I'm not new to the world of river cruising. I fell in love with the style of travel back in 2015, and have been on 4 river cruises throughout Europe since then.
I'm a fan of river cruising for a few reasons:
- You can get an overview of a region in a short amount of time.
- You visit places you might not otherwise have traveled to.
- All the logistical details are handled for you.
- You only have to unpack once!
So when I was invited to try out a new style of river cruise this summer with Avalon Waterways, I didn't have to be asked twice.
Avalon Waterways offers all the river cruises you'd expect to find in Europe: tulip cruises, Christmas market cruises, wine-focused cruises, etc. But you'll also find some not-so-expected cruise itineraries and styles offered by Avalon, including the “Active & Discovery” cruise.
Avalon's Active & Discovery cruises are exactly what they're marketed as: a way to be more active on your river cruise while delving deeper into local cultures. These river cruises come with a wide variety of excursion options to choose from that are far from your “average” cruise tours.
I'll be writing more about this new style of cruise later, but for now I thought I'd share with you some of the highlights of my week on board the Avalon Impression on the Danube. I sailed from Budapest, Hungary to Linz, Austria, and basically tried to do everything!
Highlights from an active river cruise
1. So. Many. Options.
I think what wowed me the most on this “Active & Discovery on the Danube” itinerary was the sheer number of included excursions to choose from each day. Most river cruise lines include 1 or 2 tour options in each port, but with Avalon there were usually at least 3 to choose from – and sometimes more!
This freedom of choice sometimes made it tough to decide what I wanted to do on any given day, but ultimately is a great problem to have. If you're traveling with friends or kids who have different interests, you're pretty much guaranteed to find something to suit everyone.
2. Active excursions
The “active” part of this itinerary was no joke. There were 4 biking tours, 2 hiking tours, 2 canoeing tours, and even a running tour offered over the course of the week, along with several walking tours in different cities.
The hiking tours were tough since I was in Central Europe in the middle of a heat wave (I skipped out on the second hiking tour I was signed up for and don't feel bad about it), but all the active excursions on offer helped me feel a little less guilty about all the food I was eating!
Cycling in the Wachau Valley
My favorite active excursion was a 19-kilometer guided bike tour along the Danube Bike Path in Austria's Wachau Valley. We rode past vineyards and quaint Austrian villages along a paved bike path, stopping frequently to see churches or learn about wine production.
We even had half an hour to wander around the town of Dürnstein, which made this excursions extra memorable.
And the best part? All of these active excursions were included – there were no extra fees, even for the bike tours!
3. Immersive cultural tours
The other unique aspect of this cruise was the variety of “Discovery” tours. Avalon goes beyond the classic “highlights” tour, offering instead all sorts of interesting excursions that delve deeper into local culture.
Some included excursions included things like:
- Getting VIP access to art museums, often before they opened to the public
- A neighborhood walking tour that ending in a bread-baking class
- Going to an evening concert in Vienna
- The chance to meet an Austrian Count in his castle
- A schnitzel and strudel cooking class
- A tour of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp
- Beer tasting at Austria's only Trappist Monastery
- A guided pub crawl with locals in Linz
Some of my favorite excursions (most of which were “Discovery” tours) included:
Retro tour in Budapest
This was an Optional tour on this cruise (meaning there was an extra fee associated with it), but it was one of my absolute favorites. A group of us met at our Budapest hotel and were soon whisked away in retro Trabant cars – the tiny East German cars that became ubiquitous throughout the Soviet Union.
The Trabants were hot and uncomfortable to ride in, but so darn fun. We went to a retro cafe for wine spritzes first, visited one of Budapest's famous ruin bars, and ended with a stop at Memento Park, where many of Budapest's Soviet statues and monuments have been banished to.
Our guide on this excursion grew up in Hungary during the Soviet Era, and added so much to the experience with his personal stories.
Early morning in Vienna
If you ever want to know what a popular tourist city is like for the locals who live there, get up and walk around early in the morning. That's exactly what we did on this tour, which included an early morning walk around central Vienna, followed by Viennese breakfast at a local cafe.
After breakfast, we made our way over to the Museum of Fine Arts, where we got to wander through the museum with our guide before opening time.
Saint Florian Monastery
I'll admit that I signed up for this excursion not really expecting much. But Saint Florian Monastery blew me away! From its Beauty-and-the-Beast-esque library to its crypt stacked with bones to its great Baroque Marble Hall, I was in a constant state of awe as we toured this place.
Our visited ended with an organ concert on an organ with more than 7,000 pipes that composer and organist Anton Bruckner used to play.
This was seriously a treat.
4. The amazing Avalon Impression
An important aspect of any river cruise is the ship you call home. On this cruise, I was on the Avalon Impression.
On the Impression, as on all of Avalon's ships, everything is centered around the view. Whether it's floor-to-ceiling windows in most state rooms to a dining room designed to make sure every seat has a view of the river, everything about cruising on an Avalon ship is designed to make sure you can see the scenery.
The state rooms
Another thing I like about Avalon's ships is that, even though they're the same size as most other river cruise ships in the industry, they accommodate fewer passengers. Our ship could hold only 128 people (and wasn't even completely full!), so it never felt crowded, even when you were waiting to grab breakfast at the buffet or a burger during one of the Sky Deck BBQs.
The reason Avalon's ships hold fewer people is thanks to their fleet being made up of their “Suite Ships,” or ships with the majority of state rooms being 200-square-foot Panorama Suites.
These Panorama Suites are pretty awesome, with the wall of windows opening up 7 feet to turn the whole room into an Open-Air Balcony. (How smart is this?? No wasted space dedicated to a balcony that you can't use in all weather.)
