How do you compare river cruises? This is the first of three posts that describe some considerations. This is a topic that comes up a lot in our business. River Cruising has become very popular in recent years. Here at Go Astro Travel we specialize in river cruises. In fact, year over year we’re one of Avoya’s top river cruise producers and one of AmaWaterways top agents selling river cruises. So we know a thing or two about river cruise comparisons. There’s an ever increasing amount of choices in determining which river cruise company to use. We’ll use AmaWaterways as our comparison point even though we sell all the major suppliers. Want to read some in depth reviews of river cruises? Check out our trip blog page and choose the Bordeaux cruise, Europe’s Rivers and Castle or Gems of Northern Italy. To see which cruises we’ve been on see our experience list.
While many ocean cruises are all about the ship, most river cruises are all about the destination. So why is our first river cruise comparison point about the ship? Easy. Rivers are variable. Sometimes the water level is very high and sometimes it’s very low. If it’s too high, many ships can’t pass under the bridges. If it’s too low, many ships can’t sail at all. The result of either is that passengers will be bused to various ports and / or they will be transferred between two ships (one on each side of a low bridge for example). And neither one is any fun.
So one of the first comparisons is about how the ships are design. They are not all the same! For example, AmaWaterways’ ships are built with lower draft and less weight than many of their rivals. We’ve had plenty of times when our customers on Viking were bused due to high river levels while our customers on AmaWaterways were sailing as if there were no issues with the river at all. The ship matters! So consider ship design when you compare river cruises.
Virtually all river cruise companies include an excursion when you arrive in port. Typically the excursion is led by a local guide – many times they are historians, archaeologists or other such specialty – and they are almost always fabulous. We’ve found that we get so much better understanding when we have at least some time with a guide. But on some days, you’ll be in one port in the morning and another port in the afternoon. Some river cruise companies only offer one tour a day regardless of how many ports are visited. Others, like AmaWaterways, offers a tour at every stop. Some tours might include a food or wine tasting as well while others provide a walking tour of important sites.
Note also the variety and choice of included excursions. Some lines might advertise that excursions are included. But you might not have a choice in which excursion to go on. A typical AmaWaterways cruise will have between 2 – 3 choices each day. These are always included. In addition, special limited edition excursions are included for those guests that have already been on the sailing and/or are already familiar with area. A really nice thing about having lots of choice of excursions in each port is that if (when) you take a subsequent trip on the same itinerary, the second trip feels so different.
So the second river cruise comparison is excursions: quantity and quality.
Bikes and exercise
Some, but not all river cruise lines have bikes aboard. Sometimes they are reserved only for special bike excursions. But others, like AmaWaterways allow you to take bikes out any time. In Europe, this is a great way to see the country. And as good as the guides are, sometimes you just get “guided out” and want to just explore the country side. As an example, when we were in Bordeaux we had a morning free in the city. We took out a bike and just explored the city ourselves. We saw all sorts of things that the regular tour didn’t – the local university, some very quaint neighborhoods, a beautiful park. And we got a little exercise in as well. It was a very freeing experience which is a great comparison point as well since you can’t do that on Viking ships (for example).
Speaking of Viking, note that their ships do not have exercise equipment aboard either. If that’s important to you, make that one of your river cruise comparison points. AmaWaterways ships include an exercise room (albeit small) on every ship. We’ve even used it and while it’s not the same as going to the gym at home, it works just fine.
All river cruise ships will serve wine at dinner and lunch. But even here there are differences. Do they serve the same wines every night? Do they offer a wide variety of wine choices at each meal? Are the quality of the wines offered consistent with a luxury brand? One of the things we like about AmaWaterways is that the wines vary each day depending on your locale. When in Budapest, drink Hungarian wine; when in Germany, try some German wines.
And there are some river cruise lines which now offer wine and liquor all the time. Uniworld is all inclusive which means you can have any alcohol at any time. AmaWaterways has a cocktail hour right before dinner in which you can indulge as well. Think about if this is important to you when making your river cruise comparisons.
Ask if you get more than the house wine and if there’s a fee for an upgraded wine package. Also, ask if there’s a corkage fee if you want to bring wine aboard. You’ll find there are real differences between each cruise line.
Food: Alternative restaurants
River ships aren’t big and typically only have one main restaurant. While the menus vary, it’s nice to dine in an alternative space at times. All the AmaWaterways ships for example have a Chef’s Table restaurant at the back of the ship. Not only is this an alternative place to eat but you can actually watch the chef prepare the food right in front of you. And it’s intimate, seating only about 24 people at a time. We were on Uniworld’s River Countess recently and really enjoyed their outdoor dining venue which featured pizza (we were in Venice so why not). So be sure to consider any alternative restaurants when you compare river cruise lines.
Food: Good Eats
- Food quality. Everyone’s tastes are different. But I can honestly say that of all the river cruise clients I’ve booked on AmaWaterways, only two came back with negative things to say about the food. One individual thought is was “too fancy” while the other just didn’t care for the food style. But the other several hundred loved the food. Most actually rave about it. I don’t get that same feedback from some other lines however. We love the cheese plate that’s available all throughout dinner and the soups in particular. And I think the best rack of lamb I’ve ever had was on the Danube on an AmaWaterway ship. And don’t take our word for it. AmaWaterways is part of the La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs – a prestigious international culinary society.
- Food variety and special diets. Whether you’re a picky eater or just like a lot of variety, this is important when comparing river cruises. How many entrees are typically offered? And what does the chef do when a guest has a food allergy? We’ve seen some great responses (the chef on Uniworld made a special gluten free calamari for me; the chef on AmaWaterways made an entire lamb without rosemary for lunch) and some not so great responses (“oh, sorry madame, the rosemary spring shouldn’t be on your steak right?).
River Cruise comparison points
So our first five river cruise comparison points are: the ship, the excursions, the bicycles, the wines and the food. Over the years, we’ve spoken to many passengers (not our clients though) that were disappointed because they didn’t do a good job of comparing river cruise ships. We’re here to help – that’s what we do. Next post we’ll add five more considerations. Want to know more about river cruises? Check out these posts: