(Updated 1:40 pm. EDT) – With health and safety protocols changing because of the COVID-19 panedemic, several river cruise lines are revealing details of their plans to re-enter service safely and carefully when the time is right.

The changes that have been announced publicly point to a re-working of the traditional river cruise experience. Passengers should expect to see changes to the way meals are taken, tours are operated, and even the way guests and crew interact with each other – and among themselves.

What makes the changes in river cruise interesting is that they might give hints as to how the larger ocean lines approach their changes. There’s also speculation within the travel industry that as people emerge from lockdowns, they will seek out more intimate experiences, such as river cruises that carry fewer than 200 passengers, as opposed to large group gatherings.

Changes to Dining, Bars and Onboard Health

Le Bistrot on Joie de Vivre
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection recently released new health and safety protocols that cruises can expect onboard its fleet of riverboats in Europe and beyond.

Some of the new measures include health screenings prior to embarkation and contactless payment options. Uniworld has considered how its passengers interact with their onboard environment, crewmembers and each other in determining how to move forward.

"We have been scrupulous in our process to consider every moment that may present an unnecessary concern and why all coffee table books, magazines and brochures for example, have been removed from public use. Instead, guests will be able to access these reading materials via our complimentary PressReader app on their personal devices," said Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld's president and CEO.

A hallmark of Uniworld's ships used to be the decorative glass jars filled with candies and other goodies. These will not return as the line seeks to serve all treats, including fruit, cookies, chips, nuts and candies to passengers on an individual basis instead of the former self-serve environment.

In addition, Uniworld will be providing disinfectant wipes throughout each vessel, including at coffee stations and in all public restrooms.

A bigger change for those used to river cruising comes in the form of dining arrangements: meals onboard will now have reserved seating with guests seated at the same table, with the same tablemates and wait staff, for the duration of the voyage. This is more akin to traditional dining arrangements offered on oceangoing ships, as most river cruise vessels have typically offered open-seating without fixed dining times. Shared items like bread and butter will now be offered individually to each passenger instead of being placed on the table.

Excursions could improve, as Uniworld limits capacity on tour motorcoaches to provide more personal space onboard.

In addition, Uniworld is offering up face masks, gloves and bottles of hand sanitizer to all passengers who request them.

The line says that in addition to the extensive and required professional health and hygiene HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) training that all crew receives, crew will receive regular health screenings and are expected to adhere to all social distancing requirements. The vessel's public and private crew quarters are sanitized regularly, and crew meals will now be plated – no buffet service will be allowed onboard.

"The world is changed and as we start to welcome guests just beginning to step back into travel, we want them to know that we understand and are anticipating their concern and taking careful and deliberate steps to protect their safety, health and wellbeing—which will come in the form of a broad smile instead of a handshake" said Bettridge.

Strasbourg-based CroisiEurope is also making changes to its onboard dining, eliminating the traditional morning buffet breakfast and replacing it with two seatings featuring a more limited menu of served items. Families and large parties traveling together will be able to sit closely in the dining room, but only to a maximum table size of eight people. That's good news for those who are fans of tables for two: that looks like it will be the new norm going forward.

CroisiEurope will make it a requirement to use audio listening devices on arranged shore excursions, like the popular QuietVox systems. It also strongly recommends passengers on tours use masks, which will be provided prior to departure of every excursion along with gloves and hand sanitizing gel.

Re-Thinking the River Cruise

The need for changes was echoed to Cruise Critic by AmaWaterways co-founders Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst.

Both stressed that the 2020 river cruise season is mostly dependent on how Europe opens back up. They note that it will likely take a longer time, once Europe does open, for Americans to be able to travel there, due to the high presence of COVID-19 cases within the United States. Schreiner and Karst both say to expect pre-and-post land extensions to change due to differing entry requirements and opening times between countries.

Schreiner was quick to stress that what sets river cruising apart from ocean cruising is that it is essentially a land voyage. Passengers are on shore most of the time and are almost never out of sight of it. Medical services can be summoned easily from local hospitals, doctors and ambulance services, unlike oceangoing ships that must effectively act as their own hospitals until land can be reached.

