Sunset from the Avalon Impression

Surprising Ups and Downs We Encountered During our River Cruise — an Avalon Impression Review


The Avalon Impression (2014) is a beautiful new ship in the Avalon fleet.  I am reviewing this as a ‘hotel’ because it is your floating hotel along the rivers of Europe.  Our cruise sailed from Budapest, Hungary to Amsterdam (14 days) in August 2015, and was filled with many surprising ups and downs.

Avalon Impression
Avalon Impression
The Small Ship Difference

This was our first river cruise.  We had been on many ocean cruises, ranging from 3600 passengers to ‘small ships’ of about 650 passengers.  This was much smaller.

The Avalon Impression holds about 166 passengers — there were 150 passengers on our sailing.  The Impression has 67 Suites, and 16 outside staterooms with windows (lower, Indigo deck)

The front desk reception (also your Security team), knows each passenger by name and stateroom number.  There is a lost and found, where things that are lost might actually get found!

You get to know your fellow passengers with only 150 people on board.  River cruise passengers tend to be friendly, social people who want to get to know you.  If you don’t enjoy meeting new people, then river cruising will be more challenging for you than ocean cruising.

Avalon Impression Panorama Suite
Avalon Impression Panorama Suite, photo from the Avalon Waterways Website
Suites and Bathrooms

The Panorama Suite cabins are large with beds that face French balconies that open up almost wall-to-wall.  This French balcony design maximizes your personal cabin space, since river cruise vessels must fit exact width criteria to fit through many locks in the rivers.  Floor to ceiling windows offer beautiful views of the scenery floating by.

Avalon Impression Bathroom
Avalon Impression Bathroom, from Avalon Waterways Website

The bathrooms are unlike any ocean cruise-liner bathrooms (what I was most looking forward to)!  The Avalon Impression bathrooms have plenty of space, with marble countertops, large showers, and L’Occitane amenities.  Our bathroom even had a scented oil diffuser.  Toilets flush like typical cruise ships.

Fine Dining and Drinks Included

All meals are included in the dining room.  There is an option for ‘light lunch’ and ‘Bistro dinner’ available in the Panorama Lounge.  Room service for breakfast is available for a fee.  There is open seating for all meals.

Breakfast is a buffet with made-to-order eggs, smoked salmon, fruit, and the most delicious Belgian Liege waffles ever!  Sparkling wine, juices, smoothies, coffee, and tea are included with breakfast.

Lunch is a generous buffet as well.  Some ‘specials’ are available to order off the menu.  Most port excursions will get you back by lunch time, so you can eat lunch on board if you prefer.  Sodas, iced tea, coffee and tea are included with lunch.

Avalon Dining Room
Avalon Dining Room

Dinner is single-seating (ours was at 7 pm), with a cruise-casual dress code (no shorts at dinner time).  There are no ‘formal nights’ on the Avalon Waterways river cruises, so you don’t have to pack extra dress clothes.  There are two ‘dressier’ nights, if you’d like to dress up for the Welcome dinner and the Farewell dinner.

The Dinner menu includes gourmet appetizers, soups, salads, an entrée, and dessert.  House wines, beers, and sodas are included with dinner.   A seafood option is available on each dinner menu, along with the always available Norwegian salmon option.  Other entrée options included vegetarian, beef, chicken, and lamb.

They are careful to list potential allergens for anyone who may have allergies to gluten, nuts, etc.  Gluten free bread is available.

Afternoon snacks with tea and coffee are served from 4 – 4:45 pm.  Late Night snacks are nightly from 10:30 – 11 pm.

Avalon Impression Bar
Avalon Impression Bar
Coffees, Teas and Free Bottled Water

Cappuccino / espresso coffees and teas are always available in the lounges (2 machines, self-serve).

The bar staff are very friendly, and will serve you any cocktails or other drinks outside the dining room (these are charged to your room).

There is a minibar set up in the fridge in your stateroom.  These are charged to your stateroom if used.  We had the fridge emptied so we could put our waters in the fridge.

Free bottled water is included!  We had two 1 liter bottles refreshed twice daily in the stateroom.  Cold and room temperature 0,5 Liter water bottles are complimentary, and set up at a table for you to pick up as you exit the ship at each port.

