Planning for a stress-free cruise

How to embark for the first time on an unforgettable stress-free river or ocean cruise

The Guardian (Charlottetown)

Stewart Travel Group’s hosts, Travis Stewart, Paula Stewart, and Frances Gertsch in Prague, Czech Republic.

From their ship, they could see architectural marvels from castles carved into cliff faces brimming with stories about royalty, war, and fallen kingdoms to quaint villages and landscapes inspiring poets, musicians, and artists while cruising along the Danube River in Europe.

On Oct. 21, 2023, Frances Gertsch of the multi-award winning Stewart Travel Group in P.E.I. embarked on a seven-day river cruise from Budapest, Hungary, on AmaWaterways’ Melodies of the Danube, where she was one of the travel agency’s hosts for 16 of their clients.

“It was an incredible experience we will never forget,” recalls Gertsch, acknowledging that their niche is hosting group tours.

The travel agency takes six to 12 (sic, groups of) travellers annually and brings them to worldwide destinations.

While Europe is a popular river cruise choice (from the Rhine, Danube, Main, Moselle, the Seine, and Douro River, etc.), the travel agency does cater to exotic destinations: the Nile in Egypt, Chobe in Botswana, Magdalena in Columbia, and the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Gertsch recaps exploring Europe on the Danube River, a cruise that was catered to culture.

“We spent a few days exploring Budapest, staying right on the shores of the Danube River, visiting the exquisite parliament buildings, walking across the Chain Bridge at dusk, and taking the funicular (cable railway) to Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion, where we witnessed the infamous Parliament buildings aglow.”

While she put her feet up on the ship’s deck, there were multiple-course meals to recharge while listening to local singers, bands, piano-players, or even a guest lecturer, including nights of dressing to the nines for the Chef’s Table restaurant.

“The group had a seven course tasting menu paired with wines. Some worked off the calories with a quick jaunt up to Bratislava Castle on their own before we set sail,” continues Gertsch.


Another capital city on their sailing adventure was Vienna, Austria, where the group went on a tour. Some onboard guests attended a two-hour exclusive Viennese concert at night, which was an additional charge.

“It’s said, ‘Oceans take you to countries; rivers take you through them.’ Imagine travelling with a small group, docking in the heart of cities, and having the freedom to come and go, all while being treated to top dining and service,” says Gertsch.

She said the most popular river cruises are for adults aged 45-plus, with sleeping accommodations on most ships for two passengers per room, with very few allowing three passengers in one cabin.

“Solo travellers should look for sales to reduce or eliminate the single supplement (the extra amount a traveller pays for having a stateroom to themselves) or for river cruise ships that have solo cabins,” said Gertsch.

But there are a variety of lines suited more for those travelling solo, with mobility challenges such as wheelchairs or walkers, younger adults and families.

And what’s best about special interest river cruises? It’s not just the themes (showcasing musicians, authors, culinary, or wine tours), but their size, with a maximum of around 150 people on board.

“The staff can get to know the guests, and because of the smaller groups, there are plenty of options for stopping and exploring,” notes Gertsch.

“We stopped at the village of Dürnstein, famous for its wine, apricots, and the imprisonment of Richard the Lionheart in 1192.

“After a wine and apricot tasting, we sailed the Wachau Valley on a beautiful fall afternoon, with hardly a breeze and the vineyards and trees on the shores showing their autumn colours. Our last stop that evening was in Grein, where we visited the 500-year-old Greinburg Castle privately.”

Tours included visiting medieval towns, the sights from the musical film The Sound of Music, historic cathedrals, and artisan stores.

Gertsch encourages anyone taking a cruise to pack light with many layers.

“I travel with just a carry-on suitcase because very reasonably priced laundry services are on board. During the day, I dress casually (sneakers or good walking shoes, jeans or khaki pants, shorts, and a Tshirt and sweater, depending on the time of year),” she said.

“In the evening, smart casual is the norm. Many passengers will wear a skirt, blouse, casual dress, or button-up shirt and slacks. You may find a few more sparkles during the final dinner, but a sports jacket is not required.

“If you have comfortable walking shoes, layers in case it’s cooler or hotter than you expect, your passport, and your toothbrush, you’ll be ready to have a great river cruise experience.”

River cruise prices, the same as ocean cruises, are based on the type of stateroom, the location of the stateroom on the ship, the duration of the cruise, and the destination.

“For a standard seven- or eight-day river cruise in Europe, the staterooms with a fixed window on the lowest deck on the Rhine or the Danube, could start at about $3,500 per person, including port fees, taxes, and pre-paid gratuities,” says Gertsch.

“A stateroom with a French balcony on the second or third deck starts at about $6,000. Suites start at about $9,000.”


For some of the exotic destinations, pre- and post-cruise land tours are optional or included in the vacation package.

“You might opt to spend three nights in Cairo and one night in Luxor along with a Nile River cruise, or three nights in Siem Reap and two nights in Ho Chi Minh City if you sail the Mekong River,” said Gertsch.


Many people choose cruises for the simplicity of it all.

“You pretty much have all that you need on that one platform. There is always a place to socialize and find some quiet me time,” shares Tina Steeves, a travel agent with Fareconnect Travel and Cruise Centre in Halifax, N.S.

“On the larger ocean cruises, you have the luxury of spas, up-scale restaurants, regular restaurants, cafes, evening Broadway-style shows, evening comedy acts on some cruises, activities for the young and mature.”

Most Maritimers fly to Miami, Tampa or New York to catch their ocean cruise (anywhere along the Eastern seaboard with an embarkation port).

“It is always recommended to arrive a day before your cruise in case of delays. For those who tend to get seasick or if this is your first sail, I recommend sticking to midships for your stateroom (near the centre of the ship),” Steeves advises.

For those on a river cruise, airports such as Toronto or Montreal can fly to the destination.

“Some travellers like to arrive a couple of days in advance to get over their jetlag and explore the local region before they set sail. River ships often overnight in the embarkation port, so arriving the day before you are scheduled to leave is not always necessary like it is with ocean cruising,” said Gertsch.

Cruises can be three to five days or up to a week or more.

“Some ocean cruise lines offer free airfare for the second passenger, amongst other deals. So, having that savings truly helps to make it more doable. There are so many cruise lines to choose from: Princess, Celebrity, Norwegian, M.S.C., Royal Caribbean,” said Steeves.

“My last couple of clients had chosen the Caribbean: Great Stirrup Cay and the Dominican Republic cruise with an embarkation port of Miami. Some clients even venture on an Alaskan cruise where you can combine a cruise with a land portion, a little of both worlds.”

Sonja Holzinger, a travel consultant at Maritime Travel, says her first experience was on a smaller ship called AIDAMAR with the AIDA fleet line.

“We departed from Hamburg, Germany, and travelled to Kiel and Heligoland for a three-day cruise. It was a family trip with the former company I worked for (11 years) while living in Austria. We had an outside cabin with a window and a great all-inclusive on board,” shares Holzinger, who now lives in St. Peters, N.S.

Holzinger says the cruise line she sailed with had around 2,600 passengers on 12 decks.

“And dining is casual; there are no dress codes. Passengers can expect various seafood, fruits, desserts, and European and world dishes; the buffets are huge. Plus, there were a la carte restaurants, the ship’s beer brewery, and all tastefully designed.”

She says the larger ocean cruises have more of a variety of passengers, from couples and seniors to young families, solo travellers, and groups of friends.

“I enjoyed sitting on the evening deck, having a cocktail, enjoying the fresh sea breeze, and the endless views across the ocean while in great company. You can have that downtime or buzzing entertainment indoors; there’s something for everyone.”

There are many different cruise lines to choose from, whether it’s ocean voyages or inland rivers, “Whatever your adventurous side wants to do, there is a cruise for you,” said Steeves.