Sponsored by Avalon Waterways
You may have heard lately of more families taking European river cruises with their children, including us, and in this post we’re sharing our family perspective on this style of travel.
News is spreading that this is a fun new way to travel as a family. A way that offers a more relaxed pace as ships meander slowly down iconic rivers like the Danube, the Rhone, and the Rhine, stopping at smaller towns and larger cities offering an easy way to visit multiple countries without packing and unpacking every couple of days and dealing with planes, trains, and automobiles.
We recently had the opportunity to experience a European river cruise with our two daughters, aged 15 and 11, on an Avalon Waterways 8-day Danube River cruise through Germany, Austria and Hungary.
Our family thoroughly enjoyed the experience and walked off the boat saying, “which European river cruise should we do next?” We needed to focus on another dream trip to help us get over the after-travel blues that hit us almost immediately upon disembarking and realizing we were now once again responsible for EVERYTHING!
After two weeks of traveling through France and Italy independently, I was grateful for the “sit down and enjoy yourself Mom, we’ve got everything covered” style of the river cruise. I think the girls enjoyed me also no longer being boss woman and head tour guide!
Our cruise experience was a paid partnership with Avalon Waterways to share why river cruising can be a great new way of traveling for families with older children, and below are our personal insights.
European River Cruises For Families – why take them?
We’ll be sharing several posts on our experience with Avalon, but first we wanted to share why we thought it was a great experience for families and a few tips to help you get the most out of it.
Independence for all
One of the biggest benefits of European river cruising with older kids is that they’ll love and appreciate the independence it offers.
Firstly, they’ll get their own cabin as staterooms are made for two. The girls were across the corridor from us and loved shutting their door and having their own space!
They could come and go as they pleased, which they took great advantage of for midnight raids of the snack bar in the ship’s back lounge.
Savannah even got up at 4:45am one morning to watch the Budapest sunrise from the top deck. And our introverted 15-year-old loved escaping to her room to read and listen to music.
As the ship is much smaller in comparison to large ocean cruise ships, we felt comfortable with them walking around on their own. They couldn’t get lost, and we could easily find them.
They also have lots of options to choose from in terms of excursions off the ship. The girls enjoyed being able to make the decision on what to do. Some days they’d go on an excursion with just one of us, or all of us, and if they were just a little older (16+), they could have gone on a city exploration tour without us!
With this comes independence for parents as well. Craig and I were able to step off the ship to have a drink one night when we were docked in Linz, Austria while the girls stayed inside their cabin. They were happy and content to spend time apart from us and we knew they were safe on the ship!
This is not something you’d do with younger kids of course, but with teens it’s perfect. And, on our last day in Budapest, Craig and the girls did a food tour, while I snuck away on a fantastic Budapest wine tour!
- Have an extra key to your kid’s room so you can easily wake them up of a morning and check on them if needed.
- Make sure they close their full-length glass sliding doors of an evening – especially if their room is port side. You want to be sure no one from the town can jump into their room. Odds are this won’t happen, but you want to be careful.
Amazing Historical Learning
This may not suit all children, and odds are, any person young or old will get tired of cathedrals, castles, and palaces in Europe. But, as a former teacher, I can assure you there is no better way to learn than in real life!
River cruises are more cultural than ocean cruises and can take you through some of Europe’s most notable cities and regions. It’s an ideal way to teach kids about European history, art, culture, and music.
On our cruise through Germany, Austria, and Hungary we learned a lot about the Second World War, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the influence of the church on history and European culture, and classical music, art, and food.
I know this kind of knowledge will only benefit the girls’ future as they learn in school, but also as they learn how to be global citizens.
I also enjoyed the more mature conversations it gave us at the dinner table, and seeing how these historical insights are shaping my girls’ views about things like religion today.
I’ve been on several ocean cruises, and I can’t say I’ve really gotten to know any of the destinations that we’ve visited. The off-shore excursions are typically expensive, so you either don’t’ do them and just hang out close to port fending for yourself, or they were activities like beach driving, snorkeling or zip lining – all fun, but not really connecting me to the culture and history of the destination.
TIPS: City history tours can get tiring, as it’s a lot to take in, so be sure to break it up with other fun activities like hiking, biking, food tours, and more. Keep reading!
