From what to pack and cabin choices to excursions and extra costs, here are 17 useful things to know before your first European river cruise.
I’ve just got back from my first European river cruise, enjoying an 8-day Avalon Active & Discovery cruise down the Rhone in France. It was a wonderful experience. I had a large panoramic suite, enjoyed plenty of delicious meals and explored a gorgeous region of France too.
This was my first river cruise and while I’d researched quite a lot about the trip’s itinerary, I had quite a few unanswered questions before I went. I wondered what to pack, whether there would be lots of extra costs and what the other passengers would be like. Also, after everything that’s happened in the last few years, I wondered just how safe I’d feel.
So, whether you’re deciding whether to book or you’re setting off on a trip soon, here are 17 useful things to know before your first European river cruise.
17 Things To Know Before Your First European River Cruise
Are there Covid-19 measures on board river cruises?
It’s been a challenging few years for cruises, but this trip felt very safe. First and foremost, you have to be fully vaccinated in order to travel with Avalon. That rule applies to all bookings until the end of 2022, but it could be extended further. All staff are fully vaccinated too.
When I arrived to check in, my suitcase was disinfected with a light sanitising mist. There were temperature checks before breakfast some days and there were hand sanitising stations as you board the boat, outside the restaurant area and in our rooms.
In terms of masks, the staff were wearing them, but it was up to guests if they wanted to wear them too. The only requirement was to wear them around the breakfast and lunch buffets, but I chose to wear mine in the lobby area and on the coaches for excursions.
The team on board organised PCR and Antigen tests for guests requiring negative test certificates to return home. I felt very safe travelling with Avalon. It was like our ship was its own bubble!
Can I take my whole family on a river cruise?
While most people on my river cruise were travelling with their significant other, I was amazed to see some multi-generational groups too. Avalon have a policy that you must be 13+ to travel on their river cruises, and if you’re under 18 you must be accompanied by an adult.
It was lovely chatting to all three generations of the same family who were enjoying their first big group trip since Covid. I wondered if the teenagers would enjoy the style of travel (and the fact most people on board were a lot older!) but one of them described it as the ‘best vacation ever!’
I think the fact that this was an Active & Discovery cruise made it appeal to a broader demographic. There were plenty of adventurous activities such as biking and kayaking for the younger ones, while the grandparents could enjoy a slower pace of life on a wine tour or at a painting workshop.
How do I pack for a river cruise?
I was invited on a Rhone river cruise from Lyon to Marseille at the start of October. Everything I’d researched seemed to say the temperatures might reach 20 degrees during the day and drop to around 12 at night. However, the week before I travelled the region was battered by storms, so it would have been quite a different trip if I’d been on the ship then!
I’ll admit I totally overpacked for my trip as it was my first river cruise and I had no idea what to expect! In general, I wore casual clothes during the daytimes and smarter outfits for the evenings. Here are a few other observations if you’re wondering what you’ll need:
- There really is no set dress code, ever!
- Most guests wore comfortable loungewear and sportswear for excursions (tracksuits, leggings, lightweight anoraks, trainers).
- You can dress up as much as you like for dinner and drinks. Some ladies wore smart dresses for the evenings, others just wore jeans and a top. Anything goes!
- I wished I’d packed a warmer coat as there were a few evening excursions where I was a bit cold.
- Think about footwear. I went kayaking one day and wished I’d packed water shoes or a pair of sports sandals. Instead I got my trainers soaked and they took 24 hours to dry out!
- Pack a small day bag and a refillable water bottle for excursions. Avalon have water taps on board so you’ll never need to buy water.
- It can get chilly out on the deck, even when the sun is shining, so pack a few layers.
- Research regions for any extra items that might be useful. For example, The Camargue in France is known for mosquitoes, so packing some repellent or long trousers would be a good idea.
Do river cruises cater for specific dietary needs?
No matter what your diet is, the Avalon team are happy to create dishes that meet your needs. Whether that’s vegan, vegetarian, lactose free, coeliac, a nut allergy or something else, there will always be things you will be able to eat.
Breakfast and lunch are served as a buffet, so you can help yourself to items that suit your diet. There’s also a meeting on arrival day with the catering team where you can discuss any specific requirements. The team was always very accommodating and I thought the food was excellent.
Is there enough to eat and drink on a European river cruise?
I was really impressed that as well as breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, there were always hot drinks and snacks available in the Club Lounge. It’s almost an all-inclusive experience! As well as a tea and coffee machine, there were usually muffins and cookies freely-available 24/7. It’s extremely unlikely you’ll get hungry or thirsty on a river cruise like this!
Is there Wi-Fi on board river cruises?
There is free Wi-Fi available on board the Avalon ships, but don’t expect it to offer the connectivity you’re used to back home! Sometimes it was fine but at times when most guests are on board (for example just before dinner), the connection may weaken. It didn’t take anything away from my experience, but I’d recommend having some data on your phone plan just in case.
Do I need to leave tips or gratuities?
Avalon have an option to pre-pay your gratuities when you book, so you don’t have to think about it once you’re away. If you don’t opt in for this, there’s another option to pay at the end of your cruise. Tips aren’t compulsory, but it is recommended as there are so many amazing staff who go out of their way to make the experience special.
When I travelled the recommendations were €12 per passenger per day for the crew and €3 per passenger per day for the cruise director. That’s a total of €15 per person per day, or €105 for the trip. You can either put the tips in envelopes left in your room on the final evening, or you can pay by card at reception.
Is it noisy when you’re cruising?
This was one of my concerns as I’m such a light sleeper and I knew that some of our sailing times would be overnight. When the boat is moving, there’s a light hum which you get used to quickly. It definitely didn’t keep me awake. There can be a bit of noise when you arrive somewhere as the crew moor the boat.
