“Hi Wendy, I’m taking my first river cruise—along the Danube—on September 2. I’ll be on AmaWaterways’ AmaPrima from Vilshofen, Germany to Budapest, Hungary. What’s your most important advice for first-time river cruisers? Thanks! —Martha R.”
Funny, last month I sailed on AmaPrima’s identical sister ship, AmaSonata, on the same route but in the opposite direction—from Budapest to Vilshofen. And that was my sixth river cruise. So, Martha, I’ve got plenty of tips for you, as well as iPhone photos from last month’s trip to illustrate them.
1. Find out in advance which stretches of the river are most scenic.
The biggest appeal of seeing Europe by river, in my opinion, is that you get to absorb the history and life of a region from a perspective that you miss if you’re traveling by train or car. The view out your window is always changing (except when the ship is docked or passing through a lock), and you don’t want to miss the must-see stretches. So ask the cruise director at what times you’ll be passing through the most picturesque or interesting parts, so you can position yourself on the open-air top deck or in the observation lounge. The entry into Passau, Germany, for instance, is a can’t-miss scene—it’s a charming town where three rivers converge, making for lively boat traffic—so you don’t want to choose that moment to, say, be taking a shower. (A good time for a shower is when you’re passing through a lock. On an ocean cruise, you don’t need to worry so much about missing sights because most of the time when you’re moving through water, you’re staring at ocean. On a river cruise, by contrast, most of the time when you’re moving through water, you’re passing landscape.) Martha, I can tell you that two highlights of your Danube cruise will be the stretch through Austria’s Wachau Valley between Melk and Dürnstein (27 kilometers with no bridges or locks) and the nighttime sail in Budapest.
2. Suss out what’s going on in each port on the date you’re there.
When your ship docks, most of your fellow passengers will opt for one of the prefab group tours organized by the ship. I explore on my own instead—which is easy to do in European river towns—and it helps to know if any colorful local festivals or events are happening that day. At the time of my cruise, for instance, the annual Spitz apricot festival was happening (a must for apricot dumpling fans), as was an outdoor exhibition in Linz, constructed above the city’s rooftops, called Höhenrausch (“Thrill of the Heights”). To find out what’s on tap when you’re in port, check out the calendar of events on the websites of the country and city tourism boards (e.g., this one for Austria), or just walk into the tourist information office when you get to town.
3. Pack rainwear.
On a river cruise you can’t plan around the weather. You’re in town for only a few hours, so you need to make the most of it, rain or shine. Therefore, pack waterproof pants and jacket (the ship provides umbrellas), so that nothing will stop you from exploring outdoors. As an Eskimo in Arctic Alaska once told me, “There’s no such thing as bad weather. Only bad clothes.”
4. Pack shoes you can throw on fast and sprint to the observation deck in.
Because the shoreline is always changing, as are the vessels gliding by, there’s always something new to see out your window. On many stretches of the river, even if your cabin has a balcony, you may prefer to be up on the top deck so you can see the scenery on both river banks rather than just one. (History didn’t unfold on only one side of the river, after all). So bring non-tie shoes you can race to the top deck in as soon as you spot a castle out your window. (AmaWaterways has an elevator if you need it.)
By the way, most cabins on AmaSonata have two balconies—one with chairs and one without. Here’s what the “French balcony” looks like, and here’s the “outside balcony” that you can sit on.
5. Find fellow passengers you like and suggest dining together.
On river cruises you must dine at set times. On some ships it’s possible to grab a quick breakfast or lunch from the buffet, if you like, but dinner is a two-hour affair that cannot be rushed, since you’re dining at a table with other passengers. If you like those other passengers, dinner is fun; if you don’t, it’s dreary, and you’re stuck. So, if you meet people onboard whom you like, ask them to dinner.
6. Don’t count on room service.
Should you feel like skipping the four-course dinner, there is no quick-meal alternative, nor is there room service. (Only in suites on a few river ships will you find room service.) Sometimes snacks are served in the lounge—there’s often tapas in the afternoons or a late-night nosh (and coffee and fruit are always available)—but not at dinner time. On AmaSonata, I was so busy with deadlines that I could not spare the two hours for dinner on most nights of my cruise, so I picked up snacks in port to eat in my cabin. (And you thought a travel writer’s life was glamorous.)
7. Ask in advance about in-room computer access and entertainment.
The “infotainment” you find in your cabin varies hugely from ship to ship. Onboard AmaSonata I had a large flat screen that was both television and computer. I could use it to search Google, find out anything about the ports we were headed to, create a spreadsheet, watch a first-run movie, or listen to music. And it’s all free, including the Internet access.
8. Prepare for spotty Wi-Fi.
There are stretches of the river where you can’t get Internet access—especially when you’re going through locks—and times when your connection is slow because everyone else onboard is sucking up the bandwidth. At least the Wi-Fi is free (unlike on ocean cruise ships, where it’s even slower and excruciatingly expensive).
9. Plan on getting exercise off the ship rather than on it.
River-ship gyms are tiny. It’s likely that the biggest shipboard work-out you’ll get is on the top deck’s walking/jogging track. In port your most feasible exercise options are walking and biking. The ship carries 20 bikes (with helmets) and offers group bike tours in most ports. You can also use the bikes to explore on your own. (Bike usage is free.)
10. Pack your swimsuit.
Most river ships of 160 passengers or more have a tiny pool on the top deck. AmaSonata’s is relatively large, is heated, and has a swim-up bar.
One final photo:
Rudi Schreiner, the cruise line’s founder and chief architect, was onboard because it was AmaSonata‘s christening cruise, July 16-23, 2014, and he mingled with passengers throughout. Since it was a special cruise, many of the passengers had been invited as guests of the cruise line, including me, so this was a free trip. In keeping with my standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on AmaWaterways’ part, nor was anything promised on mine. As I mentioned above, I’ve now taken six river cruises and am very familiar with the kind of services and treatment they offer; as a result, I feel confident that I can give my readers a fair evaluation of the experience.
If there are any other river-cruise questions I can answer, post them below. Or, if you’ve taken a river cruise yourself and have advice to share, please do. What do you wish you’d known beforehand that other travelers would benefit from knowing?