Can You Book a Family Vacation on a River Cruise?

On Uniworld’s “Generations Collection” sailings along the Rhine River, families can gaze at castles from the vessel’s Sundeck.

One trend delivering more revenue to the travel agency bottom line is the fast-paced growth in multigenerational family travel. In fact, Virtuoso cites “multigenerational travel” as its top 2018 luxury travel trend. Certainly, family travel on the world’s oceans is booming, as cruise lines offer water parks, supervised children’s clubs and family-centric accommodations, as well as eclectic dining choices. 

But what about river cruising for a multigenerational vacation? Does it really work, given the lack of kids’ facilities onboard? Is there enough to do for two, three or even four generations of family members with different interests? Agents and suppliers we’ve talked with say a resounding “yes.” 

Regardless of age, consumers like river cruising because of its intimate aura, smaller vessel size (typically fewer than 200 guests, some ships far less), personalized service, people-to-people options in local destinations, active options, no constant packing / unpacking, choices for both “together time” and “just for me time,” and itineraries with family-specific departures, along with normal itineraries of interest. 

“River cruising is great for everyone including younger children,” believes Lindsay Hardy, owner of Travel Leaders locations in Ponte Vedra Beach and Palm Coast, FL. She just booked a multigenerational Rhine voyage on Viking River Cruises and has sold many others in the past. “The ease of walking off the ship when you are in a city center is more convenient than driving hours to a city to see the sights,” Hardy says. “It’s your personal floating hotel…When in the ports, there is plenty for all interests.” 

Broader Guest Spectrum 

Kids are increasingly showing up on river vessels, because age-wise, today’s river cruisers are increasingly in their 40s, 50s or 60s, not solely 70 and up (as in past decades). Many are traveling with a multigenerational family group. A positive sign for the future? Industry research shows Millennials between 18 and 35 years of age love the concept of a river cruise. 

Today “river cruising is experiencing a tremendous breakthrough across all demographics and families are no exception,” says Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, who sees increased demand for her line’s family-targeted Generations Collection sailings. “In fact, we’re adding two more Generations themed cruises for 2019 and expect that this number will continue to increase every year for the foreseeable future.”

Generations voyages, in which kids 4 to 17 years of age receive 25 percent off their fare when traveling with an adult, operate on certain dates for the “Remarkable Rhine” (new this year), “Delightful Danube & Prague,” “Classic Christmas Markets,” “Gems of Northern Italy,” “Paris & Normandy,” and several other European itineraries. What’s the draw? These family-oriented departures offer diverse daily excursion choices, multiple types of food at each meal and an onboard and onshore staff with family interests in mind. Additionally, each Generations sailing has two dedicated “Family Hosts” to oversee all activities for Junior Cruisers (ages 4 to 12 years) and Teen Cruisers (ages 13 to 17 years), so parents can feel confident splitting up with their kids. 

Other perks? Kids can dine at the Young Travelers’ Table, a special dining table reserved on certain nights just for younger guests and Family Hosts. They’ll have hands-on activities onboard such as craft workshops tailored to the itinerary, plus cooking classes and dessert-making with the ship’s chef and pastry chef. On these sailings, kids can visit an onboard young travelers’ lounge and game room, complete with PlayStation, games, movies and local treats. 

Family Hosts will help kids learn foreign phrases and words with “Live the Lingo” and also supervise kids-only movie nights with popcorn. Children will become VIPs during a ship tour by the captain or hotel manager, plus they can bike or hike ashore with their parents using complimentary bicycles, helmets and Nordic walking sticks. Surprise kids’ pillow gifts will be delivered nightly.

Kristin Karst, co-owner and executive vice president, AmaWaterways, cites one recent summer river cruise of 19 family members hosted by grandparents celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. Hailing from multiple generations and different cultures including Amish and Jewish, they all had a fabulous time and the 85-year-old grandma even tried out yoga stretches in a session with her daughter on the ship’s top deck. On another trip, Karst recalls a four-generation family group with 58 travelers. The patriarch and matriarch were in their late 80s, and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren were all traveling. Karst asked if they had a good time and “one by one, they all said it was the best trip of their life.”

