What It’s Like to Take a River Cruise Through Europe Right Now

With COVID rules and restrictions varying by country, crossing the border by boat has its own new challenges—but there are some advantages, too.

What It’s Like to Take a River Cruise Through Europe Right Now

The German town of Rüdesheim, which sits on the Rhine River and is known for its wine production

Photo by Nick Zastenski/Shutterstock

At the end of August, I hopped in a car to take a plane from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Amsterdam. My mission, from there: a Rhine River cruise, traveling from the Netherlands to Germany, then France, Germany (again), before ending in Switzerland. My vessel? The new-as-of-2021 AmaSiena, a 156-passenger ship from AmaWaterways that—at just 38 feet wide and 443 feet long—would carry me and 102 other passengers through Europe, stopping in seven cities along the way.

Though this had a typical cruise schedule, it wasn’t a typical cruise. For one, as of August 4, AmaWaterways required all guests to be vaccinated, and the ship was capped at 75 percent capacity. In between new sailings, the crew spent four hours deep cleaning cabins and common areas, and a fogging system is deployed to sanitize surfaces. Temperatures were to be taken before boarding and at breakfast. All guests were required to be masked unless seated and dining, and all staff wore masks and manned sanitizing stations that flanked all entry and exit points of the ship. Gone was buffet dining, and the gym—which normally could fit eight for workouts—was limited to two people. Dancing? Forbidden. Says Kristin Karst, executive vice president and cofounder of AmaWaterways: “Things have changed since the Delta variant. But these protocols are better for everyone, and safer for everyone.”

Off the ship, things were different, too. We were to pass through several European countries, each with its own entry and exit and quarantine requirements. What would it be like on the ground—and what would crossing borders be like? My anxiety over what I needed to produce was quickly eased: Before arrival in each new country, AmaWaterways staff would brief us on what was required in each destination and share links to paperwork to complete (and in some cases, physical documents).

Although I had never been on a river cruise before, I quickly saw the appeal: Your food—all you can eat, served by crisply dressed waiters—was steps away from your room, your room steps away from the ship’s sun deck, and the deck mere steps away from a destination, when docked. It was a floating hotel, in a sense, and after more than a year of no traveling, this slow return not only felt fitting, but also kind of the point.

For those planning or thinking about a European river cruise, here are some details about what to expect.

In the Netherlands

Before I even got to the ship, to fly to the Netherlands, I needed to produce either a negative COVID test or vaccine card, as was required by the Dutch government. (Ever the overpreparer, at the airport, I produced both with a flourish.) I also had to complete a health declaration form for the Netherlands, which confirmed I had no COVID symptoms. But once I landed, I was through customs and baggage claim faster than you could say tot ziens (goodbye): It was off to the port to drop off my bags and meet my brother, who is based in Brussels and was joining me for the trip. “Get ready,” he told me, when I called to let him know I’d arrived. “No one here is wearing masks.”

He was not exaggerating. I can count on one hand the number of people I saw wearing masks outside in Amsterdam, and inside, the numbers were about the same. He and I both wore masks when we entered a shop, but it was not mandatory, nor were we asked to produce any sort of vaccination proof. (Chalk it up to vaccination rates: Roughly 83 percent of Dutch people have had at least one dose of a vaccine, and the country has one of the highest vaccination rates in the European Union.) We were a little wary, but it did not take long for us to settle into our what-we-always-do-in-Amsterdam routine, given that our parents own a small caravan outside of the city: sit by the canal, drink beer, and eat bitterballen, or Dutch meatballs.

Hours later, back on the ship, we nodded “nice to meet yous” at our fellow socially distanced travelers and took our masks off, briefly, to dine at the Chef’s Table, a tasting menu with three appetizers, three main courses, and three desserts. I felt uneasy, despite the distancing and sanitization and knowledge that everyone was vaccinated. In the morning, we would sail to Germany.

Netherlands travel rules: At press time, to visit the Netherlands, vaccinated travelers will need to present a negative COVID-19 PCR or antigen test performed within 24 hours prior to departure for the Netherlands. (Children under 12 are exempt.) Unvaccinated travelers are prohibited from entering the Netherlands for nonessential or leisure travel purposes. Read more about entry requirements for travel to the Netherlands.

