It’s that time of year—time to decide how, when and where you’ll escape the stress of everyday life and be able to shout the phrase we all love the most: “I’m on vacation!”. With so many choices available, how can you possibly decide? Why not step away from the typical land vacations and venture down one of the world’s most famous rivers?
River cruises are gaining popularity because of the range of destinations available, constant picturesque views as you float down a river, ability to mix and mingle with the same people every evening to form bonds and, well—it’s just different.
Sit back, relax, open your mind and envision your perfect vacation. Let’s explore the world of river cruises.
Why Would I Choose a River Cruise over an Ocean Cruise?
When most of us hear someone has gone on a cruise, we typically think of a skyscraper on the water with multiple days at sea, a plethora of activities and, of course, buffets. Those cruises come with their own brand of excitement and drawbacks.
So, if you’ve landed on a cruise vacation, how do you pick between a traditional ocean cruise and a river cruise? We’re here to help—we’ve done the research and had the tough job of experiencing both—you’re sad for us, we know. We’re sharing the results with you here so you can make your own informed decision.
It seems ocean cruise ships just keep building up. There is a certain clientele for whom ocean cruises will always be the better bet: spring breakers will find more drinking based activities, families with young children will lean towards the kids’ playrooms and kid-focused theater shows—there’s a lot to be said for an ocean cruise for these groups.
Some folks don’t want to leave the hustle and bustle behind when they go on vacation and this includes cruises. Ocean cruise ships will fit up to 9000 guests on one ship—they even break the ship up into “neighborhoods”. This leads to a social, yet impersonal experience. Chances are you won’t run into the same people at dinner twice, particularly because ocean cruise ships can have up to 20 restaurants serving fixed menus.
Shall we talk about what happens when one of 9000 people gets a stomach bug? What happens is certain mandatory quarantines, mandatory hand spraying before going into any eating area, before getting a plate, before and after just about everything. Understanding who patient zero is is impossible with that many people on board which means everyone is at risk.
Ocean Cruise Excursions
It’s one of our favorite things to do while we’re booking and prepping for a cruise—looking at the excursions. Here’s the thing about ocean cruise excursions—it takes forever to get off the ship. Imagine 5000 people wanting to visit the same city. Yeah, you’re getting a number and waiting your turn, there’s no way around it.
Your excursion group size will be hefty too. Be prepared to follow a bright colored paddle with your group’s number on it for the entirety of your visit to your port of call. We’re not saying it’s all bad—you still get to see amazing places, you’re just one of thousands to do it with a lot of time waiting around.
With ocean cruises, because they offer so many amenities on board, there aren’t many included or “freebie” excursions. If you want to get off the boat and see the sights, you will have to pony up some extra cash.
Sea Days and Days and Days…
It’s exciting to be onboard your ship the first night. It’s a new environment and you’re dying for one of many chocolate buffets. Something strange happens when you have to be on the ship for up to three days at a time—it’s what we call cabin fever.
Yes, there’s plenty to do. There’s mass entertainment in grand ballrooms, plenty of food, lots of alcohol and up to 17 pools. There’s also a ton of people and they’re all trapped on the boat too. If the boat has a spa, you could get pampered, but it’ll cost you—spa services aren’t included in your overall price.
You could drink the days away but that will cost you even more. More often than not, you have to buy each drink individually. It won’t seem like cash because you just swipe your room card. Everything seems fine until you check out. Of course, there are ships that offer beer and wine packages but they’re not hugely prevalent.
Extras and Extra Money
We’ve already mentioned how much there is to do on these skyscrapers, but let’s talk about extra things you may want to do and if those things will cost you extra money.
- WIFI—typically access is not included and must be purchased as an extra
- Upscale restaurants—while they’re part of what the ship has to offer, some of them will cost you an extra fixed amount
- Casinos—as expected, there’s no free play here and the house always wins
- Shopping—with so many days at sea the selection is usually good, but the prices aren’t
- Spa—these have a large menu of services, but they come with a hefty markup
River cruises are pretty much the opposite of the big ocean cruises we’ve discussed. The biggest of these cruises holds 200 people—that’s quite a different experience from the shopping mall on the sea. What does this mean? Well, you definitely will see the same people at dinner and perhaps make new friends or, at the very least, have a lot of fun with a great group of folks.
