European river cruises are offered to a number of places by many companies. And, of course, there are also river cruises in Asia and elsewhere. All are expensive on a per day basis when compared to ocean, Caribbean, and Mediterranean cruises. As our first, and thus far only, river cruise was from Amsterdam to Vienna on the Grand Circle Line, we can only offer specific comments about that trip. But it was our impression that most of the boats we passed or docked close to were very similar.
As we generally do, we chose this trip not based on the company or price, but on the places to be visited. We accepted it would be expensive, and one of the few places we chose to economize was to book a cabin with just a window rather than a balcony. That decision that turned out to be wise because we were unfortunate to have a great deal of cool and often rainy weather making a balcony useless.
We found in the past that cruises alone leave us a little unsatisfied, so we added three day extensions on both ends of the tour, one in Bruges, Belgium and one in Vienna, Austria. However, there was a major difference from the occasions we added an extension to an ocean cruise. The big cruise lines left us on our own unless we booked a “land tour.” Sometimes they provided a hotel and transfers. Grand Circle provided a “Program Director,” an excellent tour guide who gave us small tours of the cities and suggestions for places to see and things to do including places to eat. Daniel, our guide in Vienna, seemed to really love his job and was available to guide us almost the entire time.
Our ship, the MS River Aria is 36.7 feet wide and 410 feet long. It has a draft of 4.5 feet and a height of 18 feet. It held a possible 164 passengers in 82 cabins, although as some like Michelle were traveling alone, we had just 151 on board. Obviously such a ship is not designed for oceans, but one benefit of river cruising is there are few waves, and the ship does not rock much at all. A sun deck has lots of deck chairs, a few tables and large canvas covers over much of the area.
Low as it is in the water, the ship just barely cleared some of the bridges we passed under. When coming to such an area, the railings on the sundeck, furniture and covers were all lowered flat to the deck. The captain’s bridge (bridge as in the place from which the ship is navigated) was capable of lowering as needed too. On one occasion, I was encouraged to go to the stairwell, and the “wheelhouse” was lowered as far as it would go. The captain popped up through a hatch in the “wheelhouse” roof, and then he too had to duck a little as we passed under the bridge. I put wheelhouse in quotes because, as with all modern ships, it is steered with computers and something similar to a joy stick on a video game.
We sailed on a canal from our dock in Amsterdam to the Rhine. We then took the Rhine to Frankfurt where we entered the very twisting Main, and then took the Main-Danube Canal to the Danube or Donau as it is known in Germany. During the course of this cruise, we passed through sixty-six locks ranging from just under nine feet in depth at Würzburg to three that were eighty-two feet high. These locks keep the rivers navigable and safer, but the captains still need to be careful and constantly compare notes with the captains of passing ships and barges.
As with any cruise, we had a mandatory safety drill including the presence of two fire-safety trained crew.
We read that the Dutch, in particular, like to go out in their “caravans,” travel trailers. But several holidays occurred while we were there and it also seemed like Germans were out in caravan force. Many of the parks seemed to be what we would call “destination” or “resort” parks where people went on a regular basis, often adding additions to their caravans and even little gardens.
The ship has a fold-away crane and gangplank, but we were also interested to dock side-by-side with other ships on several occasions. When that happened, the passengers on the outer ship just walked either through the lobby of the other ship or over its upper deck.
There were many long low cruise ships on the water but even more barges. Today, large companies are gradually buying up the barges. But most are still independently operated, usually by a captain-owner, his wife and one crew member. They have their home on the water, and their car is parked on the roof. Their children spend their early years aboard but are sent to boarding schools for their education.
We were disappointed to be in Europe in a May that was the wettest in one hundred and fifty years. Furthermore, winter lasted the longest since 1960. It was often cold and wet, and no cruise company could control that. But it could have been worse. We envied those on a sister ship leaving Vienna on a sunny day with the prospect of more sun than we had seen. We later learned, however, the rivers had risen. We walked in the rain in Passau, but later it was completely flooded. And worse, the water was too high for the ships to safely pass beneath the bridges. Those poor passengers would have to take buses on their “river cruise,” and the company would be paying for hotels and restaurants while its ships went unused.