Guided Tours are Included

Complimentary guided excursions are available at each port.  These are led by English-speaking local tour guides (Avalon is part of the Globus Family of brands, and Globus is an expert in land-guided tours).  Overall, we had a wonderful experience with all the guides.

Tours are usually half a day long, depending on the cruising schedule.  If arriving at a port in the morning, tours will typically start at 8:30 am, and return by 12:00 pm for lunch.  If “all-aboard” is late in the afternoon, you have an option to stay in town for lunch and explore further, or have lunch on board and then go back out.

There are optional (non-included) excursions at some ports.  The cruise director gives talks about each port and the optional excursions.  Some of these excursions are day-long, and some are half-day tours (going back out in the afternoon after lunch).  Prices are given in your welcome package prior to sailing.

River Cruising and The Schedule

With river cruising, there is a strict emphasis on schedule and time.  Because there are many locks to go through, each ship has an appointment time at each lock.  If a ship misses this time, she must wait until there is availability to go through, potentially causing hours in delays.

We were so impressed with the Captain and crew of the Avalon Impression — they worked hard to keep our ship on time with docking, undocking, and going through all the locks (68 locks between Budapest and Amsterdam).

Avalon Low Water Danube Gorge
Avalon Low Water at the Danube Gorge
Avalon Ships Sailed Through the Low Water

Sailing along the Danube river, you will see many romantic castles, fortresses and sleepy towns.  The Danube Gorge is famous for its sheer cliffs. Locals can be seen fishing, kayaking, and rafting slowly down the river.  There was extremely low water in this section, one of the shallowest stretches of the Danube, with sand bars visible in the middle of the river.

Avalon Waterways was the only river cruise line able to sail through this extremely shallow section due to the low draft of their new ships (youngest fleet of any river cruise line!).  We were on the Avalon Impression, and sailed alongside the Avalon Illumination from Budapest to Amsterdam.

While other cruise lines (i.e. Viking) had to bus their passengers from port to port (converting their cruise to a land tour), Avalon Waterways ships were able to sail through safely, thanks to their expert captains and crew.  We had a wonderful, uninterrupted cruise, even with the low water.  This makes a huge difference in your cruise vacation experience, so choose carefully when you are booking!

Avalon Double Docking
Avalon Double Docking: Looking into the lobby of the Avalon Illumination
Double-Docking and Accessibility

As river cruising becomes increasingly popular, there are many ships on the rivers, but limited docking locations at each town.  Be aware that ships will often double-dock in ports.  We were told that ships sometimes triple-dock, although we did not experience this first hand.

You may open up your curtains to see another ship docked alongside (close enough you can reach through their windows).  We have had conversations with passengers from the next ship over as our ships were docking.

If you are double-docked, you will need to walk through the next ship to get ashore.  This may mean going upstairs in your ship to a higher level to cross over, then back down the stairs of the next ship to reach the shore.  There may also be a steep ramp up or down from the ship to the shore.

River cruises are, therefore, not inherently accessible for mobility-challenged passengers.  In addition, most of the tours are not accessible, so keep this in mind when you are booking.  (Ocean cruises are much more accessible, on the other hand).

A Word About the Ups and Downs of Locks…and Claustrophobia

The European river locks are engineering wonders, allowing ships to navigate vertically, essentially climbing UP some rivers, then DOWN others.  We sailed upstream from Budapest on the Danube, climbing in elevation daily.  When we crossed the continental divide (highest watershed point in Europe), we then sailed downstream along the Main River and Rhine Canal until we reached Amsterdam.

We were surprised at the number of locks — 68 total — and how they varied.  Some locks were large, fitting four river cruise ships in at a time.  Some were small, fitting only one ship (very tightly).  Some locks moved us up or down about 10 feet.  The biggest locks moved us 81 feet in height from start to finish.

This experience might be a bit unsettling for passengers with claustrophobia, especially if this is unexpected.  Imagine descending a lock, with only moving concrete walls visible outside your window for 10-30 minutes at a time, and daylight getting farther away up above you.  Drawing the curtains in your stateroom can minimize this effect.  We did not expect this as part of the river cruising experience…you are now better prepared than we were!

