How to Have the Best Experience on Your First River Cruise

Courtesy AmaWaterways

Now that I’ve taken two European river cruises, and I’m planning for more, I can speak from experience on the best ways to take advantage of this marvelous mode of travel. I’m not the only one who’s caught on to the wonders of gliding from city to city in a luxurious floating hotel room. According to the December 2018 report from CLIA, river cruising is the second largest trend in cruising, after multi-generational travel.

Smaller ships, slower pace, fewer passengers, and the ability to dock near city centers are a few of the attractions of river cruising. Its appeal as both an introduction to cruising and a change from ocean cruises has contributed to its growth. As with any vacation, research and planning are ingredients for a successful trip, and there are multiple things to consider before booking a river cruise. With my own experience, many conversations with seasoned river cruise fans, and advice from Ralph Grizzle and Britton Frost of rivercruiseadvisor.com, I’ve assembled some ideas to help you get the most from your first river cruise­—and to encourage you to consider one for your next vacation.


KenWiedemann/Getty Images

Which River Should I Cruise?

Are there any destinations that hold particular interest for you? Have you longed to see the castles along the Rhine or the French village that inspired Monet? Each river offers different cities along the way, and cruise company websites detail the itineraries and shore excursions. For your first cruise, I recommend seven nights, and if that works well for you, try a longer cruise next time.

The Danube is Europe’s most popular river, and most cruises sail between Budapest, Hungary and Vilshofen or Nuremberg, Germany. My recent cruise was AmaWaterways “Melodies of the Danube,” aboard the new AmaMagna, the widest ship cruising the Danube, and it was wonderful. Other rivers to cruise in Europe are the Rhine, Seine, and Douro. Cruises in Asia and Africa are available as well.

Another consideration when choosing a river to cruise are the ports of embarkation and disembarkation. Most river cruise companies offer pre and post-cruise land extensions, making it convenient to spend a few days at either or both ends of your cruise seeing those cities. Of course, you can make those arrangements on your own, adding a destination you’ve been wanting to visit.


Courtesy AmaWaterways

How Do I Choose a Stateroom?

River cruise staterooms are generally smaller than those on oceangoing vessels because of limited space on the ships that usually carry about 160 passengers. More space is better, of course, and most staterooms range from 160 square feet to about 355 square feet or more in a suite. On the AmaMagna, the Owners’ Suite is 710 square feet, and four upper deck suites measure 474 square feet. Aim for a larger room which will probably be on the top (of three) decks—the best location. The upgrade premium for a larger room or suite ranges from about $2,000-$3,300 per person.

Many staterooms come with outside balconies, with space for chairs and a small table. Others offer “French balconies,” in effect large, sometimes wall-to-wall, windows that open with a protective rail. Some staterooms have a combination of both. It’s a plus to be able to sit outside, although some cruisers consider the French balcony adequate since they spend most of their time in lounge areas, on the outside top deck, or in a forward lounge area where they can see both sides of the river.

The larger staterooms are usually booked first, so plan ahead and use the cruise company’s website to select the room you want. Keep in mind that newer ships often have larger staterooms.

Shore Excursions Explained

Typically, when the ship arrives in port after sailing overnight, it docks near the town. Most companies offer several options, usually a bicycle tour and choice of walking tours, geared towards various fitness levels. When a tour destination is some distance away, buses are arranged. The excursions are detailed in the itinerary so you can review and plan in advance.

In most places, you can explore on your own. I found that cell phone GPS is helpful in getting around, and you might be lucky enough to come upon a local event or festival not on the planned itinerary. Several clever passengers on my Danube River cruise learned of a concert in Vienna on their own, secured tickets, and had a lovely evening. They also found an excellent restaurant and enjoyed a pre-concert dinner away from the ship. Of course, it’s critical to know the ship’s sailing schedule and to get back on time.


Courtesy AmaWaterways

Dining on a River Cruise

Meals are served at set times, generally with expansive buffets as well as menu options. Wines are usually included with meals, with several choices available, often based on the areas the ship is docking. We had lovely Austrian and German wines on the AmaWaterways Danube River cruise. Tables are mostly set for six or eight diners, with a few for two, so you’ll often be dining with others which can be a good thing—or not. You may want to line up dinner company when you meet other passengers you’d enjoy dining with.

In addition to the breakfast buffet, a casual breakfast is usually available for early risers and light morning eaters. Coffee and tea are on hand at all times. Most ships offer several venues for dining, including a Chef’s Table requiring advance reservations. AmaMagna, with its additional space, boasts four dining rooms, including family-style Jimmy’s Wine Bar and casual Al Fresco, with outdoor seating.

Dietary requirements can be accommodated with advance notice to the cruise line.

Time on the Ship

One of my most memorable days on the Danube cruise was spent near the bow of the ship as we passed through Austria’s Wachau Valley near Durnstein. Rolling green hills, terraced vineyards, sheer rocky cliffs, farmhouses, and steeples along with the light breeze made for a breathtaking experience and many lovely photos. Check your itinerary or ask the cruise manager for the best times for daytime cruise viewing.

Also fascinating is the process by which the ship passes through locks to adjust to varying water levels on the river. The entire operation must be watched at least once. Your appreciation of the engineering marvel and the crew’s skill will increase a hundredfold.

Cruising is smooth with no waves to rock the ship. You’ll see other river vessels passing by, and occasionally you might be surprised to find one double-parked next to your ship, sometimes necessary where there is limited docking space.

What is the Best Time of Year for River Cruising?

In Europe, the best weather is usually from June through September. Summer is in demand, of course, making September and early October excellent times for a river cruise in Europe. Christmas market cruises from late November through December are well loved despite cold weather. Historic markets, handmade goods, traditional foods, music, and glittering decorations attract holiday travelers.

Unexpected and unpredictable water levels, both high and low, can affect a river cruise. When water is too low, ships may run aground or have insufficient depth for cruising. When the water is too high, ships may not be able to pass under the many bridges that cross rivers in Europe. When this occurs, cruise lines strive to maintain the itinerary by bussing passengers to the next port and swapping ships to a similar vessel for the rest of the journey. They may also transition to hotels temporarily as a solution. Cancellation of cruises due to water levels happens rarely.


Courtesy AmaWaterways

Booking Your Cruise

Get the stateroom of your choice by booking well in advance. Review the details, itinerary, and what’s included in your cost by reading each cruise company’s website and by talking to a travel professional. Ralph Grizzle of rivercruiseadvisor.com recommends booking through a travel agent. “You’ll often get equal or better rates, plus possible perks that you may not receive by going direct to the cruise line. Plus the travel agent will work on your behalf should something go wrong. Because travel agents do high volume with cruise lines, the agent often has more pull than you might have as a consumer.”

Cruise lines and travel agents often suggest Trip Cancellation insurance to cover unexpected events that may cause you to cancel your cruise, such as illness, job loss, or transportation problems.

Health and Fitness Considerations

Most cruise ships have at least a small fitness center and a walking track on the top deck, perhaps even some yoga or exercise classes and bicycles to borrow or use on guided tours. AmaMagna has a full-time fitness professional, outdoor spinning bikes, and group exercise at various times throughout the day as well as a spa and massage therapist.

Access for individuals with disabilities or limited mobility could be challenging on most river cruise ships. Some ships have elevators, but small spaces and walkways might limit wheelchair movement. If there are concerns about accommodations or access, confirm the details with the cruise company before booking.

An unpleasant thought, but practical, is the possible need for medical care during a cruise. Consider insurance if your personal policy would not cover this, as is frequently the case while traveling out of the country. In her podcast on the subject, Britton Frost of rivercruiseadvisor.com explained that travel medical insurance will cover the cost of airlifting passengers and transporting them to a hospital if necessary. It may also reimburse expenses like airline delays, lost luggage, etc. As with all insurance programs, it is critical to understand exactly what is covered.

Are River Cruises for All Ages?

Most river cruise companies require passengers to be at least four years of age, and travelers should be aware that shore excursions and onboard entertainment may not hold much interest for young children. Most passengers are on the older side, fifties and upwards, but I did encounter millennials and teenagers on my cruises, and they were having a great time and participating in all the cruise had to offer.

AmaWaterways has partnered with Adventures by Disney to offer family-oriented cruises on the Rhine, Rhone, Sein, and Danube Rivers with Disney Adventure Guides and activities like kayaking, painting, biking, and scavenger hunts. Adventures by Disney, with AmaWaterways, also offers adults-only cruises. Uniworld Cruises’ U Cruises were created to attract millennials with activities and excursions designed to appeal to that age range.

Wi-Fi and Technology

Hi-speed WiFi is available and included on most river cruises. Most staterooms have televisions, and many are equipped with computers or offer “internet cafes” onboard. Details on ports, excursions, and itineraries are available on the televisions as well as orientation and safety information.

AmaWaterways offers an app for cruises in Europe (except Portugal) and Vietnam that includes the itinerary and daily schedule, an interactive live map, “e-postcards” of each port for guests’ email lists, and an album that stores and tags photos.


Courtesy AmaWaterways

How to Pack for a River Cruise

River cruises are typically less formal than ocean cruises, so there is no need for dressy cocktail attire. Daily clothing should be casual and comfortable, and most guest dress up a bit for dinner, especially for the last night or Captain’s Dinner. Ties and jackets are not required for men. Comfortable shoes are a definite requirement for walking through towns, often on cobblestones or uneven ground. Don’t forget rainwear, and think about sweaters and layering clothes for flexibility. Bring a hat or visor, sunglasses, scarf, light jacket, and workout clothing. For winter cruises, dress for cold weather.

Chargers, electrical adapters, extra reading glasses, lightweight umbrella, or poncho should be on your list. Laundry service is usually available, but not dry cleaning.

Planning the Budget

Just about everything is included in the river cruise fare, except tips for the crew and cruise manager and perhaps an optional shore excursion that might require concert tickets or fees. A gratuity amount will be suggested by the cruise line based on number of days per guest. Much of the crew workers’ income comes from gratuities, and you’ll find that they work hard to make your trip enjoyable.

Ready to Plan Your Own River Cruise?

You’ve probably already heard from friends and acquaintances about their river cruise experiences. Even if you’re not ready to get on board with your own cruise, you might want to start exploring cruise companies’ websites. River cruising is growing in popularity for many reasons, mainly for authentic experiences that can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace in intimate luxurious surroundings. What could be better?