Is a River Cruise Right for You?

Is a River Cruise Right for You?Is a River Cruise Right for You?Is a River Cruise Right for You?Is a River Cruise Right for You?Is a River Cruise Right for You?Is a River Cruise Right for You?Is a River Cruise Right for You?Is a River Cruise Right for You?

Earlier this year, I was the enthusiastic guest of Viking River Cruises onboard their longship Eistla cruising the Rhine. We started in Frankfurt and ended in Amsterdam, the trip is also offered in reverse, and, I’m told, this was a fairly typical first river cruise itinerary.

River cruising is generating a lot of buzz lately, with gorgeous print ads, television sponsorships (Viking sponsors Downton Abbey on PBS), and blogger campaigns. But when you strip away all that glitzy advertising, the decision to take a river cruise is a big one – one that needs to be made out of the spotlight and made with an eye toward your personal vacation preferences.

Viking Longship Eistla

Viking Longship Eistla

Here’s my take on Viking’s Legends of the Rhine cruise. I hope it will help you decide if a river cruise is right for you.

River cruising attracts an “older” demographic

I know, “older” is a subjective term, and as a baby boomer, I just don’t like thinking of myself as “older.” Let’s just leave it that I was solidly in the middle of the age range of passengers on the ship. To give you an idea of who was on our river cruise, we had a young couple in their early 20s who were traveling with her parents, and a gentleman who celebrated his 90th birthday during the cruise. That’s a whole lot of age span, I know, but I’m told the average age of Viking passengers is 55.

With a birthday coming up right around the corner, it pains me to accept that this is my demographic. But it is. My vacation preference now aligns more with a great glass of wine, good food, history, and culture, than with clubs and partying. I still have an active curiosity about the world around me, I’ve just evolved to a quality over quantity place in my travels. That preference aligns well with river cruising.

Questions to ask yourself:  How does your age fit your vacation style? What type of vacation experience is important to you.

River cruising moves at a slower pace, at least onboard

The ship may travel at a relatively slow pace on the river, but that doesn’t mean you have to. You can choose to be as active and engaged on the ship as you wish, depending on your interests and personality type.

cruising the rhine

We enjoyed days on the river with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) looking out at the castles along the river banks. The Rhine was part of the inland frontier of the Roman Empire, and the countryside is still dotted with castles and fortresses, some well preserved, others in ruins. We could watch from the comfort of our stateroom’s balcony, or from the top deck which offered open and undercover seating. If the weather was too chilly, we could head to the lounge, also offering great views, or grab a chair in a number of nook and cranny public areas, whether to watch the sights or to enjoy conversation and a book.

There are lectures, demonstrations, and classes offered on board, for those interested. I went to a couple that are food and wine themed and had a great time (ahhhh, the apple strudel was delicious). I didn’t feel like I had to attend, it was presented as a choice for me to take or leave. As an introvert, I appreciated the way options were presented without the pressure to join in with a group. Since I had just come off a very hectic week in Spain, this balance was outside stimuli? How does being an introvert or extrovert come into play as you make vacationan important one for my well-being and enjoyment of the river cruise.

Questions to ask yourself:  How busy do you need your day to be? Do you need 24-hour activity, or do you enjoy a balance that provides for some personal quiet time? Are you able to entertain yourself or do you need  plans? Do you want access to a nightclub and casino on the ship?

River cruising lets you visit interesting places

The idea of a slower pace shouldn’t make you think that river cruising is boring – far from it – it’s a more relaxing way of seeing interesting places. In general, cruising gives you the benefit or unpacking once and then enjoying multiple ports of call. As opposed to ocean cruising, though, with river cruising, it’s as much about the journey as it is the destinations. And both are enjoyable.

Heidelberg Castle

Heidelberg Castle

The stops on our river cruise were fascinating and enjoyable and were places we likely would never have visited if we weren’t on the river cruise. We kept busy at every stop, whether on a prearranged tour or independently exploring. Our specific itinerary has been crafted into a longer river cruise (10 days, Rhine Rhapsody), but it still includes stops in Heidelberg, Rudesheim, Koblenz and Cochem.

Questions to ask yourself:  Are you interested in history and culture? Have you been to many of the major cities? Are you looking for “what else” there is to see and experience in a destination? What type of things do you like to do and see on vacation? What balance of activity vs. relaxation do you prefer on your vacation?

River cruising prices include your tours

This is a good news. bad news scenario.

Some people love group tours. They love the camaraderie of being with other people, the socialization that goes along with it, making new friends that soon become lifelong friends, etc. I know those people. I have traveled enjoyably with those people. I am not one of those people. While business scenarios often require me to be social and outgoing, and I enjoy that part of what I do, I am an introvert at heart. I get energized and recharged in my alone or small-group time.

I approached the idea of group tours with a little nervous skepticism, which is why I say it’s a good news, bad news scenario.