Avalon Low Bridge
Avalon Captain and a Low Bridge: the wheelhouse is lowered and only his head and arm are visible!
Wi-Fi and Entertainment

There is free, unlimited satellite Wi-Fi onboard.  In some stretches, reception was limited, but the Wi-Fi worked quite well for most of the cruise.  This is very different from the ocean cruises, where Wi-Fi is a costly premium.

We were able to stay connected on Wi-Fi and iMessage each other, staying in Airplane mode the entire cruise, and saving lots of money.  (I have written an article about money-saving smartphone communication tips and smartphone communication apps).

Onboard entertainment included a resident pianist, and local musicians invited to share their talents.  For example, we had a quartet from Bratislava, Slovakia, a one-man band from Regensburg, Germany.  Unlike ocean cruise ships, there are no casinos and Broadway-style productions.

Relevant cultural lectures were given by local experts and the Cruise Director.  We had engaging lectures from an expert on the river locks, as well as a European Union expert.  (Did you know what Switzerland has been asked to join the EU, but has declined?)

Stateroom televisions have live satellite reception of BBC World News, CNN International, SkyNews, and more.  We didn’t discover until several days into the cruise there is a ‘Menu’ button that brings up a good selection of movies on demand.

Nightly with turn-down service, you get a chocolate on your pillow, and one of 11 ‘Fireplace’ television channels with relaxing musical tunes and logs in different stages of burning.  Amusing at first, I grew to love the many fireplaces available on our TV.

Currency, Gratuities, and Miscellaneous

The currency used on board Avalon Waterways ships is the euro.  Avalon Waterways is a Swiss-run company (we found this fitting since everything was extremely punctual!).

The recommended gratuities are 12 euros per person, per day.  This is divided among the crew members.  Unlike on ocean liners, this is not automatically added to your stateroom account; you will need to see Guest Services to add gratuities to your charge account.

In addition (this is different from ocean liners), the Cruise Director has a separate account.  If you book optional tours, you use your credit card to pay with the Cruise Director and not the Reception desk.  The recommended gratuity for the Cruise Director is 3 euros per person, per day.  This also needs to be manually added by swiping your credit card with the Cruise Director.   (It felt a bit odd to be charging the gratuities with the person I’m tipping, but that was the procedure).

Electrical power outlets on board the Avalon ships use European plugs, so bring your adapters!

There are no self-laundry facilities on the ship.  Laundry fees are average for what you’d expect on a cruise ship or hotel.   (Or you can do hand laundry).

Overall, we had a beautiful cruise, and would definitely sail with Avalon Waterways again!

Please let me know your experience, of if you have any questions!

If you want to explore river cruising further, please see my Avalon Waterways Specialist Page!

Avalon Chess
Avalon Chess on the Sky Deck

I am including my usual hotel review rating scale, for additional reference…

Hotel ratings:  Avalon Impression
  • 1=poor
  • 3=average
  • 5=great
  • 6=exceptional (rare ranking)
  • NE = no experience

Price — 4

Hotel Location — 5

Front desk check in — 6.    Friendly, instant check-in and up to our room within 3 minutes!

Room size — 5.  Well planned spaces, with ample storage.

Room cleanliness / repair — 5

Style / design impression — 5

Bed comfort — 6.  Memory foam mattress topper, premium linens…this bed was even more comfortable than a Westin Heavenly Bed!!

Bath robe / slippers — 2/2

Quality of Toiletry amenities — 6,  L’Occitane brand

Views — 6, vary daily.  Caution on double docking (draw your curtains at night).

Shower temperature/ water pressure — 4, slightly lower pressure at times.

Towels — fluffiness — 3

Towels — quantity — 5 replenished twice daily with turn down service

Outlet plugs — 5

Sufficient Lighting — 5

Flooring type — c,t   (c=carpet, w=wood, t=tile)

Lounge — 6 with self-serve cappuccino machine, teas, cookies

Wi-Fi — 6. Free unlimited satellite Wi-Fi. Speed was not much of an issue.

Food / restaurant — 5

Staff Service — 6, exceeded all ocean liner experiences in overall service

Pool — one small hot tub on Sky deck

Ready to book?  Please see my Avalon Waterways Specialist Page!

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