It’s springtime in the Balkans, and I watch the trees unfurl their leaves while plying the Danube on a 10-day Viking River cruise from Bucharest, Romania; to Budapest, Hungary. The shoreline is forever in view as we gracefully glide past small villages and the occasional riverside castle. Each day, the Jarl pauses long enough for us to explore a new port-of-call, sometimes an obscure medieval town with an unknown name and other times a capital city rebuilding its glory in this former war-torn region of southeastern Europe. The area’s history comes to life each day on this floating leisure classroom.
Like the water that pours into the Danube’s locks, slowly lifting the ship to a new level, river cruising is on the rise. From interesting destinations to high-quality experiences, here are eight reasons to book a river cruise right now in any part of the world.
More Time in Port
Unlike ocean sailing, which is primarily about the onboard experience, river cruising focuses on the very places you’ve traveled so far to get to. According to Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of SmarterTravel’s sister site Cruise Critic, “River cruises are destination-centric, and the ship is a backdrop. It’s like a boutique hotel that moves with you so you don’t have to pack and unpack.”
Most days on my Passage to Eastern Europe cruise, the Viking Longship set sail in the evenings during dinner service and continued moving along until it reached the next port the following morning. It docked right in town and passengers could either join a shore excursion—usually a combined bus-and-walking tour of the town and nearby sights—or wander off on their own.
Of the trip’s 10 days, just one full day was spent on the water, though sightseeing remained on the agenda. Not only did we get to fully enjoy the ship’s amenities (such as basking on the sun deck and having drinks delivered to our favorite reading nooks), but we also had front-row tickets in what felt like a mobile theater. Our program director, Cornelia, narrated our passage through Serbia and Romania’s famed Iron Gates, a dramatic transit between 1,600-foot cliffs with a glimpse of the larger-than-life rock sculpture of Decebalus, king of the Dacians. (Scroll down to watch this epic experience).
Given their flat, narrow, and relatively small shape and size, river ships can access places that ocean liners simply cannot reach. They can fit under bridges (sometimes by lowering the captain’s wheelhouse), dock alongside small towns and in the center of major cities like Budapest, and move through river locks (often with mere inches of clearance on either side).
River cruising can also expose you to destinations you hadn’t considered before. Have you heard of Osijek, Croatia; or Kalocsa, Hungary? I admittedly hadn’t until I decided to go on the trip. When I asked my fellow passengers why they chose this Balkan itinerary, most said they never would have otherwise gone to these places—towns in former Soviet bloc countries or socialist republics that have not only survived communism but also recent conflicts such as the Yugoslav Wars. In Osijek, for example, you could still see bullet holes (left from Croatia’s Homeland War in the 90s) scattered over building facades. The cruise was a great way to get a survey of a region that piqued travelers’ curiosities but seemed a bit daunting to plan independently.
And while the Danube and other rivers like France’s Dordogne might be exquisitely beautiful, there’s another fascinating side to life on the water. Cruise Critic’s Brown says, “These aren’t tourist destinations full stop. They are working waterways.” So along the way, expect to see industrial areas with bankside cranes and rugged docks, cargo vessels floating by, and working locks like those by the Iron Gates.
More Relaxed, Intimate Experience
With fewer cabins and passengers, river cruises don’t take the same mass-market approach common to larger ships, which can hold upwards of 3,000 to 5,000 guests. The Viking Longship Jarl carried just under 200 passengers and about 50 crewmembers, which is a typical river ship guest-to-crew ratio. Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, told me his company’s ships host 166 passengers and 43 to 45 crewmembers. With such a small number of people, he says, “You can essentially meet everyone onboard over the course of a weeklong sailing.” Plus, as I discovered on Viking, the crew is able to take time to get to know you and offer more personalized, attentive service (it took the restaurant servers about a day to remember that my go-to drink was green tea).
Like the pace of the ship skimming steadily over glass-like waters, the overall onboard experience is more relaxed. Guests told me how they enjoyed not having to “do the cattle call” they experienced on larger ships when disembarking. In most cases, passengers could leisurely pick up their boarding cards and walk off the ship when in port. There was never a queue or a sense of “hurry-up-and-wait.” Also, while meal service in both the formal dining room and the casual terrace was offered during specific periods, you could enter and eat on your own time (no lines or reservations necessary).
And as an added benefit, because the rivers are calm and you can always see land on each side, passengers don’t have to worry about seasickness.