AmaWaterways has always welcomed families, many who travel at Tulip Time, holiday time or on Christmas Markets cruises. But in 2015, it decided to “take it to the next level on family travel,” says Karst by launching a new family river cruise partnership with Adventures by Disney. The first Disney-chartered departures set sail in 2016 on the Danube River, and Rhine / Main family departures were added the next year. 

New this year, Adventures by Disney will offer nine-night Seine river itineraries on AmaWaterways’ 144-passenger AmaLyra including a seven-night cruise and two hotel nights in Paris. On the cruise, families can visit Monet’s Giverny where kids can paint their own landscape; head to Normandy, Honfleur and the chalk Cliffs of Etretat; explore a French castle; and even traverse a ropes course high in Rouen’s treetops.

On each Adventures by Disney departure, eight Disney counselors sail with the ship, leading activities for different age groups, both onboard and ashore. These sailings have a bit more time in port too, says Karst, who adds that beyond shore trips, the Disney counselors also organize games or sports activities outside, often on grassy areas near the vessel.  

On AmaWaterways, families can bond from shared experiences; the line’s Adventures by Disney departures offer maximum family fun.

The Disney partnership has also resulted in family-friendly hardware changes to AmaWaterways’ newest ships, including AmaKristina, AmaViola, AmaLea and AmaStella, which now offer both connecting cabins and some triple accommodations, a plus for families. That said, the smaller AmaLyra (on Disney’s Seine departures) doesn’t have those options, but Karst says families can alternatively book two cabins, or, a child 11 or younger can sleep with the parents in their cabin for a 25 percent berth supplement.

Tauck’s family-dedicated “Bridges” departures feature such hands-on activities as cooking classes, storytelling, cultural explorations and exclusive experiences that families can do together. During the Bridges’ “Family Fun Along the Seine: Paris to Normandy” itinerary, kids and adults pedal on a guided bicycle ride along the Seine, picnic at the Eiffel Tower, and go on an art-filled scavenger hunt and tour in the Louvre. The itinerary includes a two-night Paris stay and a five-night Seine cruise.  

Or, on a Bridges’ “France Family River Cruise,” families can spend two nights in Paris and take a seven-night Rhone River cruise; activities involve castles, cooking and cowboys. Among other Bridges itineraries are “Blue Danube: Family Riverboat Adventure,” “Amsterdam Riverboat Cruise” and “Castles on the Rhine: Family Riverboat Adventure.” Adding to the fun, Tauck is introducing many new European shore excursions in 2018. Among the kid-friendly new options are geocaching and marzipan-making in Passau, Germany.  

Multigenerational Opportunities 

Agents cite these “good hooks” for client discussions that can lead into multigenerational sales opportunities:  

Skip-Gen Travel: Cruise Planners cited Skip-Gen as a top trend in its 2018 Trends Outlook, describing it this way: “Grandparents take the grandkids on a special adventure, leaving the parents behind to enjoy their own time off.”

Special Occasions: Clients celebrating a 25th or 50th anniversary often desire to bring along other family members and may pay for all of them. Younger adults may “gift” a celebratory cruise to their parents. Weddings, vow renewals or partner committal ceremonies are other opportunities.  

Heritage Discovery: Families may desire to sail through a region to discover their heritage, particularly if the family has done some genealogy. They may also wish to visit distant relatives overseas.

Adult-Only Cruising: Young adults and their middle-aged parents along with grandparents may wish to spend “the trip of a lifetime” together without children. Culinary travel, wine tasting, cultural programs and hands-on experiential activities may appeal to these travelers.

Family Reunions: Family members can sail through a region together, but still having plenty of “me” time for their own activities. Agents can create a group cruise, or even a full-ship charter, if a large family plans well in advance.  

A future opportunity? Next month, U by Uniworld, a new brand, launches on the Seine with “The B,” the former River Baroness. Originally aimed solely at Millennials ages 21 to 45, U by Uniworld recently announced it was opening bookings to adults of all ages, although the onboard product will remain the same. Sporting a black hull, the updated / reconfigured ship will have live DJs, a virtual nightclub, communal dining, people-to-people experiences and shore trips delivering Instagram moments. A second ship, “The A,” the former River Ambassador, will sail the Rhine. 

