On an ocean cruise in the Caribbean, common topics that travelers learn about quickly include The Embarkation Process, The Lifeboat Drill, Entertainment Options, Casino Operations, Onboard Shopping and more. Head to Alaska and the term CruiseTour becomes one to know. Ocean cruise experiences around the planet have travelers coming away with a knowledge of topics specific to an itinerary, ship or cruise line. One of our big goals here is to inform readers, arming them with the knowledge needed to be up to speed on topics that will come up, in advance of sailing.
River cruising has a different focus than ocean cruising and topics that come up along the way are different too. Knowing what lies ahead can clear the way, put much of the learning curve behind and allow travelers to get the most out of a river cruise experience. Let’s take a look at some common topics that will come up on your river cruise, as we found on several recent Viking River Cruises.
The level of the river has a great deal to do with how river cruise ships operate. Too high and ships can not pass under bridges, effectively turning a river tour into a bus tour as operators scramble to provide a substitute experience. Frankly, that’s not all that hard to do because much of the focus of a river cruise is off the ship anyway. Low river levels too can be just as disruptive. A standard river cruise blessing at launch hopes that the ship will “always have a hands-width of water beneath her keel” so it can navigate and move along the rivers it operates in. Most commonly there is much more than a hand’s width of water under the keel but it needs some water or the ship is not going anywhere.
Low or high river level is to river cruises as hurricane season is to ocean cruises. Both are disruptive, but neither should result in no vacation at all.
The topic of locks is nearly unavoidable on a river cruise as your ship will no doubt have to stop and go through several of them on it’s voyage up or down a river. On Viking River Cruise’s Grand European Tour last Summer, we went through 67 of them on the 1,100-mile journey.
How locks work is relatively simple compared to building them. A lock is simply a device for raising and lowering boats between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways. Locks are used to make a river more easily navigable, or to allow a canal to take a reasonably direct line across land that is not level.
If you believe the world is flat, you’re in trouble here. Buy into the notion of the planet being round and this all makes instant sense.
Bridges, like locks, are something that ocean cruise ships rarely go under or through. River cruise ships will do so multiple times in a day. Bridges are also quite important elements of travel in Europe and many have historical significance. In a way, bridges draw our attention to just how important life along the river, often called the lifelines of Europe, was in the past and is today.
On Viking River Cruises, in the summer or winter, we found a great amount of activity along the riverside, often focused around the location of bridges that connected one land to another.
Budapest is a perfect example, with Buda on one side of the river Danube and Pest on the other side, joined by a number of bridges. Our Viking River Cruise docked by the Chain Bridge, know for being the first permanent bridge across the Danube, opened in 1849.
While ocean cruises are indeed quite inclusive by nature, especially when compared to a land vacation option. river cruises are more so. On our Viking River Cruises, complementary Internet access was included. Beer, Wine and Soft drinks were included in the standard fare at meal times. Upgrade to their “Silver Plan” and those choices are available all the time, with an upgraded wine list from which to choose. Tipping is optional and each day brings an included shore excursion.
Included Orientation Tours
As mentioned as part of the all-inclusive element of a river cruise, these are interesting tours, included in the price. Perhaps better described as an Orientation Tour With A Highlight Or Two, local guides take Viking passengers on a walking or bus tour that hits the highlights of destinations visited. Also included is a generous amount of “free time” to explore on your own or simply sit at a sidewalk cafe for a while, drinking in the local flavor. At some locations, a “standard” tour is offered along with a “leisurely” tour that takes it a bit slower.
Also helpful, Viking sends along background information on the places we visit in advance of sailing and has a rich library of videos that very realistically represent what we see on the river. On the ground, the new AFAR travel app is a helpful addition to your travel gear.
Becoming familiar with the Euro, especially Euro coins, is a very good idea before arriving in Europe. Knowing that one Euro is about one and a third to one and a half dollars is important to make sense of pricing. Visitors to EU-member countries along the river can cover a lot of ground with Euro coins. There are eight different denominations of euro coins: €0.01, €0.02, €0.05, €0.10, €0.20, €0.50, €1 and €2. Having a nice supply of them goes a long way to breaking the language barrier North Americans often face. Actually, there is a app for that which I use and find quite helpful, Oanda Currency Converter, also available online.
In the Caribbean, everyone speaks English. Not so along the rivers of Europe but those we encounter usually speak some English. Still, knowing a few words and phrases of the languages of the land we visit goes a long way to making for a pleasurable experience. Frankly, many North American’s don’t even try and those we encounter in Germany, Austria, Hungary and other nations along rivers in Europe appreciate it when we know a bit of their language. Must-know words and phrases? “How Much?”, Where is the toilet?”, “Hello” and”Good bye.” “Thank You” is universal, everyone understands that. A free Language Translator for iPhone can be helpful here too.
The Shared Experience
On a river cruise, a great amount of the focus is off the ship, visiting iconic destinations on waterways around the world. But to say that because river ships have few onboard features when compared to an ocean cruise ship would be misleading. While there may not be top deck features aimed to amuse and entertain passengers, casinos, health spas and fitness centers, the onboard experience is unique and fueled by the less than 200 people on board. Frankly, river cruise travelers seem to be a more congenial bunch, there to enjoy themselves and, with few exceptions, can be found with a smile on their faces as they enjoy lifetime-quality experiences with others.
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