Like most cruisers, my introduction to the waterways was on the oceans. Lately, however, I have grown fond of river cruises, which offer a change of pace to the your typical big-ship cruise vacation. Both ocean cruising and river cruising provide wonderful ways to see the world, but they are two extremely different styles of travel.
Before you choose which type of trip you want, you’ll need to know what sets river cruising apart from ocean cruises.
Passengers on river cruises, especially the top-end luxury lines like Crystal River Cruises, Uniworld and Scenic, tend to be older than fellow cruisers you’ll meet on an ocean cruise ship, especially the big ships from Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line.
River cruise ships are only four decks high and generally have the same basic layout, with a central lobby area, a main lounge/bar area, main dining room, and a top sun deck. With just 106 to 190 passengers onboard most river cruise ships, these are much more casual and intimate surroundings than the 3,000 to 4,000-passenger ocean cruise ships. You get to know most everyone onboard during your voyage.
Dining is open seating on river cruises, and entertainment usually features a piano player in the lounge and a few special performances from local entertainers from the cities or regions you are visiting. On Rhone River cruises in France, for example, you might have an artist come aboard during the afternoon to lead a class in painting. Or, in Austria, on Danube River itineraries, singers and dancers might be on the ship for an after-dinner show, performing songs from “The Sound of Music.”
The ship gets quiet early at night when people go back to their cabins to get ready to rise early for the next day’s activities, usually in a new port. Ocean cruises have much more going on in almost every corner of the ship, with music, bars, theaters, rides and dining venues, parties and games buzzing till later in the evening until early morning.
In the oceans, the horizon is endless, and you are often surrounded by waters with only an occasional glimpse of surrounding land masses. This is relaxing in its own right, but river cruising features stretches of time when the scenery around the ship is the best part of the trip. Sea days on ocean cruise ships offer time to hang out on the pool deck, get massage or salon treatments, use the waterslides, climbing wall, ropes courses or any number of other activities available on the floating playgrounds.
River cruises offer periods of scenic sailing. These are usually afternoons onboard when the ship travels along the river to a new port, and passengers gather in the lounge or on the top deck to enjoy viewing the sights onshore, such as castles, terraced vineyards and charming villages. And transiting the lock systems on the rivers is always a fascinating process to witness up close.
Hassle-Free Fares, Premier Rooms and Service
River cruises offer more things that are included in your fare, and cruises on the luxury lines are all-inclusive deals. The price of a luxury river cruise at the outset can be up to three to four times higher that an average ocean cruise, but there is little “nickel and diming” involved. Transfers to and from the airport, one daily excursion, beers and wines at lunch and dinner and gratuities are among the things that are covered by your luxury river cruise fare.
Even non-luxury river cruise lines, like Viking River Cruises or AmaWaterways, will offer a standard of service and attention in an intimate ship setting that you won’t find on the mass-market ocean cruises. High levels of service and gourmet cuisine are expected on river cruises, while you will have to book a luxury ocean voyage to get something that matches.
I sailed on Crystal River Cruises on its ship Crystal Bach on the Rhine River and discovered that all Crystal river ships feature all-suite staterooms with butler service. The rooms are huge with large panorama windows and balconies that are amazing for viewing the river as you sail.
River cruises differ from ocean cruises significantly when you consider your time in port. River ships dock right at the foot of small towns or large cities. This means you can easily walk on and off your ship, which might spend more hours than an ocean ship in one place and features overnight stays in big cities like Vienna and Budapest. This way, you can enjoy much more flexibility for how you structure your visit.
Many passengers choose a daily included excursion, such as a walking tour of town or a visit to a vineyard or castle, before returning to the ship for lunch. This leaves free time in the afternoon for a second excursion or anything else you want to do like shopping, visiting a pub or coffee shop or going out for a dinner to try authentic regional cuisine.
These port areas also have wonderful paths that trace the rivers, so you can get off the ship for a morning walk or run along the river. You also can grab a bike (many river ships offer them onboard for passengers) to explore the region at your own pace.
John Roberts is a freelance writer and operator of InTheLoopTravel.com. He writes about cruising and active travel, highlighting how people can connect with the world and other cultures through rewarding travel experiences.