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What You Should Know Before Booking a Backroads River Cruise

Editor-In-Chief
Colleen McDaniel

Last updated
Feb 21, 2024

Read time
7 min read

Since 2015, tour operator Backroads and river cruising giant AmaWaterways have teamed up to deliver cruises that appeal cyclists seeking to explore Europe’s rivers and towns by bike.

The partnership puts active travelers onboard a cruise line that leads the pack when it comes to wellness, resulting in small-group trips heavy on mileage and memories. Find out what it’s like to take a Backroads tour on AmaWaterways.

What is a Backroads Tour with AmaWaterways?

Backroads began in 1979 with the mission of getting travelers exploring the world in active ways, be it by biking, paddling or hiking. The company offers tours across all seven continents.

Its partnership with AmaWaterways focuses specifically on cruises on Europe’s rivers: the Danube, Rhine, Douro in Portugal and multiple rivers in France.

Each year, you can find about a half-dozen Backroads tour cruises offered. Most are partial-ship charters, where up to 30 passengers are booked through Backroads and the rest are AmaWaterways guests. Once a year, Backroads offers a full-ship charter, a blowout cruise in which all guests are cyclists booked through the tour company.

Depending on where the ship is sailing, the river cruise ships accommodate about 160 passengers (ships in Portugal and France usually are smaller). Backroads tour guests kind of form their own bubble, as they often are off the ship and on the bike when other passengers are doing things like city tours or scenic sailing. Still, they can mingle with all passengers at night during destination talks and at cocktail hours, dinners and evening entertainment sessions.

Bikers on a Backroads cruise get the day's plans from the Backroads team. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Backroads passengers can participate in as many of the activities offered to AmaWaterways guests as they want, though that often will mean skipping a bike ride to do so. Backroads does a good job of creating curated experiences so its guests won’t have too much FOMO around skipping basic city tours and the like.

All small-group sailings are supported by an excellent four-person team – two who serve as your daily group leads – biking alongside guests – and two who operate the support vans and prep the bikes.

Backroads provides all bikes and gear, including GPS devices to keep you on the right route, helmets, bags, water bottles, snacks and more. They do not use the onboard bikes that AmaWaterways has for all its cruises; while these bikes are great for shorter rides for Ama guests, Backroads bikes are top of the line and include an e-bike option.

Who Cruises with Backroads and AmaWaterways?

Backroads guests enjoy sharing a beer after a long ride in Bordeaux, France. (Photo: John Roberts)

Backroads cruise guests tend to be veterans of the tour company who have done a trip with the brand before. Many have done the tour company’s non-cruise experiences before, and some have never set foot on a cruise before but simply love the Backroads brand.

(The company says 80% of its business comes from repeat customers or referrals.)

Guests are mostly from the U.S. or Canada, and they’re active at home and probably bike with some regularity. Don’t be intimidated: Many are casual riders rather than people who ride hundreds of miles a week.

Most guests are retired, likely in the 55-plus age group. Don’t be surprised to see cyclists in their 70s or even 80s. Select sailings are available for families with kids and older teens.

Guests tend to be couples, though friends are also common. In some cases, one of the pair is a more serious rider, while the other is joining to keep them company. The collegiality of the trip – you’ll make new friends fast – means you might end up cycling (by choice) with someone other than your travel partner.

What is the Backroads Experience Like?

Cycling is the main event on a Backroads cruise, and you’ll have to opportunity to do it every day, sometimes twice a day.

You’ll kick off the trip by meeting your team leaders and fellow cyclers on the first day, probably before you even board the ship. We tried out a Backroads tour on AmaDolce in Bordeaux, France, and we met our group at the train station, where we all boarded a bus and headed to a vineyard (naturally). There, we snacked a lot (a hallmark of the Backroads experience), did a wine tasting, toured a vineyard and learned about what to expect on our trip, safety, using the GPS units and how our first ride would go.

This is much the way the entire trip will go. Each day, you have one or two rides. In the morning, you’ll meet with your team leaders and the group, who will talk about that day’s journey, how many miles/kilometers to expect, where you could add additional mileage if you’d like and how strenuous it will be. Rides on our trip were between 10 and 50 miles, and we rarely had two “long” rides in the same day.

Each ride will include meeting points, where riders will meet up with the ground support group, which generally has an impressive snack and refreshment spread waiting – we lovingly dubbed the company “Snackroads” on our trip. Exhausted riders can elect to quit at the break; the Backroads van will take them back to the ship.

Backroads guests attend a wine seminar in Bordeaux. (Photo: John Roberts)

Most rides have a destination, often an impressive lunch or small-group tour or experience. On our Bordeaux journey, we toured a lot of vineyards and chateaus, sampled a ton of wines and ate our bodyweight in cheese. These curated tours feel special and probably will make up for any FOMO you might feel for skipping the AmaWaterways offerings.

Because you have GPS units that outline your route, you don’t have to keep up with the group and instead can explore at your own pace, so long as you return to the ship before all-aboard time. We loved our little GPS drill instructors, though we did have some issues like the language suddenly switching to French. Leaders will keep tabs on people if they don’t check in at the breaks, and they’ll hunt you down if you get lost. Much of the group communication is done through WhatsApp.

Bordeaux, France. (Photo: John Roberts)

You’ll encounter all kinds of terrain, from tranquil bike paths to busy streets in towns or cities to hilly roads through the countryside – where the Backroads e-bikes really can help you out.

Sometimes, you’ll return to the ship where you departed it; others, the ship will relocate, and you’ll meet it at its new spot. When you return, you’ll find another spread, where you can enjoy more snacks (often local treats) and even celebratory local beers. Requests and favorites are usually happily hunted down and provided by the trip leaders.

If you don’t feel like biking a route or for a day, you can skip it – no judgment. AmaWaterways has many excursion offerings that will appeal, too.

Yes, you can mingle with other guests, but don’t be surprised if you mostly stick with your Backroads friends. You bond quickly over the miles and the shared joy of seeing Europe in a different way than many people ever do. On our trip, we had meals every night with our group, even though we could have dined with anyone we wished.

Bikers enjoy a beer after a long ride on Backroads cruise. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Backroads cruises are curated and well-executed, with even the tiniest details considered. For that experience, you can expect to pay at least $2,500 to $3,500 per person over the standard cruise price offered by AmaWaterways. (Price depends on the time of year, river and itinerary.)

For the price, you get your choice of bike, helmet, bike bag and GPS unit to use on your trip. You’ll also get souvenir water bottles and a T-shirt or technical jersey to take home with you. All excursions, admission prices and meals are covered, as are the snacks, meals and drinks ashore. Expert guidance and small surprises make the trip memorable.

Wine, beer and soft drinks are included at mealtime as well as during the cocktail hour, but you’ll pay extra for them outside of those times.

Gratuities for the ship’s crew are included in your fare, but tips for the guides – who become your lifeblood on a Backroads sailing – are not. The company says that this is at the discretion of the guest, but budget for $28 per guest per day. This will be split among the trip guides. You can pay these in cash, or through apps such as PayPal or Venmo.

The cost is higher than you will pay for a standard river cruise, but the experience is elevated as well, which is one of the reasons Backroads fans return time and again for more cruising.

Publish date September 06, 2018
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