While no longer a Millennial-only brand, it could introduce more Millennials to river cruising as a vacation choice, which could bode well for future multigenerational bookings. For Millennials, it’s all about the experience — collecting memories, not things. So, these “experienced” cruisers could, in turn, just a few years down the road, invite their parents and grandparents — and ultimately their children — to cruise with them on a multigenerational product. 

Regular Cruises That Fit

Beyond family-specific departures, regular river voyages also appeal to multigenerational travelers. “Christmas Markets cruises create a fairytale winter wonderland for the children,” stresses Karst. Cruisers visiting markets in Cologne, Germany, for example, will see puppet theaters, folk dancing, a humongous tree, carolers, arts / crafts stands and toy stalls, plus candied almonds, gingerbread cookies and stollen (a bread-like fruitcake with icing). 

Nearly all European lines offer Christmas Markets cruises. CroisiEurope operates four- and five-day Christmas Markets cruises. Four-day sailings roundtrip from Strasbourg offer up the markets of that city plus Rudesheim and Mainz, Germany. For those with more time, Scenic, a luxury, all-inclusive line, operates eight- to 22-day Christmas Markets cruises.

New Scenic options this year? A 12-day “Rhine Christmas Markets with Switzerland” adds a four-day, multi-city tour of Switzerland before or after an eight-day Rhine cruise, while an “11-day Danube Christmas Markets with Prague,” combines three days in the Czech capital with an eight-day Danube River sailing. Perks include butler service, unlimited complimentary beverages and such Scenic Enrich events as a cheese-making experience.

“River cruising is a great travel style for multigenerational travelers and is getting increasingly popular each year,” says Vanessa Parrish, channel marketing manager, Globus family of brands, which includes Avalon Waterways. “Thanks to a comfortable, spacious, luxurious and intimate ‘floating hotel,’ travelers wake up each morning in a new village — and sometimes, even a new country, with new activities to indulge in and sites to explore.” 

Parrish and travel agents say “active” options on global rivers also draw multigenerational groups. River ships often carry bicycles for guest use ashore, and hiking, kayaking and even mountain biking are other options, varying by itinerary. Some lines offer levels — such as gentle, normal and active — for walking tours.

Avalon Waterways has created eight- and nine-day “Active Discovery” itineraries on the Rhine and Danube rivers this year. On the eight-day Rhine northbound cruise from Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt, Germany to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Avalon’s guests can hike near Eltville and around Duisburg; climb to Marksburg Castle for a guided visit; participate in a Roman Games reenactment in Xanten; bike along the Rhine River; or join an Amsterdam running tour. Guests can also walk the mining corridors of an ancient volcano and visit the Zollverein Coal Mine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Attracting many younger and active travelers, Emerald River Cruises has expanded its EmeraldActive shore excursion choices this year, adding new biking options and guided hikes. Cruisers can take a guided bike excursion from Melk to Durnstein or a rugged, guided hike in Germany’s Black Forest

New itineraries can fuel interest in multigenerational travel. Crystal River Cruises is introducing new 10-day “Enchanting Moselle” itineraries onboard Crystal Bach, round-trip from Amsterdam through Germany and the Netherlands, from late May through late December. This is Crystal’s first foray onto the Moselle, plus there are five maiden port calls / destinations. Cruisers can explore Bernkastel’s medieval charm, Trier’s Roman ruins and Cochem’s Reichsburg Castle, and also tour Bonn and Dusseldorf

The popular indoor-outdoor Aquavit Terrace on Viking River Cruises’ Longships lets families watch the scenery unfold as they sit down to breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Third berths are available upon request for all Crystal’s river cruises, plus the line’s two-bedroom suites can accommodate four adults. Separately, this year Crystal introduces new curated European shore options, often tailored to individual interests or with smaller group sizes and unusual features. Families could see a horse show and take a carriage ride at Lázár Equestrian Park outside Budapest or check out the colorful tulips at a behind-the-scenes tour of Amsterdam’s greenhouse. 