In general I was amazed by how quiet the ship was. I expected the walls between cabins to be thin, and assumed I’d hear people in their bedrooms or walking along the corridor, but it was very peaceful.
Should I choose a specific cabin?
The Avalon Poetry II has two full decks of Panorama Suites. Each suite has incredible wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows. The doors slide too, so you can enjoy the breeze as you go. I’d recommend booking a Panorama Suite, ideally on the upper floor as you’re more likely to have a good view.
While it’s not a major issue, you might find that the side your cabin is on could make a small difference to your experience. For example, we were travelling southbound on the Rhone, and tended to moor up to the right side. As my cabin was on the right, that meant that often when we were moored, my view would be of a wall or a jetty, rather than the open view of the river.
However, sometimes another ship would moor up to ours, which could mean that you’d have a view of another bedroom as you open your curtains! When you book, you might be able to ask the Avalon advisors for info on this kind of thing.
Can I change the activities I booked?
I was amazed by how flexible this trip was. It was recommended that we pre-book the included excursions before travelling, but sometimes it was still possible to change activities the day before or on the day. There were only a few activities that had set numbers due to safety regulations or transport.
Do excursions ever get cancelled?
It’s rare that excursions would be cancelled, but occasionally things might not run due to bad weather. For example, I was hoping to go kayaking in Gorges de l’Ardeche, but the recent storms had made water levels dangerous, so the excursion was cancelled. Avalon quickly added spaces to their hiking trip in the same area, so I was still able to see the same sights.
As a goodwill gesture, the cruise director offered to rebook anyone from the kayak trip to an optional excursion kayaking under Pont du Gard (which usually carries an extra fee). What great service! This happened to be one of my favourite activities too. You can read more about it in my South of France itinerary.
Are river cruises bad for the environment?
To be honest, before accepting this river cruise invite, I researched this in detail. I know that ocean cruises have a pretty terrible reputation, but river cruises are tiny in comparison to those enormous floating eyesores!
Avalon have a good sustainability policy, and are dedicated to reducing waste and emissions too. Here’s what I learned when researching the company’s policy. In the last 2 years Avalon has:
- Eliminated single-use plastics onboard ships worldwide.
- Reduced paper waste by 80% onboard.
- Installed LED lighting throughout ships.
- Partnered with farmers along the routes so that ingredients are sourced locally, reducing food miles.
- Partnered with The Ocean Cleanup which is helping to reduce the flow of plastics from rivers to oceans.
There are also big plans for the next few years, as Avalon is aiming to reduce paper waste to less than 1% and try to reduce total carbon emissions by 50%. There are also good intentions to unveil the first fully electric river cruise vessel by 2027. How amazing would that be?!
I guess when you look at sustainability, you have to remember that staying in a hotel or driving somewhere also has negative impacts on the environment. I was pleased to travel with a company that is eco-aware and actively working to improve.
Will I meet like-minded people on a European River Cruise?
No matter your age or interests, you’re likely to find some like-minded people on a river cruise. Unlike ocean cruises where you might have thousands of people on board, a river cruise has just over 100. It’s intimate enough that you really get to know others.
I also think that if you’ve all chosen to book the same cruise, you’re likely to have a shared passion for travel and new experiences!
One of the most heart-warming things about the experience was watching friendships blossom. Couples who sat in their twos on night one joined up with others by the end of the week, creating dinner tables of four, six and even eight! It really felt like deep friendships were created in a matter of days.
Are there solo travellers on river cruises?
Yes! I spoke to the Avalon team and they always keep a few spots on each European cruise for solo travellers and even waive the single supplement fee. As you’ve just read, it’s a friendly atmosphere and you’ll naturally meet people throughout the week.
Are the days tiring?
Yes and no! On my Avalon Active & Discovery cruise I chose every excursion I went on. I really liked the freedom of this as it meant I could choose tours for the morning and afternoon, or have whole days where I didn’t leave the ship if I wanted a rest.
The morning excursions usually leave between 8-9am and return by lunchtime. The optional excursions in the afternoons tend to leave at 2pm and return by 5pm. The trips were so varied and appealing, it was hard to resist going on tours every day! As dinner is always at 7pm, you could be finished by 8pm and get an early night if you wanted a good rest.
So, in terms of the days being tiring, they’re as relaxed or active as you want them to be, as you choose exactly what you do!
How do the excursions work on a European river cruise?
When I checked into my suite on the Avalon Poetry II there was a little earpiece and lanyard waiting for me. This was for the ‘Whisper’ audio system which is used on most tours.
When you’re heading out on an excursion, you just collect the colour-coded audio receiver from the lobby, plug in your earpiece, and then you’ll be able to hear the tour guide loud and clear. It’s a really good system, and means you’re not straining to hear the guides, and they aren’t having to shout!
Are there lots of hidden extras I should be prepared for?
The price of an Avalon cruise actually covers the majority of your trip. The only things that aren’t included are optional excursions (for example, there were some afternoon wine tasting tours in Beaujolais and Châteauneuf-du-Pape), drinks from the bar and gratuities (unless you prepaid those). I thought it was great that all food and morning excursions were included. This isn’t the same on all river cruises, and definitely sets Avalon apart from the competition.
I hope these river cruise FAQs help you with your trip planning. As mentioned, I was a guest of Avalon so all of my tips and suggestions relate to my Avalon experience. Other European river cruises may differ slightly. Let me know if you have any other questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.
If you’d like a detailed guide to the river cruise ship I travelled on, take a look at my review of the Avalon Poetry II. You can also read more about the route I took through France in my post: Lyon to Marseille – the perfect South of France itinerary.