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Immersive and Independent Excursions
While most land tours are big enough to fill a bus (or four, as with my cruise), you can break away from the larger group for a more individual experience. While in the town of Vidin, Bulgaria, I lucked out when only seven people signed up for an immersive baking class inside the home of a local, where we spent several hours learning how to create banitsa, a regional specialty made with feta cheese, yogurt, and filo dough. With so few of us, we could easily interact with our host by asking questions and taking turns measuring and mixing the ingredients. In Belgrade, other guests journeyed on a small, guided bicycle tour through town.
Another option at any port is to skip the group tour, or do a half-day tour, and use the extra time to explore on your own. In larger cities, Viking builds designated free time into the schedule so you can enjoy the planned shore excursion and have time on your own, too. Plus, you can always enlist the help of the ship’s concierge to help plan your day, giving you the dual benefit of doing things on your personal wish list as well as having someone else take care of the logistics. My concierge, Polina, a native Bulgarian who spoke most of the local languages, happily booked me a massage at the famed Gellert Baths in Budapest. All I had to do was show up.
Cultural Onboard Activities
River cruises tend to attract an educated crowd seeking cultural enrichment. Although guides on shore excursions will give you a thorough download of the regions’ histories while touring, the lessons continue onboard. Several times while still in port, local folk musicians and dancers joined us in the ship’s lounge for mini-concerts. We saw a quartet of Croatian tamburica performers and got to interact via a post-performance Q&A with a Bulgarian children’s ensemble in Vidin. Lectures included talks on modern Serbia, the E.U., and Count Dracula, one of the region’s most infamous characters. And, through an immersive baking demonstration and tasting, Slovakian Chef Robert taught us how to make apple strudel, a sweet pastry popular in Eastern Europe.
On other Viking itineraries and cruise lines, themed programming such as wine tastings and art classes are becoming more and more common.
Many river cruisers become repeat customers because they believe that the cruises offer overall exceptional value and they appreciate not being nickeled-and-dimed. Brown says, “River cruising is a more inclusive experience. The price is higher than a big ship but tends to include more features you would pay extra for on a big ship.” For example, you get at least one shore excursion each day, and food, wine, and Internet service are often part of the up-front cost. Viking also offers options to package together pre- and post-trip hotel stays and airport transfers, which help make your trip more seamless. I only pulled out my wallet to tip tour guides after shore excursions and the crew (in one lump sum) at the end of the cruise.
Avalon’s Clark believes that river cruises deliver a more consistent experience, especially when it comes to the quality of the cabins. He says, “When on a river cruise, you’ll get a nice-sized stateroom. Everyone gets an outside cabin, and just about all of them will have balconies or large windows.”
According to Clark, river cruising came to life in the 90s when the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal opened, creating new possibilities for the upscale, barge-like vessels. Since then, growth has been dramatic with itineraries in Europe and in other markets such as Asia and Africa.
To meet this demand, river cruise companies continue to expand their itineraries and add new vessels to their fleets. Viking, for one, has seen rapid growth in its river cruise business in the past five years. And Avalon, which started river cruising in 2004, has been expanding its fleet steadily over the past decade.
Cruise lines are also upgrading onboard amenities to further entice cruisers, like twin balconies, connecting doors, and immersive onboard programming.
As one might expect, the typical demographic of a river cruiser skews toward a more mature set. As a young Gen-Xer, I have to admit that I felt a bit singled out on my Balkan cruise, which tends to attract more repeat Baby Boomers than other itineraries (most first-time customers choose more popular routes like the upper Danube through Germany and Austria). However, change is on the horizon, especially as cruise lines add more active and independent excursions; as well as appealing themed cruises such as those centered on music, food and wine, and holiday events like Christmas markets.
Younger audiences are also getting introduced to river cruising through experience with multigenerational travel and the opportunity to test the waters with shorter cruises (Avalon, for example, offers cruises as short as three days), which they can combine with more free time in port. Ama hosts Adventures by Disney passengers and has family-friendly features such as connecting staterooms and special themed nights for kids. Uniworld, a popular river cruise line, even launched its own brand of river cruising geared towards millennials, called U River Cruises. Even tour companies like G Adventures offers its own line of trips for those looking to river cruise.
You can take a river cruise on just about every continent now with popular river cruise lines offering itineraries along the Amazon, Mekong, Nile, Ganges, Chobe Rivers, and more.
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SmarterTravel contributors occasionally accept free or subsidized travel in exchange for our unbiased opinions. We never accept compensation in exchange for a positive review.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ashley Rossi contributed to this article.