10 Things You Should Know Before Your First European River Cruise

First things first: don't knock 'til you've tried it.

March 16, 2024 11:09 pm
Viking Longship on the Danube River
Viking Longship on the Danube River
Viking Cruises

Twenty-fifth wedding anniversary! Where did the time go? And most importantly, what should we do to celebrate? A few days later, with suspiciously perfect timing, a Viking river cruise advertisement dropped into our mailbox.  

Two decades ago, we tried a Caribbean ocean cruise — big ship, lots of people, so much food and drink — and never did a second one. But a European river cruise sounded appealing: smooth water, a new city every morning on a small ship with less than 200 passengers, top-notch food and a customizable mix of culture, lectures and activities.  

Ten months later, we were flying to Budapest, Hungary to begin our 11-day Passage to Eastern Europe on Viking Cruises. Here are 10 things we learned from our first river cruise: 

1. You’ll Wind Up Feeling Young Again

If you are in your 50s and miss that young and spry feeling, you could do worse than go on a river cruise. We knew the average age would likely skew into the 60s, but we did not anticipate being the youngest couple on our ship. Nor did we mind. Being surrounded by seniors in their 70s and 80s having a great time seeing new places was an inspiration for our own future.   

2.  You Won’t Find Too Many First-Time Cruisers

Those folks a generation ahead of us have been busy. We didn’t stand out just because of our relative youth, but also because this was our first river cruise. Nearly everybody we met had cruised before — not just with Viking, but other lines around the world as well. Ron, a former Army master sergeant, was on his seventh Viking cruise and even admitted to doing the 15-day Grand European Tour from Amsterdam to Budapest twice. 

“I’d do it a third time if they let me do it for free,” he told us.

A longship in Budapest
A longship in Budapest
Viking Cruises

3. Water Levels May Cause Unexpected Detours

A huge river cruise appeal for my wife was the absence of ocean waves. No waves = no seasickness. But, unlike the ocean, river levels rise and fall. Too high, and the river ships can’t pass under certain bridges. Too low and, like us, the ship may have to stop short of some destinations and passengers will spend extra time on the bus. For us, low water levels triggered shore excursion substitutions in an unexpected Bulgarian city as well as a longer bus ride to Bucharest. Disappointing, but manageable. In other cases, passengers might have to abandon their river ship and bus transfer to an identical one upriver to continue the journey. Be prepared.        

4. Every Day Is Casual Day

We were going to be in Europe, cruising on an upscale boat, and our fellow passengers would be older than us; accordingly, my wife and I planned to dress nicely: collared, button-down shirts and sleek sweaters and blouses. Viking emphasizes no formal dinners and a relaxed vibe, but I still almost brought a jacket for the evenings. 

I’m glad I didn’t. Our fellow passengers overwhelmingly embraced comfortable casual — bright, plush sneakers; jeans; shorts and even a few Harley T-shirts — it was all okay.  There were definitely people like us, avoiding the jeans and sneakers look, and if you want to dress nicer, go for it, but it’s not necessary.

Viking Longships Aquavit Terrace
Viking Longships Aquavit Terrace
Viking Cruises

5.  Embrace Conversation

If you fear initiating new conversations with new people several times a day, a river cruise might intimidate you. Fear not. Most of our experienced river cruiser passengers seemed to crave meeting new people and were easy to chat with.      

In our first 24 hours on the ship, I listened to a tale about an encounters with Perth Australia gold miners gone wrong, met a guy who got a Purple Heart when his helicopter crashed in Vietnam, admired the mangled fingers of a 75-year-old New England hockey player and listened to our dinner companion say, “I would not have married my husband if I had to do it again.” With him right there. 

6.  I’ll Have Both Entrees, Please. 

Yes, river cruise food is delicious. Nearly every meal featured regional specialties of the neighboring country. A few minutes before dinner seating began, the chief chef would describe his culinary creations to select from that evening. It was like a halftime speech. He’d finish up and we’d all race (or, in some cases, shuffle) out of the lounge to the dining room, pumped up for the coming delicacies.  

Yet, as good as the shipboard food may be, take some time to…

7. Eat Locally

Don’t confine yourself to only the refined ship meals. A few steps away from your docked ship you’ll probably find flavorful local food well worth nibbling on. Some of my favorite meals of our trip were a platter of cevapcici eaten under a portrait of Uncle Tito (the Cold War era Yugoslav leader) in Belgrade and some meltingly lovely pumpkin phyllo pastry in Croatia.  

A Veranda Suite
A Veranda Suite
Viking Cruises

8. Pace Yourself

With a new city each day and limited time, you can exhaust yourself trying to do too much. At one point, our new friends, Victor and Leslie, admitted that they signed up for too many excursions. There is only so much anyone can sample in a few hours or even a day, and we accepted that. A travel memoir I found in the ship’s library, Far and Away, gave a satisfying response to that dilemma: “Always leave something for next time, something to tempt you back.”  You’re on a cruise; make some time to simply relax on the sundeck or terrace, admiring the views. 

9.  Find a Less-Traveled River

Ever heard of the Iron Gates of the Danube? I hadn’t either. Every passenger was out taking photos as our ship slipped into this dramatic gorge between Serbia and Romania. At one point, the giant face of an ancient Dacian king carved into the rock wall stared back at us.   

Other European rivers plying well-traveled countries like Germany, the Netherlands and France host most river cruise traffic, but we delighted in discovering more unfamiliar East European countries. Every day gave us new stories and perspectives, often containing history that we’d never heard of. Nor was all of this history ancient. On successive days we got thoughtful perspectives from a local Croatian tour guide and then her Serbian counterpart on the 1990s Balkan War. When choosing your cruise itinerary, consider the lesser-known places. 

10. Cabin Class Choices Matter

After choosing a cruise date and itinerary, you pick your cabin class. I agonized over that. Budget limitations dictated the cheapest, er, “most affordable” cabin for us, down on the lower deck and featuring only a narrow window just above the waterline. My online research emphasized that most of our cabin time would be at night when it was dark anyway.  Moreover, even during daylight hours, the ship would often be parked next to a dock or sandwiched between other cruise ships with someone else’s window inches away.  

All of that was indeed true. And once on board, it was obvious that even the most spacious cabins could not compare to the nearly 360-degree views from the outdoor terrace and top sundeck where passengers gathered in the sunny afternoons. Still, I would have enjoyed more window space in our stateroom. Next cruise maybe I’ll spring for the fancy veranda cabin.


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