A Focus on Adventure Activities
On board our Avalon Waterways cruise ship was an adventure host who ran morning yoga classes, games on board, and adventure style activities in the port destinations. It wasn’t just the travel itineraries they plan for you, but onboard entertainment too!
I loved starting each day with a gentle 30-minute yoga class with our adventure guide, Hristo from Bulgaria. Savannah joined me one morning; I could not drag her out of bed on the other mornings despite her asking me to – those comfy beds were hard to get out of.
Or was it the late-night snack bar raids!
Instead of taking the city tours that are typical at each port stop, Avalon offers an adventure activity as an alternative for exploring the destination.
Savannah loved putting her independence into action by stating that “I’m not doing the city tour today, I’m hiking instead.” Being active is more her personality.
She loved hiking to the lookout in Passau with Craig for beautiful views over the city, and hiking with me through the forest to Melk Abbey in the small village of Melk, Austria.
Craig and the girls joined the bike tour along the Danube in Vienna and had a great time seeing this beautiful city from the perspective of the river trails. And I went hiking on my own with Hristo in Budapest, while Craig and the girls did the city tour.
You can also take the on-board bikes out by yourself at any port stop.
Now I’m not sure if this is typical of all adventure hosts, or it was just Hristo, but it was like having our own Flytographer with us. That is a photographer you pay to meet you in a destination to take travel photos of you!
He took so many great photos of us while enjoying these adventure activities. It was such a thoughtful thing for him to do and now we have great memories captured. It’s often difficult to get all of us in a photo when one of us is responsible for taking them.
Great optional activities
On our Danube River cruise, there are optional excursions you can choose to do at several of the port stops. These are for an additional fee but a great way to dive deeper into a destination in a way more suited to individual interests.
In Vienna, we chose to do the classical music concert which we all loved, especially Kalyra. She listens to music all day long (big Swiftie fan), so I thought she’d enjoy it, but I was also concerned as it’s classical, she might have found it boring.
It was surprisingly funny and entertaining and ended up being her favorite activity from the cruise and a fantastic way for kids to learn about Vienna – the city of music – and why composers like Mozart and Strauss were once the rock stars of their time.
Kalyra had only heard of Mozart a couple of days before as we stood outside his birth home in Salzburg. That was another optional day tour Kalyra and I took, where we also visited some Sound of Music filming locations and the beautiful Mondsee (Mond Lake).
Craig and Savannah instead took the day trip to the medieval city of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, which they loved!
Food tours are something we love doing as a family (we did one in Paris and two in Italy before this Danube River cruise) and we did two of them on this cruise: Vienna and Budapest.
We love learning about local culture through food and breaking out of comfort zones to try new foods, like horse meat…when in Budapest!
Of course, sweets are usually always involved, which kids love. It was always fun to compare food tasting notes and see what they felt was good and not so good!
For parents, there is usually a wine or local liquor tasting involved, but kids will be given soda or juice alternatives instead. Speaking of food, another BIG positive of river cruising for families is the…
Never ending supply of delicious food
One of the most challenging, time consuming, and anxiety-inducing aspects of traveling as a family is figuring out where to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day!
Savannah is (or was) the fussiest eater in the world, and I have gluten sensitivity issues. Trying to find a place that suits all four members of the family, at a reasonable budget, with good food is incredibly difficult.
Sometimes I just don’t eat as I can’t be bothered with how much research and planning it involves!
One of my favorite parts of the river cruise, especially for families, was the absolute ease of mealtimes. I could show up for breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, and happy hours, and trust everyone would be satisfied with delicious high-quality food – that was not American – but full of local, regional dishes.
I did not have to worry that I’d spend money at a restaurant and waste it on awful food and bad service.
Every meal on the ship was fantastic – probably the best of our whole 4-week trip in Europe. And all lunch and dinner meals were paired with outstanding regional wine as well as the desserts.
And then an absolute miracle happened on this family river cruise. I don’t know if it was because dinner felt like a fine dining experience, and Savannah likes to be fancy, but she dumped her normal chicken nuggets and carrot sticks to eat dishes like raw tuna, Hungarian stuffed crepe, and broiled half-rock lobster tail.
I could not get over this change in her and I hope she continues to eat in this way! And she took great advantage of the four courses on offering.
