Considering a river cruise? Here's why you should

April 22, 2015

What is river cruising?

River cruising is, basically, just cruising on a river instead of the ocean.

What’s the difference between river cruising and ocean cruising?

There are a lot of differences between river cruising and ocean cruising, most of which have to do with the size of the vessels. River ships are much smaller than most typical cruise ships, which means that they’re able to navigate rivers, pass under bridges, and dock further inland.

That also means that there are normally far less people on a river cruise – often hundreds or less instead of thousands – and less entertainment and dining options, but your onboard activities will be more immersive. Because of the size, you’ll also be able to get to know all of the staff and crew, along with your fellow passengers, and be able to hit a lot more ports.

What can you do onboard?

Because of the size of the ships, you’re not going to find any sky-diving simulators or rock walls or skating rinks. Entertainment is normally much more low-key, and includes things like observation lounges, libraries, and pools. Activities tend to be related to the culture of the area, like demonstrations, cooking classes, performances, or lectures.

What’s included in a river cruise?

Basically, it’s generally the same as an ocean cruise. Normally your cabin, most meals and snacks, room service, activities and entertainment, port charges, taxes, drinks, and sometimes wine or beer. Not included are things like gift shop purchases, gratuities, and some alcoholic beverages or specialty tours.

The major difference is that your excursions and shore trips are normally included, where with ocean cruises you have to pay extra.

Where do they go?

Because of their small size, river cruises can sail inland through nearly every continent on the globe. Some of the most popular cruises are through the Danube, Rhine, and Seine in Europe, the Mississippi River in the US, and the Yangtze in China. There are also cruises along the Amazon and the Nile, and throughout Europe and Asia.

Do you need a passport?

In nearly every case, yes. Most river cruises start in another country, and you’ll need a passport to board your international flight and eventually return back home.

How much luggage can you take onboard?

There isn’t a strictly regulated amount of luggage that you can take with you. That said, keep in mind that cabin storage can be tight and you don’t want to be tripping over empty luggage for your entire vacation.

What can and can’t you bring onboard?

If you think it’s banned, then chances are it’s probably banned. Keep in mind that you’ll most likely be flying to your destination, so don’t bring anything with you that you wouldn’t bring on a plane.

Some ships allow you to bring a bottle or two of wine, and will normally charge you a corkage fee if you’re drinking it onboard in one of their restaurants. Nearly all cruise ships ban bringing your own hard alcohol.

What are meals like?

Ships normally only have one – sometimes two – restaurants on board. This means that meals need to be served at specific times (you can’t wander in for breakfast at 11:30 if they’re already setting up for lunch), so everyone will be eating their meals during the same stretch of time. Breakfast and lunch are usually served buffet-style, while dinner is table service.

What happens when we dock at a port?

You’ll be visiting more ports than you normally would on an ocean cruise, which means that you’ll be able to see far more. Ships can also pull up further inland, so you can usually step right off and be in the center of town. Most days, there will be organized shore excursions with local guides that include free time to eat, shop, and explore.

What’s the process for boarding for a river cruise?

If your cruise line includes transfers, or if you purchased airline transfers, you’ll be picked up at the airport with any other passengers arriving the same time as you and driven to your ship, hotel, or meeting point.

When you arrive at the ship, whether it’s later that day or early the next morning, the boarding process is fairly straight forward. Since most river cruises begin internationally, you’ll have already gone through screening at the airport before your departure and won’t have to pass through security and metal detectors the way you would for an ocean cruise. Either you or a porter will take your luggage to your room, you’ll board the ship, and you’ll be off.

Will I get seasick? What happens if I get do?

You’ll spend your time sailing through rivers and canals, so seasickness won’t be an issue. All cruise ships also have medical facilities and doctors on staff to handle any minor illnesses that might occur.

Is there onboard Wi-Fi? Do I have to pay for it?

Most ships have internet cafés, and many of them offer free Wi-Fi. Since you’ll spend the majority of your time close to shore, internet access normally isn’t an issue. 

Will I get cell phone service?

You’ll most likely be able to make calls from your cell phone, but like any other international trip you’ll be charged (sometimes very high) roaming charges from your provider.

What happens at the end of the cruise and I have to leave the ship?

If you’re staying an extra day or two, you’ll catch a transfer to your hotel and carry on with your vacation. Otherwise, you’ll be transferred to the airport where you’ll be required to go back through US Immigration and Customs.

Remember, this information doesn’t apply to every cruise ship on every cruise line. Make sure you check with your travel consultant about the rules and regulations for your particular trip.