Family groups also navigate toward new vessels for their multiple dining venues, plenty of comfortable seating areas, top-deck walking tracks, spa services and more. Viking River Cruises has ordered seven new river vessels for 2019. Six are 190-passenger Viking Longships for Rhine, Main and Danube River sailings. Each will offer two Explorer Suites with wraparound balconies and separate living and sleeping areas; these make a good base for family gatherings onboard.  

The seventh new Viking ship is a bit smaller at 106 passengers. It’s designed for the “River of Gold” itinerary on Portugal’s Douro River. Cruisers can expect a diverse choice of staterooms, Viking’s popular Aquavit Terrace and modern Scandinavian design.

Family River Cruise Intel

Hardy believes it’s important for agents to find the right river cruise line when booking clients who are traveling with children: “Some lines offer bicycles, chef’s cooking classes, gingerbread house making, language lessons and more…and [some] also cater to children ashore and visit places more interesting to kids.” 

The minimum age to sail on a river line varies widely. AmaWaterways’ and Adventures by Disney’s river guests must be at least four years of age, but Karst believes kids six and up may best appreciate the experience. Crystal only requires kids to be six months of age, while Viking River Cruises, Riviera River Cruises, and others have a minimum age of 12. “Sometimes you can ask for approval for a younger child,” though, Hardy has learned.       

Ships may have some suites with third berths, such as Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine or S.S. Maria Theresa (not the Royal Suite), or, alternatively, newer ships may have connecting cabins. Again, this varies widely, so ask specifics. River lines don’t usually provide cribs or children’s bedding. Also, if parents choose to book a second cabin that’s non-connecting, the line usually requires one adult to stay with the child, meaning parents split up at night. One solution? Agents might ask the parents if grandma would like to sail too.

River lines generally don’t have dedicated children’s facilities / spaces. Uniworld sets up one space on its Generations departures as a young travelers’ lounge and game room, but its regular sailings don’t have that. Will families miss a supervised kids’ club and babysitting, as on the big ocean ships? Maybe, but a recent Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) survey revealed that 41 percent of adult cruisers are definitely interested in childcare services including babysitting, and children / teen programs, yet only 13 percent say they actually use those. 

Certainly, day touring provides fun, bonding experiences, plus any family-targeted departures have a good portfolio of energetic, fun activities kids should love. Often kids tire after dinner and can sleep well. Family members can trade babysitting duty with other family members, allowing some in the group to enjoy a kid-free evening for romantic dining or nightlife ashore. 

One big plus for a small river vessel? It’s not a ship of 4,000 guests with more than a dozen decks. “Nobody gets lost, which is a fear of mothers, I know,” says Karst, “that on such a big ship I may lose my child.” 

Travel Agent also asked Karst about concerns sometimes expressed by those traveling without children as to whether they’ll hear screaming kids all the time or see them running amok in the vessel. From what she’s observed onboard, that’s not happening: “The children we have seen are very behaved, almost like a special magic, as they’ve read about the castles, Medieval homes and cobblestoned streets, and once they are in Europe everything comes to life.” 

Sometimes good family vacations are those where not every waking moment is spent with the rest of the family. During port calls, “different generations can do different tours at the same time and then for meals, come back together,” Karst says. Grandparents could tour Normandy by motorcoach, while their adult children and grandkids bike through the French countryside. “They have so much to talk about and share what they experienced during the day,” she notes.

Sailing through Europe can be a fairytale-like experience for children of all ages. Shown here is Avalon Visionary plying the Rhine River.

It also helps if kids “buy into” the vacation choice early on. Tauck recently introduced a new 56-page “Just for Kids” print brochure for its potential Bridges guests. Boasting colorful graphics, playfully worded text and “interest-specific” information, it features a Q&A with a young traveler who’s experienced three different Bridges journeys.   

Closer to Home

While historically North American river cruises have attracted a decidedly elderly crowd, that’s shifting a bit downward as multigenerational family groups desire to tour America and avoid both overseas travel hassles and pricey international air tickets. Many passengers can drive to their U.S. river cruise home port, saving on domestic air.

