river cruises, or maybe you’re one of those who just can’t get enough of cruising through the heartland of Europe, the United States, Asia, South America, Russia, Africa and other places around the globe. Whatever your reason for stopping by, we’d like to welcome you aboard as we explore the wonderful world of river cruising, an experience that I now know can only be described as Wunderbar!