River cruising is not the preserve of the elderly, says Adam Coulter as he sets sail on a family-focused Tauck Bridges Danube cruise with his seven-year-old son
When you first think of river cruising, a ship full of young kids flying kites off the sun deck, bombing into the hot tub and taking part in a karaoke contest are possibly not what you have in mind.
River cruising is exclusively for the very elderly, taken at a slow pace and very quiet – pottering about in local towns, early dinner and early to bed.
Family river cruising has been quietly growing in popularity, largely in the North American market, but also slowly growing in the UK since 2004, when Tauck Bridges first launched its dedicated family river cruise programme.
Since then, a number of other river cruise lines have followed suit, most notably Adventures by Disney, which charters whole AmaWaterways ships during holiday times; Uniworld, Vantage; and A-Rosa – all of which offer dedicated kids’ programmes, activities onboard and family-focused shore excursions.
The Tauck Bridges product, aimed exclusively at families, launched on the Danube and has since been rolled out to the Rhine. This year, the special sailings for families will include two French rivers – the Rhone and the Seine.
I first sailed on a family river cruise with my then nine-year-old, Findlay, with Adventures by Disney in 2016. More recently, I have the opportunity to try out Tauck’s product, spending a week onboard with my seven-year-old, Rafferty, on a seven-night eastbound Danube sailing from Vilshofen to Budapest on Joy, one of Tauck’s newest ships. Here’s what I learn during our week onboard.
Forget walking around a town in a large group with an earpiece following a lady with an umbrella. Instead, with Tauck Bridges think geocaching in Passau, dressing up as a medieval knight for a spot of jousting in Devin Castle, Bratislava, and a private dinner followed by waltzing at a palace in Vienna.
Tauck takes great care in sourcing the perfect family shore excursion, ensuring it appeals to adults and kids alike. And it’s worth noting that all have a learning element. They differ from traditional excursions in that they are all presented in a fun and engaging way. One of the most memorable is at Hellbrun Palace, just outside Salzburg, with its “trick” fountains. The delight on the kids’ faces when unexpected jets soak them and their parents is worth the trip all on its own.
However, it’s worth emphasising to your clients that if their idea of a family holiday is to have the kids entertained or supervised, then this is probably not for them. They might be better off with Adventures By Disney, which has both a kids’ club and dedicated kids’ staff. Tauck makes a virtue of the fact that all shore excursions and almost all mealtimes are for the entire family.
In keeping with most other river lines, minimum recommended sail age is eight years old, and there is good reason for that. Many of the shore excursions and the entertainment onboard are not aimed at very young children. My son slips under the radar as a seven-year-old, but makes great friends with the other kids, including one several years older (Ben, aged 12), because both share a love of fidget spinners. They have even kept in touch via Skype since. The same thing happened when my then nine-year-old went on Adventures By Disney and a 12-year-old girl took him under her wing as they had a shared love of piano.
There are two areas on the ship where board games, puzzles and balloons are set up, but there is
no space reserved specifically for kids. The thing to emphasise to clients is that children are genuinely welcomed anywhere onboard – there’s no need for a dedicated kids’ club as children are everywhere.
On certain days, however, there are kid-specific activities on offer in the afternoon such as quizzes or apple strudel making.
Although there are three Tauck representatives onboard who are all great with children (and parents), they are not there to look after your client’s child. They will, of course, suggest activities that children might like to do in their free time, and they are very thoughtful when it comes to the smaller children – for example, recommending against a challenging hike or long bike ride.
It’s worth noting that clients can’t leave their child unattended onboard, so the idea of popping out for a few drinks in Vienna – where the ship docks for two days – is not going to happen unless they are travelling with a friend or relative who is happy to look after the younger members of the group for a few hours. The same goes during the day, when they may wish to do that challenging hike, for instance. It’s worth recommending that they make friends with the parents of their children’s new friends so that they can divide up childcare duties, if they so wish.
When it comes to accommodation, families are well catered for. Both the French and German sets of ships have an industry-beating number of suites – 14 on the French ships and 22 on the longer Germany-based vessels. Suites are ideal for families, with a sofa bed, which can sleep up to two kids. There are no interconnected cabins, but there are small doubles, which carry no single supplement. These would be ideal for teens looking for privacy or for a grandparent.
My abiding memory of the cruise is sitting on the sun deck, approaching one of the many locks along the Danube. It’s a beautiful day, with bright blue, cloudless skies. There are kids in the hot tub playing “Marco Polo”, kids running around on the top deck, other children playing games – and still others, with the help of parents and staff, learning to fly kites off the back of the ship, the smaller ones looking up in wonder as the kites fly ever higher into the sky.
Book it: Tauck’s eight-day Blue Danube: Family Riverboat Adventure starts from £3,125pp including transfers based on a July 7, 2018 departure.