For some people, even experienced travellers, the thought of a river cruise can be quite daunting. How to prepare and what to wear were just some of the many questions I faced when getting ready to embark on a 14-day river cruise on the Danube through seven different countries in early Autumn 2016. Our only previous experience of river cruises had been travelling the Nile with Viking several years ago. I hope this guide answers some of the questions Silver Travellers might have when considering their first river cruise.
Part 1 – Before you go
Choose your tour operator
Consider how you will join your cruise and select your tour operator accordingly. Grand UK Holidays for example, offers no-fly cruises and arranges travel by coach from local pick-up points. This is ideal for people who are unable or unwilling to fly, and provides the additional dimension of traveling through British and European towns and countryside. If you fly, take into account the transfer time between your arrival airport and the ship’s mooring. We experienced a 3-hour coach trip from Munich airport to the Danube at Linz.
Research the countries and cities covered by your itinerary
If possible, buy guide books or maps to make the most of any free time in towns and cities. I was hoping to rely on my smartphone for maps and planning information and was disappointed to find the internet on the river virtually non-existent of much of the time. Once you have moored there is often little time to start planning before you set off on the excursions. It can prove useful to know in advance the location and opening hours of tourist attractions, museums and galleries as the maps and information available on board ship can lack detail.
Study the tour operator’s shore excursions
Select and book excursions beforehand where possible as these can fill up quickly and you can often benefit from an ‘early-bird’ discount. The information indicates the timing and level of difficulty of each excursion so make sure you take comfortable walking shoes. Be aware that many tours involve time spent standing around and listening to a tour guide so a shooting stick with a seat might be a useful addition. (See my note about wheelchairs later). If you frequently find yourself at the back of the queue on guided tours unable to hear the guide, you’ll be pleased to know that many ships now provide hearing sets that enable you to hear the guide from afar.
Buy currency in advance
Not all ships have a currency exchange on board and you might have problems finding time time to exchange money during the shore excursions. If you are traveling through Europe, bear in mind that not all European countries use or accept the Euro. We needed five different currencies during our trip down the Danube from Austria to the Black Sea and even if you plan to pay by card, bars and public toilets often require small change in local currency. You can always donate spare currency in the ship’s tips envelope at the end of the cruise.
Also, check payments methods for both the ship and the tour operator. On our cruise, the ship accepted card payments but our cruise manager required payment by cash in Euros or Sterling for excursions booked on board. This meant I had to spend my short amount of free time in Vienna finding a bank to take out large amounts of Euros as this was the last stop on land before travelling into non-euro countries.
Check in advance whether the ship can cater for any food allergies or dietary requirements you have as neither you nor they can pop to the shops while sailing. I also recommend losing weight before you go as four-course lunches and dinners can soon take their toll on waist lines!
Consider purchasing any drinks package on offer, especially if you enjoy drinking alcohol and bottled water/sparkling water. On our cruise in 2016, complimentary tea and coffee were available 24/7; house wine was €4.40 for 21 cl; a large draft beer was €4.10 and water was €2.40 for 25 cl and €4.60 for a bottle. We worked out that we would cover the cost of the drinks package with moderate drinking, especially as we experienced exceptionally hot weather and drank a great deal of bottled water.
Make sure you take sufficient memory cards for your camera – you’ll probably take far more photos than you expect and, unless you discipline yourself to download/check your photos and trash the ones you don’t want, you’ll soon use up all your space. It is hard to find replacements in the middle of the river and at least one of my photographer chums was sold a phone memory card by a shopkeeper who assured him it would work in his camera. Needless to say it didn’t.
If you have mobility issues you need to discuss these with the tour operator to check the ship’s suitability. Be aware that not all airlines and ships can take wheelchairs. One fellow passenger had to leave behind the motorized folding scooter he had purchased specially for the trip as the airline decided it was too heavy. A hand-operated wheelchair was available on the ship for shore excursions but his partner found it hard to manoeuvre around the cities. Our ship, the MS Serenade 2 had a lift to three decks and a stairlift to the sun deck. Although the shore excursions booklet provided indications as to their suitability for people with limited mobility, we found those that involved little walking often included a lot of standing around which proved painful for my partner.
