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River Cruising with Kids

About River or Ocean Cruises

By Leah Rumack These days, a child on a river cruise isn’t the rare – or non-existent – sight that it used to be.

Benjamin, says breezily as a waitress waves at him across the dining room. Then he gestures toward the cook behind the pasta station. “And that’s my lunch friend.”

It turns out that Ben has a lot of friends on this ship. My husband, Jason, Ben and I are taking a summer river cruise down the Rhine with AmaWaterways. As the sole little kid onboard, Ben is something of a celebrity. “Hello, Mr. Benjamin!” his favourite bartender calls out (Ben’s nightly order? A Shirley Temple).

While the other kids on this sailing are teens travelling with their extended families, these days, a child on a river cruise isn’t the rare – or nonexistent – sight that it used to be. When AmaWaterways started noticing interest in multigenerational or grandparents travelling alone with grandkids taking off a few years ago, they decided to embrace it. (The minimum age to sail on AmaWaterways is four, but the recommended earliest age is eight.) All of AmaWaterways’ newer ships, including AmaKristina, our home for the week, have been built with adjoining rooms, more suites and cabins with pullouts to cater to this growing segment. Our 235-square-foot room has a queen bed and a chair that pulled out into a single bed.

AmaWaterways also has a partnership with Adventures by Disney, where Disney charters the boats and tweaks the excursions and onboard programming to appeal to groups travelling with younger children. Disney brings some of its own kid-specific programmers, but otherwise, the ship’s staff is the same, which is perhaps why they’re completely unruffled when, upon arrival, Ben immediately jumps into the glass elevator and rides it up and down, waving maniacally, or when he orders a hamburger or hot dog every night and needs his ice cream to be “plain, just plain!”

“I am used to this,” laughs our waiter.

“Multigenerational groups love the size of a river cruise ship,” says Brenda Kyllo, Vice President of Strategic Alliances, AmaWaterways. “You’re not losing each other all the time, and everything is so convenient.”

We definitely notice this – there’s never any of the “where the heck are you?” stress that we’ve had on ocean cruises. If I can’t find them, there are only so many places my boys can be. They are usually splashing in the small rooftop pool or playing on the life-sized chessboard next to it – and it only takes me about seven minutes to cover the ship from end to end. 

The other great thing is that all the shore excursions are included. Each day, there’s usually a biking or hiking option and a couple of city-focused tours – but if you just feel like hitching a ride into town on the tour bus, but then exploring on your own, you can at no extra cost.
“Families appreciate the flexibility,” says Kyllo. “I was on one sailing and the mom just took the kids to a park, the dad went on the bike excursion, and the grandparents did something else, but they like knowing they’re all coming together at the end of the day.”

We definitely take advantage of this ease – you don’t even need to book your shore excursions in advance, which can be key to dealing with kids’ unpredictable moods. One day, Ben and I go shopping in Cologne while Jason goes on a beer tasting. We all feel like we’re in one of Ben’s storybooks when we visit Riquewihr, a pretty medieval village in France. Jason eventually gives up shouting “Castle Alert!” after we pass the 25th castle on one, particularly scenic day sailing through the Rhine Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage site. While the guided excursions are obviously geared toward adults, judging by the feverish maps Ben draws, and the stories of empires built and lost that he scribbles when we get back to the cabin every night, he’s definitely absorbing the daily history lessons, too.

“That’s why we want our sailings to be inclusive,” says Kyllo. “We feel so strongly about the richness experiencing other cultures brings to children.”

On the last night of our cruise, Ben sits dutifully in his chinos and collared shirt, munching on his hamburger and waving to all his friends. “Would sir like some wine?” the waiter asks him, brandishing a sparkling flute of Sprite. “Yes, please!” Ben says, and then they fist bump.
Hey, why didn’t I get a fist bump?! Guess we can’t all be Mr. Benjamin.