Our entire purpose for being here is to paint a vivid picture of what it is like to travel with any cruise line, from A to Z. We talk a lot about packing, planning, preparing, cuisine, airlines and airfare, what to do, what to avoid doing, all tempered with personal variables that change from traveler to traveler right down to which travelers to avoid at all costs. Still, some elements of travel slip through the cracks, shining a brilliant spotlight on the value of post-travel surveys or a live call with your travel agent. Probably even more important than the experience itself: your feedback after the fact. Today I have some things I forgot to tell my friends before their first-ever European river cruise. Most of these items are common to the nature of river cruises and something they could have been told in advance, had I thought of them.
Let’s just get the most unsavory item on the list out of the way first. Toilets are a totally different animal in European countries as compared to North American destinations. It commonly takes €0.50 to use one, paid to an attendant or machine and having a supply of €0.50 coins is a good idea. In restaurants and bars, buy something and there is no charge. Hotels might charge, might not. Then there is France and their public squat toilets, which are used squatting rather than sitting.
This is probably one of the most distinct culture differences first time international travelers will experience along the way. Also called an Indian, Asian or Turkish toilet these things may use a water and technically be a flush toilet, or not and be a dry toilet which is not much more than a fancy hole in the ground. More shocking to comparatively shy North Americans, they may not be in stalls but open for all to see. This is one of the unsung reasons we suggest Viking River Cruises who has their own fleet of Mercedes motorcoaches equipped with familiar lavatory features. On a river cruise, you will be on a motorcoach and will be at tourist destination long enough to for the need of personal relief to be a reality. More on that motorcoach topic shortly.
The Long Walk To Bag Claim
I have never had the occasion to ask questions of an airport planner but one would be to clarify the reason for the long walk from the plane to enter the United States. I suspect that security, customs and immigration authorities are watching us on the way to the first point of contact, but that’s just a guess. Whatever the reason, when entering the United States from most countries in the world, the walk to first contact is a long one. Long enough that those who have difficulty walking long distances should request assistance, even if they did not need it on the front end of that travel plan. The best bet on mobility issues is to consider the needs of the person in your travel party with the highest level of need. If walking a mile or more without rest is challenging, this is very good reason to request assistance. There will not be any help along the way when returning to the United States. Thinking about that now though, I know why it seems there is always a line of wheelchairs just outside the aircraft doors of international arrival gates. Also see other thoughts about International Travel, soon to be a new feature on this website, for that reason among others.
Stacked River Cruise Ships
When docked, river cruise ships commonly tie up to each other, sometimes 4 or more deep. That causes some passengers to walk through other ships to get to theirs. At ground level, river cruise ships can look the same, making finding your ship a bit of a puzzle. Compounding that mystery, while you were on tour the ships may have moved. One might have sailed off to somewhere else while a new one took its place. A very good idea and soon to be added to our smartphone tips: take a photo of the exterior of your ship, where the ship’s name is. As far as we know, that part does not change.
The Itinerary Is More Fluid
This one we have talked a lot about before and the topic came up recently, taping the premiere episode of River Cruise Radio from the creator of Cruise Radio: itineraries are not set in stone, for a number of reasons. On an ocean cruise, it takes a weather-related issue (high winds or a hurricane) or mechanical problem (warp speed broken) to modify the itinerary. Otherwise, ships go from place to place on schedule with that time in port advertised in advance. River cruises are different. Most don’t list times in port because while you may see x number of places, you might not be delivered to those places by ship at all. River water levels, number of ships going through the many locks you might encounter along the way and other factors come into play. A severe alteration to the planned itinerary might be announced in advance, before you leave home, with the option to go or not go. That happened to us on our Elegant Elbe river cruise in Eastern Germany where the ship never moved at all. That turned out to be one of the best travel experiences ever but was not as planned.
Security Seems Lax
After growing our cruise travel history on big ships with lots of security, especially after the tragic events of 9/11, it really slapped us in the face how comparatively lax security was on river cruise ships. There basically is none that is apparent. Passengers come and go as they please any time of the day or night. Be on a stacked ship as noted above, and travelers from other ships may be passing through yours too. But security is not really as lax as it seems for one very big reason that is also one of the most distinct differences between ocean and river cruises: the number of people on board. While they don’t take your picture before boarding, they know who y0u are because there are usually less than 200 passengers along for the ride. Proof of that can be found by the end of the first day when everyone knows your name.
A big difference between ocean and river cruises is where they operate. River cruise ships operate under local laws where local police and swat teams could be summoned immediately and get there rather quickly were there an incident. River cruise ships are also not much of a target for terrorists. After recent high profile terror events though, look for more security on the ground at destinations and their associated iconic landmarks.
Selecting A River Cruise Stateroom
Which Side of The Ship- While making this determination might be difficult, when sailing in warmer months a stateroom on the East-facing side of the ship is preferable to one on the West-facing side of the ship. Reason: afternoon sun in the west can make keeping the stateroom on the west side cool difficult. A plus in the winter, a minus in warmer months. Still, like ocean ships, there is no guarantee which side of the ship will be docked facing a given direction.
Which Deck- Revisiting the issue of stacked ships for a moment, if your ship happens to be the one furthest from shore, there may be an issue with others walking over the top of yours to get to theirs, causing noise overhead. Also to be considered, when ships go under low bridges the wheelhouse and other upward protrusions are lowered so the ship will fit. If river levels are high, that situation can remain for days. Once clearance is not an issue, those things are brought back up to usable height which creates noise directly overhead if your stateroom is on the top floor which may or may not bother you. On one sailing, we had some joggers who liked to do so late at night which was annoying to the point that the Program Director asked that those activities cease by 9 PM.
Balcony Or Not- This is one of the hardest parts of booking for me to explain to first time river cruisers: the balcony is really not a big deal on a river cruise ship. Still, to those who must have a balcony on an ocean cruise, the natural tendency is to have one on a river cruise. Until they do. Back to stacked ships again: your view may very well be of the next ship that is tied up right next to yours, so close you can pass drinks back and forth. While most river cruise ships cover the most distance at night, other distances covered during the day often happen once tours depart. Later those tours will rendezvous with the ship at a different location. A better choice is a French Balcony, basically as sliding glass door you can’t walk through, which can provide some fresh air and unobstructed view of places you might pass along the way. Still, when scenic cruising, the top deck of the ship is the place to be, weather permitting. Second place, the observation lounge most river cruise ships have inside, by the bar.
On The Other Hand
Not to paint a bleak picture, these same friends also enjoyed the heck out of their travel, all of the above considered. Would they do it differently next time? You bet, we all get better at any given mode of travel the more we do it. These same travelers gained a huge advantage over others by flying there and back with carry-on luggage only, a topic very close to our heart, covered here like a blanket.
A final word about river cruising includes a hearty recommendation of Viking River Cruises for all of the above reasons. There is strength in numbers in a variety of industries, river cruising no exception. That they own many of the docking positions gives Viking Longships a distinct strategic advantage when ships are stacked; theirs are most commonly closest to shore and closest to attractions. Already mentioned, their fleet of motorcoaches in reference to the toilet issue but I have to tell you, those vehicles make a huge difference not fully appreciated until you travel with some other company that does not have them. Itinerary modifications are another reason to choose Viking over others, with their extensive network and infrastructure around the world at the places they serve, Viking passengers nearly always come out ahead. Lastly, their comparative value is not possible to beat. Believe me, I’ve looked. When asked for recommendations on river cruises we visit a number of lines every time to check value. Viking River Cruises always come out on top, all things considered.