A personal and intimate travel alternative.

by Lauren Sable Freiman

They were bitten by the travel bug 35 years ago when they honeymooned in Spain, and Cathy Kolb and her husband, Larry, haven’t slowed down since. They’ve traveled to 32 countries and explored all but five capital cities in the United States. Among their travels are six European river cruises, a favorite way of seeing the world.

“We love all cruising, but river cruising is our favorite,” Cathy says. “The ships are small and elegant, service is first class, food is gourmet, entertainment is professional, and the scenery is virtually right outside your cabin. You can watch medieval villages or towering cathedrals pass by as you glide down the river mere feet from the river banks.”

Unlike enormous ocean cruisers that hold between 3,000 and 5,000 passengers, river cruises offer a more intimate experience, as they typically carry fewer than 175 guests and crewmembers. Cathy says this makes personal attention, attention to detail, and service incomparable. The smaller profile of the ship also means it can access destinations that big ships cannot.

“The best part of river cruising is how close you are to shore and destinations,” Cathy says. “Docking at a village or a city is as easy as, literally, stepping off the boat. No shore-tenders, no long bus rides into town. You are there. You are literally yards from shore. In places, you can almost reach out and touch a majestic cathedral or pick a tulip.”

There are other aspects that make river cruising a luxurious and wonderful way to see Europe, says Renee Christian, a travel agent with Central Travel, who has planned the Kolb’s many river cruise adventures.

“River boat cruising is totally different than big ship cruising,” Christian says. “You are in a new city every day with a city tour included in every stop you make, complete with headsets and a tour in your native language. All of your gourmet meals are included, and most ships are now including beer and wine for lunch and dinner. I’ve never had anyone return from a river cruise disappointed. I think it is a wonderful way to see Europe.”

Christian says she most often sells cruises on Avalon Waterways, Viking River Cruises, and Uniworld. Each company offers a variety of themed cruises, from wine and culinary appreciation cruises to World War II history, jazz, and art appreciation cruises.

“One of our most memorable experiences was visiting Normandy and the Normandy American Cemetery,” Cathy says. “The silence was overwhelming, and the cemetery was eerily beautiful. We were given roses to place on any grave. We searched for Missouri soldiers and found them. Choose destinations that fit your historical interests.”

Cathy suggests visiting Holland when the tulips are in bloom, visiting France in the spring, and visiting Germany in the fall, to take advantage of unique festivals and events.

According to Christian, those considering a river cruise should plan to book their vacation six to 12 months in advance, as the ships sell out quickly. Costs vary and are determined in part by airfare to Europe, the time of year, and cabin position on the ship. Although the cruise lines offer some great sales for early booking, Christian says travelers will not find river cruises heavily discounted like big ship cruises.

“The best cabins on the ship have floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors with French balconies where passengers can enjoy the scenery from their stateroom,” Christian says. “You can also enjoy the beauty of the cruise from several observation areas throughout the ship.”

After six river cruises, they’ve seen much of Europe, but Cathy says she and her husband love cruising so much that they are far from finished traveling the rivers of the world by boat.

“We love to travel because it makes our world smaller, our knowledge greater, our memories richer, and our appreciation for America greater.”