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Things to watch for (or be aware of) on a river cruise in Europe
Prices quoted are always for the cheapest option. This usually means the lowest deck which has smaller windows just above water level that cannot be opened. On the Avalon the Captain told people not to be alarmed if the water level sometimes came partially over the window as this was simply when the ship's ballast tanks were filled to make it ride lower to pass under low bridges!
We don't recommend these cabins and would at least go for French balconies with full height opening windows, preferably on the top deck as you get a better view and the sun-deck and main ship facilities are usually closer. Note that the new Scenic Tours "space-ships" have outside balconies while maintaining stateroom size, so we would now be strongly inclined to choose these boats where possible.
Many older river boats do not have passenger lifts between decks. All Uniworld boats now have lifts and three new Avalon boats, Scenery, Creativity and Affinity also have them, as do the new Scenic Tours "space-ships". So the trend is definitely towards this. If a boat does not have lifts, access between decks is usually by staircases, not big ones but if you have problems with stairs you will want to be on the same deck as the dining room and bar, for example.
Each day your boat will call into one or two ports where you will be taken on a walking tour of the town/s. Good walking shoes are essential, and these cruises definitely require you to be able to enjoy a walk if you're going to get the most out of them. There are cobblestones and uneven surfaces, and some of the towns and villages are on hillsides, meaning that there are a few ups and downs. On the other hand, the boats are usually moored quite centrally, more so than many tour hotels that I have encountered!
If you have mobility problems, it is a good idea to check with your tour director as to pace and difficulty of the walks each day and decide if you are able to participate. Be aware that the boats are usually booked to arrive at the various locks at specific times and your tour director does not have the ability to allow time extensions when in towns.
Several companies are now offering the chance to use bicycles carried on board if you feel athletic!
Check carefully if the cruise that choose includes transfers from the airport to where the boat is moored. When transfers are not mentioned, it could mean that you will need to make your own way into town.
If you go on a multi-lingual tour, one that includes more Europeans, you will probably find a more accepting attitude to smoking in public areas: unfortunately the anti-smoking movement has not made such progress in Europe, although countries like Ireland are leading the way forward. Russian and Chinese cruises are particularly known for being less strict on non-smoking areas.
The good news is that cruises aimed at the American and Australian market usually ban all smoking anywhere inside the boat, allowing it only on the sun-deck.
Latest news: the non-smoking movement has triumphed and even the Peter Deilmann boats now only allow smoking on external decks.
English speakers will find it preferable to look for a tour that's English-speaking only. Daily announcements are made over the intercom and there would be nothing more non-relaxing than to have your quiet time interupted by an announcement that's repeated in several languages. And of course, commentaries on excursions can become a little wearing, and necessarily less comprehensive.
The advertising blurb will give you an indication of the type of cuisine to expect. On our cruise, as on many, there was promise of European fine dining and the 'true flavours of Europe'. Those on our cruise who enjoyed rich, traditional European style cooking found that our Austrian chef was able to cater to their palate. However, people who prefer a more modern, lighter cuisine, spicy food or who are vegetarians should be aware that they might not find the type of food that they are accustomed to.
If you intend having a relaxing holiday and doing a lot of reading on deck, it would be advisable to bring your own supply of books. Although the brochure indicates that there is a library on board, the one on the Avalon was a small bookcase with only a few books of interest.
For those who are light sleepers, it is a good idea to bring along some ear plugs. The cruise itself is very smooth and quiet, but when it goes through the locks at night, there could be some noise and vibration. Tony wasn't disturbed, but Helen woke up a few times. On the Amsterdam to Budapest cruise, we went through some 68 locks - not all at night, of course!
Watch out for the port charges, they are usually shown as extra to the basic cost.
On a coach tour, you just have the tour director and driver. On a river boat you have a cruise director and the whole crew! As usual, there are varying opinions about this, but Avalon, for example, recommend €2 per passenger per day for the Cruise Director and €10 per passenger per day for the crew, with €1 per person for a local guide.
Now it's true that a Cruise Director has more to do with say, 178 passengers as opposed to 40 or so on a coach, but then he has no hotel to supervise each night either. On a 15 day cruise with 150 pax that's €4500, which is good money when added to the salary!
Frankly, having talked to a few tour directors over the years, I know that the tipping is very uneven. It's obviously in the tour companies' interest to encourage generous tipping as it reduces their costs and enables the tours to look cheaper, but I personally feel that exaggerating the suggested amounts can be counter-productive in the long run.
It's interesting that this topic is undoubtedly the most discussed on tour company online bulletin boards, and has certainly caused animated conversations on tours I have been on! Contiki tours (for younger people) forbid tipping and pay their people a decent wage, I wonder if any other major company will have the foresight to adopt a similar approach - it could be a smart marketing move!
OUR ADVICE: concentrate on the ship you want to travel on and the route you want to travel, rather than the tour aggregator (of course, there's also price!). Be sure to check our "Things to watch for" on this page too!
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