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Spotting castles on Avalon Expression

If you already read The Travel Temple, you’ll know that my wife and I are keen cruisers. But here’s something you might not know about me. Until recently, I was a European river cruise virgin!

Tiana had sailed on Europe’s rivers before on a cruise in Portugal but this seven-night Avalon Waterways’ Active and Discovery Rhine River cruise would be my first time on a European river ship. And I have to confess that I was feeling a little nervous on boarding day. If you’re wondering whether a river cruise is for you, this Avalon Waterways Rhine River cruise review is for you.

Rheinstein Castle on our Avalon Waterways Rhine River Cruise
Rheinstein Castle on the Rhine

As a couple, we were very used to travelling independently. In fact, even when we were on ocean cruises, we usually planned our own independent shore excursions. So how would we go on a river cruise where there was a schedule and touring program to follow every day? Thankfully, it turned out that I had nothing to worry about.

Our Avalon Waterways’ Active and Discovery itinerary (which I’ll talk about more below) gave us a choice of action-packed included excursions ranging from e-bike and walking tours, and kayak adventures that were perfect for us. Much to my surprise, I loved having everything organised for us. I think this is because the itinerary we had chosen was such a good fit for us as younger river cruise passengers in our 50s.

Cycling through the vineyards  on our Avalon Waterways Rhine River Cruise
Cycling through the vineyards with Avalon Waterways

These itineraries also tend to attract a younger demographic who aren’t ‘typical’ river cruise passengers. Our fellow travellers ranged from honeymooners in their thirties to fit retirees and everything in between. My first European river cruise completely changed my preconceived idea about river cruising, and it is definitely something that I would do again. Here’s my Avalon Waterways Rhine River cruise review, plus some tips for first-timers sailing with Avalon Waterways in Europe.

The view from Avalon Expression
The view from Avalon Expression

What is included on an Avalon Waterways Rhine River cruise

Whether you opt for an Active and Discovery itinerary like we did or one of Avalon Waterways’ traditional cruises, your river cruise fare includes gorgeous scenery, luxurious accommodation, gourmet dining, and wine with lunch and dinner. Unlike most ocean cruises, there’s also a choice of excursions included in your Avalon Waterways river cruise fare at no extra cost.

Observation Lounge on Avalon Expression
Observation Lounge on Avalon Expression

Avalon Waterways Rhine River ships

Like most river cruise lines, all of Avalon Waterways’ ships are virtually identical. Our sailing was on Avalon Expression, which had a main dining room, guest lounge and top deck with seating for taking in the view. The ship provided a comfortable and luxurious base for our adventures, with panoramic views of beautiful European landscapes and well-appointed cabins.

Avalon Waterways Rhine River cabins

Speaking of cabins, ours on Avalon Expression was a haven of comfort and style. Featuring luxurious décor, a comfortable king-size bed, and a bathroom stocked with L’Occitane toiletries, our accommodation provided the perfect retreat after each day filled with exploration and activities.

Avalon Expression Rhine River Cruise panorama suite
Our Avalon Expression panorama suite

Avalon Waterways Rhine River Dining

Every dining experience on Avalon Expression was memorable (especially the special BBQ lunch on the top deck on a perfect day). We enjoyed the variety and quality of the food and wine, and had some great meals while we were onboard. The only hiccup was a lost order one day at lunch when we ordered off the menu instead of going to the buffet, but we weren’t in a hurry so it didn’t matter.

One thing we really enjoyed was the flexibility to choose a table for two or a group table. Even though a river cruise is a very social holiday, it was also possible to enjoy a romantic dinner if we wanted some couple’s time.

Avalon Waterways Rhine River Active excursions

Our Active and Discovery River cruise on Avalon Waterways was the exact opposite of one of those river cruises with bored groups of travellers shuffling through quaint European towns and getting bussed around on coaches.

Instead, there were loads of excursions that catered to our adventurous spirit. From e-bike and walking tours to kayak adventures, there was never a dull moment and definitely no chance of getting bored. We were glad we had worked on our fitness before we joined the cruise so we could make the most of every minute.

Food tour on our Avalon Waterways Rhine River Cruise
One of our excursions was a food tour in Amsterdam

Avalon Waterways Rhine River Classic and Discovery excursions

For those who didn’t want to do an Active excursion (or missed getting a booking on one, more on this later), there was the opportunity to explore historic castles and vibrant towns like Freiburg and Heidelberg that added a layer of cultural richness to our journey. We also loved the intimate classical music recital inside a baroque castle one night after dinner.

