June 7, 2018

River Cruising: What is It Like?

Our home for 7 days;  Viking Mani
Most of us are familiar with cruise ships. We have seen pictures of these massive sea-going hotels. With the ability to hold thousands of passengers on each trip, taking a cruise is something an estimated 20 million folks indulge in each year. Virtually all of them feature a dozen restaurants and lounges, Broadway-like shows, casinos, rock climbing walls, swimming pools, full fitness centers, and enough shopping to bankrupt anyone.

Quite different is the experience of river cruising. With roughly 200 passengers, these 440 foot long vessels are very little like their big cousins. Instead of unlimited entertainment options on board, days are spent leisurely floating from one city or town to the next. Reading, playing cards, sitting on the deck watching the countryside pass by, and establishing friendships solidified over dinner each night and onshore excursions each day, river cruising is more  about being closer to the places you visit and the people on board.

Less than two weeks ago, Betty and I completed our first river cruise from Amsterdam to Basel on the Rhine River with Viking Cruise Lines. With a few extra days in Amsterdam before the cruise and then afterwards in the Swiss city of Lucerne, we spent 12 days having the time of our lives. 

Most river cruise ships have one restaurant, maybe a more casual choice for breakfast and lunch, a lounge for cocktails and evening entertainment, and a roof deck with plenty of chairs for relaxing. Our ship had shuffleboard and a few putting greens for those so inclined. A small but well-stocked library, a few Internet connected computers, and a couple of shelves of gift items completed the package.

Our stateroom came complete with a balcony, a TV (that we rarely used!), plenty of storage, desk and chair, excellent air conditioning, and one of the best showers we have experienced anywhere! Twice-a-day steward service kept our room clean, bottled water restocked, and turn down service during dinner each evening.

The ship was so smooth sometimes the only way to know we were moving was to look out the window. On a river, with such a large ship, there was no swaying or motion sickness to contend with.

The crew was absolutely on top of their game: friendly and efficient. After just two days, we were greeted by name more often than not; one of the benefits of 200 passengers instead of 3,000.

Each day included a stop in a city with a walking tour lead by a competent local guide. We visited the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, a windmill site in Holland, Mannheim, Cologne, Heidelberg and the Black Forest in Germany, plus Strasbourg in France. Along the way, dozens of castles loomed over us from the steep hillsides that line portions of the Rhine.

Yes, we were that close to the wall
Actually, one of my favorite memories was passing through eight locks along the river. As the ship slipped into the slot, we were literally no more than 6 inches from the sides. As water filled the lock, we slowly rose 20 feet to meet the new level of the river.  I sat on our balcony or stood on the deck experiencing this fascinating display of engineering and skill.

The flight time to and from Phoenix was tough. On our last day we awoke at 6:30am in Lucerne and weren't home until 8:30am Switzerland time, the next morning, making for a 26 hour day. 

Even so, the friends we made and the places we saw made the effort worth it. Here are just a sampling of the thousands of photos Betty and I took on this memorable journey.

Amsterdam canal at night

More Amsterdam

Kinderdijk Windmills
Cologne, Cathedral 
The famous Anne Frank House and Museum

Local guide with traditional wooden shoes

Cologne at Night

There are dozens of castles along the middle Rhine

How to make cuckoo clocks
How to sell cuckoo clocks!
Strasbourg, France

These last few pictures are from Lucerne, Switzerland and while on a sightseeing cruise on Lake Lucerne. Yes, those are the Swiss Alps in the background.


  1. WOW! Breathtaking. Amazing. Fortunate, fortunate you! Just WOW!

    1. It doesn't look anything like the Arizona desert!

  2. It looks like you had beautiful weather, so happy for you both! Our trip started off with snow flurries in Amsterdam, though it did go on to get a bit warmer as our trip progressed.

    Those canal lock walls! I think what got to me was how slimy . . . and smelly! . . . so many of them were. WIt looks like you had beautiful weather, so happy for you both! Our trip started off with snow flurries in Amsterdam, though it did go on to get a bit warmer as our trip progressed.

    Those lock walls! I think what got to me was how slimy . . . and smelly! . . . so many of them were. (We went through 67 of them during our four week river cruise!)

    So happy you enjoyed your trip. It truly is the most wonderfully relaxing way to travel. I think we'd do it every year were it not so expensive(!).

    Welcome home, and tell Betty her photos are absolutely beautiful! I especially love the last one of the two of you out on the boat.

    1. I thought going through the locks was fascinating. Yes, the walls are disgusting. Of course, I had to reach out and touch one...then quickly went to wash up.

      We had a few cloudy days, but overall the weather was sunnier and a bit warmer than we expected. I had to buy two short sleeve shorts since Lucerne was around 80 degrees, a bit much for what I brought.

      I doubt we will do another river cruise just because of the expense and travel time from Phoenix. But, if anyone is going to take one, I strongly recommend paying extra for Premium Economy airline seats. The legroom, meals, footrests, and amenities made the 9 hour flight to London much more bearable.