Cruising along the canals in Amsterdam

Cruising along the canals in Amsterdam

The good news is that tours are included in your river cruise price. At each stop there are a couple tours to sign up for, often giving you a chance to dig deeper into some of the topics that interest you. The guides are usually experts on their topic and the destination, giving you information and insight that you wouldn’t otherwise get. Our guides ranged from a university student in Heidelberg (just okay) to a WWII historian in Remagen and a city councilman in Cologne (the latter two were fabulous), each bringing a local perspective to what we saw and experienced. Some of the tours took us to places that we could not have visited in any other way. The tours are solid, well thought out, and you’ll want to do them.

The bad news is that tours are included in your river cruise price. They are interesting and things you probably want to do, and you can easily be tempted to join in with everything, putting your personal preferences aside. You don’t have to do that, and you shouldn’t. Instead, find a balance that helps you make the vacation right for you.

At several of the stops, we had time for independent exploration which provided a great balance to the group tours. We did some shopping in Heidelberg (and found some interesting liqueurs and seasonings to bring home). We wandered the city and discovered cream cake in Cologne, and visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. In most locations, we opted for a short morning city tour to acquaint ourselves with where we were and what there was to see, then went off on our own for the rest of the day. It was just the right balance for my personality type.

Questions to ask yourself:  Do you like tours? Group tours? What balance do you need of group time vs. alone time? Are you comfortable exploring on your own? Does the information provided by a cultural expert enhance your travel experience? Do you prefer to travel alone or with a small group of family and/or friends?

River cruising is all-inclusive

As the economics of cruising has changed, ocean cruising has moved away from the all-inclusive price model and now offers so many add-0ns that the price of your cruise can nearly double. Not so with river cruising.

Your all-inclusive river cruise price includes:  stateroom, a selection of guided tours (also includes admission to sites on the tours, many of which are UNESCO heritage sites), breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily on the ship, complimentary wine, beer, and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, classes and demonstrations on board the ship, all port charges, and free wi-fi (that’s how I was able to share photos and up-to-date happenings while on the trip). The pricing represents a value luxury experience, rolling lots of extras into the purchase price.

Not included:  Airfare (add-on air options are available), gratuities, alcoholic beverages in the lounge, and shopping. There are also a couple of optional tours offered that have an additional fee.

One of the stops on our (optional) pub crawl in Cologne

One of the stops on our (optional) pub crawl in Cologne

We opted for an optional pub crawl on our evening in Cologne, had the occasional wine and cocktail while on board, and had the recommended gratuities charged to our cabin account. Our onboard statement at the end of the cruise was just under $350.  In addition, we did spend money on some entry fees for our personal exploration and also gave some additional gratuities personally to staff members.

Questions to ask yourself:  Do you want a value luxury vacation experience, with lots of extra options rolled into the purchase price? Does a higher upfront (pre–paid) price fit comfortably for your budget, recognizing that there will be lower costs once you’re on your vacation? Are the extras offered on a river cruise the type of things that you enjoy as part of your vacation experience?

River cruising is casual luxury

If ever a vacation was meant for the Casual Friday wardrobe, it’s river cruising. No jacket, no tie? No problem. Casual pants and jeans were typical, as were t-shirts, polos, and sweatshirts. There is no formal night or costume night.

The dress code seemed to be simple:  wear some – which makes packing a breeze. Keep in mind you’ll want comfortable shoes for walking, a sweater or jacket for evening and cooler weather, and then pack the kind of clothes you wear at home. We packed jeans and casual pants, jackets (it was nice weather, but not hot in early May), long and short sleeved tees and shirts, and I had a dress from a previous business engagement. That’s it.

The top deck of the Viking Eistla has shuffleboard, a putting green, and a herb garden

The top deck of the Viking Eistla has shuffleboard, a putting green, and a herb garden

Just because you’re not dressing up all fancy schmancy, doesn’t mean your service is second-rate. Viking’s service is top notch. The Eistla has 95 cabins (190 passengers) with a crew of 50 (25 consumer facing), an impressive passenger to crew ratio. The ship was always spotless, housekeeping was top notch, and the food was varied and excellent. The ship didn’t feel crowded (our sailing was not full), lines, if any, were short and manageable, and we always felt warmly welcomed and appreciated.

On some itineraries, there are special event options that do require business or dressier attire (e.g., attending an opera or theater). Your itinerary will spell this out and you can pack accordingly.

Questions to ask yourself:  Do you like dressing up on your vacation or do you prefer to keep it casual?

Are you interested in going on a river cruise?

Viking River Cruise - Legends of the Rhine

Viking River Cruise – Legends of the Rhine

Does river cruising sound interesting to you? Is it a vacation that might fit your lifestyle and budget? Would you be interested in joining a Traveling with MJ river cruise group?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, please click through to take the survey here.

Or feel free to leave questions in the comment section below.

