First-time river cruisers, fear not. Kaye Holland, who recently popped her river cruise virginity, shares what she discovered on her first voyage to help you feel prepared…
1. Age is just a number
I’ll confess: before boarding MS Bellejour I was concerned that I’d spend seven days surrounded by crinkly haired grannies and grandads – river cruising has long been synonymous with seniors – and a cursory glance around the room during the ‘welcome’ drinks did little to quell my suspicions.
Time to hold my hands up and admit that I did my fellow passengers a disservice. Certainly at 39 years of age I was the youngest on board by a good couple of decades, but looks can be deceiving.
I soon discovered that my older travelling companions were invariably feisty, full of life and fabulous raconteurs. From Eileen, the Yorkshire woman who managed to hike up the hilly streets of Bratislava much more easily than me, to Julie – a widow from Glasgow. After a period of mourning for her late husband, Julie had decided to “keep moving because I am still living and that’s what he would have wanted.” She has travelled the world by ship ever since.
Then there was my favourite Jeff, a friendly man who used to work in fashion and regaled me with tales of dressing a young John Barnes – apparently a nightmare as the football legend “had a skinny waist but massive thighs, nothing would fit!” As a football fan, I lapped up these stories with gusto.
2. They're likely to be a child-free zone
Another advantage of holidaying with older travellers? Their children, if they’ve chosen to have them, are grown-ups with their own offspring. All of which means that unless you choose to set sail during the school holidays, you won’t be forced to spend your river cruise surrounded by screaming children or stroppy teenagers. Result.
I relished the relative tranquillity, the chance to savour a glass of something red on deck without witnessing a child’s temper tantrum – and the opportunity to enjoy an uninterrupted adult conversation. And with fewer distractions, you can get to know your fellow passengers better — if you want to.
3. You can do your own thing
Excursions have always been river cruise ships’ raison d'être but, as a long-time independent traveller, I was worried I wouldn’t like the guided tours (four were included in my cruise). Once again my concerns prove misfounded: I enjoyed joining the morning ‘mini’ guided tours and learning a little about the destinations I was visiting. Then in the afternoon, I was free to venture off and get to grips with that day’s destination at my own pace.
Of course if you do discover on day one that you’re not a fan of guided walking tours, you could do what a few of my fellow passengers did: take the charter bus to the centre of town with the group and then ditch them to go solo.
Titan offered a couple of extra excursions (for a fee) but there was no pressure to sign up: the team happily handed out complimentary maps to those who wanted to explore ashore, under their own steam.
Similarly don’t be scared to skip ship meals if you’ve read about a brilliant restaurant in, say, Budapest, but it clashes with lunchtime onboard. My message? You can plan an itinerary that works for you.
4. You get to know the staff
River cruise ships are significantly smaller than their ocean cousins (they have to be as rivers are smaller than oceans). Case in point? Bellejour accommodates 180 passengers whereas the average ocean ship holds around 4,000 passengers.
What this means is that while river cruise ships lack the bells and whistles (think Broadway style shows and midnight buffets) of ocean mega lines, you can actually get to know the crew. After the first night onboard Bellejour, Yassef – the restaurant manager – had remembered that I was a vegetarian and ensured I was never served anything carnivorous. Elsewhere Radium, part of the Food and Beverage team, got to know my preferences (English Breakfast tea with a splash of milk, please).
5. The open dining is great
Speaking of mealtimes, one of the things I loved most about my river cruise was the dining policy: fixed dining had been thrown overboard in favour of al fresco dining which allowed me to eat with different people. Subsequently, conversation over the course of the week was never laboured. And if I had found myself struggling to make small talk with someone, it was comforting to know that I wouldn’t have to converse with them at every mealtime for the next seven days.
Bellejour isn’t the only river ship to have reached the conclusion that fixed dining doesn’t have a place in 21st-century river cruising: Emerald Waterways, Viking River Cruises, Uniworld and APT all offer open dining.
6. There are no queues
One of the great pleasures of river cruising is that your ship tends to dock right at the town centre, allowing passengers to walk straight off into the heart of the destination du jour. There’s no endless waiting in a snake-like queue to disembark or take a tender ashore, as there is on an ocean cruise.
Back on board, there’s always a spectacular view as you cruise: I was captivated by castles, cathedrals, grand architecture and, at night, twinkling city lights. The Danube was never less than scenic.
7. It's stress-free to plan
It came as something of a pleasing revelation: river cruising is a genuine holiday. Most of my trips usually require me to spend hours booking accommodation, planning an itinerary and researching what to see and do.
With my river cruise, all I had to do was get to the airport. And I didn’t even really have to do that because Titan offers a VIP door-to-door travel service (included in the fare) – eliminating the need to worry about taxi fares, train timetables or having to lug your suitcase on public transport.
8. You can leave the ball gown behind
Compared to some ocean cruise lines, river cruise ships operate a relaxed dress code. You’ll need casual clothes for the daytime, a swimsuit (should there br a sauna or jacuzzi onboard) and a dressy outfit for both the Captain’s gala dinner and the farewell dinner – but it doesn’t need to be black tie. And there’s no need to pack a different outfit for every evening: river cruises are destination-driven not fashion-driven, so you won’t be judged for wearing the same outfit twice.
9. Don't expect Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi was supposed to be available in communal areas onboard Bellejour but proved to be patchy, so I had to get used to living without the internet.
Of course I could have used 3G/4G but opted to follow in the footsteps of my sailing companions (who were worried about their data allowances) and switch off all electronic devices in favour of reading, playing games and soaking up the ship’s atmosphere.
Other cruises lines – think Uniworld, Viking, APT et al – claim Wi-Fi is available throughout their river ships but seasoned cruise-goers tell me that no matter the cruise ship or line, WiFi is intermittent along the Danube.
10. Leaving is hard
Waking up to a scenic landscape for seven days makes the view from my bedroom window back home of traffic-clogged Brixton Hill seem seriously inadequate. And in the days that followed my trip, as I trudged down the aisles of Tesco, I missed having breakfast, lunch, dinner (and afternoon tea) taken care of. A Titan river cruise may not be hipster or cutting edge, but I loved it.
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