When I embarked solo on a river cruise in France, I did so as a complete newbie. Not only was it my first river cruise, it was my first cruise of any kind. In fact, it was my first experience of any type of organized group travel. I learned a lot along the way and would like to share my discoveries and my best river cruise tips to help you make the most of your own journey.
Before leaving home, I sought advice from readers and friends. I suspected there would be some experienced cruisers in the group, and they did not disappoint, offering great information gained from their own travel experiences.
Here I offer my best advice for getting the most out of your trip when you go solo on a river cruise, including input from readers and lessons I learned on a cruise along the Seine.
Are River Cruises a Good Option for Solo Travelers?
Before boarding the ship, I wondered what it would be like. Would I chafe at defined meal times? How would I handle all the structure? Would I be bored? What would my cabin be like? Would I enjoy the company of the other passengers? Are river cruises a good option for solo travelers?
Over the course of 13 days, all of these questions were answered. Meals were well-timed, delicious, and optional; if the ship was docked, you could go into town for dinner if you felt like it. There was some structure to the day, but you always knew in advance what it would be and you could go along with it or plan around it. I was never bored, not for one minute. My cabin was 165 square feet of well-utilized space. Sometimes I enjoyed my fellow passengers, sometimes I enjoyed alone time. And I can now say that I think river cruises can be a fabulous option for solo travelers. Following are some of the discoveries that led me to this conclusion.
A River Cruise Tip Not to Be Underestimated: You Only Unpack Once
You will visit many different destinations in the course of your trip, but your room and your belongings move with you. There is no gathering up your belongings every day, lugging baggage, or searching for something in the bottom of your suitcase. There are lots of drawers, a good-sized closet, and a well thought out place for everything. So many readers complain to me about the hassle of handling luggage when they travel solo. A river cruise takes that burden away while offering you visits to many different destinations.
You Can Socialize or Not
This is a river cruise tip that applies to both introverts and extroverts. You would probably have to work pretty hard to not make a number of acquaintances on a river cruise. It can be a very social experience—but it doesn’t have to be. It is incredibly easy to meet people at meals, on tours, in the lounge, or on the deck. But you can also have quiet time in the library, on the roof deck, or in your cabin. It’s entirely up to you how much you participate in group activities, and there is no pressure to do anything.
There Are Deals to Be Found
River cruises are one travel option where solo travelers can often find trips without a single supplement, whether that is a general policy of the tour company or a special deal on a specific cruise. The river cruise that I took was listed on the cruise company's website as a last-minute deal. It was deeply discounted, and I had the flexibility to go. For the cost of that trip, which included 12 nights in an upper level cabin with French balcony, tours in every port, 3 meals a day, unlimited wine and beer with dinner, free bike rentals, and more, I could not have stayed in a hotel in Toronto, even without meals, drinks, tours, entertainment, activities, or transportation from city to city. All that money would have bought me was a bedroom for 12 nights.
There Are a Variety of Accommodation Options
Many river cruises now offer single cabins for those who don’t need a lot of space or are trying to economize. A reader recently shared that she enjoys the cost savings of the single cabins because she spends very little time in them anyway, preferring to sit on deck or take advantage of the other amenities on the ship. Many also offer roommate matching, if you don’t mind being paired up with another solo traveler to share a larger room and save. If money is not an issue, or you have the flexibility to take advantage of a last-minute deal, there are double rooms and even some suites to choose from. Some companies now offer cruises specifically for solo travelers, where the entire ship can be filled with people traveling alone with their own rooms.
Unexpected Solo River Cruise Tip: You Can Go Your Own Way
While there are many included tours (which I found to be fabulous), as well as some optional tours to choose from, you don’t have to take them. The ship docks right in town, so in minutes you can get from your cabin to the center of everything. Do your own research and see the sights you want to see. Put on your walking shoes and take a wander around town. Choose an outdoor patio and have a glass of wine and watch the world go by. Sign out one of the free bicycles that are carried on the ship and cover more ground. Order a taxi and go further afield. There is no requirement to do anything other than get yourself back to the ship before it departs.
You Cover a Lot of Ground (er, Water)
You are literally delivered to the center of multiple destinations while you sleep. The time and effort that would be involved in getting to all of the cities and towns by land that I visited on this trip by water, would be enormous. Plus, you would need to find accommodation in each of those places and do all of the research on each of them to determine the highlights you want to see, where you want to eat, what you want to do. Taking a river cruise eliminates a lot of work and makes seeing a lot of smaller, off the beaten path places possible.
All You Have to Do Is Show Up
This can take some getting used to. You don’t have to research or book tours, figure out transportation systems, manage time constraints, or worry about lugging your bag around all day if you don’t need it. You don’t have to read restaurant reviews, make reservations, or shop for food. This was the easiest trip I have ever taken in terms of what was required of me. As long as I got myself to the dining room for breakfast, I was set for the day.
I could choose a tour (there were generally options for both more active and more leisurely paced excursions), join a walking group or get on a waiting bus, and off we’d go. There would be a knowledgeable guide to take care of everything from entrance fees to wireless headphones, to making sure I knew how to find my way back to the group if I decided to go off exploring on my own. When I returned to the ship, my room would be clean and it would probably be close to cocktail hour. Followed by dinner. Then entertainment. Then a great night’s sleep. Going solo on a river cruise certainly has its perks!
My Best Solo River Cruise Tips
Here are 12 tips to help you enjoy your river cruise as much as I enjoyed mine–or more, because you'll have some advance knowledge to smooth the way for you.
- Alone time. If you are someone who values (or, as in my case, needs) time alone, you may have to plan for it. I spent more time in my cabin than I would have expected, simply because it was such a social experience that that was often the only way I could get quiet time to do a bit of work or read or just watch France floating by. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the social aspect of the trip very much. At the same time, I am someone who requires substantial solo time in order to be at my best in group situations.
- Social time. If you are someone who enjoys being around people, you are going to be in your element! At least on this cruise, everyone was friendly and welcoming, inviting me to join them at meals, stopping by to say hello if I was sitting on my own, chatting on the tours. It takes very little effort to meet a huge number of people when you're traveling solo on a river cruise. Naturally, everyone shares their travel experiences, so you may get ideas for future trips. Enjoy!
- Daily insider tips. Be sure to attend the “port talk” every evening. This is where you get not just the itinerary for the following day, but ideas for extra activities you may want to participate in, insider tips from staff about the destination you will be visiting the next day, and additional information (such as information about accessibility, options for more or less physically strenuous tours, the next day’s weather report, and any surprises the Cruise Director might have in store for you).
- Spread yourself around. This excellent river cruise tip was passed on to me by members of the Solo Travel Society and I put it into action on the very first day. It was recommended that I sit with different people every day. As a solo traveler, I always had many seating options at dinner. There’s almost always room for one more! The only thing that was not an option was sitting alone at the large tables in the dining room. It was a lot of fun meeting new people at the table or joining people I had met earlier on a walking tour or during the cocktail hour.
- Take all the tours. There were tours in every port that were included in the cruise package, and every one that I took was interesting and informative. They ranged from short walking tours to day-long excursions to multiple sites. Everything was so well-organized. Amazingly, even when we wandered off to pursue our own interests in different places, we all respected the timelines and managed to get back to the bus and keep the tours on track. (You know that doesn’t always happen in groups!) I would recommend taking any and all tours that interest you. In some cases, you may take an overview tour of a town which will reveal to you other places you want to visit. You may see shops you want to return to, cafes to enjoy after your tour, or a gallery you can explore later in the day.
- Check out the optional tours. I only took one of the optional tours offered on my river cruise, the Footsteps of van Gogh walking tour in Auvers-sur-Oises. This one had caught my eye when I was reviewing the itinerary and had also been recommended to me by a friend who had taken a similar tour when visiting the village. It was wonderful and worth every penny to literally walk the streets and through the fields where the artist had painted and lived out the latter part of his life. Of course, I could have just wandered about the town on my own, but the guide was incredibly knowledgeable, offering a much deeper experience than I would otherwise have had.
- Don’t feel obligated to participate in everything. This was one of those river cruise tips I had to learn along the way. The cruise had many activities available, both on and off the ship, and it was sometimes difficult to choose between two great concurrent options. I embarked on this trip with a twisted knee, and in my excitement, I overdid it on the very first day, taking a 3-hour walking tour with cobblestones, stairs, fields, and hills. The second day, I did a walking tour of Monet’s gardens at Giverny. The third day, I didn’t leave the ship. I felt guilty for missing out on the tour of the day, but I knew that I would be in much worse shape on the 4th day if I didn’t give my knee a rest. Plus, it felt luxurious to have an afternoon nap with the door to my French balcony open, curtains blowing in the breeze, and the sound of rain softly falling outside. From that point on, I was more mindful about what I participated in and how.
- Pack earplugs. If you are sensitive to sound at night, you may want to take earplugs. A Solo Travel Society member recommended this since the ships sometimes travel through the night and may be passing through locks, which could generate some noise. I didn’t encounter this issue, but it may depend where your cabin is located. Likewise, if you like to get to sleep early or take an afternoon nap, earplugs may come in handy if other passengers are participating in activities and your cabin is located near a common area, or if there are festivals or celebrations taking place near where the ship has docked.
- Do your own thing. If the tours in any port don’t strike your fancy, do a little research to find something that does and take off on your own. Just make sure to check with the staff to ensure you are back in plenty of time before the ship departs! There is no obligation to take any of the organized tours, or to return to the ship for your meals if you don’t want to (although the food was great!), or to stay on the ship after dinner, unless it is departing for the next port.
- Take advantage of the concierge service. Here's a river cruise tip I hadn't anticipated. I’m so accustomed to doing everything for myself when I travel that I didn’t make use of this service. Many of my fellow passengers did, though, and really appreciated it. The concierge was so helpful, arranging reservations, tickets, and transportation to various events, attractions, and restaurants. Honestly, between her and the Cruise Director, I can’t imagine how they ever got any time to sleep. They were incredible – and incredibly busy!
- Using Uber presents a challenge. While in Paris, I used Uber several times to get around. You may already know that I think Uber is a brilliant resource for solo travelers, having used it in 6 different countries now. Here’s the challenge: Uber doesn’t know where your ship is. There is no physical address for the spot where you are docked, and the area covered by the port can be very large. The solution? Walk up to the street, stand in front of a store or restaurant, and enter in that address. Trust me, after 4 cancellations in a row because the driver couldn’t get to me, this is your quickest, easiest solution.
- Using Uber yields a reward. On the other hand, the reward of using Uber is the chance to have a conversation with a local. I took a couple of my fellow passengers with me when I did a little shopping in Paris. The traffic was astounding, but while we were stuck in it, we were treated to a lengthy, animated conversation/monologue by our driver about the terrible mayor (“She’s CRAZY!”), the horrendous traffic (“It’s TERRIBLE!”), and the many new bike lanes (“They’re STUPID!”) and green initiatives (“They’re a WASTE OF MONEY!”), as well as corruption, misuse of funds, and various other government problems. It was both entertaining and an up close and personal glimpse of life in Paris. Perhaps predictably, our driver’s response to my suggestion that he come to Canada was similarly emphatic: “It’s TOO COLD!”
For more river cruise tips, stories, and deals, see these posts: