I searched for Avalon Waterways river cruise reviews prior to our trip, but the only ones I could find were from people who traveled as guests of Avalon, or in other words, completely comped. I wanted to add a review from the perspective of someone who paid for their cruise, because these vacations are not cheap, at least not to our way of thinking. I specifically address the costs towards the end of this article.
This section is going to be a little long because this was my least favorite part of the cruise. I wouldn’t mention it all except that the experience was so poor it deserves some airtime.
We originally booked this cruise in early 2021, with an original sail date of September 2021. From the very first time we booked this cruise we hung up the phone feeling like we had just planned a funeral or scheduled a root canal. Our “travel planner” who is definitely NOT a travel planner made us feel like we had just agreed to something unpleasant but necessary. It should have been a red flag, but we were in the middle of Covid and figured everyone was struggling to get through the day. This poor guy was probably working from his home and feeling the brunt of the effect the pandemic was having on his industry. We booked with a $500 deposit and the guarantee that we could reschedule no questions asked. We do end up rescheduling to June of 2022, which was more expensive, but as promised, no problem to reschedule.
In March of 2022, we decided we were going to go ahead do our cruise in June of 2022. When we called to ask a few final questions prior to making our final payment we, specifically ask if we can add airport transfers at a later date. First we were told that Avalon only provides airport transfers for people who book their air through them. I am on the website and can choose to purchase the transfers myself so I ask how can that be? Our “travel planner” tells oh hang on, let me check…..oh yes, you are correct. We confirm that we can call back and add them at anytime.
Each time I have called Avalon post original phone call, I was on hold no less than 25 minutes and as long as 40 minutes. Each time questions were answered with one word responses with no follow up. We would have to figure out how to ask the next question, more specifically, so that we could get the information we needed.
About 2.5 weeks out from the cruise date, we check the website and it still says we can purchase airport transfers but we have to call to book. I call Avalon (only waited 25 minutes) to be told to hang on while they check to see if they need to get approval. No, it looks like he can go ahead and add that to our vacation. Great. My flight must be leaving Marseille between 10:00 and 3:00 in order for him to provide us with transport. I’m not sure why, it’s not like its a free service, we are paying $45 per person for it. I tell him we are not flying that day but wish to pick up a rental car. Oh. Well. He’ll have to get approval for that.
Ok, so how long will this approval take? I am told by our “travel planner” Zach that he will be able to to get back with me within 6-9 business days. This makes no sense to me and I am absolutely out of patience with this company. If the transports are full with customers who have booked their flights through Avalon, then fine, I get it. But if that is not the case, then please explain. Zach, of course, doesn’t have access to this information.
My husband decides he is going to see what he can do and he calls back and is waiting on hold while he starts an online chat. The chat lady tries to tell him to call the number that he is already on hold with. He asks her very specific questions and eventually she agrees to add the transport to our online account, but we have to pay immediately or it will disappear, she is not supposed to do this and makes it very clear that we should be grateful. We pay immediately and receive a receipt for departure transfer. Hooray. My husband asks her if we can get a window for the time of departure and she ends the chat. Seriously. The online equivalent of hanging up on us.
Zach ends up calling back that day with approval, however, he calls my husband and not me. He leaves a message that says that this will be coordinated on board and so he can’t give us details about departure. He says to call him back so he can let the operations team know that we will need departure transportation. He does leave what sounds like a direct line to return the call. We have spent about 2 hours of our time on requesting departure transfers on this day so we do not call back to confirm, however, we do have a receipt for departure transfer.
We are not “cruise people” in that we’ve been on exactly three ocean cruises in 31 years, but one thing I can tell you for sure is that Carnival provides much better customer service and that is not an exaggeration.
Overall Customer Service: D-
We arrived at the ship on Tuesday, June 14th at approximately 3:00. A crew member comes out to meet us at the taxi and helps with luggage, very nice. We proceed to check in with Josef, who checks our vaccination cards, takes our picture, scans our passport, etc. He then happily informs us that our room is not ready, lunch is over, the bar is closed until 5:00, however, we can make ourselves comfortable in the Panorama Lounge and wait. There is water we are welcome to help ourselves to.