Perhaps the biggest draw? “Travelers don’t need to go to Europe to see the most beautiful mountain ranges, historic rivers and coast lines anywhere,” says Susan Shultz-Gelino, director of business development, American Cruise Lines, who also cites the ability for people to explore America’s culture and heritage. This year, that line will operate 10 American-flagged small ships on North American rivers and along coastal waters.

On April 18, the 175-passenger American Constitution will operate an inaugural, 11-day “American Revolution Cruise” roundtrip from Baltimore. Sailing the Chesapeake Bay, families can explore Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, Jamestown, Washington, D.C., Mount Vernon and Annapolis. Also new, the line’s 184-passenger American Song, the first in a “Modern Riverboat” series with a four-story glass atrium, will launch Mississippi River cruises later this fall and offer Columbia and Snake rivers in 2019.  

American Song’s accommodations all have balconies. Solo cabins offer 250 square feet while double occupancy staterooms start at 301 square feet. The perfect “base” for family gatherings is the 900-square-foot Grand Suite with 270-degree panoramic views through floor-to-ceiling glass, a wraparound balcony with private dining area, two private staterooms and a shared common living area for families to gather and relax after a day ashore. 

American Cruise Lines' ships also offer some adjoining staterooms and single cabins. “You can request any bed size such as two twins or a king, and whatever configuration works for your family, we are happy to provide,” says Shultz-Gelino, adding that the line’s ships have “elevators to all decks and many options for travelers with mobility issues so that multigenerational family groups can enjoy the same ship and many of the same activities together, stress-free.” 

American Song’s modern public spaces will include a Vista Lounge (with 270-degree scenic views from 40 feet above the water) and an open seating restaurant. Creatively designed, the ship’s bow will open with a retractable rotating gangway to allow for “bow landings” almost anywhere. Shore trips will range from kayaking to guided museum visits and city tours. “No matter what you chose to do by day, each evening families can come together for cocktails, open-seated dining and evening onboard entertainment and educational lectures,” says Shultz-Gelino.

Themed voyages are another enticement for families. American Cruise Lines offers “Civil War,” “Lewis & Clark” and “Mark Twain” themed voyages; a “Nashville County & Blues Cruise” including a visit to the Grand Ole Opry; food / wine cruises in the Pacific Northwest; and “New England Lobsterbake” or “Chesapeake Bay Crabfest” Cruises. Clients don’t need to fly to the Netherlands for a tulip-themed cruise, as the line offers a “Tulip Festival” cruise in Puget Sound. 

Another American-flagged line, but with grand “steamboatin’ era” design, is American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC). Three paddlewheel-style vessels have modern amenities but retro-architecture conjuring up images of the Victorian era or Mark Twain’s tales. AQSC’s flagship is the 436-passenger American Queen, the largest paddlewheeler ever built, sailing on the Mississippi River, along with the 166-passenger, all-suite American Duchess. Sailing in the Pacific Northwest is the 223-passenger American Empress.  

Spacious suites such as the Loft Suites on American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Duchess are great for hosting an evening family gathering.

American Duchess’ interior suites start at 180 square feet. The 550-square-foot Loft Suites have a full bathroom, small dining area, a lounge section furnished with a queen sofa-bed and desk area, along with sliding doors to access a private balcony. The bonus is the upstairs loft area with a semi-private bedroom, full bathroom and closet space. The similarly sized Owner’s Suites are another option with a queen / twin bedding configuration plus a pull-out sofa bed. 

AQSC’s fares cover shore excursions in every port of call, a one-night, pre-cruise hotel stay (including breakfast, taxes, porterage and transfer to the ship), free cappuccino, espresso, bottled water and soft drinks throughout the voyage, complimentary wine and beer with dinner, daily Riverlorian lectures and grand entertainment that includes revues, cabaret, jazz and blues and a six-piece orchestra. Also, a dedicated fleet of motorcoaches follow the ship and provide transportation / tours in ports of call. 

