Discover a New World of River Cruising
Budget Travelers have long known that river cruises offer unique experiences that deliver the value and authenticity they crave: smaller ships that feel like "floating B&Bs," frequent port stops that allow for immersive cultural experiences, and onboard dining that reflects the local cuisine. Now, Avalon Waterways is enhancing the river cruising experience even more, introducing Active Discovery, a new way for cruisers to not only see everything they want to see, but also to actually do things they love to do (cycling, hiking, wine-tasting, hands-on arts and crafts, and much more) along the way.
Some highlights of Avalon’s new Active Discovery program include:
Itinerary: An 8-day Active Discovery cruise between Wiesbaden, Germany (near Frankfurt) to Amsterdam (cruisers can choose to sail northbound or southbound) along the historic, gorgeous Rhine, known for its castle-laden landscapes, mountains, and forests.
At each stop, travelers choose their own activity from options that include an active outing, an off-the-beaten path site, or a traditional sightseeing tour. Activities along the Rhine include:
Get Active: Hike near the picturesque towns of Eltville and Duisburg, climb up to Marksburg Castle for a guided visit with incredible panoramic views, participate in a reenactment of ancient Roman games at an archeological park (yes, for real!), cycle along the Rhine, and join a running tour in the city of canals, eye-popping Amsterdam.
Try Hands-On Experiences: Do some wine tasting at Eltville, learn the art of chocolate making at the Chocolate Museum in Cologne, and taste German culinary delights on a tour of Duisburg. You can also bring home “bragging rights” by touring the former basalt-mining corridors in an ancient volcano, or take a painting class in the country that gave birth to masters such as Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Mondrian in Amsterdam.
Take a Guided Tour: Travelers who crave a more traditional (but no less stunning) experience can tour a monastery so beautiful it was the setting of the classic film “The Name of the Rose,” take a guided walk in Cologne, a cable car ride to historic Ehrenbreitstein Castle in Koblenz, and, of course cruise Amsterdam’s canals, among other guided tour options.
Eat Like a Local: Onboard dinners devoted to local culinary specialties will be a highlight for foodies, including regional dishes and wines offered in the ship’s Panorama Bistro. You can also eat your way through the town of Duisburg when you take a culinary walking tour.
Itinerary: An 8-day Active Discovery cruise between Linz and Budapest along the deservedly legendary “Blue Danube,” where unique cultures, natural beauty, and historic towns wait active travelers. Cruises are available eastbound and westbound.
At each stop along the Danube, cruisers will have several exploration options that include an active outing, an off-the-beaten path site, or a traditional sightseeing tour. Activities along the Danube include:
Get Active: Enjoy the gorgeous natural wonders of the Danube region while exercising your body and mind when you hike along a “vintage” smugglers’ route, cycle to an ancient fortification, paddle a canoe along scenic local waterways, and take a running tour in Vienna, where Strauss composed his classic waltzes celebrating the Danube and other regional landmarks.
Try Hands-On Experiences: Taste the exceptional fresh local cheeses, sip beer produced by Trappist monks near Linz, meet local farmers in the fertile Wachau Valley, attend an authentic medieval knights tournament in Visegard, and learn Hungarian during your day in Budapest.
Take a Guided Tour: More traditional port activities are available, with the opportunity to watch bustling Vienna come to life on an early -morning walking tour (including breakfast at a classic Viennese cafe and a visit to Habsburg private art collection at the Museum of Fine Arts), meet an actual European count in his actual castle, and devote a day to tolerance on a visit to a WWII concentration camp.
Eat Like a Local: In addition to beer- and cheese-tasting tours, a tasting tour of Durnstein is available, along with a visit to the alluringly named Wine World for sipping local vintages. Regional culinary specialities and wines are also offered at dinnertime onboard in the ship’s Panorama Bistro.
Avalon Waterways’s river cruise ships serve as an elegant, contemporary home away from home, with Wall-to-Wall Panoramic Windows, headsets for guided excursions in ports, complimentary bicycles onboard, complimentary Nordic walking sticks, and much more.
BOOK YOUR ACTIVE DISCOVERY CRUISE
To book, or to learn more about Avalon Waterways Active Discovery cruises, please visit Avalon Waterways.
