As he introduces our latest guide to rivercruising in Europe, STEPHEN SCOURFIELD points out the things to look for when choosing the perfect cruise for your needs
River cruising takes travellers easily and comfortably to some of Europe’s most inspiring and interesting cities and regions — all in the comfort of their own room, unpacking just once.
The day passes with a guided walk, a sightseeing trip, some quiet time in a room with a view, a hot shower, a cocktail on the sundeck, a fine meal, and then the “floating hotel” moves on to the next place.
Usually guests will have paid one up-front price, with guided days, most meals, often drinks and now quite often tips and gratuities included.
The river cruise ship might come sailing in to Budapest — for me, surely the most dramatic city in Europe in which to arrive by river. For here, on the Danube, with the Chain Bridge spanning water which separates the two halves of the city, Buda and Pest, the Hungarian Parliament building glistens gold in the falling sun.
Maybe we’re in the south of France on smaller rivers with less distance between stops, and time to explore Arles, which so inspired Vincent van Gogh, and Avignon, once home of French Popes who for 40 years struggled for ascendancy over the Roman Popes in the Great Schism of the Catholic church.
We may be at the confluence of in the Saone and Rhone, in the old part of Lyon, walking narrow streets and stopping in a cafe.
On the Rhine, the ships pass German castles.
In Russia, they glide towards the gilded St Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great. And all with ease.
HOW DO YOU CHOOSE?
River cruise ships are just over 110m long and 11.4m wide — dimensions decreed by locks, bridges and regulations.
On the various rivers, most call at the same, or very similar, places. So choices and decisions should now be made on the smallest details and on the “mood of the ship”.
Some West Australians like to travel mainly with Australians, and many voyages will give them that. Just as examples, Scenic, APT and Evergreen are Australian companies. Companies like Viking and Avalon, although they have roots in Europe, have a very strong presence and offices in Australia, with Australian staff. Uniworld and Tauck are US-based, so voyages are English speaking and with a good, international feel. A company like aRosa, which is German, will still have designated English speaking voyages.
Personally, I like an international mix on board — a wine maker from California, a geologist from Jersey, a pianist from Russia, a writer from England, a lawyer from Canada.
WHAT YOU PAY FOR
With some companies, once you have paid for your flight and cruise package, you need to spend very little more. Meals, drinks with meals, bar drinks, activities and “touring”, and staff tips and gratuities may all be included. On one recent cruise, I was even given $32 (Euros 20) lunch money when we were out on excursion.
On a Scenic voyage on the Danube, I realised it would have been possible to not spend a single Euro after joining the ship. All beverages, activities, tours and tips (for crew and locals) were included. The same with Tauck and others.
But while all this adds up to great value, make sure this is what you want. If you pay for lots of touring and drinks, and don’t feel you’ve used your quota, will you feel you have paid for something you haven’t got? Do you want some days when you just take off on your own? Are you a light drinker?
Feedback from Australian travellers has led many companies to include tips and gratuities in the original price. Australians generally like this, rather than grappling with tips for guides and others, and then facing a final tip round-up of a recommended $20 per day per guest to be shared by crew and $5 per person per day for the cruise director. If tips aren’t included, factor this into your travel budget.
LOOK AT LAYOUT
It is worth studying the layout of the ships you are considering. I know those line drawings aren’t very inspiring, but look through brochures and photographs and pay attention to the details.
Companies like Tauck and Avalon have their beds “across” the ship, so you can easily lie in bed and watch the bank and villages go by.
Will you use a balcony, or would you rather have the space incorporated into the cabin, making it much bigger?
Big, floor-to-ceiling glass slide doors that open give the whole room an “outdoor feel”. Do you like contemporary or classic designs in the lounges and bars?
Most companies offer guests an audio device so that they can hear local guides through an earpiece. The most popular is Quietvox. But increasingly, some companies also offer “self-guide” information in English, so that guests can explore alone, but with guided help. All will work, in some way, with hearing aids and most have a standard 3.5mm jack connector, so you can use your own headphones, though earpieces are supplied.