River cruising combines all the convenience of ocean cruising -- unpacking once, having someone else do all the planning, coming home at night to an English-speaking environment -- with the ease of navigating Europe.
But there's a decided difference between the two styles of travel, and for veteran ocean cruisers, the more intimate ships and jam-packed itineraries can be a bit of a culture shock. Luckily, Cruise Critic has taken countless river cruise sailings and is here to help you learn the ropes.
Here are our tips of what NOT to do on a river cruise.
River cruises are often more active than an ocean cruise, often with more than one port stop during the day. Excursions can leave the ship at 8 a.m. and not come back until 4 p.m., at which point it's time for happy hour or a port talk where the cruise directors talk about the next day's events. Finding a break to nap or read or schedule a massage can be difficult.
As we said, free time is a valued commodity on a river cruise -- and you might have to skip something so you can recharge. Just because a walking tour is included in your fare doesn't mean you need to do it. Taking a morning to saunter into town on your own or skipping that afternoon "Fun Facts of Germany" lecture might be just the antidote to feeling overscheduled.
Sure, this might be your one chance to see Luxembourg. But, you might have a better time meandering around Bernkastel or taking the ship's bikes out along the Rhine. Many of the extra, for-fee excursions require long ~motor~coach rides and can be exhausting by the end of the day. Sometimes exploring the nearby towns instead gives you just as much ~European character~of an experience, without spending the money or invoking the stress.
A country's cuisine is a big part of its culture, and even the best river ship can't replicate local ~cuisine~ dishes as authentically as you'll find in an ~cute~ atmospheric cafe or restaurant. Take time to have lunch onshore or, at the very least, a drink in a cafe so you can watch a town's daily life pass by. If your ship is in town at night and you have time for a true meal, that's even better.
Riverboats often leave at odd hours and while we encourage you to go have a beer in a local pub, time can pass pretty quickly the more you drink. Don't get left behind. (If your ship has a check-in and check-out system, use it so the crew know ~you~ if you're late.) Another oddity of riverboats is that they sometimes move from their original moorings to another spot close by. Make sure you know exactly where you'll be getting back on. If the ship sails without you (and we have seen it happen) it will be your responsibility to catch a train or taxi to the next docking spot.
Like the U.K., mainland Europe's weather is notably changeable, and you'll need layers, otherwise you might find yourself shivering through your scenic cruising time. (You might have room in your suitcase for these because you typically don't have to wear as fancy clothes as you do on an ocean cruise.) Rain is another factor. While some river cruises have umbrellas onboard, they are often of the huge golf variety and loudly advertise you as a tourist with the company logo. A small retractable one in black might make you feel more discreet.
On a river cruise, be prepared to walk. And walk. And then walk some more. Good walking shoes -- preferably ones that are broken in and you know are comfortable -- are a must. Heels are never required on a river cruise; while there might be an evening or two that's dressier, no one expects high fashion or luxury brands.
European riverboats often go under low bridges, so when the crew tells you to stay off the top deck, believe them. Likewise, it's cool to open your French balcony in a lock and watch your ship rise and lower but don't put your head out or try to hold onto objects as your boat moves. You'll get hurt.
River cruises are social and the restaurants often require you to eat meals with others. Plus, the boats themselves usually have no more than 190 passengers. If you're used to being completely anonymous on a large ocean ship, the intimacy can come as a shock.
As noted, it's hard to hide on a river cruise. The ships are small and you run into the same people again and again. If you cause a commotion -- as one man did on one of our river cruises where he got so drunk he had to be carried out -- you'll be the talk of the boat.
Some river cruises have hot tubs and small swimming pools, so if you're traveling in the summer, you'll want to make sure you pack a ~bathing~ swimsuit. Likewise, many river cruise ships ~at this point~ have bikes onboard. If you're active, you'll want to make sure you have appropriate clothes and shoes to wear.
Most river cruise ships have two-pin European or U.S. sockets depending on where you're sailing. While the front desk usually has a handful of adaptors to lend out, it's not guaranteed. If you leave yours at home, you'll likely have to buy one in port.
River cruise companies typically hire local guides in port, and there is competition for the best. If you get stuck with a dud, speak up. The cruise lines want the input so they can make their shore excursions the best they can be.
Updated October 20, 2022