Avalon Waterways Rhine River Add On excursions

Avalon Waterways also offers the option to participate in additional for a fee excursions. This was great as it gave us the chance to cater for our individual interests, with a choice of excursions that were a little different to the usual offerings. 

For example, one afternoon my wife opted for a food and wine tour in Alsace in France while I joined fellow war history buffs for a tour of the Maginot Line, a defensive line of bunkers and fortresses that was designed to protect France from Germany. The Maginot Line is somewhere I had always wanted to visit so this was a dream come true for me (and enough to drive Tiana to drink – literally!).  

Hiking through a vineyards in Germany on our Avalon Waterways Rhine River Cruise
Hiking through a vineyard in Germany

Avalon Waterways Rhine River cruise tips

As a first-time river cruiser, there were some things I discovered on this trip that I thought you might find helpful, especially if you opt for one of the Avalon Waterways Active and Discovery itineraries.

Work on your fitness: If you aren’t as fit as you would like, it’s worth doing some light exercise for a month or two before you leave so you’re in good shape to make the most of the activities onboard.

Book any ‘must do’ excursions early: You should definitely pre-book any excursions you’ve got your heart set on ASAP when bookings open on the Avalon website. We didn’t and the e-bike tours on our sailing booked out so quickly that we completely missed out!  Thankfully, a couple of last-minute spots became available, and we grabbed them on the day – but we were lucky.

Exploring Amsterdam on foot on our Avalon Waterways Rhine River Cruise
Exploring Amsterdam on foot

Include some downtime: Don’t make the mistake I did, and book up every minute of each day with included and add-on excursions. One of our fellow passengers who had done an Active and Discovery itinerary before was smarter than me and left herself a couple of free afternoons so she could sit back with a book and enjoy the view.

A balcony isn’t essential: It’s always nice to have a balcony but you can easily do without one on a river cruise. While the panoramic views from the floor-to-ceiling windows in our cabin were lovely, we hardly spent any time admiring them as we were usually chatting with other travellers in the lounge or on deck. Skipping a balcony is an easy way to save money if you’re on a tight budget.

Is an Avalon Waterways Rhine River cruise worth it?

At the end of our cruise, we agreed that an Avalon Waterways River cruise is definitely worth it. I didn’t realise that you can make a European river cruise, whatever you would like it to be, until I had done one.

For example, if you like to be active, you can choose an Active and Discovery itinerary. Or if you prefer a more leisurely pace, you can book one of the regular sailings or simply opt for the less active excursions on an Active and Discovery itinerary.

Spotting castles on our Avalon Waterways Rhine River Cruise
Spotting castles on Avalon Expression

Much to my surprise, I found having everything organised for me was relaxing and enjoyable rather than restrictive. However, next time I won’t book up every minute of my day!

While it’s true there are cheaper European holidays available, we could see why our fellow passengers saw this holiday as excellent value for money. When you add up all the inclusions, it’s a surprisingly good deal and a great way to see a lot of Europe in a short amount of time.

Disclosure: The writer travelled as a guest of Avalon Waterways and wouldn’t hesitate to do another river cruise.

Want more great cruise advice? Check out our tips for choosing the perfect cruise, cruising with grandchildren, cruising with tweens and cruising with kids of all ages, solo cruising, the best activities on Ovation of the Seas, doing a Transatlantic cruise with kids, cruising in Australia or Papua New Guinea, Iceland cruise tips, cruising on a megaship, scoring a bargain cruise fare, cruising the Mediterranean, making the most of a cruise ship kids club, luxury cruising with kids, and the Byron Beach Club onboard P&O Cruises. We have also reviewed Disney Wonder, Pacific Adventure, Celebrity Edge, Quantum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas, Pacific Encounter, Carnival Splendor, Voyager of the Seas, Nieuw Statendam, Viking Helgrim, Pride of America, Coral Expeditions in Tasmania and the Great Barrier Reef, Celebrity Solstice, and Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth.

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Trevor Templeman is a photographer and writer who travels the world capturing the essence of locations through their landscape, architecture and people. His words and photographs are published in magazines, newspapers and online around the world.