On American Queen, grandparents paying for a multigenerational trip with relatives in other staterooms can sail in style within the 348-square-foot Owner’s Suite with a 690-square-foot exclusive furnished veranda (AQ – OS category). It’s perched atop the vessel. A butler will help guests unpack and guests can receive afternoon tea in their suite or breakfast and dinner on the veranda. The AQ-OS category also qualifies for Commodore Services, an elite-level of service perks like reserved balcony seating in the Grand Saloon theater and a private reception with senior officers.

AQSC also offers a robust portfolio of themed cruises as well as pre- or post-cruise stay packages in Memphis, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Portland, OR, Spokane, WA, and Chicago. Its “Chicago Gems” package (per person at $749 triple, $799 double, or $1,199 solo) includes: a two-night stay at the Drake Hotel, two full American breakfasts, Chicago (pre-cruise) city tour, two-day Chicago hop-on, hop-off pass, admission to the Field Museum of Natural History, a Chicago architecture boat tour, dinner at Harry Carry’s and private airport transport upon arrival.

Other small ship lines also operate North American waterway itineraries. Among them are Un-Cruise Adventures on the Columbia / Snake River and Blount Small Ship Adventures and Pearl Seas Cruises (with its 210-passenger Pearl Mist offering 300-square-foot staterooms) on the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes

Onto Exotic Rivers

A South American, African or Asian river cruise may appeal for family groups who’ve sailed in Europe or North America and desire an exotic itinerary. That type of travel is “very good for the development of a child,” believes Karst.  

“We do everything for our children, and if they don’t travel, they have no sense of what’s going on in the world.” She’s observed that teenagers sailing on Mekong River voyages encounter local kids who are extremely happy yet very poor, giving the teen guests a new perspective. “Travel becomes transformational,” she says. Plus, Asian voyages explore colorful pagodas or markets, and offer fun rides in an ox cart, rickshaw, trishaw or tuk-tuk.

Many European river lines operate on Asian rivers. Victoria River Cruises is an American-managed line plying the Yangtze, while Pandaw operates many Southeast Asia exotic voyages, including Chindwin River voyages in Myanmar. With Pandaw’s “Family Promotion,” offered on select dates during school break periods, two adults pay full price for the first cabin and for the second cabin, one or two children between the ages of 5 and 18 travel for free.  

Families can enjoy sun, scenery and golf putting on this colorful top deck of American Cruise Lines’ American Constellation.

Wherever families choose to sail, agents who book multigenerational cruises with multiple staterooms, create a good revenue flow for their agency and, most importantly, unforgettable memories for their clients. “Families have discovered the joys of river cruising,” Bettridge emphasizes. “It’s a trend that’s here to stay.” 

Karst shared one true tale of a family with a young child. Nearing the end of a day ashore, the child asked, “Mom, when do we go home?” The mother immediately thought the child wanted to return to the family’s home and addressed that. But the child responded, “No, when do we go home to the ship.” Karst’s take?: “Children adapt well, and they have the time of their lives.”  

River Vessel Versus Barge

Large multigenerational family groups might consider chartering a river vessel, if they’ve planned far enough in advance. A river cruise itinerary can be customized for charters, and river vessels often sail 30 to 150 miles a day — allowing clients to enjoy both scenic cruising and to visit multiple destinations (some iconic) within a country or region.  

For smaller family groups, though, another option is to charter a hotel-style barge for a float through Europe. Among the trade-friendly providers are French Country Waterways, European Waterways and CroisiEurope, plus Barge Lady Cruises pays commission on 50 luxury barges in eight European countries. 

Accommodating six to 24 guests, European barges span various price categories, but can be luxurious with a top-deck hot tub, gourmet dining, a relaxation lounge / living area and well-appointed suites with private baths. They also ply small waterways and canals, covering only a mile or so daily. Families can walk to a local market; bike through rural countryside; tour a castle or local historic site; dine at a small-town café; visit a vineyard for wine tasting and immerse themselves in a tiny part of a county / province. 

Related Stories

This Week in Cruise: Eye on Expedition Cruises

State Dept. Lifts Caution Against Using Cozumel Ferries

Disney Adds New Spaces and Experiences Aboard Disney Magic

Carnival Launches Travel Agent Upgrade Program