While there won’t be hundreds of spring breakers on these cruises, you will find well-traveled, well-spoken people looking to socialize while gazing at the passing countryside. People bond over regional entertainment that differs each night, depending on your geographical destination.
Because the whole group is smaller, there is far less of a risk of the entire ship coming down with a bug. This is a pretty sophisticated crowd so they’re highly unlikely to forget to wash their hands after a bathroom trip or to wander around the ship while ill because there aren’t inebriated people rushing to get back to the pool party—not judging, pool parties can be fun.
River Cruise Excursions
Another huge difference in river and ocean cruises—the excursions. First, given the entire guest population is under 200, you don’t have to wait to get off or back on the boat. The groups you’ll be touring with are significantly smaller because there are 3-5 excursions offered at each port which disperses an already small group.
One of the best perks of river cruises is there is almost always at least one excursion included in the overall price. You can foot the bill for a special excursion if you want to do something other than the included tour. There are pretty spectacular excursions and once in a lifetime experiences offered on the menu if your budget allows. One of the river cruise essentials is reading offered excursions carefully–there’s pretty cool stuff available.
There won’t be the shuttle time associated with ocean cruises because river cruises dock right in town most time. Ocean ships are too large to be right in the thick of things. Be prepared for this extra sightseeing and don’t over-book yourself. It’s ok to be tired and take a day off to hang on the boat and sleep. You can always just go explore on your own if you get a little stir crazy.
No Sea Days, Only See Days
The fantastic thing about river cruising is the lack of sea days. You’re on a river and rivers connect cities. Most times, sailing is done at night, so you board the ship in one city, enjoy an evening of food, new friends and cocktails, go to bed and wake up in the next city.
On the rare occasion when some sailing is done during the day, you just take a mug of cappuccino or a glass of wine up to the sun deck and watch the beautiful countryside go by. Some of the most beautiful things you’ll see will be along the river—how people live in the countryside of foreign countries is something most people never get to see.
Another cool part of being on a riverboat? River locks. A lock is a place on a river or canal where the level of the water suddenly changes. The lock either lifts or lowers the boat to match the next water level. If you’ve never been in a lock—it’s pretty cool and worth going out on the sun deck to see.
Another plus of river cruises—most things are included in your overall price. Of course, these vary depending on the cruise line and ship you choose. For the most part, we found the following about all the extras on river cruise boats:
- WIFI—typically included and, just like any cruise, will have its difficulties
- Alcohol—beer and wine with meals are generally included
- All meals—there aren’t many restaurants, so all food is included
- Entertainment—there are no casinos and the entertainment is low-key and free
- Airport transfers—these folks pick you up and take you to the boat
- VIP service—smaller groups mean you don’t have to hunt down extras, there is always a staff member handy to make your experience a great one
Wherever the River Takes You
River cruising is becoming more and more popular with up to 18 ships a year being added. You’ve decided you want to experience a river cruise—so, where to?
Europe is the most popular destination for river cruises mainly because it’s got more navigable rivers than any other region in the world. The Danube canal can bring travelers to 10 different countries in Western and Central Europe—that’s a lot of bang for your buck. Other rivers you can explore in Europe:
- Po—in Italy, although most of it is tough to navigate
Russia and Asia
The popularity of these destinations is rising as more river boats are added to fleets. Americans tend to think of these places as exotic and “once in a lifetime” visits. Russia has a majestic waterways cruise highlighting the beauty of St. Petersburg, Moscow and the Russian countryside.
China has a beautiful cruise down the Yangtze river for up to 18 days with stops in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong to name a few. If you want to see even more out of the way places like Vietnam and Cambodia, a cruise is offered on the Mekong river.
Russia and China are known for having a lot of red tape when it comes to the Visas visitors must acquire to vacation in their countries. A river cruise company eases some of that tape and will help travelers get the proper required documents.
How Long Do You Want to Sail?