The AmaWaterways co-founders indicated that food handling will change significantly. Jimmy's aboard AmaMagna is a family-style eatery, and both Schreiner and Karst expect that model to change given new guidelines around managing the spread of COVID-19 that discourage buffets and shared utensils.

The duo noted that bookings for 2021 are high, and Schreiner said he has reason to believe that "the future is bright" thanks to new health, safety and cleanliness protocols. There will be many new precautions that will have to be put in place (something the line is still working on) but these measures will provide additional confidence to passengers, crew, and local communities that welcome these ships along Europe's waterways.  

Shorter Voyages, Reduced Capacity

Avalon Envision (Photo: Avalon Waterways)
Avalon Waterways has long offered shorter river cruise itineraries lasting less than a week in duration, but the line is redoubling its effort in 2021 as it rolls out a series of four, five and six-day "Short and Suite" itineraries that start at $874.

In a press release, Avalon cites a Global Travel Insights survey that suggests 80 percent of North American travelers are planning trips lasting less than a week in duration. It also points out that river cruise passengers are connected to their destination at all times, making shorter voyages potentially more enticing.

"On a river cruise, travelers are not at sea. Instead, river cruises wind and bend through the heart of fascinating countries, providing panoramic views of the Old World," said Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways.  "In 2021, Avalon Waterways is the only company offering travelers the chance to test river cruise waters with six ways to cruise six days or less."

Avalon has planned several itineraries, including a four-day Taste of the Danube; a five-day Taste of the Rhine; a six-day Heart of Germany voyage along the Main and Main-Danube Canal; a six-day Danube Symphony through Austria's picturesque Wachau Valley; and two special "Short and Suite" Christmas Markets river cruises lasting between five and six days.

The shorter duration and lower price points may also have an added bonus in making river cruising more accessible to a wider swath of travelers who previously could not afford the time or financial commitment to taking a river cruise journey through Europe.

On May 13, Avalon also introduced a number of new changes that cruisers can expect to see when river cruising resumes in Europe. These include limiting the ship's overall capacity to provide greater space for social distancing onboard (a move that will no doubt make river cruise ships feel even more spacious); hourly disinfection of public areas (at a minimum); and the elimination of buffet and self-serve food options.

Avalon also says it will introduce new electrostatic cleaning systems and UV disinfecting systems onboard its fleet. This will go hand-in-hand with new measures that include mandatory health screenings, touch-free temperature checks and luggage disinfection prior to embarkation.

Masks, Daily Temperature Checks Could Become Routine

Scylla AG, which provides river cruise ships for a number of different operators including Tauck , has released a comprehensive lineup of COVID-19 practices and protocols -- including the use of masks whenever passengers are in the ship's public areas.

In addition to temperature checks at embarkation and health questionnaires, Scylla is mandating health checks for crew and passengers throughout the voyage that will be undertaken by an onboard doctor -- a first for river cruising. Ships on the rivers of Europe typically do not carry onboard medical professionals due to the rapid availability of shoreside medical services. Scylla also indicates that rapid COVID-19 testing will be available onboard.

Temperature checks will be taken daily and will be mandatory. Cabins must be vacated twice daily to allow for thorough sanitizing procedures.
Other protocols include one-way directional routing and movement for areas of the vessel where social distancing cannot adequately be maintained.

Onboard salon and massage services will no longer be available. The use of elevators and public toilets will be prohibited.

Umbrellas - long a staple of river cruising - will no longer be available to passengers. The same will hold true for none-essential items like newspapers that could be touched by multiple passengers.

Payment for all onboard items will now be via contactless payment methods only, with the exception of tips.

The Future of European River Cruising?

While these changes paint a different picture of what European river cruising has been, they are positive developments that should allow river cruise lines to resume service safely while still providing the destination-immersive travel experience they've become known for.

Cruise Critic reached out to several other river cruise lines for comment. All stressed that they were also developing new policies and procedures, which will be revealed at a later date.  

Cruise Critic will update this article with additional information as it becomes available.