Foreign river cruises are a big travel hit, but are they right for you?

07/20/2014 12:00 AM

07/16/2014 9:40 PM

River cruises are the big success of the current travel season. As amazing as it may seem, no fewer than 53 new river cruise ships will be joining an already-large number this year and in early 2015. One company – Viking – will be adding about 24 spectacular and luxurious longboats to its fleet. And so heavy are advance bookings for these 130-passenger vessels that you rarely will find discounts to their prices, in sharp contrast to the frantic bargaining in the ocean cruise-ship business.

So, is a river cruise something you should consider?

Not if you’re a solo traveler. The people booking these ships almost always are couples or groups of people traveling together. One river cruise ship company (Tauck) recently caused a sensation by announcing that four of the cabins on one of its newest riverboats would be designed for use by singles traveling alone.

Nor should you consider a river cruise if you are a family with young (or even teenage) children. I, for one, have never seen a child aboard a river cruise, and I am certain that children would be miserable aboard one. Nor have I ever heard of a river cruise ship company maintaining special recreational programs for children in the way that the ocean cruise lines do. Whereas the ocean vessels are now deliberately increasing their appeal to families with children, the river cruise ships apparently have never heard that such groupings of human beings exist.

Next, the determined, cost-conscious budget traveler will not want to book a river cruise; they usually are rather costly. Only for the less-popular winter cruises do you often find prices starting at $200 a day; generally, the average cabin aboard a river cruise ship will charge you north of $250, $280 or $300 a day for the usual cruise – and much more than that on the more exotic sailings in Asia or on the Amazon.

Finally, it is unlikely that you’ll find fellow passengers below the age of 50 on a river cruise. Though a sprinkling of such youngsters occasionally will be spotted, the overwhelming number of river cruisers are in their 50s, 60s, 70s and up. When a cruise ship proceeds at a speed of about 4 mph, as most river cruise ships do, the atmosphere is not one for swingers. Most river cruisers enjoy the relaxation and calm of a slow-moving boat, and the enjoyment of a quiet passage along the great rivers of the world.

Europe, of course, is the main area for most river cruises, and people cruise up and down the famous rivers of France, Germany and Austria in particular. The European content of most river cruises also means that the staff aboard the ship usually is European or Eastern European. This pays big dividends at mealtime – since European chefs are chosen for most river cruises, the level of your meals often is quite high. You’ll value those banquets – the frequent caviar, the wonderful wines, the superb desserts – above virtually every other feature of the cruise.

But most of all, you’ll value the luxurious amenities that most river cruise companies are placing aboard their newer ships, most of which feature balconies for cabins, heated swimming pools, putting greens, first-run Hollywood movies in cabins and every conceivable type of entertainment. Many of them also serve some meals“al fresco” in open-air dining decks, and bring aboard entertainers to sing and cavort for your pleasure.

It’s an experience that can only be called “sybaritic”: It relegates the act of seeing a foreign land to second place. The idea that you are traveling, witnessing other cultures and landscapes, encountering lifestyles different from yours, is all subordinated to the luxury of lolling for a week or two in luxurious surroundings, being waited upon hand and foot and fooling yourself into believing that you are seeing a succession of foreign countries. Your contact with those countries is minimal.

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