Not long ago, cruising was synonymous with partying, romance, or exploring farflung destinations, often post-retirement. These days, there's a completely different way of looking at cruise ships—not just as playgrounds for overgrown children but for, well, your children. But traveling with kids is never as simple as tossing some clothes and a smartphone into a backpack, is it? Here, we share expert advice on everything from how to pack smart, keep the little ones safe, find reliable onboard child care, and which cruise lines are rolling out the red carpet for families. PACK SMART If you're traveling with a baby or toddler, get used to the idea of schlepping your own formula, jars of baby food, and diapers, which are not among the myriad products a typical cruise ship can sell you. And don't squirrel away all those must-haves in your suitcase—on embarkation days you may be separated from your luggage for hours and you'll be able to keep your little one happier if you have a tote bag stocked with food, wipes, change of clothes, etc. The good news is you may be able to leave your baby's portable crib at home—ask your cruise line (early!) if you can reserve one in advance. "To lighten your packing load, consider planning a laundry day at sea," advises David Molyneaux, editor of TheTravelMavens.com. "Most family-friendly ships will have washers and driers in the cabin areas—check the line's website." BOOK A SAFE CABIN Yeah, we all had a collective gasp when a toddler fell off a cruise ship balcony over the holidays in Florida. Of course you should brief all kids, from toddlers to teens, about keeping off railings, but Molyneaux suggests, "Even if it's only for your peace of mind, avoid balconies until your kids are old enough to know better." You can book an interior room for the whole family, or give older older kids an interior room and take an exterior balcony room across the hall for yourselves. Many cruise lines will offer family cabins, which can sleep up to four, and deeply discount the cost of the kids' berths—but Molyneaux notes that sometimes booking two adjoining cabins on a lower deck instead of a suite can save you money and get you more elbow room. (Disney even throws in an extra "half bathroom," with a toilet and sink, in most cabins. The ship will also have its own rules about how and when kids are allowed to participate in organized activities. Some lines allow elementary school-age kids to sign themselves up for activities and walk the ship's corridors unsupervised—but that kind of choice is really only yours to make. GET A SITTER Although some lines offer so many organized activities for kids during the day that some parents actually complain that they didn't see enough of their kids on their cruise, most couples will value some alone time, especially when the sun goes down. Some cruise lines offer private in-cabin babysitting at a premium—it can run you around $20 per hour. But if your kid wrinkles his nose at the idea of being "left with a sitter," you're in luck: Many cruise lines disguise evening babysitting as "late night parties," allowing parents to drop off their kids for around $10 per hour per child. (On Disney cruises, the party goes till midnight and it's free of charge). BOOK A FAMILY-FRIENDLY CRUISE When it comes to going the extra mile to put smiles on your kids' faces, these cruise lines are tops: Carnival If your kids can imagine summer camp at sea, that's Camp Carnival—complete with counselors to supervise daily activities and meals. The line divides children into three age groups from two- to 12-years old and employs counselors who have education or childcare experience; play spaces resemble nothing less than the playroom of your dreams (carnival.com). Disney No surprises here—Disney knows how to keep kids happy. The line is famous for its roaming characters like Mickey and Minnie, of course, but it also offers Broadway-style musicals, first-run films in 3D, and port-of-call activities tailored for kids like glass-bottom boats and up-close-and-personal dolphin encounters (disneycruise.disney.go.com). Norwegian Splash Academy sets the bar high—to entertain and educate children from six months to 12 years old (divided, of course, into age-appropriate groups, with parents required for the littlest ones). Whether your kid is into low-key arts and crafts projects or adrenaline-charged circus activities (including juggling and tumbling) taught by real circus performers, Norwegian's foray into family fun goes big (ncl.com). Royal Caribbean When you're reaching out to families, it helps to have some trusted names in your Rolodex, and Royal Caribbean has partnered with Crayola, Fisher Price, and DreamWorks to offer a blend of educational and entertainment options to its littlest passengers. From quiet play groups to full-on surf simulators, climbing walls, and the first carousel-at sea, there's something for every taste. Oh, and you may want to warn your little ones that they may bump into Shrek or Kung Fu Panda onboard (royalcaribbean.com).
