Ocean cruisers are flocking to their first river cruises these days -- and with good reason. Even though river cruises have been operating for decades, more modern ships with expanded amenities and intriguing itineraries to places ocean-going vessels can't reach have now become too tempting for mega-ship fans to pass up.
If you're expecting a river cruise to be an ocean cruise on a river, you're in for a shock. In many ways, river cruising is more similar to the ol' "if it's Thursday, it must be Belgium" bus tour than today's ocean cruising experience. Mega-ship staples like pools, sea days, multiple lounges and endless activities are hard to come by on riverboats. And, while many river cruises include tours in their fares, you won't find the variety of options you'll find on a mega-ship's shore excursion roster.
To keep the culture shock at bay and to give you a sense of whether a river cruise versus an ocean cruise is for you, here's our list of key things ocean cruisers needs to know before their first river cruise.
Ship Size: From Mega to Micro
Ocean ships have passenger counts in the thousands; some luxury ships will number cruisers in the hundreds. Riverboats will probably carry 200 passengers or fewer. On the plus side, you won't be elbowing strangers to get to the salad bar or the gangway, and the atmosphere is quite social. As a minus, you can't hide in a crowd. Plus, the small size of the boat means there is likely just one lounge, one (maybe two) restaurant venues and a teeny-tiny spa, gym or computer center -- if there is one at all.
Small River Ship Cabins
If you think ocean ship cabins are small, wait 'til you see river ships. There are no 1,000-square-foot suites, family cabins that sleep five or even expansive balconies. Newer riverboats are getting creative, adding more balconies and creatively designing cabins to make the most of the space allotted. They're even adding suites. But you'll be paying thousands of dollars for little personal space.
More Buffets, Fewer Restaurants
If you've been spoiled by mega-ships where you can eat dinner in a different venue every night of a weeklong cruise, you'll need an attitude adjustment to embrace riverboat dining. Most ships have one main restaurant, and breakfast and lunch are often buffet-only (or buffet mainly, with a few items to be ordered a la carte). Only a handful have secondary venues, and room service is a rarity, as well. Otherwise, the ships get creative, spreading casual breakfast and lunch offerings on the bar in the lounge or setting up BBQ's out on deck. Plus, the small passenger count and daily port calls mean the venues are better able to bring in fresh ingredients like fish and produce or offer regional specialties at mealtime.
You'll find no splashy production shows on the river ... or guest comedians ... or karaoke. You will find a lone pianist or small ensemble, folk dancers or other local troupes brought onboard for a quick show, educational seminars and maybe the odd cooking demo. And there's no roster of daily trivia, spa seminars, silly games or wine tastings ... you'll be too busy in port to have time for those.
Port Intensive Itineraries
River cruises are port intensive, and you'll visit a new destination each day -- sometimes two in one day. The ports, not the ships, are the key attractions, and you will certainly pack a lot of sightseeing into a week or two. This kind of travel can be exhilarating but also exhausting. Bring comfortable shoes, and don't be embarrassed to take a day off if you're getting overwhelmed.
The hallmark of the river cruise shore excursion is the walking tour, the kind where you follow a guide with a lollipop sign or umbrella as she rattles off details of a quaint city's history and culture. These nearly always mean sacrificing some free time for shopping, relaxing in a local cafe or other independent pursuits. Occasionally, you might have the chance to explore a particularly notable museum, take a motorcoach to a nearby city or castle, or take a biking tour. But if you have options at all, it will be one or two at most; don't expect a whole booklet of shore excursions like you'd find on the open ocean.
Sailing at Night
With the exception of particularly scenic stretches of river -- such as the quaintly castled Rhine Gorge -- sea days are a rarity. Sailing is done during the late night or very early hours, and you'll miss most of it. You won't find many triumphant sailaways or romantic sunsets viewed from the open deck. That's the stuff of oceangoing Kodak moments.
More Fare Inclusions
If you've griped about being nickeled and dimed on ocean-going ships, you'll find river cruise fares refreshing ... though quite a bit more expensive. Fares will typically include wine, beer and soft drinks with meals and the standard tours in each port. And with fewer onboard attractions to part you from your cash, you won't be racking up such an extensive onboard bill (though limited evening entertainment can lead to excessive post-dinner cocktailing and a high bar tab).
Late-riser breakfast starts at 9:30 a.m. If you're eating then, you've likely missed the day's tour. River cruises are not for sleeping in, lounging around and proceeding ashore at a leisurely pace. They are regimented, by-the-clock experiences, and heaven help you if you don't arrive in the dining room at 7 p.m. sharp. (Norwegian Freestyle cruisers: Take extra note of this one.)
Remember those hideous, industrial ports full of tankers and long walks on concrete piers that were a hallmark of your last ocean cruise? You won't find them on the rivers. Instead, your riverboat will tie up right in town, often a short walk or quick bus ride into the heart of the city. The only downside is that sometimes the berths are all occupied, and your ship will tie up to another ship, and you'll have to walk through the other vessel's lobby or sun deck to get ashore.
Shorter Distances Traveled
A riverboat might need 12 hours to sail a journey that would take you two hours by bus. While this means your entire trip won't cover as much ground as an ocean cruise, it does mean the cruise staff have a fallback plan when things go wrong. Water levels too high or low? They'll put you on a bus to your next port -- and keep the itinerary going as planned.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor