What It's Really Like to Take a European River Cruise Right Now

Here's what you can expect from a European river cruise right now.

Avignon Bridge with Popes Palace and Rhone River at sunrise, Pont Saint-Benezet, Provence, France.
Photo: Courtesy of Avalon Waterways

I recently spent a week sailing from Lyon to Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône in the south of France, and for the first time in a long time, I felt like my pre-pandemic self.

I'll admit, I was a bit nervous embarking on a river cruise, even though I've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 for several months. But the cruise line, Avalon Waterways, requires all staff members and passengers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and wear face masks in common areas, which put me at ease.

On board the intimate Avalon Poetry II ship, it felt much like a pre-pandemic sailing, just with fewer passengers, face masks, lots of hand sanitizer, and COVID-19 tests.

Exterior of the Avalon Poetry II sailing on the Rhone
Courtesy of Avalon Waterways

Expect face masks and lots of hand sanitizer.

When I stepped on board the Avalon Poetry II in Lyon, the first thing I noticed was that every employee was wearing a face mask — and properly. Upon boarding the ship, I was greeted by one of several hand sanitizing stations as well.

I was then shown to my suite, where I found even more hand sanitizer waiting for me. Here, I took off my mask and settled in.

During the journey, every crew member I encountered was wearing a face mask indoors. For the most part, guests were, too, though some did become a bit more lax as the days wore on.

The Dining Room on board the Avalon Poetry II
Dirk Verwoerd/Courtesy of Avalon Waterways

The ship didn't require masks when seated with your party or outdoors on terraces and the Sky Deck, giving everyone a chance to see one another's faces on board. Crew members, however, did remind guests of indoor face mask requirements anytime a buffet was present.

In addition to the hand sanitizing stations found everywhere, crew members armed with large jugs of sanitizer also made sure everyone entering a dining area sanitized their hands. At breakfast, they took guests' temperatures as an additional precaution.

"It's really not different than what we're experiencing at home," said Steve Born, chief marketing officer for Globus, the company that operates Avalon Waterways.

Panorama Suite on board the Avalon Poetry II
Courtesy of Avalon Waterways

Your itinerary can complicate things.

One thing that simplified my journey was that the itinerary covered a single country. Multi-country cruises, on the other hand, may require passengers to comply with differing entry and exit rules, but that's the cruise line's job to figure out.

"With a river cruise or tour, guests are choosing an option that removes that responsibility from them and puts it on the operator," said Born.

Still, if you're an anxious traveler, a single country journey may make for a more relaxing vacation.

You may be tested for COVID-19.

At the end of my cruise, all passengers returning to the U.S. and Canada were tested for COVID-19 — PCR tests for Canadians and antigen tests for Americans, as required by their respective governments. While Canadian travelers had to visit a lab for their tests, crew members were trained to administer the rapid antigen tests U.S. travelers needed to return home.

So far, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported on any of Avalon's sailings since the cruise line started sailing again in July, the company said. All of my fellow passengers tested negative at the end of our journey and we boarded our respective flights.

Viking Cruises, another river cruise line, is requiring passengers to take daily COVID-19 tests on board its ships.

Some things about river cruising haven't changed.

Arles, Amphitheatre, And, Old, Town,,France
Courtesy of Avalon Waterways

All that said, river cruising is still an easy way to travel. Your room and luggage go with you from place to place, making it easier — and more relaxing — than when you're forced to pack up and move on a multi-stop itinerary.

My cruise stopped in Viviers, Avignon, and Arles, giving me a chance to hike through Beaujolais vineyards, take a painting class in a city whose light inspired Vincent Van Gogh, and explore the great French outdoors.

Life on board the ship is equally pleasant. My room was akin to a well laid-out studio with plenty of closet space. Large panoramic windows made it easy to enjoy river views from bed and let in a nice breeze. Meanwhile, almost anything you could need — from dietary restrictions and local tours to airport transportation and even COVID-19 tests for travel back home — are taken care of for you.

After more than a year of pandemic-induced stress, it was just the relaxation I needed.

Meena Thiruvengadam is a Travel + Leisure contributor who has visited 50 countries on six continents and 47 U.S. states. She loves historic plaques, wandering new streets and walking on beaches. Find her on Facebook and Instagram.

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