Cruising on the Avalon Expression

First of all if you haven’t taken a River Cruise or considered offering one to your clients you’re missing the boat.  If you haven’t noticed the ads on TV or other forms of media you haven’t been paying attention. The old image of River Cruising being just for really old people is no more!

River cruises are now a very accepted way to really see and explore Europe for people of all ages.  The complimentary tours offered today are for people of all ages and activity levels, with a real emphasis on exploring and getting up close and personal.  For many people this is how they can easily explore the interior of Europe, and see the towns and villages that are really the heart of these countries.

I have been lucky to have cruised on many of the great rivers of the world and even have taken a small barge trip in the heart of France.  Needless to say I am asked frequently which is the best. To be perfectly honestly they all have their own flavor and appeal. Of course the Mekong has to be the most exotic but any of the great Rivers of Europe are appealing and rewarding.  No matter which one you chose you’ll get to experience Europe up close and personal in style, convenience and comfort without packing and unpacking.

We have had charters and groups on various Avalon cruises in the past, all with great results.  We never did have a chance to really do a full cruise and experience Avalon as a normal passenger, so before IBTM this year we made time to be a normal guest and take the full 7 night cruise on the Rhine River.  

One great thing about Avalon is the value for money proposition.  River cruises are not cheap and like any products there is the high end, the middle and the bottom.  Avalon price wise is right in the mid range. Prices include at least 1 tour per day. If it is a long full day tour, a nice lunch with beer and wine is include, which we got to experience.  Not only was it a nice lunch but a fun one as well, with a restaurant owner that wants to be an entertainer. Optional tours are available at additional charge and I found the prices to be very reasonable.

All meals of course are included on the ship and in typical river ship fashion, breakfasts and lunches are buffets where dinners are ala carte.  We found all of the meals to be very nice, well presented and with very good service. This cruise past through Switzerland, France and Germany so we had day and night specials featuring the cuisine of each country.  So dinning was never boring. Open seating allows you to dine alone or met others of the 160 guests. I must say all the guests that we met were very will traveled. Many were repeat passengers. Beer and wine are included with lunch and dinner and full bar is complimentary at happy hour.

Here is a very interesting comment from one of the couples on the cruise.  This couple had come to the ship straight from a Danube cruise on AMAwaterways, another fine brand.  They didn’t know we are in the business, so we played 20 questions with them on how they compared the two brands. The answers I got are most interesting.  Cabins they liked their cabin on the Expression better, more on this later, but they thought AMA offered more suites and different categories, true. How was the food?  Again they thought the food was better on Avalon. Strangely enough, I found out that Avalon recently hired AMA’s fleet head chef with the specific goal of upping their F&B game, guess its working. How about the tours –  Avalon appealed to them more than AMA which I took as a personal taste issue. So there you have it in a nut shell and I was not totally surprised. 

So what about the ship itself.  Well let’s be honest there is truthfully not much you can do with a river ship.  They can only be so long and so wide and so tall to navigate the rivers, locks, canal and bridges along these rivers.  River ships vary in size from 90 to 190 passengers. There are no waterslides, casino, rock climbing walls etc. With few exceptions most of the cabins are basically the same and almost the same size.  The nice thing with Avalon if you know one ship you basically know their entire fleet.

Avalon’s fleet average passenger size is a very manageable 150 guests.   The standard cabin size is 200 sq ft which is 30% larger than the industry average.  The upper decks on all ships have open-air balconies. These are floor to ceiling windows that are 7’ and open up.  No it is not a balcony you can close the door and sit out on. It first of all gives you more interior space. Secondly think about this for a minute, you are typically cruising one way up or down a river to get the total view you need to be on deck or in the typical panoramic lounge.  Sitting on your balcony in city is not the best option as the majority of time you are tied up to another ship or maybe you just want to meet new friends or compare your ship to another.

The cabin lay out is exceptional with the beds angled looking out, making it possible to walk all around the bed with enough space for a love seat you can actually use.  Exceptionally large marble bathrooms are more like a luxury ship than a river ship. There are only two 300 sq ft suites, and sixteen 172 sq ft cabins that do not have full sliding glass doors.

Tours are a very important part of a river cruise.  A walking tour of a town just doesn’t cut it anymore, but some still try.  Avalon offers 3 levels: Classic being the typical over view of a city and its historical sites with time to explore on your own later; Discovery which is more interactive to your specific interest; and  Active for the joggers, bikers and hikers in the group. The tours we experience were excellent.

Food and service were fine. With a formal dining room and a bistro in the main lounge for a casual lunch and dinner.  There was never an occasion to rely on the steak or chicken at dinner as the dinner menus offered a great and different selection daily. Let’s face it a breakfast buffet is a breakfast buffet but with a bit more of a European flavor.  The lunch buffets were very varied daily and always interesting. While you are really not on the ship all that much, the bar service was always good and of course the complimentary happy hours ensured a full house nightly to chat with fellow cruisers.

Entertainment is always a bit so so on river ships, and you can go as far to say ocean ships as well, while in Europe.  You have a full day EVERY day of tours and exploring ashore. By the time you are done with dinner it seems like a drink or two and some nice music might be enough for most people.  If you want more activity Avalon can help you spice it up.

We highly recommend Avalon and its fleet in Europe and on the Mekong Rivers.  It is a very solid product that is priced right.

This report was prepared by Steve Bloss on February 1, 2020. The views expressed as solely those of the author and not necessarily those of WWTCA.
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