  3. Thanks for sharing. Did you have a regular or French balcony, and were you satisfied with that choice?

    1. We had a regular balcony but decided we would have been just fine with the cheaper French balcony. The effect once you open the sliding door is about the same and we didn't spend much time on the balcony, preferring the view of both sides of the river from the lounge or upper deck.

  4. Bob, it looks like we were treading along similar paths this Spring. Malcolm and I were in Cologne and Amsterdam, alone with multiple other destinations while traveling by train. I took a lot of photos in Amsterdam, but nothing close to the beauty of Betty's night photo. The cathedral in Cologne was pretty amazing but we did not find much else to appreciate about the city.

    Glad you enjoyed river cruising. When you are ready for a transpacific crossing, let us know.

    1. Suzanne, I think my most striking memory from our day in Cologne was the Nazi Interrogation Prison . . . absolutely chilling with it's still-visible wall writings from Jews and other persecuted groups. We also much enjoyed the Romano-Germanic Archaeology Museum. Oh, and also the Chocolate Museum!!!

    2. I wasn't a big fan of Cologne, either. The day we were there almost everything was closed. With the ship docked across the river, the nighttime view was quite grand.

      Lucerne was probably my favorite city, though Strasbourg, France, was prettier than I had expected.

  5. Gorgeous photos! We are contemplating a river cruise but, it kind of depends on my results at Penn, whether it's doable or not. Fingers crossed! But, I don't mind living vicariously through you and Betty. ;)

    1. Our fingers are crossed, too. I look at your blog every day to see if there is an update...with good news.

      I will have a post of more pictures in a few weeks...I have thousands to choose from !

  6. Hi Bob, we live in Australia so I can certainly understand the long flights! My husband and I love cruising but are yet to travel on a River Cruise as they appear to be very expensive. It is on our list to do and your photographs have certainly inspired me to perhaps bring a River Cruise a little higher onto our list. Have a great day!
    Sue from Sizzling Towards 60 & Beyond

    1. Even with a two-for-one sale on the room and a discount on the basic airfare, it was still pricey. Travel and Medical insurance (a must), 4 extra nights in hotels, upgraded airfare = big bucks. But, it was something on our list, too. I'm glad we made it work.

  7. Thanks for the education on river cruises, Bob. My husband and I have traveled on a large cruise ship in Alaska and our own powerboat here on the rivers of the northeast, but have no experience with the type of river cruise that you and Betty enjoyed. It sounds like such an excellent trip - and it certainly resulted in some excellent photos! I especially like the one of you and Betty in front of the castle - the two of you were obviously having just too much fun!

    Traveling through locks is a fascinating experience. Alan and I have taken our boat through locks on both the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. My brain is not mechanically inclined, so the locks are truly engineering marvels to me - and their historical significance can't be overlooked. Vessels approaching a lock can radio ahead to the Lockmaster with any questions. Most of the locks on the waterways we've traveled actually have a red/green traffic light and boats approaching a lock will wait to the right of the lock entrance until the gates are opened and any vessels locking through from the opposite direction exit the lock - just like elevator etiquette! When the traffic light turns green, a boat can slowly enter the lock and look for direction from the Lockmaster. When a number of small to medium size boats are locking through, the Lockmaster might assign positions along the lock wall. Usually, if it's just one or two boats, the captains will be free to choose their own positions. We generally choose a position along the right side of the lock when possible since the piloting controls are on the right side of our boat. That allows Alan to help keep the boat out from those slimy walls from his position. Boats need to be secured to the pipes or ladders on the inside of the lock wall because the water in the lock can become somewhat turbulent. If a boat were to break away from the wall and get caught in the turbulence, it could easily be damaged or damage another vessel. On the other hand, you can't actually tie on to the pipes since the water level will be going up or down a great deal, so tying on tightly would be disastrous. Boats will generally feed a line or two around the pipe and the captain and crew will slide the lines up or down the pipe as needed while using poles or other means (preferably not your hands - eeeew!) to keep the sides of the boat from bumping or scraping the wall of the lock. The actual locking through procedure takes only about 15 or 20 minutes in the locks along the Erie Canal, not including wait time for oncoming traffic to lock through and clear the entrance. Our boat is a small powerboat - only about 22' in length - so I'm sure your experience on your river cruise was a little different. In any situation, though, traveling through a waterway lock is an intriguing and memorable adventure. A bonus for our kids was that they were able to bring those elementary school history lessons to life since they were manning the lines while we navigated the locks along some very historic waterways.

    So glad you enjoyed your cruise! Looking forward to more photos!

    1. The boats that do the river cruises in Europe are all the same size: 440 feet long! Just like your experience, the captain has to time his entrance into the lock so he isn't treading water for too long. When the outer lock gate goes up he is free to enter. With only 4-6" of clearance on either side that is quite a feat.

      While living in Syracuse I walked along the Erie Canal a few times but never experienced a boat trip.

  8. What a wonderful travel post. And of course Betty's photos are amazing. She has an artist's eye. So did you buy one of those cuckoo clocks??

    1. No, we decided against the clocks. The small ones would not stand out enough to be noticed and the big ones were up to $600. Besides, the sounds would have driven us crazy! But, it was interesting to see how they are made and the system of weights, pullies, and steel cables that run everything.


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