So you have cruised Europe's coastal ports; the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the British Isles, etc... You've earned a good birds-eye view and a tremendous perspective on the continent. spent days in London, Paris, Venice and Costal Norway, But what about the rest of Europe!
Many of Europe's classic cities actually were born of their proximity to its rivers, the original trade routes -- places like Vienna, Budapest and Paris to name a few. Still, they're not too small for a specially designed river ships. As a niche of cruising, river cruises are an increasingly popular option, particularly for travelers who enjoy the comforts and variety of cruising, but want to see more of the heartland at a slower pace.
Wherever you go, river and canal cruising share some similarities. Mealtimes are a major focal point of the day. Itineraries are port intensive. On some trips, you may visit more than one port per day, and an actual full day "at sea" is uncommon, though there is some cruising time. Onboard, the experience is more laid-back, entertainment is not as sophisticated, and meals can be fairly regimented. Ships rarely top out beyond the 200-passenger capacity limit, you certainly won't get lost in the crowd.
Onboard, river ships feel like smaller versions of seagoing ships. Where they are limited is in onboard features and amenities, particularly in Europe, where ships must be low-slung enough to sail under low-lying bridges.
River cruises often include shore excursions, typically guided walking tours, in the overall cruise fare. Some lines do charge for specially planned tours (cooking classes, trips to the market and other more offbeat adventures). Your ship may also carry bicycles onboard for complimentary passenger use in port.
Due to the short distances between ports, full days of river cruising are rare. However, there is usually commentary over the public address system during sails along extra-special river banks, such as the Iron Gate gorge between Serbia and Romania.
Beyond mealtimes, entertainment onboard may be limited to shuffleboard or book-reading. These ships carry no casinos and offer little in the way of evening entertainment, except, perhaps, a piano player or a local act brought onboard to perform.
Inland waterways are much calmer than those on ocean-based trips -- which is great news for those prone to seasickness.
Finally, while these vessels are comfortable to be sure (and the newer the riverboat, the more amenity-laden the cabins will be), staterooms tend to be smaller and more basic than those on oceangoing vessels. The river lines have recently embraced upgraded staterooms and are building ships with elaborate suites and real balconies (as opposed to the French balconies that used to be the best you could get). Because cabin configurations may vary from ship to ship within a fleet, be sure to get all the details on how your stateroom will be set up before you book.
"The key players in the river cruise world are Avalon Waterways, AmaWaterways, Viking River Cruises, Uniworld,and Tauck," says local cruise expert Lee Boughan owner of Apopka's Cruise Planners. "The river cruise season begins in early spring and runs through late fall , which is the best time for value-seekers. Lines keep a handful of ships available for the holiday markets season on the Rhine and Danube."
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