By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert
For me, the prime reason to go on a Europe River cruise is to visit the wonderful destinations on or close to Europe’s Rivers. Most routes have a good mix of villages and larger cities. There is a lot to see, many places are unique and a river cruise is an easy way to see a lot of cool places in a limited time using your floating hotel as a base. To maximize your trip experience, river cruise lines offer shore excursions to help you explore the ports and the surrounding area. Shore Excursions offered by the different river cruise companies vary by what is included, what you will see and how it is conducted. So, let’s learn some general facts about river cruise shore excursions, get an overview of the shore excursions offered by AmaWaterways, and see why we think the Limited Edition Shore Excursions from AmaWaterways are one of the best values in all of river cruising.
Hank on an AmaWaterways tour in Durnstein, Austria looking out over the Wachau Valley–this awesome small village is a true gem!
River Cruise Shore Excursions Overview
All 8 of the major companies that market to the US include tours in their fares. There is, however, many differences in their excursions. Most of the time spent in a port will include some type of excursion. Some companies include all tours, while others have optional tours at an additional charge. Most use local guides combined with the cruise director but Tauck has dedicated on board staff that guide all their tours. LEARN MORE ABOUT COMPARING RIVER CRUISE LINES
Sometimes the excursion will be on foot when you are docked in walkable distances of the sights and other times, it will require a coach (bus) ride. When comparing companies, the quality of the coach tours (comfort, distance required to ride on the coach to reach the desired destination, time on site) are factors you should consider when choosing a river cruise company.
Most companies use some form of a headset device to make it easier to hear the guides and guests do not have to stand clustered around the guide as they do if no audio device is used. The devices are called Audiovox or Quietvox or Tailormade (a Scenic feature that has a GPS system for independent exploration, as well as a device to listen to a guide). They all have an ear piece that operates wirelessly—a really excellent feature.
To make the tours even better, companies usually divide the passengers into smaller groups, so the tours are more personalized. They often also group by walker ability level (fast, normal and gentle) to facilitate a better guest experience. Some, like AmaWaterways, even offer a late risers tours. In the competitive environment of European River cruising, if they have bikes onboard, they could have guided bike tours or guided hiking excursions, and even kayaking.
River Cruise Lines Tours Limitations
Here are some possible shore excursion limitations you should be aware about:
- Since excursions are already included in the fare, there are no refunds if you miss a regular tour. Their policies on optional tours vary but two questions you should ask if you decide to take an optional tour are: 1) if there is a minimum number of guests needed to take the tour; and 2) what the refund policy is.
- Another very important distinction of all lines are the terms “visit” or “see” when they describe the shore excursions in their brochures or on their websites. “Visit” means you will actually go into the place and not drive by or walk by as “see” implies. Even veteran travel professionals often do not realize this distinction, so I’m not surprised that sometimes guests of the cruise lines are very disappointed when they find out they will not get to visit a sight and only drive or walk by the sight. On a recent webinar held by Viking, the excellent speaker, made this point when explaining that on their Bordeaux cruise, the guests will only get to drive by the Rothschild’s winery, and not to go inside to tour the winemaking operations. He was pointing out that access to this famous winery is exclusive and not included and that travel professionals need to know this info to properly advise their clients. This not a knock on Viking, it just points out why you should really use someone like us to plan your river cruise—there are just so many details, that trying to do it yourself just does not make sense to me. We regularly attend webinars to learn and keep current about vendors to help you get the best trip. Also, please remember, between both of us, we are certified river cruise specialists of 6 of the 8 companies (only 6 currently have specialist programs) who market to US guests—You can be confident we will match you to the right river cruise!
- Tours in the larger cities tend to be overviews. This really is not surprising, since there is a lot to do and see and it is hard to see it all in a short visit.
AmaWaterways Tours Overview
I got to visit the Pont du Gard, the Roman Aqueduct on a Gentle Walkers Tour, 2014 on our Provence AmaWaterways Cruise (I was recovering from foot surgery)
AmaWaterways (we often call them just Ama) has a tour in every port and usually has two or more options in each port. They use the Quietvox on tours and divide passengers who will go on the shore excursion into at least 3 groups–gentle, regular and active walkers. Their late risers tour, offered in some ports, is unique–we are unaware of others currently offering a program like this.
During your cruise, there may be optional tours that require an extra fee. They use local guides who are very knowledgeable in the culture and history of the place you are visiting. Ama also feature active hiking tours and guided bicycle tours, and have even partnered with Back Roads for some really high end tours with special bike tours on some sailings. Bikes are also available to use on their own.
Each day of the cruise, usually just before dinner, your cruise manager will explain in detail about the tours upcoming and emphasize the walking difficultly of each tour group (they will even cover such details as “there are 50 steps up to…”) and what you will visit and what you will see on the tour—most include a slide show so all guests will have a good understanding of the best fit for their upcoming excursion. We have been on many, many tours on our various river cruises with AmaWaterways and most are outstanding.
One of their signature features are the Limited Edition Tours—so let’s learn more about these awesome tours.
AmaWaterways Limited Edition Tours
The Belgium Waffle Shop we sampled great waffles at!
These tours are specially designed to give small groups an opportunity to be even more immersed in the places they are visiting. Best of all, these tours are included in the cruise fare—there is no extra charge! Popular options include a Belgian waffle and chocolate tasting in Antwerp, a beer and sausage tour in Nuremberg, or a chance to see Vienna’s hidden treasures, like the romantic Schönlaterngasse. We have done the waffle tasting and the sausage and beer tour—both were awesome! They continue to add to these tours and newer options include knotting a bretzel (German for pretzel) in Wertheim, a goulash cooking lesson in Budapest and sampling Bavarian specialties like pralines in Regensburg.
Anne also helped make pierogies in Bratislava—it was a fun experience. Here she is:
We have had clients participate in the Vienna tour and they really liked it (one great benefit for us—we discovered a great schnitzel restaurant which we managed to eat at as a result of their tour—it was the largest schnitzel I’ve ever seen, and just melted in our mouths—a really neat experience!). Limited Edition Tours are also a great option for a cruiser who is sailing on the same route a second or third time—it provides a new experience that enhances your trip.
When these tours were introduced by AmaWaterways, they were often called by the nickname “Bites and Sights” and I still call them this even though it is no longer used by the company. Why?—most tours involve food, or drinks or both and this makes them perfect for us.
An important tip if you want to go on one of these tours—sign up early as they often are limited to only 20 cruisers.
More immersion in a destination and included in the fare (FREE), equate to one of the best values in river cruise excursions available to you when you travel on a river cruise. We urge you to consider AmaWaterways when you are deciding which company to select for your Europe River cruise.
These Limited Edition Tours are just one of the reasons we like AMA so much—they are constantly improving their product. We hope this will inspire you to give us a call (Hank 713-397-0188) or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) so we can help you visit Europe on a river cruise and help you: Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!