I have had a lot of clients ask me what I thought of river cruises and differences they can expect after years of sailing on ocean-faring cruises. Clients who have been on a LOT of ocean cruises and are somewhat experiencing “port fatigue” are really looking to other alternatives for their holidays. However, they’re hesitant to give up a lot of the conveniences that ocean cruises offer when planning a vacation. I recently returned from a river cruise through the “lowlands” of Europe this past May, and here are my thoughts if you are considering a river cruise for future travel plans. I’ll go beyond the usual “ships are smaller, the voyage is more intimate” to share some things that may surprise you.
1. You will really get to see your destinations up close and personal.
When on a river cruise, you are exploring the continent the entire time. You don’t go off into the ocean for 12 hours and then magically pull into a port for the next 8 hours. You’ll see farm animals go by your window… you’ll see folks camping along the banks… you’ll see castles overlooking the valley you’re traveling through. And then, when you do dock at your destination, it’s typically in a city center or bustling dock.
2. Expect to be somewhat active during your voyage.
I have a lot of clients that like to take ocean cruises and not even leave the ship. While you can certainly do that on a river cruise, this voyage may not be for you. You will not have all the convenient amenities of an ocean cruise ship at your disposal and the activity level onboard will be dialed way back while the ship is in port. Therefore, you’ll be spending your time out and about and enjoying your host country.
3. You have flexibility in your port plans.
One thing that surprises travelers new to river cruises is that, often times, the ship is in transit while you are on a tour. So the group will rejoin the ship further down the river as the ship has to travel through a multitude of channel locks and docks. As long as you are aware of such transits, you can elect not to take tours through the river cruise line and make your own arrangements. Want to visit that cousin who lives in Koblenz, or try that little cheese shop in Amsterdam? It’s MUCH easier to meet up with the river ship as the distances are more manageable than an ocean cruise ship which often will dock in another country.
4. The Cruise Director is the boss.
On a river cruise, the Cruise Director is not simply someone who is responsible for the onboard entertainment during your voyage. The director has the responsibility for just about everything on the ship and holds more authority onboard than the captain. Responsibilities include making sure the ship arrives at locks and docks at pre-assigned times, that no passengers are left behind when the ship leaves a port, arranging for lost luggage to rejoin the ship down the line, etc. On top of all that, the director is very intimate with your destinations and often is a longtime resident and citizen of the host country. They can offer you suggestions, like a hotel concierge would, about the little details, like which chocolate shop in Antwerp to visit.
5. Less stress
There are only about 160 people onboard a typical river ship, so there are no lines for anything – bars, dining, entertainment, getting off the ship, getting back on board, tours, etc. Well, maybe you’ll have to wait just a bit to get some coffee in the lounge as it’s self-service, but that’s about it. And less stress is what vacations are all about, right?