Cruise fans know that ships provide an effortless family vacation, a way to see the world without hauling suitcases or changing hotels. And while megaships accommodate adults and kids with a huge variety of onboard activities, it’s the relaxing and cultural focus of river cruising that has become popular with families, say 60% of travel agents polled by the trade association CLIA.
Only five years ago, river cruise companies began inviting families with younger children on classic European itineraries with grandparent-friendly ports of call. Today, companies like Uniworld and Tauck lead the field in the variety and scope of their family offerings, but we’ve found other river cruise companies that sail the world’s great rivers, happily, with kids onboard. Here are our top 10 picks.
Uniworld Family River Cruises
Uniworld, which launched multigenerational river cruises in 2010, has one of the industry’s most robust family selections. Guy Young, President of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, says the company increased the number of multigenerational family departures from five to 13 after learning that 30% of passengers in 2015 were under age 18. Itineraries still cater to art lovers, of course, but also to the more active, foodies, and adults who want to introduce Europe’s many great cultures to children.
“Family programing includes a greater selection of excursion choices and more participatory activities – such as kayaking, hiking, biking, cooking demonstrations, language lessons, family talent night, etc,” Mr. Young notes. “Two dedicated hosts are on board and,” he adds, “all meals, with child-friendly menus, are made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients; plus unlimited beverages onboard.”
Special 2016 multigenerational trips run 8 to 15 days during spring, summer and winter breaks, and include themes like “Castles Along the Rhine,” “Danube Discovery & Prague,” “Grand European Discovery,” “Splendors of Italy” and “Classic Christmas Markets.” Family rates are 50% off the cruise-only fare for ages 4-18 when traveling with an adult. There are also complimentary bicycles, helmets, as well as Nordic walking sticks, for use onshore.
Tauck River Cruising for Families
Tauck is a highly regarded luxury tour operator whose Tauck Bridges division features 20 trips in Europe, North America, Africa and Latin America designed for a multigenerational audience, a loyal clientele that led them to pioneer family river cruises on the Danube in 2010. For 2017, Tauck Bridges is adding a fourth route and doubling its family cruise capacity to meet demand by offering 20 departures aboard nine vessels on Europe’s Danube, Rhône, Rhine, Seine, Saône, Moselle and Main Rivers.
Tauck’s new eight-day “Family Fun Along the Seine: Paris to Normandy” (from $4,290 per person, plus airfare) includes two nights in Paris with a family scavenger hunt at the Louvre, dinner inside the Eiffel Tower, and a panoramic city tour or guided bicycle tour along the Seine.
Guests then board Tauck’s ms Sapphire riverboat for a five-night cruise, with a guided excursion to Monet’s house and gardens in Giverny, and a walking tour of Les Andelys (or an optional hike to Chateau Gaillard, perched on a hillside above the village.) Depending on age, ability and interest, passengers can tailor their Versailles excursion to include the art and architecture of the interior, or follow a guide on foot or on bike through the palace’s gardens. Families especially like the full-day excursion to the D-Day Beaches of Normandy, with stops at the American Cemetery and the multimedia museum that offers a 360-degree film of the battle plus hands-on encounters with World War II-era military vehicles, weapons, communications equipment and more.
The ms Sapphire and ms Emerald are the first two ships to be reconfigured with 14 roomy, 300-square-foot suites – each with a pullout couch to accommodate a family of four. Known for their luxury amenities and service, their newest river cruisers carry just 130 passengers who have access to two onboard restaurants and three guides.
Adventures by Disney on the Danube
Adventures by Disney entered the river cruise market with a very popular tour of Danube Christmas Markets in 2015 in partnership with AmaWaterways with eight cruises planned for 2017. Germany’s Christmas Markets are a bucket list item for most travelers, and Christmas sailings include visits to the renowned Christmas markets in Budapest and Vienna, a Vienna Boys Choir Christmas performance in the Hofburg Palace Chapel, and a special holiday menu lunch for an unforgettable start to the holidays.
The new AmaWaterways AmaViola has a variety of cabin sizes with French balconies or full terraces, ranging from an upper deck 350-square-foot suite sleeping four (queen bed and sofabed) to lower deck cabins which, at 160-square-feet, accommodate two adults comfortably and can be connected to an adjacent room on request. There’s a small heated pool on the sundeck and an outside café for nice weather. Although AmaWaterways does all the day-to-day ship operations and catering, eight Adventures by Disney Adventure Guides are onboard to provide a magic touch to activities and shore excursions.
