12 Things to Know Before Your First River Cruise

July 15, 2015

Even seasoned ocean cruisers will find this list helpful when preparing for their first river cruise adventure

By: Marilyn Green

First-time river cruisers are stepping onboard in droves, and from my experience on the rivers, many will be enchanted by the journey and book their next cruise by the time they get home. However, there are real differences between river cruises and seagoing cruises, and the more travel advisors can prepare their clients, the better their first-time experience will be.

A few important tips make all the difference. Share the following with clients to prepare them for what will hopefully be their first of many sailings on the rivers of the world.

Getting off and on is simple.
Embarkation and debarkation are quite easy, and you won't need to build-in extra time to accommodate the process. There’s no waiting in a long line or security station — you simply check in like a hotel, and go to your stateroom. 

Town centers are typically steps away.
For the most part, you spend your days in port and sail at night. You’ll also generally step off your ship in the center of town, so there’s no need for taxis or shuttles.  

Be aware of your privacy.
But, while docked, you may want to keep your curtains drawn when you need privacy, including from unexpected next-door neighbors. River cruise ships are sometimes stacked next to each other at the dock, and you may find that your room looks directly into another ship’s windows. 

River cruises are very inclusive.
There are variations from line to line and extra paid premium experiences on some ships, but in general, your shore excursions are included in the cruise fare; Wi-Fi access is free (although not constantly available); drinks at lunch and dinner carry no charge; and there may be special complimentary events on land as well.

The pace is relaxed in comparison to ocean cruises.
River vessels travel slowly enough that you can sometimes borrow one of the onboard bicycles and arrive at the next port before the ship does, should you feel so inclined. The staff will give you a local number to call (in case you get lost), as well as the locations of good pubs and bistros.

River cruise culture is very friendly.
River cruise ships are small, and the passengers tend to be a tight-knit crowd. Passengers, traveling solo or otherwise, circulate and chat easily, make friends quickly and join one another at meals, lectures and entertainment.

Expect a mature demographic.
Except for specified family cruises, there are few — if any at all — children onboard. This is changing, but the majority of passengers tend to be older in age.

You sail close to the shore.
You can actually hear conversations in the woods and fields along the river, smell the newly mown grass and wave to people on the shore. On some itineraries, the staff tells guests that if anything went wrong with the ship, they could walk to shore.

You can no more control the weather than you could on land.
There may be rainy days, even light snow early in the season, and the weather will not necessarily cooperate with the shore excursion schedule. If there is a dry spell or flooding, the water levels could interfere with the cruise, although the river cruise lines usually provide buses to the shore excursion destinations. Also, some lines switch passengers from ship to ship, around the trouble area.

There are choices among shore excursions.
These choices depend on your taste, the pace at which you are comfortable walking and your preference for group or independent exploration. River cruise lines have devoted a lot of time and effort lately to provide private, small group trips; self-guided, enhanced tours; and special interest experiences.

You have your options when it comes to meals.
There are multiple options for dining, but most guests eat in the dining room for the evening meal. Staff members will give advice on dining in the ports of call; in some cases, the lines issue lunch money to encourage guests to try the local dishes on shore or arrange group dinners at special restaurants. If you have special dietary needs, let the cruise line know well ahead of time. Also, coffee, tea and tempting snacks are available all the time, without charge.

Consider a pre-cruise land stay.
Veteran agents urge their clients to arrive early and schedule a pre-cruise land stay, especially if they are flying a long distance. The rationale is that you have spent time and money on the cruise experience and should allow yourself to be in top shape to enjoy it.