No longer the domain of retirees, river cruising has come into its own as the “it” way for families to explore, thanks to modern and comfortable ships, roomy suites, unpack-once ease and plenty of well-organized and energy-zapping activities. Many cruise lines even offer special sailings designed just for families, in destinations as enriching as they are scenic. From Europe’s castle-flanked waterways to the natural wonders of Alaska’s Inside Passage to the beaches of Normandy, the hardest decision aboard kid-friendly river cruises in 2019 will be answering the question, “What shall we do today?”
Our Ciao Bambino travel advisors can help you navigate your ultimate waterborne family vacation and offer special access to family-friendly perks and deals, whether onboard or exploring in a favorite port of call. Here are some highlights of what’s happening on some of the world’s top river cruise lines.
What’s New in Kid-Friendly River Cruises for 2019
The buzzword on Avalon Waterways this season is “choice.” They even call their menu of excursions the Choice Program, which offers “active,” “discovery” and “classic” elements on every cruise across Europe, assuring that everyone on the family vacation ends up a happy camper. Discovery programs dive deep into local culture with activities such as cooking classes or painting workshops. Active choices appeal to calorie- and energy-burner types who might want to partake in a guided cycling, paddling or hiking tour at each scenic port of call. And classic excursions bring in local experts who to share their knowledge through guided explorations of each destination. There really is something for every person and mood of the day.
Avalon’s latest BFF for families: the Adventure Host, a dedicated activity guru found on every ship in 2019, whose top priority is fine-tuning your experience.
“Avalon’s new Adventure Hosts give families even more opportunities to customize their river cruise vacation,” says Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways. “They’re on hand with gear and maps for active pursuits, can help families take bikes off the ship for a scenic ride through town, or even organize a family kayaking excursion on the Danube, Rhine or Seine River.”
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The newest masterpiece in Avalon’s fleet of Suite Ships is the Envision, arriving on the Danube River in May, and cruising between Budapest, Hungary and Nuremburg, Germany. Carrying 166 passengers and served by a crew of 47, the ship features two full decks of Panorama Suites — 200-square-foot cabins with wall-to-wall French balconies and beds facing the views. The ship’s Sky Deck has a jogging track, a deck game area with oversize chess and alfresco dining. Library books, cards and board games make for fun meetups in the Club Lounge.
Avalon also announces six new itineraries, among them its first along India’s Ganges River. The 13-day sail includes visits to the Taj Mahal and Amber Fort, as well as to Saint Mother Teresa’s former home.
A new eight-day Active Discovery on the Rhône itinerary sails the Rhône delta in southern France, between Port Saint Louis and Lyon. Adults will like the wine-tasting experience with local experts, while the whole family can partake in a cycling journey around Camargue Regional National Park, a unique and wind-whipped area filled with pink flamingoes, white horses and black bulls.
Download the new AvalonGo App, which puts your daily itinerary plus a list of each destination’s attractions, maps, local restaurants and sites in the palm of your hand, making it easier than ever to get out and explore independently.
Family-friendly AmaWaterways cruises some of the world’s most scenic rivers, and their brand-new AmaMagna ship is a game changer. Taking her maiden voyage on the Danube in May, with seven-night sails between Budapest, Hungary and Vilshofen, Germany, this modern beauty is twice the width of traditional river ships. And you know what that means? The luxury of more space for leg stretching and lounging, private reading time and larger accommodations, the majority of which measure 205 to 355 square feet. There are six Grand Suites at 474 square feet, and an Owner’s Suite coming in at 710 square feet. There are also eight pairs of staterooms that connect, making it perfect for multigenerational family travel.
Teens will appreciate the independence as they check out the swimming pool on the top deck and join their new friends in the movie room. There are four dining venues aboard the new AmaMagna too, including family-style Jimmy’s. Nightly performances from local musicians and dancers bring the culture and flavor of Europe aboard this one-of-a-kind vessel.
Other European ships to check out are the AmaKristina, AmaViola, AmaStella and AmaLea, all boasting connecting staterooms and triple occupancy accommodations that simplify group and family travel.
AmaWaterway’s selection excursions don’t disappoint, either. A guided bike tour to Melk Abbey; sampling traditional Slovakian specialties and preparing stuffed potato ravioli; visits to medieval castles and other historical sites … there’s always something to learn and to spark curiosity, leaving lots to talk about over dinner.
If hotspot Portugal is on your radar, the company’s new 102-passenger AmaDouro debuts on the Duoro River in April. The spectacular ship features spacious staterooms with views of the hills and terraced vineyards along the river. There’s also unlimited WIFI and movies. The AmaDouro’s Panoramic Lounge will host nightly entertainment, and the Sun Deck swimming pool is an ideal hangout perch.
AmaWaterways continues to partner with Adventures by Disney, and offers themed sailings down the Seine, Rhône, Danube and Rhine Rivers. Backroads is also a partner, which means more than 120 sailings in 2019 and 2020 satisfy adrenaline-fueled families with organized biking, hiking and walking tours, along with plenty of other intriguing outings.
“We have always welcomed families on board our ships, as I truly believe that travel is so important to opening up young people’s understanding and acceptance of diverse cultures,” says Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways.
Continuing its fast foray into the river cruising space, Crystal raises the bar for luxury in the heart of Europe this March with five luxury river ships: Crystal Mozart, Crystal Mahler, Crystal Ravel, Crystal Bach and Crystal Debussy, offering 148 itineraries spanning seven to 16 days on the Rhine, Danube, Mosel and Main rivers.