We are just happy to have arrived at the ship because we did not use Avalon to get here, we came on our own after spending a couple of pre-cruise days in Lyon. The taxi that I scheduled and pre-payed for stood us up, so there was a moment of panic about how we were going to get to the ship from the Dijon train station. When we arrived at the cruise ship we were were relieved and happy but we were also hungry and thirsty. This reception is what I would call luke warm. Being greeted with a list of what is not available does not feel welcoming. In hindsight, we should have left the ship to explore the little port town of Saint Jean de Losne by getting a bite to eat and a drink at one of the river front restaurants. If you are on this cruise and you arrive prior to 5:00, I highly suggest doing that.
Overall Embarkation: C
Stateroom 220 Avalon Poetry II
Our room ends up being ready sometime after 4:00 and this is a huge relief. One of the deciding factors for us in choosing Avalon was the cabin set up with doors that slide nearly all the way open and a sitting area. The cabin is fairly large, the bathroom is great. As we unpack, we remember that we had some granola bars which is great because we are starving.
As the week goes on, the cabin turns out to be a huge plus, we really enjoy having the floor to ceiling open air and the seating area. From waking up, opening the doors and listening to the river, while watching the beautiful countryside go by, to enjoying a bottle of wine with market bought goodies, we really enjoyed the our cabin and the separate seating area.
Overall Stateroom: A+
Food & Beverage
I’ll start with dinner. The food was really good. Not great, but definitely good and dinner was beautifully plated every evening – no easy feat when serving 125 people. Every dinner had several options to choose for an appetizer, a soup or salad, an entrée, and dessert. My absolute favorite thing was the bread because each evening, we had a flavored butter and also a vegan option such as hummus or green pea tapenade which was amazing.
There were generally 3 wines, a red, a white and a rose, although I think some evenings had 2 reds. I’m probably not the best judge of this because I’m not your average wine consumer but I will say the wines were great table wines and the crew was very good at keeping glasses full.
One thing to note, as the week went on is that they had to add fans to the dining room because it was uncomfortably hot. I’m not taking any points off for this, as there was a heat wave during this week that had temps above 95 degrees for several days in a row and at the end of the day, this is a boat.
The shades had to be drawn on one side of the boat due to sunset which didn’t occur until 9:00 and it was a bit of a bummer to not have the view of the river, however, there was a solution and that was to sit on the non sunset side of the dining room, or to have dinner upstairs in the Panorama lounge. Not only was it the same food offered in a small buffet style setting, it was cooler and the view was amazing. We ended up doing this for dinner only once because dinner was really the “event” of the evening, beginning at 7:00 and usually not ending until 9:00, it was the thing to do. We would often go up to the Panorama lounge for a nightcap and then head to our cabin by 10:30.
Lunch was a buffet in the main dining room, with the same option of having it in the Panorama lounge in a more casual, serve yourself setting. A few times we did this and took lunch outside to enjoy. In thinking back, wine was included with lunch but it was not offered like at dinner, I think you had to specifically ask, but we never thought to so I’m not really sure how that worked.
Breakfast was either room service or the main dining room buffet. The options were great with everything you could possibly think of, including made to order omelets. I will say the beverage service at breakfast was always slow and lacking. I figured out about half way through that you could help yourself to the carafes of coffee at the back of the dining room. Also, sparkling wine was included, however, I think you must have had to specifically ask for it.
Speaking of coffee. There was one coffee machine that made everything from plain coffee (long coffee) and espresso to lattes and macchiatos. There were supposed to be two, however, the one in the lounge at the back of the ship was out of service the entire time. It did not turn out to be a problem. I never really had to wait when getting a coffee. The alternative to having to leave your cabin and go get a coffee was having room service breakfast which would result in a carafe of coffee being brought to your room.
At the other end of the day would be cocktails. Avalon had a Happy Hour everyday at which drinks were half price. Often this was before dinner, but sometimes, due to itinerary it was after dinner. Presentation was excellent, as was service in the Panorama Lounge. One evening I ordered a Dutch Martini and our server pointed out that it was a hard drink to like but she would bring if I wanted. It said it came with a chunk of Gouda. I decided to go for it. It did not come with a chunk of Gouda, which is not surprising as, overall, none of the cocktails really lived up to the description. However, the Dutch Martini was not as hard to like as I imagined lol! Sort of like a dirty martini but with pickled juice instead of olive.
Overall Food & Beverage: A
I’m not going to lie, the itinerary felt a little “hit and run” and left me scratching my head at times. I’m assuming this was to keep docking and/or lock schedules. In the end we visited many places and saw many things so it worked.