And, oh yeah, the beds also face the view, meaning you can lounge in a robe and not miss a thing.
Unlike some other river cruise lines that just offer one big lounge onboard, the Avalon Impression makes use of all its space to offer not one, but two indoor lounges (along with a large Sky Deck, and small shaded outdoor lounge).
The smaller Club Lounge at the back of the ship was my favorite spot to hang out after my state room. Here, you can find a 24/7 coffee machine and access to cookies and pastries.
This was a great spot to watch the ship pass through locks, or to break out a board game to play with friends after dinner.
Flexible dining options
Forget what you know about cruising from large-ship ocean cruises. There's no assigned seating on a river cruise, and not really even set dining times.
On the Avalon Impression, all main meals are served in the dining room at set times, but you can technically show up any time during meal service and be served. Every meal in the dining room comes with an al la carte menu, though breakfast and lunch also usually have a large serve-yourself buffet.
For early risers and/or people who weren't hungry enough for a full meal, there were also lighter-fare meals served in the Panorama Lounge. I made use of this one day when I needed to grab a quick bite in between excursions.
On top of the main meals, there was afternoon tea served every afternoon, treats in the Club Lounge at all times, and of course the bar in case the beer and wine included with meals wasn't quite enough (and, pro tip: drink prices during happy hour each evening were super reasonable!).
And, for those worried about essentially eating in the same restaurant every night for a week, don't worry: the menu changes daily, and usually includes at least one or two regional dishes from wherever you're sailing!
I'm used to river cruises having an onboard cruise director, who not only organizes shore excursions, but also coordinates onboard activities. But this was my first cruise where our ship ALSO had an “Adventure Host” onboard.
This Adventure Host ran free yoga and fitness classes every day on the ship, and sometimes offered to take guests out on bike rides using the 16 Avalon bikes onboard.
This was part of an entire “Adventure Center” onboard, where you could also rent hiking poles, binoculars, and even FitBits to use throughout the cruise. This is something unique to Avalon as far as I know, and I loved these extra ways for people to stay active on their vacation.
5. A real pledge to sustainability
As someone very aware of my impact on not only the environment but also on local communities when I travel, I take sustainability pretty seriously.
Thankfully, Avalon Waterways takes sustainability pretty seriously, too. Not only are they taking steps to make their ships and cruises as low-waste and eco-friendly as possible, but they extend their sustainability practices to local economies, too.
In case you're not familiar, sustainable tourism has three pillars: environmental, socio-cultural, and economic. A business can only truly be sustainable if it's taking into account all three.
Avalon is doing a LOT in all three areas. Some of the environmental concerns they're tackling include:
- The company has a small fleet of ships, all of which use all sorts of cool technology to reduce consumption of everything from fuel to water.
- Avalon encourages guests to use its AvalonGO app onboard instead of getting a ton of printed maps and literature, which has helped them reduce paper waste by 80%.
- I think most excitingly, Avalon has pledged to completely eliminate single-use plastics on all their ships by 2020. They're already offering wooden stirrers and starch-based straws, and will be phasing out plastic water bottles soon. Instead, guests will get reusable Avalon bottles that they can refill onboard. (LOVE this!)
From a social and economic standpoint, Avalon also is aware that oversaturation and overtourism in some European destinations threatens to turn opinions against tourists. Several times during my cruise, Avalon's Managing Director said something along the lines of “We want local businesses to be excited about us coming into port.”
In order to ensure that this happens, Avalon mixes stops in popular cities (like Budapest and Vienna on this itinerary) with visits to towns and villages that people have likely never heard of.
And when you visit these places, Avalon is employing local guides, renting buses from local companies, and even ensuring that bike tours are run through local businesses using their own equipment, even though Avalon has its own bikes onboard.
We also learned about some cool initiatives where Avalon is working with local communities to develop new tours that they can offer passengers. This not only offers passengers more opportunities for cultural exchange, but also opens up new jobs in these communities.
Some spots in Europe are definitely suffering from overtourism, but I feel like Avalon is really ahead of the game with ways they're already addressing this issue.
6. Relaxed luxury
Avalon doesn't have an official cruise “style,” but a phrase I heard used several times during my cruise was “relaxed luxury.”
Yes, any river cruise in Europe is going to be luxurious. But very few of them are luxurious to the point of feeling stuffy.
Avalon's Active & Discovery cruises are still very luxurious with the beautiful ship, spacious state rooms, and multi-course meals, but relaxed and welcoming, too. (Plus, with most people going on excursions in workout gear, there's no pressure to dress up outside of maybe one or two dinners.)
This style strikes me as a way the majority of people would prefer to travel, and it's a style that Avalon Waterways does very well.
Why travel with Avalon?
There are a lot of choices when it comes to river cruises in Europe. I've now traveled with three different river cruise lines: AmaWaterways, Viking River Cruises, and now Avalon Waterways.
Ama and Viking are pretty similar in their itinerary offerings, as well as their style of cruises. I found Avalon to be slightly more relaxed, and more suited to families, younger couples, and groups of friends who want to have a memorable trip together.
I'm also a big fan of the Active & Discovery cruise I tried out, and would absolutely go on another! I think this style of cruise is better suited to a slightly younger crowd, and might be exactly what the river cruising industry needs to break out of its current stereotype of only being “for” retirees/Baby Boomers.
More soon on this cool new style of cruising!
This post was brought to you as a result of the Avalon Waterways trip, a project between Avalon Waterways and iambassador. As always, all opinions are completely my own – I maintain full editorial control of the content published on this site.
Who thinks a cruise with Avalon Waterways sounds pretty good?
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I believe they sometimes will include pre-paid gratuities as a promotional offer, but in general they are not included. You can usually either pre-pay them, or pay at the end of your cruise.