I’ve just returned from my first river cruise, where my husband and I celebrated our 20th anniversary. I’ll be writing a series of posts on different aspects of this trip. This first post will cover the general highlights of the river cruise experience and how it differs from an ocean cruise. I did the Seine River cruise in the Paris and Normandy region aboard AmaWaterways‘ AmaDante. I’ll talk more about the itinerary, the ship, and AmaWaterways in follow up posts.
One major difference between a river cruise and an ocean cruise is the size of the ship. I believe our small capacity ship was designed to accommodate up to 144 guest passengers, but I estimate there were about half that number on board the cruise that week. In my opinion, this small size was part of the luxury experience. We had the opportunity to get to know other passengers and some of the staff aboard the ship, but still had plenty of privacy to relax on our own as well. There was never a wait for anything, and there was plenty of space for everyone in the lounge, on the sun deck, and in the dining room. On large ocean cruise ships, it’s a competition just to find a chair to sit in, but on a small river cruise ship, there was more than enough room for everyone on board, whether we chose to relax in a lounge chair on the sun deck or enjoy tea or complimentary cocktails during happy hour in the indoor lounge.
There were times when I was the only person up on the sun deck, making it feel almost like a private cruise. I was able to bask in the sun as I enjoyed scenic views of the French countryside.
Like large ocean cruise ships, river cruises stopped operating over the past two years during the pandemic, and they’ve only recently returned to service. Though I booked the cruise at the last moment prior to travel, most of the passengers on board had booked their vacations two or three years ago. Everyone on board was vaccinated and boosted, and masks in France are still required in enclosed indoor public transportation spaces, which includes cruise ships. For times when we preferred to relax mask-free, options included the open air sun deck which spans the entire length of the ship, our private room with French balcony, the outdoor sitting area in front of the lounge, and the dining room and lounge while eating or drinking.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of river cruising is the personalized service and very low level of stress associated with travel. Though you can customize your day with choices of excursions and activities, the broad itinerary is primarily planned out in advance. You never have to navigate or negotiate transportation, find a place to eat, or worry about cost once on board. You can unpack once, yet see many different towns along your itinerary. Almost everything is included in the price. With AmaWaterways, unlike most ocean cruises, there are no additional surcharges for excursions, fitness classes, any of the dining, specialty coffee drinks, or beer, wine and sodas with meals. The handful of things that weren’t included, such as massages and laundry service, were extremely reasonably priced and easy to take advantage of. In fact, if you do go on a river cruise, I recommend packing light and getting a few items laundered or ironed for a nominal fee as needed.
Another major difference between a river cruise and a large ocean cruise ship is the accessibility of each destination. The river ships pull directly into small central ports in each town. There is no wait to get on and off ship, and you can easily come and go as you please without having to follow a maze of crowds to find the right deck and doorway to exit. You also never have to take small boat tenders to get to land. In addition to the many excursions available, there are plenty of things to do within walking distance of the ship. AmaWaterways even provides complimentary bicycles for passengers who want to explore on their own via bike rather than on foot.
For our first stop, we pulled right up to the Sunday farmers market in Les Andelys, just one block from the main street of Petit-Andely and a short hike up to Château-Gaillard Castle. (AmaWaterways also provided a bus ride for those who preferred not to walk up the hill.)
There are a variety of excursions from which to choose each day, from bus tours to walking tours to bike tours and occasional hikes. Although all excursions were included, we sometimes chose to begin a tour with the group and then split off on our own to explore independently. We also occasionally skipped the organized excursions to spend more time relaxing or explore at our own pace.
For those who are prone to motion sickness, the river cruise is a much more comfortable option. We felt almost no motion cruising along the river in France. You definitely feel some swaying on an ocean cruise even on the largest and most comfortable ships. The two weeks I spent in the Galapagos on a small live aboard ship was quite rough compared to the sedate Seine River.
The age group for the river cruises differs from ocean cruises as well. While some ocean cruise lines cater to families with young kids, there were no kids aboard our river cruise. In fact, we were definitely on the younger end of the age spectrum aboard the ship. The passengers were almost all retired. I’d estimate the average age on board was maybe 65. While some people might prefer to do a river cruise at an age when they have more in common with their fellow passengers, I’d recommend not delaying if it’s something you’re interested in. The best way to take advantage of the activities would be when you’re still fit enough to do stairs and take long walks along cobblestone streets and occasionally unpaved paths. My personal philosophy for travel is to never put it off. You never know what obstacles life might throw your way later. (Like a pandemic, for example!) When I look back on my most treasured memories, they are almost always centered around life’s big adventures and never the days I stayed home and worked, ran errands, or did things around the house.
As with ocean cruises, a river cruise provides a sampling of many different destinations rather than full immersion in any one place. The river cruise tends to hit more of the smaller villages than ocean cruises have access to, which allows you to get a bit of the feel for the culture and local flair of places outside of the large ports and cities. I always find myself inspired to want to return and spend more time in certain places after only seeing them for a day. It seems one trip often leads towards the desire for more, and the river cruise is no exception.