DAY 1: The first evening, we sailed out of St. Jean de Losne during and after dinner. We docked at tie-ups in the river for overnight. To be clear, not a town of any sort, just in the river. Perhaps we had a lock schedule to keep? I’m not sure but it was just a little odd. We arrived there at 10:00 p.m.
DAY 2: We began sailing again at 5:45 a.m., and arrived in Tournus at 1:15 p.m. There are two options for excursions that were signed up for prior to sailing. On the boat the option of riding a bicycle between Tournus and Macon is also offered. I am sad to not be able to do this, it’s 21 miles and I’m thinking how often do you get the chance to bicycle the French countryside. The folks that chose an excursion, board a tour bus that will catch up with the ship later in the afternoon in Macon. The boat arrived at a dock in Macon at 4:30 p.m. and left at 6:15 p.m., after both of the excursions arrived back at the boat. If we had not taken one of the excursion we would have sailed from Tournus to Macon.
The boat docks at 10:30 p.m. in a quaint little town called town called Trevoux. It looked beautiful lit up at night, but the only opportunity to see the town would be early in the morning as we were sailing the next morning at 9:30 a.m.
The itinerary indicates that we stop in Macon – which we did for less than 2 hours. The only opportunity to really explore this region would be to take an optional excursion. The bike ride was an included excursion but it was not offered pre-cruise.
DAY 3: We did get up and go walk the town because we really wanted to see it. We were back on board by 9:30 a.m. and away we went, headed for Lyon which we arrived at mid-day.
Sailing into Lyon was pretty cool as we went under bridges that were so low the sky deck had to be mostly closed and guests had to remain seated on the portion that was open. Here is a video of our captain actually walking down a step as we go under one of the lowest bridges.
We dock overnight here which is nice, plenty of time to explore and arrange a dinner off the ship if you wish. We sail the following day at 5:15 p.m and arrive in Tournon at midnight.
DAY 4: The ship leaves Tournon at 8:30 a.m., so technically we did dock overnight there. There are included excursions to stay and explore the city. We catch up with the ship by tour bus at about 1:00 p.m. We sail the afternoon and arrive in Viviers a 4:30 p.m., do a quick tour of this little city with a concert in its cathedral at the top of the city, and set sail at 6:45 p.m.
With an excursion you get to really visit the town of Tournon, otherwise it was an overnight docking situation. There is not a lot to see in Viviers so the 2 hour docking works out fine.
DAY 5: We wake up in Avignon to explore the city on our own or take excursions. We leave at 6:15 p.m. Our cruise director tells us the evening before that it is Sunday and so many shops will not be open. Some have a tourist permit to open on Sundays and there were many shops open. Plenty of time to take excursions and explore Avignon.
DAY 6: We had arrived in Arles last night and wake up here. The ship is in Arles until 5:45 p.m. and there is ample opportunity to explore of take excursions. We arrive in Port St. Louis around 9:00 p.m.
DISEMBARKATION: Disembarkation begins bright and early with several waves of transport leaving, the earliest was at 7:00 a.m. and the last large one at 10:30, with several private transports throughout the morning. I notice that there are a few scheduled for the afternoon, however, most people are gone by 10:30 a.m. We are the 10:30 which ends up being a few minutes late, but we arrive at the Marseille airport as promised.
Overall Itinerary: B
I’m reviewing the non-included, optional excursions that you had to pay for first and will note the cost.
The Maconnais Region and It’s Chardonnay Wines
Our first excursion left us with a bad impression. We loaded our tour bus and drove to the region which was beautiful with lovely scenery. France was having a heatwave this week, as was much of the U.S. The temperature for the afternoon reached somewhere in the high 90’s.
The excursion consisted of stopping on the side of the road to look at a Chardonnay vineyard which at first I really appreciated. Then the tour bus climbed to the top of a park with a scenic overlook that was surrounded by more vineyards and with views of the limestone mountains that stand guard over the region. Everyone had to get off the bus in the stone parking lot because the bus cannot be left running in France. We were told there is plenty to see so let’s get back on the bus in 30 minutes. There was nothing to see that would’ve taken more than 10 minutes tops and there was no shade, nor was there any water provided.
