A First-Timer’s Guide to Going on a River Cruise

For travelers who want to step inside the scene of a fairy-tale, look no further than a river cruise. Unlike massive ocean cruises, these smaller-scale vessels offer an intimate way to explore the world by sea. Whether you plan to sail the rivers of Europe to see castles, monasteries, and vineyards; explore more of the U.S. by way of the Mississippi or Columbia rivers; or embark on an exotic escapade along Egypt’s Nile or India’s Ganges, you’ll come away from the experience with a deeper appreciation for traveling by riverboat. If you’ve never been on a river cruise, here’s some information you’ll need to jump-start your vacation plans.

Ocean vs. River Cruises

Courtesy of Crystal River Cruises

You may be thinking, ‘I’ve been on a regular cruise before, so how different can a river cruise be?’ There are some pretty striking differences between, say, a Caribbean voyage and one that sails the Danube. For starters, most ocean cruise ships are quite large. Even the smallest mainstream cruises usually accommodate 2,000 or more passengers. That’s not the case with riverboats. The size of these vessels is linked to the river it sails, and how many locks or low bridges it may have. These limitations mean that river ships must be smaller. You may sail with fewer than 100 other passengers, or as many as 200. Given this information, you can expect a more intimate, personalized experience onboard, where the crew knows your likes and dislikes immediately. 

But, remember that smaller ships won’t have all the bells and whistles you may be used to on a larger mainstream cruise. Cabins are often smaller than those on an oceangoing ship. There are no large theaters offering Broadway-style shows in the evenings, nor any casinos. The spa is usually just one treatment room with a limited menu of options. On budget and some mid-level river ships, there are no specialty restaurants and only the most luxurious brands offer room service. On some ships, you might find a small exercise room with a few pieces of equipment, but it won’t be an extensive fitness center.

Riverboats have an advantage over their oceangoing counterparts, though. Small river ships can dock in some of the world’s most charming towns and villages. And, instead of docking in an industrial port away from the city center, riverboats often tie up right in town -- within walking distance of the main attractions. Just keep in mind that sometimes, depending on the port, you may have to walk through another riverboat or two before disembarking. That’s because, in some places, river ships tie up alongside each other so everyone in town for the day has easy access to shore. (There are no tenders on riverboats.)

Picking a River

Courtesy of AmaWaterways

River cruise newbies might fantasize about European waterways with glorious centuries-old castles and quaint villages lining its banks. There are certainly plenty of riverboat itineraries that fulfill that vision along the Danube, Rhine, Main, Elbe, and Moselle rivers. However, there are also itineraries that explore France’s Seine, Italy’s Po, and Portugal’s Douro rivers. And that's not all. You can book a Nile River cruise in Egypt, explore the Amazon in South America, or head to Asia to sail along the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia, Yangtze in China, Irrawaddy in Myanmar, and the Ganges in India. Looking to combine an African safari with a river cruise? You can do that, too, with a multiday trip along the Chobe River. And, of course, let’s not forget that there are some pretty impressive rivers to discover right here in America, including the Mississippi, Ohio, Columbia, and Snake rivers. Before researching river cruise companies and specific ships, choose your dream destination.

Understanding Pricing and Choices

Courtesy of AmaWaterways

At first blush, the price of a river cruise may surprise you. You likely aren’t going to find deals like those Bahamas itineraries that cost as little as $400 or $500 per person. However, river cruises are often more inclusive than traditional ocean cruises. Inclusions vary by line, so it pays to compare. You may find that the fare includes transfers to and from the airport, at least one excursion in each port, an open bar or wine and beer with lunch and dinner, complimentary Wi-Fi, and gratuities. Lines known for their great value include Emerald Waterways, CroisiEurope, A-Rosa, Gate 1 Travel, Vantage Deluxe World Travel, and Grand Circle Travel. The middle tier of companies include stalwarts like Viking River Cruises and Avalon Waterways. If you want to pull out all the stops, look to the luxury offerings from Crystal River Cruises, Uniworld, Scenic, Tauck, and AmaWaterways. And if you plan to sail an American waterway, consider American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Company, and UnCruise Adventures.

Selecting a Ship

Courtesy of Viking River Cruises

There is a wide range of river cruise offerings, so it helps to determine your budget first, then research lines that cater to your wallet. Once you’ve earmarked a few cruise lines that work for you, and have chosen where you want to go (or have a few places in mind), it will be easy to pick the ship. Larger lines like Viking may have several ships that sail the same itinerary, but the ships themselves will oftentimes be nearly identical. 

Though you may select and oceangoing ship for its wow factor, that’s less prevalent on the river. While it may be neat to pick Norwegian Bliss, so you can say you won a go-kart race at sea, riverboats don’t offer the same over-the-top amenities. When you book a river cruise, it’s more about destination immersion than onboard perks. However, if amenities are important to you, carefully review river cruise brands and pick a ship that offers what you need. For example, some riverboats do have onboard pools, bikes available on a first-come first-served basis, movies under the stars, specialty restaurants or a chef’s table event, and room service.

Destination Immersion and Shore Excursions

Courtesy of AmaWaterways

River cruises are all about the places you’ll visit. Unlike ocean cruises, there are no sea days, so there are scant daytime activities onboard. Almost everyone disembarks at each port and spends time either on a ship-sponsored excursion or exploring independently. Riverboats sometimes even hit two ports in one day. 

Many river cruise companies -- from budget to high-end -- include complimentary shore excursions. You could book with value-oriented CroisiEurope, mid-level Viking, or top-shelf Uniworld and each line offers free port tours. Generally speaking, these are basic introductions to the destination by way of a walking tour, motor coach outing, or a visit to a local attraction like a castle or vineyard. Nearly all river cruise lines also offer additional paid shore tours. Those might include food-oriented options (a visit to a market, cooking class, and lunch in town) or an activity like biking from one port to the next with a guide. If you prefer to explore on your own, select a line that doesn’t include shore tours in its cruise fare.

Dining Distinctions

Courtesy of Viking River Cruises

Recently, the river cruise industry has made great strides in providing more dining choices to patrons. However, the experience can be quite different from ocean ships which offer dine-anytime seating in its restaurants and tables that can accommodate two, four, six, or larger parties. On a river cruise, dining is a bit more confined. Breakfast and lunch are generally buffets, sometimes with a few a la carte items that you can order from the waiter. Dinners, unless you’re traveling on a luxury line, are almost always set at a particular time. On the most restrictive lines, you are given a table assignment at the beginning of the cruise and you will dine with those tablemates for the duration of the sailing. You are expected to show up to dinner on time every time. If you’re not a fan of set seating or dining with large groups, look for river cruise lines that also offer a more relaxed bistro at dinnertime in addition to the main dining room, a specialty restaurant, or even room service.

Water Level Caveats

Here’s one important thing to know about river cruises -- European ones in particular. Rain, or a lack of it, can derail an itinerary. Too much rain can cause rivers to rise to a level that won’t allow ships to pass beneath their low bridges. Too little rain can lead the rivers to shallow out, making the passage unsafe for some ships with a deeper draft. Sometimes, if the river presents challenges in the spring or fall, a river cruise line might swap out its passage via ship for a bus tour. Before committing to an itinerary, determine if it may be at risk for seasonal changes and what plan the cruise line has in place if the worst occurs.

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