How to Plan the Perfect Family Cruise
Before our first cruise, my husband and I wondered whether seven days in the same cabin with our children was sane or sadistic; if the kids could forgo T-shirts and sibling rivalry at our formal dinner seatings; and if we'd return fat, bored, and broke. Instead, we had one of our best vacations ever. Since then, more than eighteen years ago, we've been on many cruises together. Cruising's not perfect--the ports get flooded with "boat people," shore tours can be expensive, and the food can be mediocre--but being on a ship frees us from the usual family nemeses: packing, unpacking, schlepping suitcases and dealing with cranky children in a hot car. "Cruising is a very easy way to travel," says Barbara Koltun, a Potomac, MD clinical social worker. "Life is simple and fun. All you have to do is pick your shore tour. The rest is taken care of. You do not have to worry about what the evening's entertainment will be or how much dinner will cost and there's something for everyone to do." Last summer the Koltun's sailed to Alaska with 13-year-old Sarah and her grandparents. Like many cruisers Wayne Poverstein, a Morris Plains, NJ, high school teacher appreciates the freedom cruising affords parents and kids to do things together and apart, including eating. "Kids can get whatever they want to eat whenever they want it. Most of the time on a cruise, Shaun, at 12, 14, and 16, didn't want to be stuck in a 1 ½ to two hour dinner with us. He was interested in eating hot dogs and pizza with his new friends. And that was fine with Mary Jane and me." It's no wonder that the family market, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), has grown nearly 200 percent in the past five years. In 2004, CLIA projects that 1.1 million children, age 17 and younger, will have sailed, up from 1 million in 2003. But to sail on the ship of your dreams, plan ahead. You need to pick the voyage as well as the vessel that's right for your family. And so that you don't go overboard on your budget, you need to book wisely, choose shore tours carefully, and be mindful of all the extra ways cruise lines in recent years have come up with to separate you from your dollars. Choosing the right destination and cruise length Part of cruising's allure is getting what you wish for, so be honest about practical issues and whether your family prefers sand and sun, rainforests, glaciers or European capitals with 17th century churches. Caribbean cruises work well for all ages, especially with tag-alongs tots or teenagers. Give a pail and shovel to a 2-5-year-old, sit him on the sand near the water's edge, and he can dig and play for hours. Give a teen some dollars to try WaveRunners, and parasailing, and she'll be back to beg for more money before you've even read three pages of your novel. Caribbean and Scandinavian cruises can be budget-stretchers because you can forego the cost of organized shore tours and still have fun. In Jamaica, Aruba, Curacao, and other islands, simply take a taxi to a nearby beach. In Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki the ships dock within an easy walk or short cab ride to the city center, making it easy to stroll, window shop and find the museums. Most lines also run either complimentary or inexpensive shuttles to town. European/Scandinavian capitals, however, go over best with history-oriented pre-teens and teens. They tend to like browsing the boulevards, touring the castles, and of course, shopping the trendy stores for sweaters, jeans, and jackets. However, beware of voyages that promise London, Paris, Rome, and Florence. You'll get there but only after a 1 ½-2 hour bus ride from the port. That not only adds transportation costs, but lots of opportunity for scowls, as few tweens and teens willingly get up early then sit quietly when stuck in traffic. Alaska's best for nature loving kids age 10 plus who want to hike a glacier, dog sled, fly over an ice field, sea kayak through bays populated with seals, or take a float trip through a Bald Eagle preserve. Such active outings, on average, cost $100 or more per person, per port. Despite the expense, doing at least one of these gets you beyond the tacky port areas and into America's last, great wilderness. Feeling tentative about cruising? Then, book a three-to-four day sail, a less costly option that enables you to sample ocean life and convince yourself that you really can stomach undulating waves. However, on a short voyage you might miss one of cruising's great lures: lazy sea days for lounging and admiring the limitless horizon. Choose a children's program that fits your family's needs Children's facilities and activities not only vary from line to line but also may differ among ships flying the same flag. Most programs operate at sea from 9am to 10 pm except for meal breaks. From 10 pm to about 1:00am most lines offer group babysitting for a fee. Before you book, be sure that the kids' program functions for your age child and for your sailing. Pre-schoolers: