How Do I Choose A River Cruise?

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When it comes to a unique holiday, there’s nothing quite like a cruise. It offers an easy way to visit several countries in one trip, with no packing and unpacking in between, no hotel hopping, and no need to make flight connections in between. But there are some differences between high seas cruising and river cruising which newbies may not be aware of - apart from the obvious! And with so many vessels and operators to choose from, making sure you book the right one for you is essential to the enjoyment of your holiday. There are many points to consider, one of which is that like high seas cruise liners, river boats also vary in size, with some carrying only a handful of guests, while others accommodate several hundred. Remember that smaller vessels tend to have fewer facilities, such as internet access or gyms, they also usually have more modest staterooms, and dining may be more structured with shared tables. Another point to note is that river cruise itineraries can vary from several days up to three weeks, although a typical cruise lasts for about seven to 10 days. If in doubt whether river cruising is for you, be safe and opt for a shorter itinerary. And if you are aiming for a lazy, tranquil holiday in the sun, think again. Unlike ocean voyages, river cruises do not have “sea days”; you will be in port every day, and in some cases you may visit more than one destination in a single day. That said, river cruises usually start from, and end in, amazing destinations including some of Europe’s great capital cities, so there is the alluring option to add extra time for a pre or post-cruise stopover somewhere cool like Amsterdam or Budapest.

Another key point to note is that river cruising is seasonal. In Europe most companies operate between March and November, although some cruise year round to take advantage of unique opportunities such as visiting the Christmas markets in Germany. If you river cruise in winter, however, the weather can be a factor affecting more than just your wardrobe. Heavy rain can cause rivers to swell, leaving some locks impassable and raising water levels so vessels cannot pass under low bridges, so be prepared for itinerary changes. Days are also much shorter, and you may encounter snow. River cruising has also traditionally attracted an older crowd, usually 50-plus travellers, but there are some new players in the market, attempting to buck the trend, such as U By Uniworld, which is aimed at a younger audience. Although some river cruises are all-inclusive, like their high seas cousins, most are not so you can expect to pay extra for alcoholic drinks, coffees, and bottled water. If you are travelling with any health issues, there won’t be a doctor on board, and you should check arrangements before booking if you have any special dietary needs, or if you travel with a wheelchair or medical equipment such as an oxygen tank. And finally, if you are cruising to some countries, such as Russia, you are likely to need a tourist visa. Check with the operator before booking, and if you need one or more, make sure you book well ahead of your departure date so you have time to obtain any visas; and be prepared for the additional expenses that they will incur.

Joanna Hall