In Germany

Our first sail day was sunny, but the threat of paperwork loomed: Prior to arrival in Germany on days two, three, and five of sailing—where we would be visiting the towns of Köln, Rüdesheim, and Breisach—I needed to complete the digital registration form, which asked for the countries I’d visited in the last 14 days, the address where I’d be staying, and whether or not I had proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. I uploaded my proof of vaccination, and then received a QR code that I could show to officials in case anyone asked. In total, it was a 20-minute process—not bad, all told, though I did complete it twice for fear of being hit with a 25,000-euro fine. Once finished, I headed to the sun deck on top of the ship, which had a walking track, swim-up pool, and deck chairs. A waiter handed out mimosas, and as we nosed toward Germany and left the Netherlands behind, city gave way to green pastures and grazing sheep. My brother and I spent those first few hours sailing there, just sitting. I could practically feel some of the COVID travel anxiety melting away.

The next day, out on land in Germany, I did not encounter anyone who asked for proof of my digital entry form. What everyone in restaurants and bars—even outdoors—did ask for, without fail: name, email, address, and phone number for contact tracing purposes. After a few rounds of completing paperwork by hand, I did as the Germans do and downloaded the Luca app, which functions as a de facto digital guest list for restaurants. Just scan the QR code to check in, and swipe in the app to check out, creating a record of where you were—and for how long—in the event the info is needed for contact tracing purposes.

Unlike in Amsterdam, masks were prevalent in Germany. (Our tour guides in Köln and Breisach told us they were required to wear them, even outdoors.) Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test was required for indoor dining, and other than a few second glances at the dates I had received vaccines—Germans enter the day, month, and year rather than the month, day, and year—I had no issues presenting my CDC card as proof. The more time I spent out and about in Germany, the more it felt like a homecoming: My brother and I grew up in Germany and had traveled to Köln and Rüdesheim countless times, but it had been years since we’d returned. Back to Germany, back to travel.

Germany travel rules: At press time, Germany is no longer allowing unvaccinated Americans to enter for leisure travel after removing the United States from its list of unrestricted countries. Those arriving from countries that are not on the list must either be vaccinated or be traveling for an essential reason (such as an approved work purpose). For proof of vaccination, it must have been at least 14 days since the last vaccine dose was administered, and travelers must have a physical copy of their vaccine certificate. A digital photo of a card will not be accepted. Read more about entry requirements for travel to Germany.

In France

Before arriving in Strasbourg, France, I was required to complete a statement of honor, in which I verified I did not have COVID or any symptoms. (I printed two copies and carried the paperwork with me, though I was never asked to show it.) And though we were just two miles from the German border, the rules were different: You were not allowed entry into a restaurant or bar—even if you were sitting outdoors—without showing proof of a negative COVID test or physical vaccine card. There was a bit of whiplash: In Germany, mere hours earlier, we had been allowed to sit outside as long as we submitted information for contact tracing—nothing else.

Still, as it had in the Netherlands and Germany, this requirement quickly became a routine we adjusted to: We sat for an espresso in the sun near the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg, flashing our vaccine cards before ordering. We walked toward the Petite-France neighborhood to eat outdoors at La Fignette, an Alsatian restaurant specializing in tarte flambée (or flammkuchen, in German). We drank more beer on a boat moored on the river, before returning to our own ship to set sail, once again.

France travel rules: At press time, vaccinated travelers from the United States can enter France with no additional requirements other than submitting the health declaration form. Unvaccinated U.S. travelers are no longer allowed to travel to France unless they have a pressing or compelling reason, such as being an EU citizen or resident, for an essential work purpose, or for studies. Read more about the rules for travel to France.

In Switzerland

From France, we traveled back into Germany for a foray into the Black Forest, so it was another change—a return to contact tracing, but otherwise, all existing documentation held up. After that, we sailed to the Swiss town of Basel, where we disembarked. Once there, I ended my journey much the same way I had begun it a week ago: a car to a train to a plane.

Switzerland travel rules: At press time, as of September 20, travelers aged over 16 entering Switzerland who have not been vaccinated or have not recovered from COVID-19 will have to present a negative test result (PCR or antigen) and be tested again after four to seven days. (Testing is not required for travelers with proof of vaccination or recovery.) Read more about the rules for travel to Switzerland.

Key tips for taking a European river cruise right now

Regardless of how you travel, be sure to take a photo of your vaccine card and carry the physical copy with you when you go out, as well as any health declaration forms. Research countries and respective contact tracing apps, and download them prior to arrival in order to expedite your entry and exit into bars, restaurants, and other venues.

>> Next: These Countries Are Open to Vaccinated Travelers

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
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