With a non-potty-trained two-year-old, choose Carnival because their counselors change diapers. Norwegian Cruise Line's program accepts two-year-olds but counselors beep when it's time to redo the Pampers, a situation that may leave your tot wet and whining. Disney's children's program divides into a group for ages 3-4 and another for ages 4-5, a system that works well for timid youngsters who may be unused to group play. On each ship, Flounder's Reef, one of the few nurseries at sea, tends to infants as young as twelve weeks for an hourly fee. The facility has limited capacity and hours. For kids still young enough to believe in fairy dust, Disney offers dream encounters. On no other line can your kids take tea with Wendy, dance with Snow White, kiss Belle, or figure out how to help Peter Pan foil the dastardly Captain Hook. Gradeschoolers: Kids ages 6 to 12, the easiest cruisers to please, like most any program as long as they meet a new buddy. Scavenger hunts, art and crafts, and big-screen computer games play well with this crowd. Good options: Disney because of its innovative sessions in cartooning and science fun, and its sensitive grouping of ages 5-7, 8-9, and 10-12; RCI because of its caring and counselors and separate programs for six to eight year-olds and nine to eleven year-olds. Avoid NCL with children ages 8 through 12, particularly if they've sailed before. These junior cruisers will rebel against NCL's policy of only allowing teens 13- and older to sign themselves into and out of the children's program. Most lines start this self-policing policy with eight-year-olds and junior cruisers relish their new-found freedom to roam in mini-bands from the pool deck to ping pong to the pizza parlor. Unless large numbers of kids participate, both Holland America and Princess lump ages 3 to 7 together, a strategy that could make shy little ones feel overwhelmed and older kids selfconscious about being with "babies." Teens: RCI offers the best program and facilities for teenagers, the hardest passengers to keep happy. First of all, RCI separates 12-14 and 15-17-year-olds, a philosophy that acknowledges a pre-teen's non-kid status without forcing a shy eighth-grader to keep up with a seen-it-all high school junior. Secondly, RCI gives teens ample territory to meet. They can gather at the Living Room, a hang-out, or dance at Fuel, the non-alcoholic disco. The Navigator, Mariner, Monarch and Sovereign of the Seas also add the Back Deck, a teen--only fun and sun spot. Disney's also added more space for teens. Ages 13-17 years-old hang-out and dance in the Stack on the Magic, and, beginning Oct. 17, in a similar top deck club called Aloft on the Wonder. Unless large numbers of teens sign-up, Disney, Princess and Holland America mix thirteen year-olds with seventeen year-olds, an often undesirable situation. Be savvy about pricing and extra costs Brochure rates are deceptive. Often high-volume, cruise only agencies can get you the same cabin for less. Often, but not always, especially now that RCI and, starting January, Carnival, require travel agencies to offer only those rates approved by the line. "We're trying to level the playing field by offering the same rates to big agencies as well as to small agencies" says Carnival spokesperson Jennifer de la Cruz. >For the lowest rates, book with a high-volume, cruise only travel agency, whether online or over the phone, and always shop around. "We still get volume discounts from some lines," says Tara Rogers, World Wide Cruises, cruises.com. "On an NCL seven-day Caribbean cruise we can generally save a couple $250 on an inside cabin and more on a deluxe cabin. RCI still offers us discounted happy hour rates' on Tuesdays, when they try to unload inventory." High volume agencies also can often get their clients upgraded on a space available basis. "We play by the rules," notes Mark Venezia, CruisesOnly, cruisesonly.com, "but by partnering with other companies we provide added value often in the form of upgrades or cash back or shipboard credit. For example, through the end of the year if you book an NCL cruise from a port near you, you get a free $100 gas card so you can drive to the dock. And with us, you always get someone on the line. We're here 24/7." Extra Fees: It used to be that except for drinks, shore tours, gambling, spa treatments and the occasional specialty coffee, everything else onboard came with your cabin price. Not any longer. Although cruise lines haven't "unbundled" these items, charging for services and amenities once included for free, the ships now offer a range of new possibilities, each at a add-on. To avoid busting your budget, simply say "No" or just be selective. A firm talk ahead of time and a family limit on such extras as Hagen Daz ice cream Sundaes, specialty dinners, wine tastings, computer workshops, and intensive Yoga may head off some on-board conflict. Candyce H. Stapen has written 24 family travel books, including National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations.
