Tips for first time river cruising
For some people, even experienced travellers, the thought of
a river cruise can be quite daunting. How to prepare and what to wear were just
some of the many questions I faced when getting ready to embark on a 14-day
river cruise on the Danube through seven different countries in early Autumn
2016. Our only previous experience of river cruises had been travelling the
Nile with Viking several years ago. I hope this guide answers some of the
questions Silver Travelers might have when considering their first river
Part 1 - Before you go
Choose your tour operator
Consider how you will join your cruise and select your tour
operator accordingly. Shearings, for example, offers no-fly cruises and
arranges travel by coach or rail from local pick-up points. This is ideal for
people who are unable or unwilling to fly, and provides the additional
dimension of traveling through British and European towns and countryside. If
you fly, take into account the transfer time between your arrival airport and
the ship’s mooring. We experienced a 3-hour coach trip from Munich airport to
the Danube at Linz.
Research the countries and cities covered by your itinerary
If possible, buy guide books or maps to make the most of any
free time in towns and cities. I was hoping to rely on my smartphone for maps
and planning information and was disappointed to find the internet on the river
virtually non-existent of much of the time. Once you have moored there is often
little time to start planning before you set off on the excursions. It can
prove useful to know in advance the location and opening hours of tourist
attractions, museums and galleries as the maps and information available on
board ship can lack detail.
Study the tour operator’s shore excursions
Select and book excursions beforehand where possible as
these can fill up quickly and you can often benefit from an ‘early-bird’
discount. The information indicates the timing and level of difficulty of each
excursion so make sure you take comfortable walking shoes. Be aware that many
tours involve time spent standing around and listening to a tour guide so a
shooting stick with a seat might be a useful addition. (See my note about
wheelchairs later). If you frequently find yourself at the back of the queue on
guided tours unable to hear the guide, you’ll be pleased to know that many
ships now provide hearing sets that enable you to hear the guide from afar.
Buy currency in advanceNot all ships have a currency exchange on board and you might have problems finding time time to exchange money during the shore excursions. If you are traveling through Europe, bear in mind that not all European countries use or accept the Euro. We needed five different currencies during our trip down the Danube from Austria to the Black Sea and even if you plan to pay by card, bars and public toilets often require small change in local currency. You can always donate spare currency in the ship’s tips envelope at the end of the cruise.
Also, check payments methods for both the ship and the tour
operator. On our cruise, the ship accepted card payments but our Shearings
cruise manager required payment by cash in Euros or Sterling for excursions
booked on board. This meant I had to spend my short amount of free time in Vienna
finding a bank to take out large amounts of Euros as this was the last stop on
land before travelling into non-euro countries.
Check in advance whether the ship can cater for any food
allergies or dietary requirements you have as neither you nor they can pop to
the shops while sailing. I also recommend losing weight before you go as
four-course lunches and dinners can soon take their toll on waist lines!
Consider purchasing any drinks package on offer, especially
if you enjoy drinking alcohol and bottled water/sparkling water. On our cruise
in 2016, complimentary tea and coffee were available 24/7; house wine was €4.40
for 21 cl; a large draft beer was €4.10 and water was €2.40 for 25 cl and
€4.60 for a bottle. We worked out that we would cover the cost of the drinks
package with moderate drinking, especially as we experienced exceptionally hot
weather and drank a great deal of bottled water.
Make sure you take sufficient memory cards for your camera -
you’ll probably take far more photos than you expect and, unless you discipline
yourself to download/check your photos and trash the ones you don’t want,
you’ll soon use up all your space. It is hard to find replacements in the
middle of the river and at least one of my photographer chums was sold a phone
memory card by a shopkeeper who assured him it would work in his camera.
Needless to say it didn’t.
If you have mobility issues you need to discuss these with
the tour operator to check the ship’s suitability. Be aware that not all
airlines and ships can take wheelchairs. One fellow passenger had to leave
behind the motorized folding scooter he had purchased specially for the trip as
the airline decided it was too heavy. A hand-operated wheelchair was available
on the ship for shore excursions but his partner found it hard to manoeuvre
around the cities. Our ship, the MS Serenade 2 had a lift to three decks and a
stairlift to the sun deck. Although the shore excursions booklet provided
indications as to their suitability for people with limited mobility, we found
those that involved little walking often included a lot of standing around
which proved painful for my partner.
