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River cruises aren't just for retirees. Here are three compelling reasons to consider bringing the kids. (Photograph by Robert Harding World Imagery/Alamy)

River Cruising With Kids: Three Reasons to Go

River cruising is hot right now, one of the fastest growing markets in travel.

A river ship doesn’t have the climbing walls, play zones, or indoor skydiving activities that filigree ocean-going ships, which isn’t surprising, given that the median age on a river cruise ship is 55. So what was my young daughter doing sailing the Rhine one recent spring afternoon?

Playing shuffleboard on the sun deck. And having a great time.

My daughter and I were on our first cruise ever, an eight-day itinerary from the Swiss city of Basel to Amsterdam on the Viking Longship Gefjon. (Full disclosure: Viking had invited me along as a guest, and I paid for my daughter to join me.) I was as skeptical as anyone about taking her on a river cruise. What if she didn’t have anyone to hang out with? Would she be bored with the guided tours to cultural sites? Most of all: Would she appreciate it?

It turned out to be an ideal trip for both of us. “This is fun!” became her mantra. And when we disembarked in the Netherlands, she kept asking why we had to leave the ship.

What did I appreciate most about the river-cruise experience? No time was wasted packing and unpacking, and commuting to the next day’s hotel—chores that can make family travel draining, even daunting. Plus, on the river, we woke up to a different landscape outside our cabin windows each morning—not something you can claim with a land-based tour (or an ocean-going cruise, for that matter).

Here are three more reasons why you, too, should consider river cruising with your child.

> Reason #1: Your child will experience things she only reads about in school.

My daughter’s third-grade teacher and school principal were wholeheartedly supportive of my taking her out of class for a week to travel. I told them she’d do a presentation to the class on her return. After all, she’d be learning firsthand about cathedral architecture, medieval castles, German history, and Alsatian cuisine.

Every morning we joined the guided tour at the day’s port of call: Strasbourg, in France; the Black Forest, Heidelberg, Marksburg Castle, and Cologne, in Germany; and Kinderdijk, in the Netherlands. In the afternoons, we explored on our own—taking a cable car across the Rhine to Koblenz’s lofty Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, playing mini-golf in the shadow of Breisach’s hilltop St. Stephen’s church, sampling the hot chocolate at Cologne’s Chocolate Museum.

She diligently wrote down a few facts every evening about what she learned that day. A testament to how good the local guides were, her notes were a mix of the educational and the quirky:

“The Mosel and the Rhine meet in Koblenz.”

“The people from the Middle Ages liked to talk to each other even if they were in the bathroom.”

“The wood that is made into cuckoo clocks is dried for four years otherwise it will crack.”

“People in Strasbourg used to believe that storks brought their babies. Girls were put in a flower garden and the boys were put in a cabbage patch.”

> Reason #2: Your kid will be the hit of the ship.

“May we join you?” I asked a table of four, who looked to be in their 70s, at the Welcome Dinner at the end of our first full day of cruising.

It was as if I’d told them they’d won the jackpot. “Oh, yes, please do! This is so wonderful! How lovely!”

That was the universal reaction whenever we approached a table at any meal in the dining room (with no set seating arrangements, everyone could sit where they wanted).

Fellow cruisers cooed over my daughter, by far the youngest of the 186 passengers on the ship, as if she were their own grandchild, complimenting her on her table manners and asking how she was “dealing with all the old people.”

Waiters would ask if she wanted something to eat that wasn’t on the regular menu, the concierge presented her with a lollipop that was as big as her face, and the manager kept slipping her packs of gummy bears.

She might not have had a playmate on board, but I think the extra doting by everyone else more than made up for it.

> Reason #3: You’ll do things you might not otherwise do.

My daughter might have been missing someone her own age to play with on board, but that meant we had more meaningful mom-and-daughter time.

In Strasbourg’s Place Gutenberg, named for the inventor of the printing press, who studied here as a young man, we rode a double-decker carousel dating to 1900, a lilting confection in pink, white, and gold. Unfortunately we did not get to keep the charming tickets, which were small plastic squares with the words “Bon pour une tour de chevaux des bois”—Good for one ride of the wooden horses. If I were by myself, I’m pretty sure I would have missed riding a wooden horse—and the different perspective on the stately plaza that came with it.

Without my daughter, I also probably wouldn’t have climbed the 330 steps to the top of Strasbourg’s cathedral. Ditto on renting bikes in Amsterdam. But the view from the top and the feel of the wind through my hair as I zoomed along cobblestoned canalside streets made me grateful for her prodding.

Yes, there were times on the trip when she asked, “How is this interesting?” as I pointed out to her yet another quaint half-timbered house or colorful stained-glass church window. And yes, during downtimes on the ship, there was some Minecraft going on with her iPad (free Wi-fi on board!).

But the intimacy of the ship and the variety of the itinerary meant that something always turned up to shake her out of her routine and to expose her to things she wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

Like that game of shuffleboard on the sun deck.

Amy Alipio is an associate editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her story on Twitter @AmyTravels and on Instagram @amyalipio.