Top Ten Tips for Going on a River Cruise

I am by no means a seasoned “cruiser.” In fact, I am far from even being remotely “experienced” when it comes to traveling by water. Excluding a rather arduous crossing of the Aegean many years ago, I have been on precisely one cruise, which occurred last November from Budapest to Bavaria with AmaWaterways.

So I am far from an expert, but I think this is a fairly good list (I am a bit biased, but roll with it).

I do believe that if you follow these simple suggestions you will have a wonderful time. Even if you are like me and thought that going on vacation with over 100 perfect strangers would make you curl up in the fetal position channeling your inner Dorothy (“There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home” in case you whiffed on the reference), these tips will not only help you get through it, but they just might cause you to consider {gasp} another trip.

  1. Your room should only be used for two things (well, three, if you are a couple): Sleeping and showering. Period. (Again, there is a third allowable activity if you are there with a spouse-type figure). If you are in your room watching TV, or staring at the walls, you are losing at vacation,. friend.

    The bed in my stateroom.

    The rest of my room (the large window is a sliding glass door that leads to the balcony). As is my practice, I forgot to photograph the room until after I had unloaded a bit of my crap.

  2. Explore the ship: In the first few minutes on the ship (get it in your head now, it’s a ship, not a boat, the sooner you learn that the fewer chastisements you will receive from the ship’s captain) figure out the layout, it will not take that long at all. Find the stairs to the various decks, the lounge, the dining hall, and the exercise room (if there is one and you think you might use it). Wasting time getting lost on the ship is just dumb. Just figure it out.
  3. Get off the ship: I can’t really stress this enough. You may be jetlagged, you might just want to sit and have a glass of wine, but if the boat ship is docked, it is likely for a reason: you are someplace relatively interesting and you should go explore. The cruise company’s job is to find interesting places to go, so trust them. Get off the ship. On my cruise, we docked at least a half a dozen times and each time I forced myself to go ashore. I wanted to work, hang out at the bar, nap, you name it, but I realized I could do all of those things while the boat ship was in motion.

    My tour started in Budapest, and after checking onto the ship, there was an optional tour of the city. I had already been in town for three days and had been all over the city, but I forced myself to go, and it was worth every second.

    The Milk Abbey in the Wachau is stunning.

  4. Go on the tours: As a (former?) tour guide, the thought of going on a guided tour myself makes my skin crawl so much that I would consider jumping into a vat of burning oil just to make it stop. If you are like me, get over it. Sure, you are one of those people with some sort of electronic device around your neck, you are herding around with a few dozen others following a sign with the name of your boat ship held high enough to be a concern for low-flying aircraft, and you’re walking so slowly that some tourists confuse you for a street performer and hand you a Euro just to see you move. But it is worth it. The tours are conducted by locals who have been doing this for some time and they are a wealth of information (as far as you know).

    I was with the yellow group in Budapest.

    It was a two-hour bus ride to Český Krumlov, and the tiny Czech town did not disappoint.

  5. Have a bunch of small notes: While not required, it is customary to tip each of the various tour guides. That is much easier if you have a bunch of small bills of at least one of the local currencies. It is rather poor form to hand a guide a bill and ask for change. “I only have a 100€, can you give me back 95?”
  6. Get to know the names of the crew: I can’t tell you how many times a crew member thanked me for learning their names and where they were from. I chatted with the bartender about his kids, the waitress about her boyfriend (also on the ship and a very nice guy), and one of the chefs about basketball (he was a big Lakers fan). They really appreciated it and as a result (although not the reason I did it), they took really good care of me.

    This wasn’t my crew, but it could be yours. Learn their names (from AmaWaterways.com).

    This was my cruise director, though, Rolf. And he was a very good dude and a great help and resource. (from AmaWaterways.com)

  7. Get to know other passengers: Even though you might be the biggest misanthrope on the planet, get to know at least a few of the other passengers on board. You will be seeing them often: at meals, at the bar, milling about, and it is just good form to slip them a friendly greeting. Who knows? They might just bail you out with a few Euros when you forgot to follow tip #5 (above).

    As you might expect, I went on all the bike tours, as did several couples from all over the U.S. Pro tip: It’s polite to mention their name as you blow by them on a hill. (By the way, the horizontal markers on the left of the building facade mark how high the water reached during various floods of the Danube. Yikes.)

  8. Get on a bike: As far as I can tell, most river cruises have bikes on board that are used for various tours/rides over the course of the voyage. You can also borrow one and head out on your own if that is more your jawn. You will be getting some exercise and blowing through some (usually) gorgeous roads. Your mother will be proud of you and the other guests will think you are a badass when you recount your excursion at dinner (or, they might think you are crazy, which also works if you want to slip back into misanthrope mode).

    Riding through the late autumn vineyards was magical.

    Although some people don’t understand that blocking the entire path is decidedly uncool.

  9. Be on time: While I never tested it, I am not sure how diligent the crew is in assuring that all are back on board. There is a system, and once there was a general announcement looking for a missing passenger, but it happened after the ship had already started moving again,. Don’t be that guy.
  10. Be adventurous and have fun: Above all else, this is your vacation, so have some fun. Break out of old patterns and try everything. Dance, stroll, sit on the sun deck. Have some goulash and some schnitzel, drink something you can’t pronounce, even if it tastes awful–those are the moments you will remember the most.

    The food on the AmaLea was superb.

    The bowl of goulash in Český Krumlov was stellar.

    Yeah, I even tried some of this (it was salmon, I think).

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About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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