Highlights include the Legendary Rhine cruise on the Crystal Bach that sails from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam, Holland, following the Rhine through storybook villages speckled with Gothic cathedrals, grand palaces and imposing fortresses. Just imagine the Instagram posts! Families will love the cooking classes, bike rides and walking tours, such as the one in Mannheim that ends at a few sweet shops to learn about spaghetti ice cream (it only looks like it sounds) and Mannemer Dreck, a delicious almond confection with a quirky inspiration for its name. There are also a few excursion splurges, such as a thrilling helicopter flight over stunning Swiss landscapes (extra charge).
The more offbeat Tulips and Windmills cruise takes travelers round-trip to and from Amsterdam, stopping in Rotterdam and Middleburg, Netherlands; and Ghent and Antwerp, Belgium. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage town of Kinderdijk, home to 19 beautifully preserved windmills, and stroll through the cobbled streets of Gouda (yes, of Gouda cheese fame) where a 17th-century cheese-weighing house offers samples of the city’s famous delicacy. Waffle and chocolate tastings are also on the agenda in Belgium, sure to please the palates of young cruisers.
While life onshore invites travelers to immerse themselves in culture and history, onboard it’s all about luxurious surroundings and six-star service. Crystal boasts the highest staff-to-guest ratio (1 to 1.6) among all European river lines, with capacity for 106 passengers.
The all-suite cabins range from deluxe and penthouse suites between 220 and 500 square feet, to the ultimate Crystal Suite, a posh 750-square-foot, two-bedroom oasis that accommodates five or six guests. Butler service is included on all ships, and there’s 24-hour room service for slumber party noshing, as well as complimentary WIFI and on-demand movies.
Tauck’s “Bridges” trips are wildly popular with families because they are designed specifically for them. With 19 European odysseys, African safaris, expeditions in Latin America and the Galapagos Islands, and adventures in North America’s National Parks to choose from, families are spoilt for choice. This year the company brings snow-globe scenes to life on the Danube with their Holiday Magic journey. Along the way, guests enjoy visits to Europe’s popular Christmas markets, and to Oberndorf, Austria, where the beloved classic Silent Night was written and first performed in 1818. A workshop in Passau, Germany, highlights traditional treats, including their famous gingerbread, and a festive dinner aboard the ship invites guests to dress in their holiday best and celebrate the season. Families will also enjoy an exclusive Imperial Evening inside a private Viennese palace and learn to waltz, and they can take part in a scavenger hunt in Bratislava’s Old Town.
For something a little different but no less magical, Tauck’s brand-new “Earth Journeys” cruise, created by Tauck and BBC Earth, is tough to beat for nature lovers. The seven-night sail aboard the luxurious Le Soléal takes passengers through Alaska’s fabled Inside Passage, surrounded by some of the most stunning and wildlife-rich scenery on earth. The excursions are all about appreciating the flora and fauna, as well as immersing guests in local and natural history. What teen wouldn’t love a canoe safari, sled dog experience, crab fishing and getting up close to the majestic birds at the Alaska Raptor Center? The journey also includes visit to an ancient Indian village, and Sitka National Historic Park. There’s a naturalist onboard too, who shares stories about Alaskan grizzly bears and conservation efforts, among other highlights.
Like to plan ahead? Look for Tauck’s new seven-night family riverboat “Douro Discovery” in Portugal in 2020, offering two nights in Lisbon and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Porto, and five nights on the Douro River aboard a brand-new purpose-built riverboat for just 84 guests.
If your family loves design-focused boutique hotels, check out the floating eye candy that is Uniworld. Each and every ship has original art, sumptuous fabrics and décor, and antiques.
Look out for the S.S. Bon Voyage, launching in April 14. Formerly the River Royale, the S.S. Bon Voyage has had a complete bow-to-stern facelift and boy, does she look marvelous. Guests will enjoy a redesigned top deck with added swimming pool and lounge area, as well as an adjacent casual dining venue with chef-led cooking classes. Inside, four new suites will be introduced, as well as marble bathrooms throughout the ship, and all finished in the elevated design aesthetic synonymous with Uniworld cruising.
Uniworld’s Generation Collection is ideal for families and offers activities and amenities on selected dates and itineraries designed specifically for families with children ages four years old and up. All departures are scheduled during winter and summer breaks, there’s 25 percent off for travelers ages 4 to 17 when traveling with an adult. Score! For these trips there are 15 departures spread across six cruises: Gems of Northern Italy, Paris & Normandy, Delightful Danube & Prague, Castles Along the Rhine (new for 2019), Classic Christmas Markets and Parisian Royal Holiday. The S.S. Beatrice, launched last year, has connecting cabins perfect for families, and will host a Generations cruise on an Enchanting Danube & Prague itinerary, with departures on July 15, July 24 and July 29.
Onboard activities for kids are as varied as they are fun. Events like dining with the captain or learning to make desserts and other tasty treats with the ship’s chef and pastry chef will spark imagination. Ashore, they’ll take an Alice in Wonderland-themed tour inside Rouen’s 500-year-old Great Clock; visit the forests of Speyer to climb through the trees and play on rope bridges, nets and ziplines; go on a treasure hunt at the Louvre; take a spooky ghost walk in Venice; and participate in glass blowing and mask making on Venice’s island of Giudecca. And really, what better way is there to bring history alive than with a trip to the beaches of Normandy, or inspire a budding young artist than with a visit to Monet’s home and gardens in Giverny?
Also debuting in 2019 are three itineraries on the Yangtze River aboard the Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer, a new standard for cruising in China with plush interiors and the largest cabins and suites on the river, all with private balconies. The ship carries just 124 passengers with a 1:1 staff to guest ratio, the highest on the river. Also onboard are an observation deck, a two-floor theater, library, spa and fitness center. Choose from the 11-day Highlights of China & The Yangtze, 14-day China, Tibet and The Yangtze, and 18-day Grand China and The Yangtze.
Editor’s Note: Photos courtesy of the individual cruise lines featured.