Part 2 - On Board
Shared Dining Room Tables
On both of our cruises the tables in the dining room were
arranged in groups, mostly of 4 or 8. On our Viking cruise tables were
allocated from day 1 and we were fortunate in finding plenty of things in
common with our dining partners. On the MS Serenade 2 with Shearings, the
cruise manager preferred to let people form friendship groups and decide on the
second day whether or not they wished to reserve seating together.
I was more than happy to be looked after by our lovely,
attentive waiter at lunch time and dinner but a few people said they would have
preferred a buffet service so they could choose their own their portions sizes.
Nevertheless, extra portions were available for those who were still hungry and
the bread basket was plentiful. There was always a vegetarian main course
option in addition to meat or fish, and cheese and biscuits or fruit plate if
the dessert didn’t suit.
Be prepared to live without the internet. While sailing the
Danube, the internet was intermittent at best and non-existent for most of the
time. Make sure you have books to read, puzzles, games, knitting and other
activities for any sections of the river where the passing scenery is not so
Changes to schedule
Be prepared for last-minute changes of plan and go with the
flow. If river levels are too high or too low - the Danube has experienced both
in the summer of 2016 - the ship cannot sail. If it’s too high the ship cannot
pass safely beneath the bridges. If it’s
too low, the ship risks getting grounded. We had to moor up between Bulgaria
and Romania and travel to the Black Sea and Bucharest by coach with an
unscheduled overnight stay because we were unable to continue our journey along
the Danube. To add to potential confusion, we also travelled through different time
zones a couple of times. The Captain determines when the changes take place so
‘ship time’ might be different from your smartphone time, a several passengers
discovered when they turned up an hour early for breakfast one morning.
My one fear while enjoying free time in the city was being
left behind by the coach or the ship. Make sure you have a reliable watch and,
if like me you have the memory of a goldfish, make sure you write down the time
by which you have to return to the coach or ship. On several occasions I bumped
into panicked fellow passengers in city centres asking me if I could remember
when we had to be back. However, it was reassuring to know that, in our case,
the ship issued us with boarding passes
each time we went on shore and checked these had been returned before they set
sail. Additionally, our cruise ship manager posted a daily itinerary in
reception and I found it helpful to keep a photograph of this on my phone.
Shake rattle and roll
At times when the ship was cruising against the current and
around bends our cabin rattled. This kept me awake at night until I discovered
the main culprit was the cabin door, easily solved by inserting folded up paper
in the space between the door and the jamb, and wrapping a towel around the
On our ship the dress code was smart casual, with no jeans
in the dining hall at dinner times. I had assumed that the Captain’s dinner
required a posh frock and felt slightly overdressed in my best sparkly cocktail
dress. I also felt that my partner didn't really need to have bought his heavy
wool blazer and tie. For everyday wear, I had checked the weather forecast for
each country and been amazed to see we were due to experience temperatures in
the mid 30s for most of this September cruise, with a sharp dip to the teens
and possible rain for the last few days. These forecasts proved to be
remarkably accurate and I had packed plenty of layers and adjustable
shorts/trousers to meet the changing
requirements. Comfortable shoes are vital and a small rucksack is useful for
carrying water, camera, the hearing receivers, maps, pen and paper, and
passports (in those countries that require you to carry ID.) Sports clothes are
also useful if the ship has a fitness centre. I also packed a light waterproof
mac and noticed that some people used their umbrellas as sun shades.
Tipping on board
Policies on tipping vary according to tour operators and the
countries in which they operate. In our experience, an envelope is made
available to each cabin at the end of the cruise to make a donation that is
shared equally between all crew members, including the washer-upper in the
kitchens and reception staff. On the MS Serenade with 35 crew, our cruise
manager suggested that we each gave 1 Euro per person (ie 35 Euros each.) We
also chose to give additional tips to those who had provided us with such
excellent and personalised service throughout the cruise, but there was no
pressure to do so.
When it is time to disembark, make sure you know the correct
departure terminal for your return flight. There was mild panic among the
passengers on our coach when the driver who had collected us from the ship
stopped at Munich Airport and said “This stop is for Terminal 1 only: Terminal 2
people stay on board.” Our flight documentation did not seem to include
this information anywhere.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends a variety of river cruise partners. Please visit http://www.silvertraveladvisor.com/find-a-holiday and select Holiday Type, then River Cruise to find out more. Or you can contact us at [email protected] and one of our team of experienced Advisors will be pleased to assist.
You may also find interesting:
- Cruising the Danube with Shearings River Cruises
- The spectacular Danube to the Black Sea with Shearings - Part 1