You’ve decided you’re all in on a river cruise. Now you want to think about how long you want to be gone. River cruise fleets offer a lot of variety in their sail calendars so you can count on finding a length of cruise right for you.
There are an astounding number of choices for the length of a voyage. Most start at eight days and can go up to 28 days with increments generally at 10, 12, 15, 23 and 25 days. You can sail as long as you like. If 28 days isn’t long enough for you, you can get off one cruise and immediately begin another.
Now That’s a Destination
As long as there are rivers to sail, there are destinations waiting to be seen. You can narrow down your search based on what type of cruise you’d like to take. Explore those and you can find the perfect destination.
The romance package is one of a river cruise essentials. France is the first logical place to look here. There are cruises from Paris to Prague, a cruise of the Bordeaux region for wine lovers and Paris to the Swiss Alps. France is for lovers and a great place to start river cruising.
Pretty much anywhere in Europe can be romantic and there are romance themed cruises that create their shore excursions to include things like wine tasting, romantic dinners and intimate theater performances.
Anywhere you cruise will be steeped in history. You get to choose which parts of history interest you the most and tailor your cruise around that. Here are some great options:
- London to Paris
- Budapest to Nuremberg
- Munich to Budapest
- Berlin to Prague
- Cairo down the Nile back to Cairo
- Beijing to Shanghai
- Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
If you have an interest in your heritage and want to explore where your ancestors may have traversed, you can submit your DNA, pull up a map and plot your course.
Holidays on the River
If holidays are your thing, you’re going to go bananas over European Christmas markets. Seriously, if you’ve ever stared into a snow globe or gazed at a holiday picture wishing you could be transported there, this is your answer. These are magical, exciting and full of so much good food you won’t know what to do with yourself.
A few cruise lines have an entire tab dedicated to holiday river cruises. They will only take you to the best ones. Once you walk down a cobblestone street illuminated by thousands of twinkling lights with the soft sound of carolers in the air while you’re munching on yuletide cookies, Christmas will never be the same.
One hint—don’t do a lot of Christmas shopping for other people before you set sail. You’ll be amazed at the amount of presents you’ll find for people while strolling these markets. They will be one of a kind and treasured forever.
The Cruise Itself
So, what can you expect on the ship? While the layout and offerings of each ship varies, you can expect to find these on just about any ship:
- Staterooms—these come in standard, French balcony, staterooms with verandas and suites
- Sun deck—these may have a walking track, swimming pool, putting green, herb gardens, shaded seating and/or eating areas
- Restaurants—generally one main dining room and one to two casual areas where breakfast and lunch may be served
- Two to four levels with stairways and elevators
- A lounge and bar
- A library and/or game room
- Laundry service
- Small onboard shop
- Small fitness room
You’ll need to check the layout of the ship you’re looking at and take a 360-degree online tour of each of the rooms you’re choosing from. Most staterooms will have a flat screen tv, mini fridge and perhaps an in-suite coffee maker and microwave.
The restaurants will force you to sit with people you don’t know. There’s not enough room on the ship to have each couple in a stateroom have their own table. If you’re not that social, it’s ok. You’ll easily spot the others who aren’t either—sit with them, trade polite smiles and have your dinner. For social butterflies—you’re set.
How to Choose Your Perfect River Cruise
So now you know what most ships look like, the kinds of cruises you can take and the length of most cruises. Now is the time to decide and commit. Here’s how we suggest doing that:
Step 1—Choose Your Destination Area
Ask yourself where you really want to go. Start whittling down your choices. If you want to go to Europe, cross off the other choices—you’ll feel accomplished. Next, decide if you want to see main cities like Paris and London or off the beaten path places like the Fjords, Nuremberg and Antwerp.
This is where you’ll want to narrow your choices for the river cruise company you’ll use. Be sure to check out reviews—always take the median number, there’s always that person who likes nothing.
Step 2—What’s Your Budget?
