With over 15 ocean cruises under my belt, I decided that I needed to give river cruising a try. I had always hesitated to give up a week in the Caribbean or Alaska, but as I sailed down the Danube aboard Viking Atla, I realized that river cruises have some serious advantages over ocean sailings:
1. Genuine Destinations (No Tourist Traps)
On Europe’s rivers, you’re traveling through the heart of countries like Germany, Austria and Hungary, visiting real villages, towns, and cities where people live. There’s no tourist infrastructure like you’d find in Rome, Florence and Athens, but the small towns have a much more intimate and authentic feel. Even with the growing popularity of river cruises, these places still maintain their genuine character.
I traveled in December, so I had the opportunity to visit multiple Christmas Markets during my trip. These weren’t fake shopping villages set up for the benefit of tourists—locals actually gather there to do their holiday shopping or meet with friends for holiday cheer and revelry.
2. More Time to Explore
When you only have a single day to explore a port, time is an extremely valuable commodity. On a river cruise, you’ll dock right in the heart of small towns and villages, which means less time spent in line and on buses and more time exploring. When a longer bus ride is necessary, the ship typically moves to meet your group further up or down river, so you only have to travel one way.
You'll have plenty of time for independent touring and to break away from the group even when on organized excursions. On an evening tour to Sharding, Austria, for example, a friend and I were able to skip a portion of the organized tour and spend a little extra time in the village’s charming Christmas Market. The guide was helpful and provided us with the meeting point and directions we’d need to rejoin our small group. When’s the last time you tried that on an ocean shore excursion with 75 of your closest friends?
Rarely does an ocean cruising itinerary offer “scenic cruising” from the ship itself (cruises to Alaska are a notable exception), but on Europe’s rivers, scenic cruising is stock-in-trade. You’ll be sailing among some of the most beautiful scenery and most charming towns you’ll ever see, and you’ll have a great view of the nearby shore right from your own balcony.
3. Smaller Ships = Better Service and No Crowds
The conventional wisdom is that you’ll get better service on smaller ships, and my experience has found that to be true. Viking’s river vessels carry less than 200 passengers, and the small size means the staff and crew learn your name right away. There wasn’t a time I wasn’t personally greeted when walking up to (or even walking by) the guest service desk.
The ships themselves are so small it’s impossible to get lost and you’re literally just steps from everything on the ship, but they’re not so small that you’ll feel cramped. The spacious Aquavit terrace on Viking Longships brings the lounge outside, and the open sun deck on top of the ship has plenty of room to roam. On our Christmas Market cruise it was too cold and windy to take full advantage of the outdoor spaces, but even then, the ship never felt crowded or overwhelming.
4. Almost Everything is Included
Figuring out what’s included on your cruise isn’t always a straightforward task, and no likes doing the math to see how many drinks they’ll need to have a day to get their money’s worth from a beverage package. Viking includes at least one shore excursion in virtually every port, gourmet open seating dining, wine and beer with dinner and daily entertainment and port briefings onboard the ship.