The final stop of the excursion was at a winery for the Chardonnay tasting. This part was great, the owner/winemaker hosted us. However, there was one gentleman that couldn’t make it to the winery from the bus because he was faint. The tour director had to ask the winery for a bottle of water to take back down to the man who was sitting in the shade by the bus because it was a bit of walk up to the winery. There had initially been a plan to tour the vineyards here at the winery – which really makes that first stop kind of dumb – but collectively it is decided it is too hot. Plus, we’ve already toured a vineyard at our first stop, and saw more vineyards at the parking lot stop. It is annoying that because of this we are not going to tour vineyards at the winery where we could have actually asked questions and learned things from the winemaker himself. We enter the cellar to learn about production methods and then we head to the tasting room for the tasting which was nice.
The first two stops – on the side of the road vineyard, and the scenic overlook were absolutely nonsense on any day but especially given the heat of this day. The fact that the tour operator did not have water on hand was inexcusable. The price was $64 per person. I don’t care if you if you have to charge $75 or even $100, add another winery stop and eliminate the stops in a parking lot and on the side of the road. They were not only painful, they were a waste of time. And, for the love of God, provide some water.
Delights of Beaujolais with Wine Discovery
This excursion was a huge improvement over the first one. Again we were hosted by the owner/winemaker and taken into his tasting cellar where he provided three different wines with some sausage and cheese bites. He was very informative and entertaining. We stopped at a cute little town after this and walked to the top to explore it’s cathedral. All in all a nice excursion, but expectations were low after the first one. This tour was also $64 per person.
Chateauneuf du Pape Wine Experience
We were hosted at a winery by a young sommelier at this winery who provided an excellent education on not only Chateauneuf du Pape, but the Rhone in general. He then hosted a great tasting of 4 wines. Following this winery we visited the town of Chateauneuf du Pape which I enjoyed even more than the winery visit. This tour was $59.00 per person.
Olive Oil Tasting in Le Beaux de Provence
This was a fun excursion where we visited an olive oil mill, learned the production method, and then tasted several different olive oils and noted the differences in tastes based on the production methods. Following the mill, we visited the medieval town of Beaux. The cost was $66.00 per person
OVERALL PAID EXCURSIONS: B-
My favorite excursions were the included ones. The tour of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, the Garden of Eden in Tournon, the city tour in Arles, and the bike ride along the Rhone in Lyon coming to mind first.
On this trip I signed up for every wine excursion offered and the olive oil one, however, I might consider this a rookie mistake. I will be very picky about paid excursions on any future sailings.
OVERALL INCLUDED EXCURSIONS: A
The cost of a river cruise has to be addressed in the overall assessment because they are not cheap. I do think Avalon, along with Viking, are considered the cheaper options, but this is relative. Our cruise came in at $9,188.00. This figure does not include excursions, about $350. On board costs, $260. Tipping for the cruise staff, $210. We did purchase our airfare with airline points, but the cash cost would have been about $3600.
To us, this is a special occasion cruise – our 30th anniversary. It is relaxing, everything is taken care of, however, we do feel we could spend a month in France for the same price, which is also appealing to us as we get older and John nears retirement.
The river cruise was a very relaxing and intimate way to travel. Even though we only spent about 2 hours in a couple of locations, we were able to feel like we experienced those towns to a certain degree. The staff on board spoke English, as did all of the passengers so you also miss out on the cultural emersion of visiting a foreign country which is something we definitely missed. I’m glad we extended our trip a few days on the front and back end of our cruise.
The vast majority of passengers had been on multiple Avalon cruises before. We spoke with many who do this every year and do the 2 week options. I’m telling you this because we are not that passionate about this, but clearly many people are.
We sailed through so many locks I lost count and we saw so many huge and gorgeous swans outside our window that we almost lost our enthusiasm for these things – almost, but not quite! Despite the newbie learning curve, we would take a future river cruise because the experience overall was very positive. I also want to point out that travel providers in Europe are barely getting their feet under them again post Covid, and like everything else, I suspect might still be recovering.
As much as we loved our Avalon stateroom, I think we would consider a competitor for our next river cruise, just to compare the pre-cruise customer service situation, which truly Avalon needs to improve. We would also have liked better information about the itinerary, not only about where we were actually “visiting” but also times of docking and leaving, but maybe that’s just not possible with a river cruise, or perhaps a couple of more hours with customer service would have provided that information – I wasn’t up for finding out lol!
OVERALL AVALON RIVER CRUISE: B