Navigation on the seven-night journeys is modified to maximize time in port, with dawn arrivals and late evening departures allowing guests more time to explore ports in Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. At other times of year, excursions are carried out in that expert Disney style: adults tour Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace and gardens, while children visit the palace’s children’s museum and dress up in historical garb. Then all ages regroup for a marionette performance followed by an interactive strudel making demonstration for the perfect family photo opp.
Adventures by Disney on the Rhine
For 2017, Adventures by Disney is doubling the number of river cruise sailings by adding a Rhine River itinerary through France, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. In partnership with the luxury river cruise line AmaWaterways, the company has recently built the 170-passenger AmaKristina to accommodate the need for connecting staterooms and family suites sleeping up to four. Additionally, common spaces have been reimagined by Disney’s team to create spaces for additional family activities. Eight Disney guides are onboard to lead excursions and special family-focused activities.
Guided excursions are designed to include immersive cultural experiences that kids can relate to. On the seven-night Rhine River sailings, for example, families can sample fondue in Basel, zipline through the Black Forest of Strasbourg, visit the Porsche and Mercedes-Benz Museums from the port of Speyer, Germany, take a guided bike tour through the Rheingau, learn about chocolate making in Cologne’s Chocolate Museum, and enjoy an expertly guided art and history tour in the national Rijksmuseum.
Century Cruises on the Yangtze Through China
China’s Three Gorges Dam -– the world’s largest hydroelectric project when it was completed in 2012 –- has spurred interest around the world in river cruising on the mighty Yangtze River (Chang Jiang), particularly around the spectacular rock formations known as the Three Gorges. Century Cruises, the only public river cruise line in China, carries thousands of passengers who have booked directly as well as those of partners Viking, Uniworld, Avalon Waterways, AHI, A & K, Kuoni, Titan, Saga on other river boats it operates.
The typical three or four night river cruise between the cities of Chongqing and Wuhan passes by the massive highrise developments built to accommodate 1.3 million citizens displaced by the 335-foot rise in the water level. A few of the archeological and cultural sights that remain on higher ground can be seen in shore excursions. The Qutang, Xiling and Wu Gorges, seemingly lower than they used to be because of the water height and wider river, remain beautiful works of nature and the highlight of a fascinating cultural cruise.
Century keeps the cruises fun for families with special onboard activities such as basic language lessons in Chinese, English and German; and basic dining manners for Western and Chinese meals. Guests can tour the Pilot House with the Captain, paint T-shirts, play interactive games, practice pizza and dumpling making with the chef, or team up with the crew for kite flying from the sundeck and an evening talent show.
Aboard Aqua Mekong in Asia
Families interested in exploring Southeast Asia can do so in high style aboard the Aqua Mekong, a 20-cabin luxury river cruiser launched by Aqua Expeditions in 2014. Each cabin, many connecting, is a spacious suite with sofabed decorated in a contemporary minimalist style so as not to compete with huge picture windows showcasing the floating villages, houseboats and river traffic on the bustling, historic Mekong. Meals are served in an elegant dining room, family style, with seafood, noodle and traditional dishes of the region (and kid-friendly variations on a children’s menu). Culturally rich, guided excursions include bike tours (yes, they have children’s bikes) to riverfront villages, where passengers can meet residents, tour a produce market with the chef, try local dishes and visit monasteries. Double kayaks are available for fishing and boating. Families enjoy the cooking classes onboard, the Jacuzzi and the gym. After dinner, guests can watch a movie outdoors on the observation deck or play board games or foosball.
Their four night family cruises to Vietnam and Cambodia begin at $5,000 per person, and ages 7- 12 cruise free when sharing a triple cabin with both parents, or traveling with a single parent or grandparent; 7 is the minimum age. This special family promotion is valid May 6-August 12, 2016 and May 5-August 11, 2017 with certain blackout dates.
Cruising the Irrawaddy on The Strand Cruise in Myanmar
Named for its sister property, the celebrated Strand Hotel in Yangon, Myanmar, the brand new Strand Cruise began sailing the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River in December 2015. The sole ship, 200 feet in length with just 27 cabins, is decorated in a luxurious Burmese style with teak furnishings, earth tones and gold leaf accents that reflect the hotel’s style. Spacious cabins tended by 24-hour butlers have balconies or large terraces, plus WiFi, satellite TV and the modern conveniences you’d find in a hotel. In addition to a sundeck and lap pool, the Strand Cruise has a restaurant, rooftop bar, and a spa. Its shallow draft provides access to many private moorings close to landmarks along the river to moor right next to village that are rarely seen by tourists. A full schedule of activities, lectures and historical demonstrations narrate the three- and four-night itineraries between Bagan and Mandalay, making this a very upscale choice for families who want to introduce this fascinating culture to their children. The low season price (April to October) for the Strand Cruise three-night journey is from US$1,782 per person based on double occupancy.
