It was our family’s first night sailing on a Rhine River cruise when one of those special vacation moments happened. We had just experienced our first day in Europe touring colorful, blooming Amsterdam, meandering the city’s historic canals and walking its curving streets. Afterward, a couple hours on a luxury coach motoring through the countryside allowed my husband, two daughters (ages 14 and 20) and me time to nap and catch up with the time-zone change and our ship. The 158-passenger AmaWaterways’ AmaKristina was positioned to sail downriver from Amsterdam through the Netherlands, Germany and France toward her final destination in Basel, Switzerland.
Once onboard, we had lounged drowsily on deck all afternoon, enjoying the warm sun as our ship slowly passed other families enjoying the weather as they rode along bike paths and gathered on beaches at the river’s edge. We had taken our time dressing for dinner at 7 o’clock, which was a leisurely multicourse affair enhanced by floral German wines. Afterward, perched at the bow of the ship with the breeze in our hair, we watched the sunset paint its dusky amber light on the curving river ahead. The Northern Europe sunset happens around 10 p.m. in early July, creating an unhurried environment for enjoying the pleasures of a summer evening.
Our family conversation was as mellow as the sun’s slow path toward the horizon as we rambled through memories of vacations past and lingered at hopes for the future. My youngest would be entering high school in the fall, and my oldest was halfway through college. And here we were, enjoying our first night in Europe together. Things started to get a little melancholy as we talked about the scarcity of our remaining family vacation time, realizing that our next vacation, without notice or planning (and possible career paths, graduations and introductions of significant others) might be our last as a fourperson family.
As if pulled by a magnet, or maybe because of the cooling air, we huddled closer together in a jumble of wrapped arms, the darkening sky hiding a few tears. Other passengers nearby were also watching the sunset—and us. “You look like such a happy family!” said a lady with a wineglass in her hand. “Let me take a picture for you.” The moment, including our windswept hair and tearstained cheeks, was captured digitally. Looking at it now reminds me that these are the memories we most cherish when we travel with our families. Taking a family vacation on a river ship seemed to slow down time a little, allowing us to rebuild the personal connections that we so often take for granted.
Conversations like the one my family and I experienced might not have happened during a fast-paced theme park vacation or an action-packed ocean cruise. The river cruise experience, while it can be as active or passive as any guest chooses, is perfect for bonding because interesting excursions, slow-paced meals and downtime are balanced with opportunities to bike, hike and explore. Unpack once and visit historic ports of call, then sail deep into famed rivers bordering small towns unreachable by ocean liner. There’s no need to plan out what to see since guided excursions to the most popular sites are included. Families can look forward to being immersed in regional history, discovering new cultures and learning new languages. The built-in educational components of a river cruise are surprisingly enjoyable for both adults and the student-age traveler (and they might not even realize they are learning!).
But finding your perfect river cruise doesn’t happen by selecting just any cruise line. Not all river cruises offer family sailings, and some cruise lines don’t even allow guests under age 18. Kids who are at least age 12 (middle-school age and older) will probably get the most enjoyment out of a river cruise. And your kids—no matter if they are 12 or 22—will enjoy the sailing more if there are a few people their own age onboard, along with activities geared toward their interest and energy level. Here are AAA’s three top picks for family-friendly river cruises.
Founded in 2002 by a group of travel industry executives, AmaWaterways has 17 ships in Europe and is the first company to have built ships specifically for the comfort of multigenerational travelers. Each of AmaWaterways’ three newest ships, AmaStella, AmaViola and AmaKristina, offers 12 staterooms that can sleep up to three people; 4 suites with convertible sofa beds for families of up to four; and 6 sets of adjoining cabins that can accommodate families of up to five. In a partnership with Adventures by Disney, the company will offer eight family-friendly departures on the Rhine River and five on the Danube River in the summer of 2018, along with winter holiday cruises on each river featuring visits to Christkindlmarkts and seasonal celebrations.
The ships offer free Wi-Fi, a small heated pool and complimentary bikes for use while in port. Daily excursions are built into the Adventures by Disney cruise fare and include experiences such as a toboggan ride through Germany’s Black Forest; a canoe trip in Strasbourg, France; a tour of Heidelberg Castle in the German university town of Heidelberg; bicycling along riverside tow paths, horseback riding and more. Younger cruisers have their own dining menu that includes favorites like mac and cheese and chicken nuggets, although they may want to try some of the locally inspired cuisine created by AmaWaterways’ award-winning chefs. Unlike on larger ocean ships, there’s no assigned table for dining; just arrive at the restaurant to choose a table that can accommodate your family size, or find another family who might like to dine with yours. It’s a great way for kids to make new friends from other states and even from other countries.
Tauck has been a family-owned operator of guided tours for more than 90 years, and for the past 7 years, Tauck’s Bridges family brand has offered river cruises on France’s Seine (Paris to Normandy) and Rhône Rivers, as well as the on the Danube and Rhine Rivers. Cruises and all shore excursions are guided by a professional Tauck Director who remains with the group throughout the journey (one Tauck Director is assigned for every 40 guests). In addition to the well-versed guides, one of Tauck Bridges’ key features is that everything except airfare is included: airport transfers, gratuities, unlimited premium spirits, regional wines and beer (and not just at meal times), soft drinks and even some of the meals that take place off the ship. AAA members also get up to $150 per-person savings on coach-class airfare. And every cabin is family-friendly, sleeping up to four people using full-sized sofa beds.
AAA Travel Agent Becky Webb, named one of Tauck’s top 50 agents in the U.S., experienced Tauck’s France Family River Cruise in July with her 17-year-old son, Jack. “Starting with two days in Paris, we saw all the city highlights with guides who were able to interpret them at the kids’ level and balanced the right amount of active time with free time. We saw the Arc de Triomphe and Notre-Dame Cathedral and had a scavenger hunt to find the Mona Lisa in the Louvre,” says Webb. “At the Eiffel Tower, lunch was included, and our Tauck Director surprised the guests with keepsake photos of us—one of Tauck’s ‘lagniappes,’ little treasures that they surprised us with each day.
“The first night, we were entertained after dinner by a mentalist who helped the kids break the ice. Another kid-friendly activity that Jack enjoyed was a Fear Factor-type event where the kids won prizes for trying French foods like escargot, frog legs, fois gras and smelly cheese—a crafty way to get kids to experience the cuisine of France,” adds Webb. “He had a fabulous time on his first international trip, and we had a chance to bond over this special experience together.”
UNIWORLD BOUTIQUE RIVER CRUISES
Voted by Travel + Leisure readers as the World’s Best River Cruising for Families four years in a row, Uniworld’s Generations brand offers families the choice of seven itineraries in Europe, including one of the industry’s only passenger cruises on the Po River in Italy. Targeting grandparents and parents with kids from ages 4 to 17, Uniworld’s all-inclusive brand makes planning easy since everything is included in the cruise fare. Plus, on select departures and during certain sales periods, Uniworld offers special pricing that’s up to 50 percent off the adult fare for kids age 17 and under.
Onboard, Uniworld has two “family hosts”: one staff member designated to entertain Junior Cruisers (ages 4–12) and another for Teen Cruisers (ages 13–17). These hosts give parents and grandparents a little downtime of their own while kids make dessert with the ship’s pastry chef or learn a few words of the local language in a session hosted by a group of visiting local kids. They also have their own Young Travellers Lounge, a feature unique to Uniworld, where they can meet other young cruisers, play video games or just hang out. They’ll also receive a special gift each night as a remembrance of each day’s port of call. Depending on the sailing date, AAA members get a complimentary pre-cruise hotel night, including breakfast and transfers to the ship.