Kalyra, on the other hand, chose to pair it down with just a main and dessert. With the meals on board the ship, you have options for all eating styles and tastes.
Don’t worry if your child still needs plain food, every night are the standard grilled chicken and steak options to cater to plain eaters.
Lunch was typically on the ship in between excursions or as we sailed to the next destination, and breakfast was a buffet each morning with plenty of options. You could also order dishes like waffles or eggs benedict from a menu, or order breakfast in bed, which we did on our last sail into Budapest.
Both girls made far too many secret trips to the unlimited snack bar at the back of the boat – alternating between their favorite donuts and apple strudel and hot chocolate.
They would remind us each day when afternoon tea would start and load their plates up with treats like black forest cake and macarons.
And Kalyra would appear from her book reading time in the room right on happy hour for her Fruit Punch (mocktail). And, I did not have to be responsible for planning any of it!
I thought I would miss eating at local restaurants, but I did not at all.
The food was just so good, it was regional, and it saved me so much anxiety and time. Plus, we had BBQs on the Sky Deck with the best views in town, or stunning sunset views out the window as we cruised along the Danube.
I loved not having to take my wallet out much for the 8-day river cruise. Once onboard almost everything is included in the price of the cruise: breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily excursions, activities on board, and, on our Avalon cruise, Happy Hour, and afternoon tea.
I’ve heard some European river cruises for families aren’t all inclusive and can get expensive when you add up all these additional costs.
On Avalon, we could choose to do optional excursions (for an additional fee), otherwise my wallet only came out for a coffee here and there on land, and a delicious sausage and sauerkraut lunch in Regensburg, Germany.
Avalon did give us a packed lunch for that day trip, but Kalyra and I opted for eating out instead (followed by hot chocolate and apple strudel in a café Mozart used to frequently visit!)
No theme park style entertainment
I know for many this would be a negative, and our girls do love ocean cruises for their waterslides and theme park style attractions.
But for me, I found it a blessing. I’m not a theme park nor resort type person (except on the odd occasions). I typically prefer to connect to land, culture, and people and I want my girls to also learn the value of this.
Sometimes, I think kids need a simpler way of entertaining. I worry that the theme park glitter tricks them into thinking that’s the only way to have fun.
A river cruise has no space for that kind of stuff, so it forces kids to try simpler and more slowed down ways of being entertained.
Plus, since sailing hours are minimal, and mostly done overnight, or during the day for the scenic sections, a river cruise is more about getting off the ship and exploring the cities and small towns along the way.
But when you are onboard, there are still plenty of things to do to entertain all.
On this cruise we enjoyed a corn hole competition run by our adventure host and with other cruisers as we sailed. We also enjoyed playing games of giant draughts, where I taught Savannah a few winning strategies.
There were board games on the ship we intended to play but ran out of time, and movie nights.
Savannah loved the Broadway singer, Lindsay Hamilton, who entertained us one night with incredible songs and a very funny comedy sketch. She was thrilled to meet her after the show and even bought her CD.
And then we had the farewell gala evening where we played a dancing game that Savannah won! While our tween’s personality is well suited to this kind of activity – dancing with strangers – for our introverted teen this is a fate worse than death. She was happy to sit that out!
There is also Wi-Fi on board so the kids can still watch their own movies or talk to their friends back home and give them a tour of the boat. Savannah’s friend enjoyed watching the Budapest sunrise with her.
Quality time together
In alignment with the above point, with a river cruise families can spend more quality time together.
Unlike large ocean cruisers where you can lose your children to kids’ clubs while you laze around on pool chairs drinking cocktails, the river cruise lines are smaller and more suited to bringing the whole family together through activities like on land tours, fancy dinners, or borrowing the ship’s bicycles to ride along the riverbank.
The girls and I enjoyed ducking off into Vilshofen village in Germany for a mani pedi together during some free time. That was a fun experience working together to explain to the German and Vietnamese speaking manicurists what we wanted with a bit of miming, google translate, and the help of an English-speaking German client in the salon!
As we’ve spent years traveling with our girls, including seven years full time and they’re getting real sick of being with us (lol), I thoroughly enjoyed having more of this precious quality time with them. I don’t know how many of these I have left.
