What You Need to Know About River Cruises
River cruises have become a popular alternative to ocean-going cruise ships, and it’s easy to see why: River cruises are generally longer, with ample opportunities to visit historic port towns; learn about a region’s history and culture; and get away from the hustle and bustle for a week or more.
And those cruises take passengers all over the world, from the Mississippi River in the United States to the Amazon River in South America to the Rhine and Danube rivers in Europe.
If you’re curious about what to expect on a river cruise — and how it differs from larger, splashier ocean cruises — here’s a quick primer on river cruises.
HOW DIFFERENT ARE RIVER AND OCEAN CRUISES?
There are many differences between river cruises and sea cruises, including the following points.
Size. River cruise ships are almost always smaller than ocean cruises because of the need to navigate small, shallow waterways. They typically carry no more than 250 passengers.
Itinerary. Many river cruises last a week or more. But don’t expect many, if any, full days at sea; river cruises usually stop at one or two ports every day, with most making time for tours, excursions and other attractions.
Amenities. Given their smaller size, river cruise ships offer fewer on-board attractions than ocean-going cruise ships; instead, the focus is generally on each day’s destination.
Dining. You won’t find a half-dozen restaurants open most of the day; rather, many river cruise lines have fixed meal times where cruisers dine together. Room service isn’t common, either.
Experience: River cruises are generally less formal than ocean cruises, with almost no karaoke bars, theme nights, or nighttime live performances.
WHAT ARE THE CABINS LIKE ON A RIVER CRUISE SHIP?
Because of the massive differences in ship size, it’s fitting that cabins on river cruise ships are smaller than their ocean-going brethren — but that doesn’t mean you’ll fall asleep in a glorified closet each night.
Cabins on river cruise ships generally fall between 150 and 200 square feet— maybe close to the size of your bedroom back home — and usually include a queen-size bed, television, dresser, closet and either a sofa or plush chairs alongside a coffee table or end table. Many cabins also offer river views, and some include French balconies, where guests can open the window — but with no deck.
Some cruise lines offer suites with more space and additional furniture, as well.
HOW MUCH DOES A RIVER CRUISE COST?
Fares vary from one cruise line to another — and from route to route — but travelers should budget for about $300 to $500 per day. Those fares might surprise cruisers accustomed to Caribbean trips that can cost $500 total, but river cruises usually include more amenities, like at least one tour at each stop, free Wi-Fi, drink allowances with meals, and gratuity.
WHAT TO PACK FOR A RIVER CRUISE?
Here’s what to know about packing for a river cruise:
Cruise duration. Keep your trip duration in mind when figuring out what to bring; if you’d rather pack light, most river cruise lines offer on-board laundry services (for an added fee).
Your destination. Obviously, you’ll pack differently for a springtime European trip than a Nile cruise in summer — but be sure to pack a few layers, just in case of chilly weather. You are spending most days and nights on a river, after all.
Comfortable shoes. Be sure to bring a comfortable pair of shoes for all the sightseeing you’ll do at port stops along the way.
ARE RIVER CRUISES SAFE?
River cruise lines have taken many measures in recent years to keep travelers safe. Those steps vary by cruise line — but might include ID card checks at entry and exit points, on-board security guards, regulated access for after-hours travel (like locked doors between sections of the ship), and security cameras.
SHOULD I TIP ON A RIVER CRUISE?
There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer for tipping on a river cruise. Some cruise lines include gratuity in the base price, but that doesn’t usually cover optional tours and excursions, while other companies leave tipping up to the discretion of the passengers. If gratuity isn’t included, you may consider tipping the staff, including drivers, tour guides, etc.
— By Matt Wastradowski