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  • Starr Wlodarski

The Unfiltered Guide to River Cruising: Tips You Won't Hear from the Cruise Lines


As I enter my 2nd decade in the river cruise market, booking clients and sailing myself on 4 of the major river cruise lines. My clients and I love that we unpack once, have included tours, the luxury of not being with huge crowds onboard and the level of service you don’t find on the mass market ocean cruise ships.


But there are a few things I have learned that are not mentioned in any brochure that I pass on to my clients.


The Ship Can’t Move-Water levels.

This is something that all the river cruise lines don’t want to talk about and it can be an issue. River cruise ships are a lot like Goldilocks, the river level must be just right. River too high, ship may not be able to clear bridges. The opposite, not enough water happens in the summer. There’s a reason why pricing in August is usually well below other months.


The ships all look the same

Well, they do need to get through locks, so they all kind of look alike. Inside is where the difference is. Do you like clean Scandinavian lines, chintz wallpaper or something in between? And we’ll look at stateroom types and sizes. Unlike an ocean cruise, you may well not spend that much time in your stateroom.


It’s time to go

River cruises have a fairly standard schedule. Breakfast, excursion, back for lunch and then perhaps an optional afternoon excursion or time to explore on your own. Dinner is usually served in a certain time frame. If you have been a more independent land-based traveler, this might not sit well with you. Ocean cruiser, who likes sea days? Don’t really have a “river day” on most itineraries.


Where’s the specialty restaurants?

Some of the lines an optional place to eat, but due to their small size there is usually one dining room, lounge/bar, sundeck and maybe a small gym and salon. And there’s no room service.


Stacking??

River cruise ships may dock side by side so how do you get to yours? Some match up so you can walk through the dockside ship, or you may have to go up to the top deck and cross over to yours and then down the stairs from there. This is just one of the reasons river cruises may not be the best option for mobility challenged travelers.


Different itineraries?

A Rhine itinerary is pretty much the same no matter which line you pick. Stop in Cologne and there will be a bunch of ships. Want to try something different, Avalon’s Active/Discovery itineraries are different.


It’s how much??

River Cruising will price out higher per person than a premium ocean cruise line. Why? you’re sailing with at most 190 passengers compared to 2800+ and it’s more inclusive. Shore excursion included in every port, cooked to order meals, higher staff to guest ratio and drinks included with every meal.


It’s not just for your grandmother,

The average age of river cruisers has dropped over the years. With more active excursions, bicycles to borrow and more choices of excursions than just looking at churches & castles. Tauck & Uniworld were the first with family sailings and they were joined by Adventures by Disney (full ship charters from Ama Waterways). Ama specifically designed their new builds to have connecting staterooms and triple capacity staterooms, so they also market to families. Avalon with their discovery, classic and active excursions in every port is another option if you only can take so many castle visits and a good choice for groups with teens & young adults.


Dude where’s my ship?

Unlike an ocean ship you kind of know where it will be docked as each line has a terminal, river cruise ships are a little different. In Basel, there are at least 3 different docking locations, and the ships usually don’t know where until 48-24 hours before arrival. For the tentative or new to Europe travelers I will recommend cruise line transfers. When I sailed from Basel, I emailed the ship to get the docking location and we grabbed a cab from the train station, since we took the train morning of the sailing from Zurich.


These are just some of the reasons working a travel professional who specializes in river cruising, making sure this is the right type of cruise for you, then the cruise line that is the best fit for you.


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