Though ocean cruises have well-established reputations for their bountiful family-friendly amenities, river cruises have remained mostly "adults only" territory until recently. But, that's been changing.
AmaWaterways (in partnership with Adventures by Disney), Tauck, A-ROSA and Uniworld all offer family-focused sailings. Among the enticements for families: kids-sail-free deals, rooms large enough to sleep third and fourth passengers, and shore excursions designed to appeal to both kids and adults.
Considering taking your kids along on a river cruise? Here are some pros and cons:
Pros of River Cruising With Kids
When my husband and I took our 4- and 8-year-old sons on a Danube River cruise this year on an AmaWaterways/Adventures by Disney trip, it was the first time we'd ventured to Europe with both kids. We found a lot to love about this style of vacation.
The fact that we could unpack once and focus on the destinations themselves, rather than worry about transportation and hotels, was a big draw for us on an itinerary that covered a lot of territory throughout four different countries.
A lot of the work involved in researching destinations has been covered for you, as well, allowing you to select from a handful of shore excursions (or wonder around port cities on your own, if you wish).
No Food Worries
How many hanger-fueled arguments revolve around where and when to eat on your family vacations? River cruises include all of your food (and even wine and beer with meals in most cases for Mom and Dad, plus soft drinks for kids).
If you have picky eaters, dining staff members are generally happy to accommodate, with a variety of basic choices always available, such as hamburgers, grilled chicken and french fries. We found that unlike ocean cruises, river cruise meals were quite efficient, allowing us to zip in and out of the dining room in less than an hour.
Europe can be a challenging destination, as travelers want to make the most of their time by visiting more than one country. A river cruise can be a great solution, guiding passengers through many major European cities (such as Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Paris and Munich).
One of our finest days was in Vienna. In the morning, we toured Schonbrunn Palace, watched a marionette show and went behind the scenes, and then learned how to make strudel.
In the afternoon, we wandered through the Naschmarkt for ice cream and shopping and found a roller coaster-themed/robot-powered restaurant. Then we capped the day with a classical music concert, followed by a late-night goulash and sausage buffet back on the ship.
Another day, while my husband and I toured a brewery in Germany, our Adventures by Disney guides treated the kids to pretzels and lemonade while they played games. Our kids made friends with other children on the cruise and loved getting to know the guides.
Our family loved waking up and watching the beautiful countryside outside our cabin window together. We made marzipan pigs, laughed at a humorous opera performance on board, sang songs from "The Sound of Music" and challenged each other to try new foods.
As with any vacation, the more you get outside your comfort zone, generally the greater the reward -- and more lasting memories. A river cruise allowed us to still maintain some sense of ease while pushing the boundaries of our typical vacation.
Cons of River Cruising With Kids
Your level of enjoyment of your river cruise will likely depend on the age and temperament of your kids. Most cruise lines have a minimum age and then a recommended minimum age, which should help guide you as to how doable the cruise will be for your family.
On our Adventures by Disney cruise, our 4-year-old represented the minimum age, while our 8-year-old was the recommended minimum age. Since our 4-year-old is used to keeping up with his older brother, he handled the trip well, with a few hiccups.
First, we did resort to carrying him on several city tours -- something we don't do much anymore at home. In order to keep up with the group tours in cities that require a lot of walking, we gave our fair share of piggyback rides.
We also selected excursions that we knew wouldn't be more than what we could handle. For example, the bike rides and long hikes were mostly out of the question for us at our current family phase.
On one excursion to an Austrian salt mine (which required a three-hour bus ride), our 4-year-old decided at the last minute that he didn't want to wear the required miner's uniform. No amount of convincing or bribing would change his mind, so we had to leave the ride altogether. This is standard operating procedure in the life of preschoolers, but a river cruise vacation can feel a bit higher stakes than normal.
We also witnessed some of the younger kids having occasional meltdowns. Given the aggressive itineraries which don't leave a lot of time for naps, this is probably more likely to happen with younger travelers.
If you take a river cruise with little ones, it's best to guard yourself against disappointment and go with the flow as much as possible.
Fast-paced Port Days
The pace of a river cruise can be deceptive: One afternoon, you're gently sailing down a river snapping photos of castles, and the next day you're at a new port facing a day filled with bus rides, walking tours and museum visits.
This means that in order to make the most out of your river cruise, your family will have to be adaptable and nimble, showing up for excursions on time and keeping up with the group while on tours. Some of the history-based excursions will likely be over the heads of younger passengers.
Families handle these challenges differently. (We often dangled the promise of ice cream for good behavior -- There's ice cream around every corner in Europe!). Consider how your children handle the occasional bout of boredom or disappointment, and whether they are likely to complain on long walks. If they are unhappy, you're not likely to be able to fully enjoy your trip, either.
For our family, the challenges to river cruising (and Europe, in general) really came down to one main thing: bathrooms.
Small bodies require more frequent trips to bathrooms, and prior visitors to Europe know that a freely available WC isn't quite as common as it is in the U.S. We were grateful to have pretty constant bathroom access both on our ship and on our shore excursion buses, and I was not above paying any amount of euros for an emergency pit stop on land. This would not be as much of a concern with older children.
The older your children are and the more flexible and even tempered they are, the more they (and you as the parent) stand to gain from a river cruise. We witnessed several tweens and teenagers benefiting from the intimate environment of a river cruise -- making new friends, exploring the ship and ports together and having the trip of a lifetime.
Will our kids remember this trip? Our 8-year-old likely will. But, for all of us, it was mostly about spending quality time together in an environment where someone else took care of the details. That allowed us to focus on the excitement of experiencing Europe for the first time, meeting new people and experiencing a different part of the world together.