Attentive friendly staff
I loved the diversity, friendliness, and attentiveness of the staff on board Avalon. We had a much smaller group traveling on our ship which meant more one-on-one attention.
We couldn’t have asked for a better crew. They were funny, engaging, and very kind to the girls – always looking out for them, suggesting certain foods for them to eat at dinner, and always making sure they had a drink and knew where the sweets were.
I also loved that the girls got to meet and talk with crew members from Romania, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Hungary, Serbia, the Netherlands and so many other nationalities.
I want my girls to have these interactions so they learn a few global truths: most people are good, diversity is worth celebrating, and we can find humanistic similarities with anyone and everyone from anywhere and everywhere.
See and do a lot in a week
Europe river cruises can be good for teen-sized attention spans. As Europe is small, a river cruise will take you across different destinations and countries in the space of a week.
Mostly ships sail overnight, so you get the thrill of sailing somewhere new the next morning. It also allows you to see countries that are otherwise too expensive or too remote to travel travel to independently.
For example, if you take a Rhine river cruise, you can pass through Switzerland which is known to be an expensive country to stay in, or you can take the Danube further to Slovakia which is not somewhere people typically travel to on its own.
Sometimes they dock overnight, giving you the opportunity to go out on your own and explore the city more in depth as a family. On our Avalon Waterways Danube River cruise, we stopped at three places in Germany, two in Austria, and finished in Budapest.
Savannah even ticked off another country with her day trip to Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic with Craig.
Some destinations were able to do more than one activity, like a city tour in the morning in Vienna, and a food tour in the afternoon, and a classical concert in the evening.
Typically, departures are in the evening so you have a full day to explore, so you don’t have to worry about not having time for a day trip.
Smaller, more intimate experience
I love how river cruises are a smaller, more intimate experience. We completely lucked out with our cruise only having 56 passengers. Typically, it’s double this with a max capacity on Avalon Visionary of 136.
Ocean cruises may come with loads of bells and whistles, but they also come with thousands of passengers which can be overwhelming and, weirdly, at times isolating. It’s harder to meet new people – apart from what kids’ clubs offer – when there are so many people in their own bubble.
But on this river cruise, we had time to speak to almost everyone on board. It was a friendly, family type environment and the other guests were wonderful to our two girls.
It also meant we could find our own personal space anywhere on the ship at any time and we felt comfortable with letting the girls have their much-needed independence. I’d be more worried about a bigger, more crowded experience as it’s so much easier for them to get lost.
We didn’t have to fight against crowds to use amenities or join tours, and as mentioned, service was way more personalized and attentive!
On our first day, as we had arrived early in the morning, we even had Captain Thijs take us out in the small dinghy to a nearby swimming beach. When have you ever been able to hang out with the captain of a cruise before?
By the way, I never knew you could swim in the Danube River, what an unexpected treat that was!
Tips for River Cruising with Kids
There is a lot to consider before you decide to take a river cruise with kids. Here are some of our most important tips.
Know that European River Cruising is for older kids
A river cruise is not for toddlers! I couldn’t imagine the stress of having to keep an eye on a child who has just found their legs. There will not be adequate activities or kids clubs to entertain younger kids.
I would recommend river cruising for kids aged 10 and up, possibly even as young as eight, depending on their personalities.
Teens are difficult to judge as all they want to do is be with their friends and their mood swings are large. But I do find the river cruise offers a lot of value to a teen, especially when it comes to the independence it offers them and the cultural land excursions.
They can have that much needed down time in their room, but if they are mature and like to socialize, they can do that with the other friendly passengers and crew, and they can choose activities that better suit their personality – even being able to go on excursions by themselves if they are aged 16 and above.
Personality match with your kids
You know it, no two kids are alike. The flexibility of choices allows you, and your kids, to choose excursions that are more suited to their personalities and interests. So be sure to do that even if it means parents split up and take one child each.
Our extroverted Savannah spent most of her time participating in all the events and interacting with everyone, including singing with the Broadway performer, and dancing with us all at the last night farewell gala dinner.
While our introverted Kalyra was content with spending quiet hours by herself in her cabin, coming out to enjoy daily excursions, scenic sails, and mealtimes.
