Raise your hand if you think river cruising is just for the silver-haired grandparent set. We’re here to set you straight — river cruising is great for all age groups, appealing to an ever-younger demographic. Read on to find out why!
Who cruises rivers?
It’s true that if you’re 60 and over, you’ll be in good company on a river cruise. However, our two experiences so far on Viking River Cruises included friends in our 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and each time we had a blast. On both occasions, we traveled with friend groups of 12 people (6 couples), and we all enjoyed meeting and talking with cruisers of all ages.
Why do this over an ocean cruise?
Unlike days on the ocean with nothing to see but water and sky, river cruises have endless closeup views of shoreline, villages, impressive sites (castles or monasteries), and even an occasional river lock, all day long.
You often get to spend up to 8-10 hours or more in that day’s destination town, with your time allocated partly to a Viking-led tour and the rest for wandering or exploring on your own. Tours are included and are typically performed by highly trained, knowledgeable local guides.
Viking has over 50 Longships in their fleet, each typically with 4 decks. Each ship carries 190 passengers in 95 outward-facing cabins. The top deck is an outdoor deck, with deck chairs, a walking track, shuffleboard and the pilot’s bridge (fun fact, the pilot’s tower hydraulically lowers when going under low bridges). The upper deck includes the lounge, a bar, an indoor/outdoor terrace restaurant named Aqua Vit, a small library and computer area, a sitting area and 34 cabins. The middle deck houses 36 cabins, reception, and the dining room. And lastly, the lower deck has 25 cabins.
Wi-Fi onboard is free and fairly consistent. You will not be able to stream your favorite Netflix drama but will be able to text, email and update your social platforms.
River cruises range from 8 to 23 days, with itineraries featuring Europe’s Rhine, Main, Danube, Seine, Rhône, Douro, Moselle, Elbe, Dordogne, Garonne and Gironde Rivers; Russia’s Volga, Neva and Svir; Ukraine’s Dnieper; Egypt’s Nile; China’s Yangtze; and Southeast Asia’s Mekong. Rumor is Viking is looking to expand to North America and is considering adding the Mississippi soon.
I have sailed on two Viking river cruises – one from Budapest Hungary to Passau Germany on the Western (upper) Danube, and another from Bucharest Romania to Budapest on the Eastern (lower) Danube. We are planning to sail on the Imperial Jewels on China’s Yangtze river later this year.
Staterooms include Explorer Suites (445 sq ft), Veranda Suites (275 sq ft), Veranda Staterooms (205 sq ft), French Balcony Staterooms (135 sq ft), and Standard cabins (150 sq ft). They are available with either one queen bed or two twins. There is space under the beds to stash your luggage and plenty of room in the drawers and closet for your clothes. Fresh water is supplied every day and each room has a small refrigerator. A large flat-screen TV is mounted on the wall but who has time to watch TV?! A small safe is available to secure passports and valuables. I get seasick and am a light sleeper but never have an issue sleeping on river cruises. The low toned lull of the ship’s engines and well-soundproofed rooms provide a nice sleeping environment. The staterooms feature huge windows and honestly, one of my favorite things to do during downtime is to watch the beautiful scenery glide past my window from the comfort of my bed.
The bathroom is not spacious but does feature heated floors and fog-less glass. The water pressure and supply of hot water were excellent. Ample counter and shelves provided space for toiletries.
Breakfast is offered in the dining room from 7-9:30 am and can be ordered from a menu or self-serve from the buffet. Lunch is typically served from 12-2 pm in both the dining room and Aqua Vit – a lovely, more casual indoor/outdoor spot at the back of the ship surrounded by windows. Dinner is served in the main dining room or Aqua Vit at 7 pm, typically 3 courses are ordered. The evening menu offers a wide range of options, including a rotating set of dishes of the chef’s choosing, local dishes that reflect the cuisine of that day’s destination, and several nice staples one can choose from every night (like steak or salmon).
I felt Viking’s breakfast and lunch game are strong. Dinner, however, may not include such usual ocean cruise staples as lobster or various cuts of steak (other than rib-eye), and the choices are not always extensive. For those reasons I’d rate dinner a solid B. However, I will say our group ranged from active, big meat and potato eaters to those who eat super clean, and all parties were satisfied with the volume and range of food onboard.
Water, soft drinks, coffee, tea, house beer and wine are included free of charge at mealtimes. We elected to buy the Silver Spirits beverage package which includes premium wines, spirits, and specialty coffee drinks available at all mealtimes plus anytime the bar is open. Our group found this package to be an excellent value.
Advantages to river cruising:
- A smaller, more intimate experience. Less of a party atmosphere.
- No seasickness.
- No long queues when you embark or disembark.
- Disembark at river docks right in the center of each city where stops are scheduled
- Experience going through a river lock. It’s a fascinating process — you can literally reach out and touch the lock’s walls from your cabin.
- More time at each destination. Typically, the boat docks right before breakfast and pulls out of port around dinner or later. River cruisers tend to want to immerse themselves in the destination(s) of the day rather than emphasize the time spent on the boat.
- Some itineraries also include a scenic cruising day where especially beautiful riverside sights of the region (imposing castles & fortresses, quaint villages, cascading vineyards, sheer canyon walls) can be enjoyed while floating by in the daytime.
- The dress code for all meals is elegant casual. No theme night costumes or ball gowns necessary.
- Visit a handful of countries without lugging your bags, spending time checking in and out of hotels, or researching restaurants and sights.
- No kids!
Disadvantages to river cruising:
- Depending on water levels and lock issues, you may have to switch ships, skip ports, dock at a location further away from the planned port, or even get bussed to sightseeing stops when the closest port is out of commission.
- Feeling rushed. While I mention above that you typically have a full day in each port, it still may not be enough. Even though it’s great to cruise through 4-5 countries in 7 days, a slower pace may appeal to some.
- No casinos onboard.
- You can pay Viking to book your flights for you or not. Viking typically books at bulk rates which are less expensive than you will find elsewhere, and if flights are booked via Viking, they will provide transfers to/from the airport. Pay $50 extra per person and you can work directly with the Viking flight department to request specific airlines and routes.
- Research and invest in 2-3 pairs of super comfy walking shoes. You will be on your feet all day, often on uneven cobblestone streets. The women in my group wore shoes by Paul Green, Clarks, Allbirds, and Ecco, for example. They come in fun reptile prints, metallics and add more pizzazz to your touring outfit than a pair of athletic sneakers that scream “American tourist approaching”.
- Pack a light travel umbrella and several jackets and scarves if touring during the shoulder months.
- Upon boarding the ship, ask for a robe, slippers and extra hangers from your cabin steward.
- Bring some cash for tips for local guides, bus drivers, and select members of the crew. The international crew is excellent. We found our crew to be funny and our waitstaff, in particular, was a key part of our enjoyment at mealtime. It didn’t take them long to suss out what we liked (sauvignon blanc, eggs over easy, etc.) and didn’t like (overly strong black tea) and to bring it to us each day. Knowing their service is excellent, we took advantage of the ability to prepay gratuities on the Viking website before leaving the States yet were happy to give our favorites an extra tip at the end of the cruise.