Part 2 – On Board
Shared Dining Room Tables
On both of our cruises the tables in the dining room were arranged in groups, mostly of 4 or 8. On our Viking cruise tables were allocated from day 1 and we were fortunate in finding plenty of things in common with our dining partners. On the MS Serenade 2 with Shearings, the cruise manager preferred to let people form friendship groups and decide on the second day whether or not they wished to reserve seating together.
I was more than happy to be looked after by our lovely, attentive waiter at lunch time and dinner but a few people said they would have preferred a buffet service so they could choose their own their portions sizes. Nevertheless, extra portions were available for those who were still hungry and the bread basket was plentiful. There was always a vegetarian main course option in addition to meat or fish, and cheese and biscuits or fruit plate if the dessert didn’t suit.
Be prepared to live without the internet. While sailing the Danube, the internet was intermittent at best and non-existent for most of the time. Make sure you have books to read, puzzles, games, knitting and other activities for any sections of the river where the passing scenery is not so interesting.
Changes to schedule
Be prepared for last-minute changes of plan and go with the flow. If river levels are too high or too low – the Danube has experienced both in the summer of 2016 – the ship cannot sail. If it’s too high the ship cannot pass safely beneath the bridges. If it’s too low, the ship risks getting grounded. We had to moor up between Bulgaria and Romania and travel to the Black Sea and Bucharest by coach with an unscheduled overnight stay because we were unable to continue our journey along the Danube. To add to potential confusion, we also travelled through different time zones a couple of times. The Captain determines when the changes take place so ‘ship time’ might be different from your smartphone time, a several passengers discovered when they turned up an hour early for breakfast one morning.
My one fear while enjoying free time in the city was being left behind by the coach or the ship. Make sure you have a reliable watch and, if like me you have the memory of a goldfish, make sure you write down the time by which you have to return to the coach or ship. On several occasions I bumped into panicked fellow passengers in city centres asking me if I could remember when we had to be back. However, it was reassuring to know that, in our case, the ship issued us with boarding passes each time we went on shore and checked these had been returned before they set sail. Additionally, our cruise ship manager posted a daily itinerary in reception and I found it helpful to keep a photograph of this on my phone.
Shake rattle and roll
At times when the ship was cruising against the current and around bends our cabin rattled. This kept me awake at night until I discovered the main culprit was the cabin door, easily solved by inserting folded up paper in the space between the door and the jamb, and wrapping a towel around the handle.
On our ship the dress code was smart casual, with no jeans in the dining hall at dinner times. I had assumed that the Captain’s dinner required a posh frock and felt slightly overdressed in my best sparkly cocktail dress. I also felt that my partner didn’t really need to have bought his heavy wool blazer and tie. For everyday wear, I had checked the weather forecast for each country and been amazed to see we were due to experience temperatures in the mid 30s for most of this September cruise, with a sharp dip to the teens and possible rain for the last few days. These forecasts proved to be remarkably accurate and I had packed plenty of layers and adjustable shorts/trousers to meet the changing requirements. Comfortable shoes are vital and a small rucksack is useful for carrying water, camera, the hearing receivers, maps, pen and paper, and passports (in those countries that require you to carry ID.) Sports clothes are also useful if the ship has a fitness centre. I also packed a light waterproof mac and noticed that some people used their umbrellas as sun shades.
Tipping on board
Policies on tipping vary according to tour operators and the countries in which they operate. In our experience, an envelope is made available to each cabin at the end of the cruise to make a donation that is shared equally between all crew members, including the washer-upper in the kitchens and reception staff. On the MS Serenade with 35 crew, our cruise manager suggested that we each gave 1 Euro per person (ie 35 Euros each.) We also chose to give additional tips to those who had provided us with such excellent and personalised service throughout the cruise, but there was no pressure to do so.
When it is time to disembark, make sure you know the correct departure terminal for your return flight. There was mild panic among the passengers on our coach when the driver who had collected us from the ship stopped at Munich Airport and said “This stop is for Terminal 1 only: Terminal 2 people stay on board.” Our flight documentation did not seem to include this information anywhere.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends a variety of river cruise partners. Please visit http://www.silvertraveladvisor.com/find-a-holiday and select Holiday Type, then River Cruise to find out more. Or you can contact us at [email protected] and one of our team of experienced Advisors will be pleased to assist.