Updated February 20, 2020
Are all the meals included?
All onboard meals and food during specified shore excursions that straddle mealtimes are included in the fares.
What about drinks?
The majority of river cruise lines now serve complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner as standard. Some, such as A-Rosa, Scenic and Uniworld, are all-inclusive and have an open bar. (There are sometimes exceptions for premium brand spirits and Champagne, which carry a charge.) Others, including Viking, offer beverage packages covering alcoholic or soft drinks. Unless you really love your tipple, think carefully about whether this will provide value for money, as unlimited wine is available with meals, and many ships have a daily cocktail offer. Also, if one person signs up for a package, any travel companions staying in the same cabin also have to purchase a package. Complimentary water is normally provided in each cabin and is replenished daily; self-serve tea and coffee are available 24/7.
Are there fixed mealtimes?
Meals are all one seating, which is due to the practicalities of having one galley and a small team of chefs preparing multiple courses for up to 200 passengers. Breakfast is always a leisurely affair, usually with an early bird Continental breakfast available from 6 a.m. in the lounge until the main dining room opens. Unless times are altered to accommodate shore excursions, breakfast is normally served from 7 a.m. until 9 a.m. (sometimes later on sailing days), lunch from noon or 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. That said, to facilitate the service, ships prefer diners to be punctual for dinner (and passengers are usually happy oblige). For the above reasons, plan to place your full order, including dessert and cheese, at the beginning of each meal.
What happens if I get peckish in between?
Snacks, such as cookies, muffins and fresh fruit, are usually available next to the coffee stations in the daytime and sometimes after dinner. Lines like Uniworld and Scenic have all-day cafes serving everything from hot dogs to baked goods.
What are the dining options?
The main restaurant, large enough to seat all passengers at once, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it's the culinary heart of all river vessels. Breakfast and lunch are often buffet-style, with waiter service for some items. Dinner is almost always served by a waiter. A notable exception to this rule is A-Rosa, where all meals are buffet-style, apart from one included a la carte dinner on every cruise. Many ships offer a lighter buffet option for lunch and dinner, which is served in the lounge or another venue, such as the Captain's Club at the rear of Vantage vessels and Aquavit Terrace at the front of Viking's longships.
AmaWaterways (the only river cruise line that's a member of the prestigious culinary organisation La Chaine des Rotisseurs) and Scenic are leading the way with the type of specialty restaurants on riverboats. Unlike the ones found on seagoing ships, these are free of charge. However, some, such as Scenic's Table La Rive, which offers a six-course tasting menu with wine pairings to ten diners per evening, is only available to passengers staying in suites. Others have to be reserved in advance. As demand can be high, it's recommended to book at the beginning of the cruise.
Where do I sit?
All river vessel dining rooms (except specialty restaurants, where tables are allocated) operate on a free-seating basis, so you are not assigned one table for the duration of the cruise. Aside from the alternative dining venues, tables for two are usually in short supply, if available at all; they generally seat four, six and eight. Although this is bad news for introverts, it makes it much easier to meet people on river vessels than on large ocean ships; if you don't like your tablemates, you can circulate to a different table the next night. In addition, there is often alfresco seating on open deck areas at the front or back of each vessel, plus tables and chairs on the upper sun decks, and you're welcome to take your food there.
What is the food like?
It's exceptional, for the most part; the cuisine served on river vessels certainly isn't the poor relation of its deep sea cousins. Breakfast buffets are expansive, with all manner of hot and cold items, an omelet station and, sometimes, a small menu for cooked-to-order items like eggs benedict and pancakes. Lunch is generally a three-course meal, and dinner is four-courses, with a special menu of up to six courses at the captain's dinner or gala night. Expect to find regional specialties reflecting the local cuisine (including chicken feet in China), plus plenty of familiar dishes. Food served in the main river cruise territory of Europe is generally excellent, with lines such as French-owned CroisiEurope providing a real taste of their homelands.
If you've got a less adventurous palate or simply want a change from rich food, there are "always available" items -- usually grilled salmon, chicken, steak and Caesar salad. Alternatively, you're welcome to mix and match menus and, for example, order two appetizers instead of an entree or order two desserts or "seconds" of something you really like.
What do we eat on embarkation day?
On most ships, a buffet is available in the lounge with soup, salads, sandwiches and light bites.
Can river vessels cope with special dietary requirements?
Absolutely; the majority of dietary requirements can be handled without any fuss. Vegetarians won't have any issues, as veggie dishes are widely featured on menus and buffets on all the main lines. Many menus are also marked to show dishes that contain gluten, nuts, dairy and so forth. However, if you have a specific restriction -- such as vegan, no-salt, fat-free, low-carb etc. -- it's advisable to mention that at the time of booking, and the maitre d' will speak to you on arrival to run through everything.
Do I have to dress for dinner?
No. River cruising is very relaxed, and there are no strict dress codes. Some lines, such as Vantage, request no shorts or jeans in the main dining room at dinner, but that's as far as it goes. There are no "formal" nights, so you can leave your gowns and tuxedos at home. Most cruises feature a captain's welcome/farewell dinner or a gala night, when some ladies like to break out a dress and men don a jacket, but the accent is definitely on "smart casual"; you won't feel out of place if you don't pack a cocktail dress.
Can I order room service?
Room service is a rarity on river vessels, as the ships simply aren't staffed to offer the type of food service that's a staple on oceangoing vessels. Some lines offer a limited menu that's available during dining times for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and others provide complimentary room service dependent on your stateroom category. One of the best lines for room service is Scenic, which offers a 24/7 menu of soup, sandwiches, burgers and desserts, as well as in-cabin breakfast service. Passengers in the top suites can have breakfast, lunch or dinner from the main menu delivered to their cabins. AmaWaterways and Uniworld are among the other lines that offer room service to selected suite guests. Avalon offers a Continental breakfast room service to all passengers for an extra charge.
Is there anything else I should know?
If you're a food- and wine-lover, book yourself on one of the gourmet, wine-themed cruises offered by lines that include AmaWaterways, Avalon, CroisiEurope and Tauck, which feature vineyard tours, talks and tastings. Cheers!
How can I learn more about food on a river cruise?
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The What to Expect on a Cruise series is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.