Make it a multi-generational experience
As a river cruise caters well to mature travelers and older kids, it would be a great opportunity to make this vacation a multi-generational one. Everyone will be happy and it’s a great opportunity to bond together in a smaller ship experience at a slower pace.
Or, travel with other families or friends!
Do you know other families with kids the same age that you love to travel with? Why not all take a European river cruise together?
Our girls would have loved this river cruise experience with a couple of their friends. Savannah was even making plans for it with her best friend she loved to face time with on the ship.
Choose the right cruise for your family
Not all cruises are kid-friendly ones. Some river cruises are more for adults.
I was quite surprised by the range of ages on our cruise, from a couple younger than us, to ages ranging from forties up to eighties. So, if considering river cruising with kids do your research to choose the right one.
Avalon Waterways has a diverse selection of cruises to choose from across multiple rivers in Europe. Choose one that would be a great fit for your family.
What about a festive cruise exploring the Christmas markets of Europe? Or one that journeys into the Black Sea?
Ours was a more classic history and heritage cruise down the Danube River, but Avalon offers Active & Discovery cruises that have more of the adventure-type activities that families will love, as well as cultural immersive activities such as cooking classes and painting and craft workshops.
For your first river cruise experience as a family, I recommend you start with a shorter cruise length. Cruises typically range from 5 to 26 days.
I thought 8 days was perfect for our family, although I could have stretched that out to 2 weeks. I missed it immediately that night when we had to organize our own dinner. If you’re unsure, start with a five-day cruise!
Understand what to expect
A river cruise is a different vacation experience for families; it may not suit everyone so there are a few things to consider (some may see these as positives!)
The last thing you want to do is choose a travel experience you’ll all hate. What makes something good or bad is simply a matter of preference, or perspective.
Know before you go. River cruise ships won’t have kids’ clubs, waterslides, pools, several restaurants, arcades, and other kid-focused resort style amenities. The focus is on discovering the world outside.
Cabin rooms aren’t configured for more than double occupancy so you will need to get two staterooms, which kids generally will love, but your wallet may not.
River cruises do cost more, although ours came with included food, excursions and other amenities, which could balance out the budget. Do the figures and keep an eye out for deals. Many other passengers on the cruise told us they found great deals with Avalon.
And not all kids may enjoy the city tours and other activities. While we found something to suit both our girls, your kids may be different.
FAQs About European River Cruises
Here’s what people usually ask us about taking European river cruises…
Which is the most popular river in Europe that offer river cruises?
Most people choose to do a Danube river cruise since it’s the second largest river in Europe and stops through 10 countries. It passes through some of Europe’s most iconic cities, such as Budapest, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, and Belgrade.
What’s the best time of year to take a river cruise in Europe?
European river cruises operate from March – December, but the best time to take a cruise is in the summer when the weather is warm and the cities are alive with people out and about soaking up the atmosphere. Summer is peak season, which means there’s more tourists, so if you don’t like that vibe then September would also be a good time do take a river cruise because it’s quieter but still warm.
Are European rivers too low for cruise ships?
River cruises are not like ocean cruises because the ships simply cannot be that big. The experience is somewhat similar, but the boat is much smaller and more intimate, which we prefer. It’s not that common that European rivers are too low for cruises to run so you rarely have to worry about the level of the waters.
A European river cruise with kids is a unique experience that can give families much needed quality time together. I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would and would not hesitate to do it again. It was an effortless and rewarding travel experience that had options to cater to our individual personalities and interests.
I felt that was also invaluable for my girls. I don’t want them to return from a family travel experience, like cruising, and their memories be of waterslides!
I want them to experience the joy they get from this, but I also want them to walk away with enrichment. Something that has a deeper connection to land and culture and other people.
For many kids, they won’t understand these benefits until they’re older. Sometimes as parents we need to drag them away from the neon flashing lights and thrill rides to give them those more cultured experiences.
A European trip gives them those deeper experiences that allow them to learn about the world, understand how they fit into it and uncover how they can use this to evolve into a better person.
As venturing into the world of river cruising for families is new for Avalon Waterways, I am sure that soon we’ll see even more kid-centric activities when exploring the port stops and on board the ship.
This is just our parenting perspective of the value of a river cruise for families. Stay tuned because Kalyra and Savannah are going to write a post sharing their tween and teen perspective of the Danube River cruise experience we just had.