This is big. There are generally three tiers of cost in river cruising:
- Up to $200/day per person—this is a baseline number and will see you getting on an older boat with limited excursions
- $200-$400/day—you will get great options, great excursions and great treatment on highly rated ships
- $400+/day—you will get the best of the best plus prepaid gratuities and most things included in the price
This cost doesn’t include anything you’ll be buying while you’re out and about. Be sure to plan your cruise price around what you’ll want to buy while you’re on excursions. The great thing about river cruise essentials are the amount of things included in your cruise price.
Step 3—When Do You Want to Go?
This will help narrow down the number of choices you have to make. Consider these questions:
- Do you want to avoid the heat of summer or the cold of winter?
- Do you want to avoid crowds, or do you have to travel at the same times everyone else does?
- Do you want to spend some of the holiday season on a cruise?
- Is there a particular time you want to go? Fall foliage? Tulips? Festivals?
The more of these you can answer, the easier your choices will be. No matter what your answer to any of these questions, there’s a great cruise available—we’re sure of it.
Step 4—What’s Important to You?
Rank the things that are most important to you. If it’s budget, choose a cruise offering the best included excursions. Consider ranking these:
- Do you want active excursions or passive?
- How social do you want to be?
- Is there enough to do if you want to spend a day on the ship?
- Are there book end stays available in your arrival or departure cities?
Once you’ve picked a cruise line, or narrowed it down to a couple, call them. They’re insanely helpful and patient. Take your time and get all your questions answered. This should help you make your final decision.
Now You’ve Chosen, It’s Time to Prepare!
This is where the fun really starts! Once you’ve booked your cruise, it’s time to prepare so you get the very most out of your trip. This requires research so start early. You’ll be happy you did.
What’s It like Where You’ll Be?
First, you’ll want to understand your ports of call. Check the local calendar for each city to understand what’s going on the day you’ll be there. It’s always fun to happen upon a festival or market not widely known.
Go to TripAdvisor to check the highest ranked restaurants and cafes for your free time on excursions. You can simply Google “the best things to do in…” and you’ll get great results. You can buy little guide books for each city or bookmark sites on your computer.
Check what the average temperatures are during your time there. This will help you pack. If the weather will be in the 40s during the day, you can leave the shorts and sleeveless shirts at home.
What Do You Need?
This is the pre-packing list. You’ll need to plan for things so you aren’t waiting until it’s too late. Check these things off your list:
- Passport—check your expiration date. Some countries won’t accept a passport set to expire in the next 6-12 months
- Credit cards—check those expiration dates too, you don’t want one to expire while you’re on the river
- Credit and debit cards—set travel alerts so your cards don’t get turned away
- Get a physical—let your doctor know your travel plans and get any small ache or pain checked out, so it doesn’t take you out of the game
- Take pictures of your passport and credit cards so you have them on your phone—send one copy to someone you trust just in case
- Luggage—do you have what you need? Don’t buy what you don’t need but don’t try to “make do” with what won’t work
- Check the electrical specs on your boat and buy any necessary adapters
- Pick up an external power bank for your phone so you don’t have to worry about running out of juice while you’re strolling around
- Check your shoes—you will be doing a lot of walking so shoes that rub you the wrong way need to be replaced
- Order foreign currency for the countries you’ll be traveling to
- Find out what toiletries and amenities are in your room, so you don’t pack things like hair dryers or lotion if they’re provided for you
- Check with your mobile provider about foreign country temporary plans and roaming policies
Keep a running list so when you think of something, you can jot it down to either ask about, talk about or act upon.
Start Thinking about Money
Most ships do not include gratuities in their overall cost. Plan for these. It’s customary at the end of the cruise for them to hand out several envelopes. Here are some tipping guidelines:
- General staff—it’s customary for you to tip about $12 per day per person. If there are two of you on a ten-day cruise, that’s $240 for the crew
- Program Director—you’ll know who this is. She’s the one who gives you the low down every morning and every night—the guideline is $3 per person per day. The same 2-person, 10-day trip equals $60 for her—now you’re at $300 in tips
- Drivers and guides—this depends on how much you’ve enjoyed the tour. These people are hard workers and are paid to be informative, friendly and entertaining—if they’ve accomplished that $5 per person per tour is a good guideline. If you take five tours that’s another $50
- If you’re on a cruise where gratuities are included you can still individually tip staff that went above and beyond for you but it’s unnecessary
You’ll want some walking around money. There are market vendors and other incidentals you won’t be able to pay for with cards so it’s wise to have walking around money. This requires you to order that foreign currency from your bank.
