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My husband and I have done eight ocean cruises between 2016 and 2019. We have cruised on our own, with our kids and with extended family groups. However, we had never done a river cruise before. To all the naysayers who had said to us smirkingly, “You’re a bit young for a river cruise,” we had replied smugly, “Who cares?” It turns out we did care.
Our cruise was with Viking, “The Grand European,” and was for two weeks in July from Budapest to Amsterdam via the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers. It was our 30th wedding anniversary treat to ourselves.
The cruise was the last part of a seven-plus-week trip to Europe. Therefore, we were very much looking forward to unpacking properly after living out of a suitcase for five weeks. We were also looking forward to some luxury. Our hopes for both were realized.
However, we did have to pack and unpack midway through our journey when we moved from the Viking Gefjon to the Viking Ve. This was due to the low water level in the Main Danube canal. Who knew that this happened? We didn’t, but it was actually the third trip in a row for the Gefjon where this had happened. However, it was a small inconvenience, and the logistics were handled expertly by Viking.
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The cruise stopped in the grand cities of Budapest, Vienna, Cologne and Amsterdam. But, for us, the highlights were the storybook towns in between that we would visit for the first time. Each town had a different story around WWII and whether it was bombed to smithereens and reconstructed or spared destruction.
The scenery along the rivers was stunning, with loads of castles in various states of repair and heaps of motorhomes along the shoreline (many being used as permanent holiday homes for the Summer). There were also 68 (yes, 68) locks that we navigated.
We had a French balcony stateroom on the Middle Deck (Deck 2). More expensive were the staterooms with a veranda (ie a balcony you can sit on) and some suites. Less expensive were the water-level staterooms with only small windows.
Below is a listicle of sorts about what we liked and didn’t like. Some are double-edged swords, as they fall into both likes and dislikes.
What We Liked About Our River Cruise in Europe
- The 2-2 hour included locally guided walking tours at each destination. We learned so much more than if we had just relied on Google.
- Local wine and beer are included with lunch and dinner. There was champagne with breakfast too, although I never sampled it. Wine at lunch and dinner was more than enough for me.
- We had a French balcony, which was lovely. Sometimes, we cruised with the window open. The sound of the water moving was very relaxing. It also made airing the room easy.
- Meeting other passengers and hearing their life and travel stories. There is a maximum of 190 passengers, so unlike an ocean ship with thousands of passengers, it is easy to befriend other passengers. The fact is, you keep running into each other.
- The multi-generational groups. There were several groups of adult children with their elderly parents. A few groups had grandchildren as well. It was heartwarming to see.
- Onboard service: nothing was too much. The staff were friendly and enthusiastic. The staff ratio to passengers seemed very high.
- Lack of motion on the boat—we glided without any swell. The only jolting or “wiggling” related to the locks we passed through, and that was kind of cool.
- The Sun Deck, which was the entire top deck. Some areas were shaded too.
- The fact that nowhere on the boat was far. Contrast this with an ocean ship, where you can be walking for 15 minutes and climbing many flights of stairs (or waiting ages for a lift) to get to where you want to go.
- Food on board: buffet and a la carte options for breakfast, a la carte for lunch and dinner. Also, there are self-serve cookies or muffins all day, along with two coffee machines, tea-making facilities and still and sparkling water taps.
- The rooms are really well-designed and soundproof. The shower, in particular, was far superior (i.e., bigger) than any we have had on an ocean cruise.
- A large lounge area—there was plenty of room for people to chat, read, play cards, doze, listen to the live piano, or just sightsee out the windows on both sides.
- Bathroom toiletries (“Freya”) were lovely and generous in quantity.
- The cleanliness of the ship.
- Ship decor is understated luxury.
- The high degree of organization with all the tours. This included luxury coaches to drop you off at the tour’s commencement and return you to the ship. You could also elect to “do your own thing” or just remain on the ship.
- Luxury holiday delights: no need to make your bed, pick up wet towels, clean, shop, meal prep or cook. Everything is done for you except getting yourself ready each day. It was super relaxing.
What We Didn’t Love About Our River Cruise in Europe
- The median age of the passengers seemed to be about 75. We are 55, so it was like holidaying with our parents.
- Unless you were lucky enough to snare a small table on the outside terrace, you were forced to join tables of 6 or more to eat meals. At the beginning of the cruise, we were eating with strangers. This felt like we were at a networking event, on our best behaviour and making small talk at each meal. We found it exhausting rather than relaxing. However, this did improve vastly as we got to know a few passengers.
- The slow pace of the trip was clearly geared toward the older demographic and the “Leisure” group. In this case, “Leisure” meant people with declining mobility.
- Not enough “free time” at destinations. Again, this is no doubt due to the demographic, but we would have preferred a few hours to explore a town once the guided tour finished. Often, we had only an hour, and then the ship sailed on.
- The fact that the Sun Deck was closed for 5 days as the bridges on the Main-Danube Canal are too low to accommodate that deck. While I don’t suppose there is any solution to this, it would have been nice to have been warned that there would be limited outdoor space for 5 days.
- Closure of the Sun Deck also meant there was no room to exercise; there is no gym on board and the walking track is on the Sun Deck. The boat often sailed in the afternoon and overnight, so it wasn’t usually possible to get off and exercise.
- Frequently passing through locks (short time frames) and being rafted to other boats (which can be all day and/or overnight) renders a veranda or balcony rather useless. It also makes the rooms and communal spaces very dark. Again, there is probably no solution to this (although there may be other docking options than rafting multiple ships together). However, it would have been nice to have been warned.
- The food was good to very good, but we found it on the bland side. We assume this was to cater to the older demographic’s more sensitive tummies.
- Our room, although well-designed, was very small.
- The lift does not go to the Sun Deck, so you can only access the Sun Deck if you can manage a flight of stairs.
Would We Do a River Cruise Again?
Yes, 100%, as the positives outweighed the negatives. It was “freeing” (as we have always felt with cruising), it was educational and it was inspiring. Inspiring insofar as what we learnt from our daily locally guided tours as well as what we learnt from the other passengers. Also inspiring was seeing people well into their 80s travelling. #goals
Am I Too Young to Do a River Cruise at 55?
Possibly, although it would be an ideal trip to take with our parents. It would also be more fun with a group of family or friends, so you aren’t eating with strangers every night. On the other hand, there is something to be said for slower travel.
We buddied up with a lovely English couple in their late 70s, Dirk and Val. Dirk and my husband had a shared passion for cricket, and both Dirk and Val were intelligent and very well-travelled. As we said our farewells at the final dinner, Val hugged me and sincerely said, “Enjoy your life.” It touched me, and even as I write this, I feel emotional remembering the genuineness of her words. That is what life is about, isn’t it? Enjoyment. A River Cruise, even at 55, ticks that box well and truly.
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Author Bio: Leonie Jarrett lives in Melbourne, Australia with her Husband of more than 3 decades, her 4 adult children and her 2 Golden Retrievers. Leonie has variously been a lawyer and a business owner. Now that she is semi-retired, Leonie is loving writing about her life and her travels together with writing poetry and fictional stories.
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