River Cruises in Europe & Worldwide with CroisiEurope
Forty years since its founding by Gerard Schmitter of France, the still family-owned Croisieurope has championed affordable river cruising by building their own ships and managing their own crews and catering. The fleet comprises 43 ships and has branched out from the Rhine and Danube, where they began; to sail the Seine, Rhone, Dordogne and Garonne Rivers in France; the Tisza in Hungary; the Guadalquivir in Spain; the Douro in Portugal; the Mekong in Vietnam, Irrawaddy in Myanmar and soon, the Zambezi in Africa.
The CroisiEurope experience is very French (read more in this recent account) and the company is justifiably proud of its catering, designed by star chefs like Paul Bocuse, Marc Haeberlin and Alain Bohn. The excellent cuisine incorporates local dishes en route; while always providing seasonal specialties, elaborate desserts, and unlimited wine and alcoholic beverages.
There are no specific children’s programs, yet the line’s moderate pricing, custom built ships that dock close to the major sights, and French cultural immersion draw families. According to the cruise line, historical routes to Normandy’s WWI sites, and castles along the Danube, are the most popular with school-age children. Kids under age 12 pay 30 percent less than adults, babies under age 2 travel free, and you can inquire about special rates for chartering an entire barge and crew for your family reunion.
Crystal Cruises Enters the River Cruise Market
Among the luxury small ship cruise lines, Crystal is the most-awarded of all, a company that has received “World’s Best” accolades for more than 20 years. Crystal –- which also operates luxury yachts — runs winter and summer holiday itineraries aboard the Crystal Serenity and Symphony with special family programming for ages 3- 17, although this is certainly not their focus.
The July 2016 debut of the Crystal Mozart into the luxury river cruise market makes it an alternative worth exploring, especially for a Christmas Markets sailing on the Danube with older children. Ten-day cruises beginning in November from Vienna will cross the Wachau Valley and make stops in Austria, Germany and Slovakia. Ports of call include Linz, home of the Linzer Torte (invented in 1653), the floating Christmas Market at Vilshofen, the medieval castle of Bratislava and the concert halls of Vienna among many exclusive experiences.
Since the company’s purchase in 2015 by Genting Hong Kong, several expansion plans have been announced. Crystal River Cruises first river yacht will have a state of the art fitness area and spa, indoor swimming pool, three dining venues and a self-service wine bar; 158 guests will be attended to by 91 crew members. The ship does not have any dedicated children’s areas or programming planned at this time, but their demanding clientele may want that next year. This new all-inclusive, all-suite Crystal river yacht will have triple staterooms and connecting suites (all attended by butlers); third berth rates are discounted. Advance purchase rates begin at $3090 per person. Watch out for this brand – several other river cruise ships have been ordered.
On the Amazon River in South America
Explore the wild Peruvian waters of the Amazon in style with Aqua Expeditions. Since 2007, the company has sailed first class all the way, first with the 12-cabin Aqua Amazon (lost in an accident), and now with the 16-cabin Aria Amazon, designed by noted Peruvian architect Jordi Puig to rival luxury boutique hotels. Spacious suites (many connecting) sleep three and face the shore through huge floor to ceiling windows. A third ship, more luxurious with twenty 320-square-foot suites, a spa, a gym, a pool and a fleet of four customized tenders, will launch in 2017. Meals are served in an elegant dining room featuring the haute Peruvian cuisine of Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, who has also prepared a children’s menu. Excursions led by trained naturalists depart by double kayak, canoe and speedboat to explore the flora and fauna of the remote Amazon River and go fishing. The river cruisers are designed to be able to dock alongside villages so passengers can disembark and sightsee on foot and by bicycle.
Onboard, families can pass the time with cards and board games, or turn to the loaner iPads loaded with films about the destination or for entertainment. Each intimate boat has a jacuzzi, fully outfitted gym, and communal sundeck to relax together. Rates for cruises from three to seven nights begin at $3,660 per person, with a 20% discount for children 11 and under (or a $500 per night rate if the child uses the 3rd bunk – a sofabed — in a suite.)
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