European River Cruises
What's the experience like? Because the boats rarely carry more than 200 people--10 times fewer passengers than the average ocean liner--river cruises are decidedly more intimate. They're also less frenzied; the main activities are relaxing on deck and low-impact sightseeing. "It's neat to sit and watch people fishing, kids playing, and other boats going by," says Shirley Linde, author of The World's Most Intimate Cruises. Some of the newer riverboats do have gyms or pools, but most are without the bells and whistles of ocean cruisers. Entertainment, such as it is, comes in the form of a piano bar, cultural lectures, or the crew doing cute song-and-dance routines from their homelands. You'll be fed well, but not constantly (no 24-hour buffets). Typically there's a single restaurant serving a buffet breakfast and lunch, and a multicourse dinner with a choice of entrées. Dress is almost always casual. Can a river cruise sub for a traditional tour? Whereas big-ship cruises in Europe often stop far from the actual destination--the port of Civitavecchia, for example, is an hour from Rome--the major plus of a riverboat is that it pulls right into the middle of preserved medieval towns such as Bamberg, Germany. The downside is that these aren't big-ticket destinations. If you have your mind set on seeing the Parthenon or Big Ben, then no, a river cruise doesn't work. River cruises explore smaller towns and villages, and give a terrific feel for the Old World. Like traditional guided tours, river cruises sometimes offer special-interest itineraries that focus on wine, gardens, or classical music. But on a boat you don't have to switch hotels every few days. "It's a great way to experience different cultures," says Eike Grabowski, a travel agent from Shallotte, N.C. "I'm not crazy about getting up at 6 a.m. and putting my luggage outside the door." Where are cruises offered? Popular options are the Danube, often combined with the Main and featuring visits to castles and gothic cathedrals in Hungary, Austria, and Germany; the Elbe, which meanders through Germany and the Czech Republic and stops at Dresden, completely rebuilt from the notorious bombing in World War II; France's Rhône and Saône, taking clients through the scenic regions of Provence and Burgundy; the Seine, for Paris as well as Claude Monet's hometown of Giverny; the Po in northern Italy, frequently themed around opera; and Russia's Volga River, connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg. A more unusual choice is Portugal's Douro River, where vineyards and wild, undeveloped landscapes are the backdrop. What about barges? Barges are smaller (6 to 50 passengers), slower (max of around 5 mph vs. 12 mph on a river cruise), and are usually seen on narrow waterways, notably in France. Private groups often rent an entire barge, and because the vessels are so easy to navigate, self-drives are possible. Brokers such as The Barge Connection book self-drives starting at around $2,000 a week for a six-berth barge, as well as crewed voyages that, depending on cabin sizes, amenities, menu, and staff, cost $1,600 to $5,000 per person per week. Who's onboard? For journeys lasting 10 days or longer, the average passenger is educated, well-traveled, and over 60. Weeklong cruises attract more folks in their 40s and 50s, as well as occasional young couples. Families with children are uncommon, and some lines don't even allow anyone under 12 onboard. Will everyone speak English? Crews on all ships will speak some English, and the staff on lines such as Viking River Cruises, Uniworld, and Avalon Waterways, all of which cater to the North American market, will be fluent. Operators based on the Continent, such as CroisiEurope, attract mostly European passengers, so you may not be able to communicate with everyone. What are cabins like? Standard cabins on ships built in the 1980s can be as small as 90 square feet, while the average room on many new boats is 200 square feet. Nearly all lines offer only outside cabins, so you can expect a window and a view. The cheapest rooms are just above water level, where the scenery isn't as good. Riverboats are narrow, so they rarely have room to provide balconies. It's standard for cabins to come with a hair dryer, air-conditioning, and TV. When should I go? The peak seasons are late spring and early fall, when temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold. You'll find the cheapest prices during the iffy periods of early spring and late autumn, and some lines have discounts