Photo credits:  Anthony Manzanares

NOTE:  We received a complimentary sailing on our Viking River cruise.

Pin this to your favorite Pinterest boards so you’ll have it handy when planning your river cruise.



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Mary Jo Manzanares is a traveler, travel blogger, and podcaster. In addition to her blog, Traveling with MJ, she hosts the Where Else to Go podcast, and is the founder and the editor-in-chief of The Traveler’s Way, an online travel magazine. Her travel ethos is value luxury - luxury for real people - and her goal is to help travelers know when to splurge and when to save. Mary Jo has been a speaker at various industry events around the world. When she’s not traveling, Mary Jo likes lingering over a cup of coffee, wandering in a museum, sipping wine at a cafe, and sharing it all with friends and readers. Her most recent travels were to Stockholm, a Baltic cruise, and Universal Orlando Resort.

14 Responses to “Is a River Cruise Right for You?”

  1. July 1, 2015 at 12:38 pm #

    Great review of the cruise! You have validated all of our thoughts, concerns, and questions for an upcoming cruise we will be taking in August. You asked all the right questions and have given your readers a true sense of the experience and how they can determine if a River Cruise will work for them. I love the idea of a group trip.
    PS. Great photos Tony!

    • July 1, 2015 at 1:29 pm #

      Thank you Cheryl. There are a lot of misconceptions about river cruising, and I hope that by asking questions, travelers can decide if it’s the right choice for them. We had a great time, thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think many of our friends and family would enjoy it as well (hence the idea for a group cruise). I know you and Lisa will love it – and I’ll look forward to following along with your photos.

  2. July 2, 2015 at 2:50 am #

    This is one of the most helpful cruise articles I’ve ever read—and that is saying something because I have read quite a few. The way you’ve summarized the different aspects of your Viking river cruise, both descriptively and from your unique perspective, allows the reader to know where you’re coming from which makes it much easier grasp the different aspects of your experience and to imagine how I would feel.

    • July 2, 2015 at 6:41 pm #

      Thank you Suzanne, I’m glad you found it helpful.

  3. July 2, 2015 at 7:47 am #

    Very interesting! River cruising seems like a great relaxing way to see a city. Thanks for sharing!

  4. July 2, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

    I enjoyed to objectivity of this article as well as the personal touches that humanised the story. Having just returned from a luxury barge cruise with very few people, a river cruise is certainly a consideration ..I think ..maybe, perhaps

    • July 2, 2015 at 9:47 pm #

      Thank you Paula. River cruising is a good choice for how I like to travel. If you liked the luxury barge, you may like it as well.

  5. July 2, 2015 at 10:11 pm #

    I agree, this article is very helpful for those who are attempting to evaluate whether river cruising is a fit. We have friends who recently cruised the Danube. With multiple ocean cruises under their belt, they realized they prefer the big ship experience. Your discussion validates me in thinking my preference would be for this kind of travel. Both of you look happy and relaxed!

    • July 4, 2015 at 9:55 am #

      Thank you Betsy. Large ship ocean cruising and small ship river cruising are totally different experiences. I don’t know that one is better than the other, they’re just different. And I like both, just for different types of experiences. Viking recently launched ocean going vessels (although much smaller than what we typically see with other ocean lines). I’m curious to know how people compare the those two different types of ocean cruising.

  6. July 3, 2015 at 9:56 pm #

    My family and I are taking our first river cruise through Eastern Europe next summer, and I’m already counting down the days—when it’s still 13 months off, ha!

    • July 4, 2015 at 9:58 am #

      How fun! When you referenced family, are you going with kids? There weren’t any kids on our sailing, but I can see how more mature and independent teens might find it an interesting experience. Of course, they may still talk about all the “old folks” on the trip who still like doing cool stuff, too.

  7. July 8, 2015 at 8:46 pm #

    I thoroughly enjoyed this layout of your VRC summary. There are a lot of misconceptions about river cruising, and having your readers ask the right questions, they can decide if it’s the right choice for them. What a great article! I can’t wait for my next VRC!

    • July 10, 2015 at 4:42 am #

      Thank you Cacinda. You’re right, there are lots of misconceptions. That’s why I hope that people will really think about the vacation experience they want before jumping to conclusions one way or the other. I’m looking forward to another sailing on Viking in the near future.

  8. February 5, 2016 at 11:07 am #


    I am a travel agent and a River cruise specialist. I have been on several River Cruise lines and although they are similar, they each have their own personality and inclusions.

    Viking is geared toward older travelers. Tauck, Scenic and Uniworld are for the luxury traveler. Avalon has some great sales so, like Viking can be a good entry level cruise.

    AMAWaterways has bikes on board and the clientele tends toward people in their late 40s to 60s. They have also teamed up with Disney to provide multi-generational cruises. Several cruise lines have specials for singles.

    There can be a river cruise that meets everyone’s needs. But, check with your travel agent to find the right one for you.

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