Let’s Get Packing!!
Ok, the time has come to make this vacation a reality by packing your bags! One of the best pieces of advice we can give you—don’t over-pack! It’s hard, we know—you want to show off your favorite clothes and those outfits you’ve not worn yet because you’re waiting for the perfect time.
Don’t do it. You’ll be bogged down with clothing you won’t wear. River cruise staterooms—even the fancy ones are small. You’ll need room for all the stuff you buy in both your room and your luggage. We want to make this easy, so let’s look at river cruise essentials that need to end up in your suitcase:
This is the toughest part, so we’ll break it down. You’ll pack partly based on the forecasted temperatures, but a lot of the river cruise essentials are the same. Look at this list and choose warm or cool weather clothes based on season:
- Tops—you’ll need casual t-shirts and tops that will be comfortable for day long wear
- Two warm sweaters or sweatshirts for cool nights
- Three pairs of jeans, chinos or other long pants—cut that number down and bring shorts for hot weather
- One light jacket that’s weatherproof—make it a heavy one in the winter
- One pair of tennis or other walking shoes
- If your ship has a pool and you’re a water person bring one bathing suit
- If you’re traveling in the winter bring one hat, a pair of gloves and a scarf
- Based on the excursions you’ve chosen, pack two dressier casual outfits for theater, dinner out or a special night on the ship
- One pair of nice shoes—make these comfortable, you’ll be up on the sundeck and gallivanting around the ship in these
- One pair of socks and underwear for each day
Carry-on River Cruise Essentials
It’s important to know what to pack in your carry-on. You want to fill this with items you can’t afford to have delayed if your luggage doesn’t make it to your destination when you do. You’ll also want things to make your plane trip enjoyable.
First, wear layers on the plane. Long pants, your comfortable shoes, a jacket with gloves in the pocket if it’s winter. You’ll have choices if you need an extra day. Include these in the bag you keep with you:
- Medications—prescription, motion sickness, OTC pain and allergy
- Headphones, charger, camera and laptop or tablet
- Either pack or carry a back pack—you’ll need this for excursions, so you don’t have to carry a bunch of bags
- Travel documents including passport, boarding passes and ship information
- A book if you’re a reader
- Reading glasses
Other River Cruise Essentials
A few more things you’ll kick yourself if you forget:
- List of people to buy presents for
- Specialized toiletries—toothbrush and toothpaste, special products you can’t live without
- Wrinkle releaser or fabric refresher—this will save you lmoney on aundry expenses
- Spot remover pens or wipes
- Insect repellent if it’s spring or summer
What Not to Pack
It’s easy to over-pack, especially if you’re a first-time river cruiser. We’re here to save you from dreaded over packing. Heed our list of what not to pack:
- Hair dryer and iron—they’ll have these
- Basic toiletries—they will provide you with unlimited shampoo, conditioner, soap and lotion
- Bathrobe and slippers—they’ll have these for you
- One of a kind outfits—you won’t be able to wear these on multiple days
- Umbrella—they’ll have these for you
- Coat hangers—just never pack these
- A really formal outfit—you won’t need it
Follow our advice and you’ll have just what you need with room to spare for all those goodies you will buy.
Cruising Do’s and Don’ts—Look like a Pro
You’ll meet people who vacation every year by taking one or multiple river cruises. You’ll learn a lot from them. Introduce yourself to your cruise director and let her know it’s your first river cruise. She will direct you towards reading material or other passengers you can glean information from.
You’re Ready to Set Sail
You’re all set. You know all the river cruise essentials and will sail like a pro. Get ready for experiences that create memories of a lifetime. We encourage you to leave all your worries behind and immerse yourself in the culture and ambiance of the ship and its excursions.
You’re about to embark on the trip of a lifetime and enjoy all the luxuries of a river cruise. We’re willing to bet once you get home, you’ll start planning your next cruise—they’re that good. Bon Voyage!