Switching to river cruising – a first time river cruiser’s view

Having been fortunate enough to cruise the world’s oceans for many years, I was wary of moving to river cruising.

I’m in my 60s – wasn’t river cruising something I’d get to in another decade or two? Wouldn’t I be bored? And wouldn’t it be really expensive?

What convinced us to sail with Avalon Waterways?

1. Avalon’s Danube Symphony itinerary from Budapest to Bratislava, Vienna and the Wachau Valley was a strong one – three European capitals and picturesque river country in less than a week.

2. So much is included in the fare – flights, full board, wine at lunch and dinner, wi-fi, tips, even daily excursions – and this summer Avalon is offering savings of up to 50% on their 2019 prices.

3. The clincher for us was Avalon’s more upbeat take on river cruising, with Active (hiking, biking and sometimes kayaking) options always on offer as well as Classic (sightseeing) and/or Discovery (wine-tasting) tours which were included in the price – plus optional paid-for excursions that offered deeper experiences. With a fleet of bicycles on board, we knew we could explore by pedal-power, either in a group led by Avalon’s Adventure host, or by heading off independently. And we didn’t look back.

River Cruising vs Ocean – first impressions

What struck us as the biggest difference between river and ocean cruising was the atmosphere on board. River cruising with Avalon feels pleasantly low-key and mellow – with only 166 passengers, Avalon Illumination is a spacious, modern 4 deck ship that never feels crowded.  There are no formal nights, no tannoy announcements and no casino.

Life on board is relaxed – there’s a daily briefing in the main lounge where Akos, our friendly English-speaking Hungarian Cruise Director explained what time we’d arrive where, when the excursions left and when we needed to be back on board (confirmed in the short daily newsletter).  The rest was up to us. River cruising seems to treat its passengers more like adults: you are responsible for checking yourself off and back onto the ship and if, like us, you opt to bike between two places that the ship stops at along the Wachau Valley, that’s fine too.

Cruise without the time-crunch

We felt much less tethered to a timetable on the river. Maybe because ocean cruising often calls at big-hitter ports which might take more of a journey to reach the centre of, there’s more pressure to max out on your time there.  With river cruising, it’s often easier to access the place of interest – in Bratislava, we could see the castle overlooking the river from the berth and could simply walk to it – so river excursions don’t need long coach rides, leaving you with more time to look around on your own or enjoy a good sachertorte – the region’s famously rich chocolate cake.

The Generation Game

The easy-going tempo and active excursion options seemed to have attracted a younger crowd than we were expecting too – mostly 50-60s and a mix of UK and American passengers.

Suite dreams

Our Panorama Suite met our needs well for this trip – the essential feature being its floor-to-ceiling windows (worth paying extra for) which could also be slid open to create an open-air balcony feel. Avalon has cleverly positioned the bed in these rooms, so it not only faces that ever-changing view but is offset at a slight angle to make more room for the tub chair and table, and, in the fully-tiled bathroom, a spacious shower. Clever! The suite has a fridge, safe and hairdryer, but no kettle – though with drinks on tap in the lounges, this wasn’t an issue for us.  Avalon Illumination’s speciality teas and Lavazza coffees are excellent incidentally and included throughout the day, either presented by friendly waiters or self-served from a machine that I’d love to have at home, offering everything from double espressos to de-caff lattes to cappuccinos to hot water for a vast selection of teas. 

Lounging around

The ship’s two lounges are great spots to chat and watch the scenery glide by. The main lounge is the natural forum for pre- and post-dinner drinks, with very reasonable prices: around €5.30 for a glass of wine and €4.50 for bottled beer. We also enjoyed holing up in the cosy lounge at the back of the ship where a second coffee machine offered all day beverages along with fruit juices, cookies and more. You could also refresh your water bottle at the fountain with still or sparkling water in a variety of flavours – I’d recommend the ginger and lime – pointing to a real commitment by Avalon to reduce single-use plastics. Paper waste is minimised by having all the info you need, including menus, on an easy-to-use app (though printed copies were still available should you prefer them).

Dine like a local

Dining on board pleasingly reflected the countries we cruised through, with Hungarian goulash, Austrian Weiner Schnitzel and Wachau valley apricots appearing on the menus as well as favourites such as beef tenderloin, rump of lamb, sea bass and vegetarian dishes. Meals were served in the airy dining room while a lighter lunch could also be enjoyed in the lounge, which made for a pleasant change.

The evening Classical Concert in Vienna was outstanding

Top things we enjoyed

1. Outstanding staff, who were unfailingly polite, friendly and helpful, with good English (most were from the Danube region). A real credit to the ship.

2. Being able to lie in bed and watch the glorious scenery slide by our windows. What a way to start the day!

3. The evening classical concert in Vienna, performed by a small orchestra with singers and ballet dancers, in a beautiful wood-panelled hall. Magical!

What surprised us most

1. Budapest is a busy port and to optimise space, two or three ships may ‘raft up’ like pencils in a box, and you walk across another ship to reach your own.

2. Up on the spacious top deck, the ship’s command centre is set on hydraulic legs that can sink it down so it fits beneath the lowest bridges on the Danube.

3. We were enjoying the scenery from the lounge when suddenly it all went dark…we had entered the bottom of a lock with 40 foot concrete walls. Fascinating to watch the lock fill up in less than 20 minutes and for us to sail away 40 foot higher!

4. In Germany’s Deggendorf, we found a statue to woman who in 1266 helped save the town by hurling dumplings at the enemy – the invaders reckoned that if food was that plentiful, laying siege wouldn’t work!  (image left)

Next steps:

To enjoy an Avalon river cruise, with itineraries along many of Europe’s rivers, and the Mekong, the Nile, the Peruvian Amazon and the Ganges, call 0800 412 5678 and get all the information you need from our Silver Travel Advisors.

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Gill Haynes

Traveller, writer & Partnerships Director at Silver Travel Advisor

2 Responses

  1. This article brought back so many happy memories of our own river cruises; surely the whole point of exploring – to learn and to experience magical moments that will remain with you forever.

  2. That’s it exactly Anne! I’m so glad the article prompted a few happy memories – river cruising has so much to offer and is such an enjoyable way to travel. And there are so many rivers to explore! I’m hoping to try the Douro next – how about you?

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