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what you need to know about river cruises

While this site focuses specifically on west coast cruises, I know a lot of you also dream of floating down some of Europe's most famous rivers like the Danube and Rhine as well as other iconic waterways around the world such as the Nile, Amazon, and MeKong. What many of our clients don't quite understand initially is that river cruising is a far different experience than simply a cruise on a smaller vessel and no waves.

As you shift from the ocean's expanse to the river's intimacy, there's stuff you need to know and we're here to help. River cruises offer a unique cultural immersion, delicious local cuisine, and personalized service that we enjoy as much as we do cruising Alaskan fjords and whale watching off the coast of Cabo. 

Key Takeaways

  • River cruises offer a different dining experience compared to ocean cruises, with table service and a focus on regional specialties using local ingredients.
  • Personalized service is a highlight of river cruises, with high staff-to-guest ratios ensuring attention and a high level of service throughout the cruise.
  • Cultural and historical immersion is a key aspect of river cruises, with guided tours and visits to museums, landmarks, and other notable sites included in itineraries.
  • Health and safety measures are in place on river cruises, including temperature checks, hand sanitization, socially distant seating, and enhanced cleaning protocols.

More Than Just Laying Around In The Sun

While you might associate cruising with lounging poolside, river cruises offer a dynamic vacation experience that's more about cultural immersion and exploration than just soaking up the sun. In fact, you'll notice after looking at most river cruise deck plans that the majority of these vessels don't have a proper swimming pool and only a few even offer hot tubs.

Instead, you'll find active excursions, such as bike tours and hikes are the focus because they let you explore scenic cruising routes in a way that's as invigorating as it's enlightening. Don't worry though, if you have mobility issues, there are almost always bus tours as well.

Unique onboard experiences, from cooking demonstrations to local folk performances, further enhance your journey. Immersive local activities, like market visits or home-hosted meals, allow you to connect deeply with the places you're visiting.

Plus, the cultural enrichment programs on river cruises, brimming with lectures and workshops, feed your curiosity and deepen your understanding of the regions you sail through. One thing we really like to do is to extend our time before or after the river cruise so we can see more of a country on land. For instance, in Europe, one of the most popular river cruise starting points is Basel and so you can easily book Switzerland tours to see other parts of the country before your cruise.

It's a holistic travel experience designed to engage your senses, mind, and spirit ... not just a place to lay out in the sun and work on your tan!

Itineraries Are Designed To Explore Cultural And Historic Destinations

Diving into the rich tapestry of cultural and historical destinations, you'll find that river cruise itineraries are specifically designed to provide you an immersive and enlightening experience. Your journey will be filled with:

  • Local cuisine experiences: Savor regional specialties prepared by onboard chefs, using locally sourced ingredients.
  • Cultural immersion activities: Participate in local art and music experiences, allowing you to feel a sense of belonging in each destination.

Each port of call offers:

  • Guided city tours: Explore the streets, squares, and local life under the guidance of expert local guides.
  • Visits to historical landmarks and museums: Gain an in-depth understanding of the area's history and culture.

These itineraries are meticulously planned, ensuring a seamless blend of relaxation, exploration, and cultural immersion on your river cruise.

River Cruise Boats Are Much Smaller

You'll notice that river cruise boats are considerably smaller than your typical ocean liner. However, don't mistake size for quality.

The small boat advantages are numerous and tailored specifically to enhance your experience. The intimate atmosphere onboard fosters a sense of community and belonging, allowing you to form connections not just with the destinations, but with your fellow travelers too.

With fewer passengers, you also enjoy a high level of personalized service, making your journey feel truly special. The unique itineraries of river cruises often explore lesser-known locales, immersing you in local cultures and cuisines.

Whether it's a chef preparing a dish using regional ingredients or a tour guide sharing hidden gems, these experiences ensure that every voyage is uniquely rewarding. In fact, since the chef is typically cooking for only about 200 (compared to thousands on an ocean cruise ship), they can occasionally even lead market tours where guests can browse the market with the cuilinary team as they shop for fresh fish, herbs, cheeses, and other specialities that are unique to that town.

Wine And Beer Is Typically Included During Meals

In addition to the intimate atmosphere and personalized service, one of the delightful perks you'll find on your river cruise is that wine and beer are typically included during meals. River cruise dining is unlike any other, with a focus on local ingredients and you can often bring your own bottle of wine on board to enjoy (though corkage fees usually apply if you are drinking it in the dining room or lounge area).

Most river cruise lines also offer a beverage package too, though while we like the luxury of not worrying about the cost of drinks - we usually spend so much time off the river boat that I'd rather get my drink on exploring local pubs and wine shops in the ports that day.

Dining Is Usually A Group Activity

Building on the dining experience, it's important to note that meals on river cruises are typically a group activity. This communal dining experience caters to everyone's dining preferences while embracing a sense of belonging. You can sometimes find two and four person tables, but unlike larger ocean ships where "any time" dining is rapidly becoming standard - assigned dining is the norm on a river cruise and that includes being assigned to a table with other people.

However, you'll find that the personalized service is impeccable, with staff keenly attuned to your needs. This will vary from cruise line to cruise line, but river cruises are almost always exclusively "luxury" and so the average quality of food and service is comparible to what you might get in a speciality restaurant or in the Haven restaurant on NCL, Aqua Class / BLU on Celebrity, or Coastal Kitchen on Royal Caribbean.

Cost Is Surprisingly Affordable When You Factor What's Included

Often, you might find that the cost of river cruising is surprisingly affordable when you consider everything that's included. Here's how the pricing advantages break down:

Inclusive Amenities

  • These cruises often include meals, onboard entertainment, and excursions. It's a value for money deal.
  • Some lines even include Wi-Fi, gratuities, and beverages, further enhancing the cost saving benefits.

Affordable Luxury

  • You get to experience luxury at a reasonable price. Elegant staterooms, gourmet dining, and personalized service are standard.
  • Despite the affordable price tag, you won't compromise on quality or comfort.

Yes - There Are West Coast River Cruises Too!

You mightn't realize it, but there's a whole world of river cruising right on your doorstep if you're on the West Coast!

West Coast river cruises offer unique experiences, combining the tranquil pace of river travel with the scenic beauty of the coastal cities. These cruises are known for their intimate settings and, often, wildlife sightings, making them an ideal choice for nature enthusiasts.

Whether you're meandering down the Columbia River, marveling at the rugged Pacific coastline, or exploring the historic Sacramento River, these cruises provide a distinctive way to appreciate the West Coast's diverse landscapes.

Don't miss the chance to be part of this community of river cruisers, who relish not just the journey, but the unexpected delights that come with it.

Thanks for reading. We hope this was helpful!

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James Hills

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James is an avid fan of all types of cruising but especially enjoys exploring the Pacific coastal regions since it perfectly captures the elements that he is passionate about, including natural beauty, conservation, opportunities to explore new cultures, and meeting some fantastic new people too.