10 must-know things for your best first time European river cruise

For the first-time Europe traveler, a European river cruise is an attractive option.

things to know, European river cruise
Well hello, Danube.

River sailing has recently gained popularity, and it’s simple to see why: unpack once and enjoy the changing landscape from your cabin balcony as you travel through several nations and lovely European cities. Could river boating be the perfect compromise between guided land excursions and cruise ship sailing? This summer, my husband and I set sail on the Danube River for a week full of firsts: our first trip aboard a cruise ship and our first visits to any of the nations on the itinerary, which included Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany. Here’s what we discovered along the way—and what we’ll remember for the next time.

1. They’re not just for baby boomers

While river sailing is still popular with older visitors, the industry is expanding to include younger couples and multigenerational families.

things to know, European river cruise

What about this as an example? This summer, Adventures by Disney partnered with AmaWaterways to cruise the Danube River, with the Rhine to follow in 2017, on custom-designed ships with linked cabins and suites that can seat up to four guests apiece. Disney advisors accompany so-called Junior Adventurers on special excursions and organize a kids-only supper in the ship’s lounge on a regular basis, so you could forget they’re on board at times.

2. Overpacking is bad, but being under-prepared is worse

things to know, European river cruise

With the average cabin size being less than 200 square feet, it is critical to prepare wisely for a river trip. That being said, you must be prepared for a range of circumstances, including rigorous trekking, supper at the ship’s chef’s table, and getting caught in the rain in Salzburg. Use your ship’s washing service to reduce the amount of clothing you carry. It’s worth duplicating an outfit or two if it frees up space in your suitcase for mementos.

3. You will absolutely break a sweat

Try not to feel guilty about the sumptuous four-course dinners that are served to you every night: After all, when you’re averaging 20,000 steps a day, gelato every day for a week seems like a decent splurge. Climbing to the remains of Dürnstein Castle (1,023 feet straight up) and a 22-mile bike ride between the riverside villages of Melk and Krems are popular shore excursions in Austria’s Wachau Valley.

things to know, European river cruise

But if you feel like that’s not enough, you can always power-walk a few laps on the sun deck or sneak a workout in the exercise room before dinner.

4. It’s a good way to visit Europe for the first time

River cruising gives a “best of” when it comes to everything the views and activities the region has to offer, with the added benefit of your own semi-private guide.

things to know, European river cruise
River cruising provides a “best of” when it comes to all the sights and experiences the region has to offer.

If you take advantage of all the excursions your cruise provides, you’ll be kept busy from just after breakfast until dinner—and still feel like there’s so much more to see.

5. Free time is priceless

The disadvantage of trying to see a place in a single day is that you will feel over-scheduled. Keep in mind that everything on your daily schedule is optional. (Except for the port departure time, which you won’t want to miss.) What if you discover on the first day that you detest guided walking tours? Take a charter bus with your group, then go on your own trip.

things to know, European river cruise

You’ve heard excellent things about a local restaurant, but your supper is aboard the ship that night? Inquire at the front desk about booking a reservation and a taxi. Plan an itinerary based on your interests and preferences, rather than what the cruise line recommends.

6. Take advantage of daytime sailing

While ocean cruises frequently include a day at sea, a day at sea is far less typical on the river, where you travel through the night and wake up in a different city.

relaxing on the sun deck, things to know, European river cruise

If midday sailing is on the agenda, consider foregoing that afternoon’s trip (or, at the very least, returning early) and spending your time lounging on the sun deck. The river provides some of the greatest views of the region.

7. Read the fine print

While river cruises do not generally have as many final statement surprises as ocean trips, some can need additional payment for shore excursions, gratuities, and onboard facilities. Some cruise companies also charge extra costs for excursions that go beyond a guided walking tour of the day’s port city, so if you want to see Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace or attend an evening Mozart performance, you’ll have to pay.

things to know, European river cruise
Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace

Good news: Wi-Fi is almost always included, as well as unlimited local beer and wine with meals.

8. Expect personalized service

Being on a riverboat with less than 200 other passengers is a very different experience from being on a conventional cruise liner. From the wait staff to the front desk, everyone will quickly remember your name and how you like your coffee, so don’t be shocked if they exceed your expectations. A family on our cruise was told that their daughter was too young to participate in a 16-mile bike ride, but the true issue was that the ship didn’t have a child-sized bike on board. The staff purchased one in her size and had it sent to her.

things to know, European river cruise

A family on our cruise was told that their daughter was too young to participate in a 16-mile bike ride, but the true issue was that the ship didn’t have a child-sized bike on board. The crew then special-ordered one in her size, which arrived at the port just in time for their vacation.

9. Take advantage of the ship’s crew and local guides

Your best resources in a new city are the locals, and they may be the faces you see on your ship every day.

things to know, European river cruise

Get to know the employees and ask for suggestions for places to visit (and eat!) in your spare time. Their knowledge will save you time and allow you to see the finest of each location.

10. You may not be ready to leave

Waking up to a new gorgeous environment every day for a week dulls the view out your bedroom window at home. So, to continue the pleasant atmosphere, carry a bit of each place home with you.

things to know, European river cruise

One such way: The streets of Central Europe are rife with local artists, and you’ll then be able to amass an impressive collection to hang on the wall when you get home.