during the hottest weeks of July and August. (The savings might be negated because that's when airfare costs the most.) Many passengers plan their cruises according to the agricultural cycle. "If you're interested in wine, you may want to go when the grapes are being harvested in the fall," says author Linde. "And if you want to see tulips in Holland, go in April." How much? It depends on the cruise line and the season. Avalon, a middle-of-the-pack line, has a seven-night "Tulip Time" cruise through Holland and Belgium starting at $1,600 per person. Viking, which offers a similar level of luxury, lists promotions on its website, sometimes bringing rates down to less than $1,000 for a week. Grand Circle Travel, a general tour operator that markets to Americans 50 and older, offers nine different river cruises in Europe, sometimes for as little as $1,000 with airfare from New York. The international clientele of Sea Cloud Cruises are used to paying over $3,000 a week for outstanding food, sophisticated atmosphere, and huge cabins with marble floors in the bathrooms. What costs extra? The cruise price covers three meals per day, and oftentimes afternoon tea, wine at dinner, and guided excursions. Tips are not included. There'll be an envelope in your cabin for gratuities; the standard is for each passenger to leave around $10 per day--preferably in the local currency. The Barge Connection 888/550-8580, bargeconnection.com Viking River Cruises 877/668-4546, vikingrivercruises.com Uniworld 800/360-9550, uniworld.com Avalon Waterways 877/797-8791, avalonwaterways.com CroisiEurope 888/863-1212, croisieurope.com Grand Circle Travel 800/248-3737, gct.com Sea Cloud Cruises 888/732-2568, seacloud.com Peter Deilmann Cruises 800/348-8287, deilmann-cruises.com
1. BOOK EARLY By reserving six to 12 months ahead of your cruise, you can lock in an early-bird rate that's 25 to 50 percent lower than the published "brochure" rate most lines advertise. You'll also have a wider selection of itineraries, dates, and cabins, and possibly get better deals on airfare and hotels. If prices go down after you book, a good travel agent—or the cruise line itself—should help you get the new lower rate. See the 10 Most Popular Cruise Ports on Earth 2. OR BOOK LATE Yes, it runs completely counter to what we just said about booking early, but if you wait 60 to 90 days before you want to sail, cruise lines often drop prices significantly to fill any remaining spaces on their ships. If you're willing and able to white-knuckle it, this is when you can nab a weeklong Caribbean cruise for under $500. But of course, you won't have as much choice of itinerary or cabin, it may be tricky to find a low airfare to your port, and last-minute fares are typically nonrefundable. 3. REQUEST A DISCOUNT Asking the right questions can work magic. If you're a return customer, mention it when booking and politely inquire whether you're eligible for a discount—it can shave 5 to 15 percent off your fare. Since cruise prices are based on double occupancy, a third or fourth person in your cabin should get a 30 to 60 percent discount. If you're 55 or older, don't be shy about asking for a 5 percent discount; likewise, active and retired servicemen and women should always ask if the line offers them savings. 4. USE A TRAVEL AGENT Sites like Kayak and Expedia have put you in the driver's seat—sometimes literally—but don't underestimate the role a good agent can play in finding you the right deal. Many have reserved spaces they can sell you at a discount, and they can explain whether an advertised "free" upgrade or all-inclusive package is for real or just a ploy. They can also advocate for you if rates drop after you've booked your cruise. 5. GO BIG Large groups—like family reunions at sea—can be complicated to pull together, but they can also knock big bucks off the price of cabins. A group of 16 people in eight cabins, for instance, can sometimes get a steep discount on the 16th fare, or in some cases a free berth. For large groups, booking a year in advance is advised to ensure you get the block of cabins you want. 6. TRY SHOULDER SEASON You won't save a ton, but sailing when most folks stay home can nab you a modest bargain—maybe 10 percent off typical high-season rates. Here are the best times to find deals in four highly popular cruise regions: Caribbean. September and October, the non-holiday weeks in December, and early January to Presidents' Day. Europe. Mid-March and April, September to December Alaska. May and September Bermuda. April and October