River Cruising Basics: Will I Be Bored?

If you’ve never taken a river cruise before, chances are you’re asking yourself one very important question, and it goes like this: The ship looks so small. Will I be bored?

Most river cruise ships only have a single lounge. So will you be bored? Read on. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

That’s the very question I asked myself before I took my first river cruise — though admittedly the thought hadn’t occurred to me until I was racing at 37,000 feet across the Atlantic on my way to Germany. A bit too late, perhaps?

For the uninitiated and those who’ve sailed on cruise ships that feature dozens of different bars, lounges and dining options, the deck plans of a river cruise ship aren’t encouraging at first glance. Typically, there’s a single lounge, situated all the way forward, along with a single dining room, a reception area and a sun deck. Depending on the ship, you could have a small internet center, gymnasium, spa, or even an aft-facing lounge. And that’s pretty much it. It’s enough to make a die-hard cruise fan run screaming back to their 18-deck floating palaces — until they take a closer look.

AmaWaterways' beautiful AmaLyra during a stop in Melk, Austria. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Unlike mega cruise ships, which can hold two, three or even four thousand guests, a typical river cruise ship carries between 100 and 200 guests. To put it in perspective, there’s a good possibility that 100 guests will show up for trivia on ships like Oasis of the Seas. With such a low passenger count, you just don’t need 38 bars and 47 lounges – one or two will get the job done.

River cruise lines also have some other important factors at play: They’d probably make their vessels longer and taller if they could, but they’re limited by the restrictive dimensions of the many locks they must transit and bridges they pass under as they sail the waterways of Europe. In some cases, there may be only inches of clearance under the ship’s keel and above her sun deck, which is designed to collapse entirely to allow passage under the lowest bridges. Even the ship’s wheelhouse can be hydraulically lowered into the superstructure, leaving just enough room for the Captain to poke his head out of the roof.

The cozy Aft Lounge onboard the AmaLyra provides games, comfortable seating, a guest printer, and even bar service to compliment the stunning views. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

My biggest surprise awaited me at the dock in Nuremberg, Germany, where I boarded AmaWaterwaysAmaLyra: she was surprisingly big, and just as long as other deep-ocean cruise ship’s I’ve sailed. And frankly, I found that she’s just as spacious and comfortable as any megaship — just smaller overall. If you’ve never sailed on a small ship before, get ready: Not battling crowds for everything becomes very enjoyable very fast.

So was I bored? Far from it; in fact, my time aboard my first river cruise ranks as my most active voyage to-date — and I like to do a lot on my deep-ocean cruises.

There was truly something for every taste aboard the AmaLyra. At breakfast, there were so many types of Marmelade alone that I couldn't fit them all in a single frame. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

In a typical day, I’d wake up around 7 a.m. and amble down to the Restaurant for breakfast, which could take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour if I was seated with friends. Tours typically began at 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., and we’d spend the better part of the day on-tour.

In the afternoon, we’d reboard the ship for lunch and scenic cruising to our next port of call. Lunch would be a leisurely affair taking roughly one hour, after which I’d chat with new friends in the lounge or head on up to the Sun Deck to take some photos and maybe re-arrange the pieces on the gigantic chess set.

Coming ashore in ports like Linz, Austria, provides endless opportunities for exploration. Photo courtesy of the City of Linz.

Later in the afternoon, we’d dock at our next port of call, and it was time once again to get off and go on a tour that could last anywhere from two hours to five, depending on what we chose to do. Then, there’d be time to explore on our own. On some evenings, if time allowed, I’d eat in places like Linz and Vienna to take in some of the local culture, but most of the time I’d make my way back to the ship for dinner.

After dinner, evening entertainment was offered in the lounge. Rather than being staid and boring, this was a lively affair, and almost the entire passenger compliment retired to the lounge after dinner to chat and have fun. And fun we had – some nights, it was well after midnight before I made my way back to my cabin – and I was travelling solo!

Dinner aboard Avalon Panorama. Photo courtesy of Avalon Waterways

Therein lies the brilliance of river cruising: The ships are small and intimate enough that you get to know everyone. There’s a certain family style atmosphere that fosters aboard a river cruise ship that just isn’t possible on larger vessels. Have you ever been on a megaship and struck up a great conversation with someone one evening, only to never see them again for the rest of the voyage? There’s no danger of that happening on a river cruise.

Will you be bored? Not unless you choose to be!

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  • Leon

    We were on the Viking Odin December 21st – 27th and we were bored to tears! We sailed every evening and did not have an opportunity to see the beautiful countryside of Germany. It rained most every day and because there is not an exercise room aboard the Odin one finds themselves just sitting in the lounge to pass the time away when they return to the ship from their time ashore! Could it be my age was the problem, not likely, while I’m 67 I am a very active person and do enjoy working out each morning and most evenings. There are many aspects of “River Cruising” my wife enjoyed and do look forward to another river cruise, likely on a ship that has an exercise room.

  • Leon

    OOPS…sent comment before it was completed! What made the cruise an enjoyable experience was we were sailing two very special friends that made each day a joy. The staff aboard the Odin were very friendly and helpful, we also had two brothers that were our “Servers” each morning and evening and they kept the four of us very well taken care of and made us feel at home aboard the Odin. We also met a number of the other guest and greatly enjoyed the conversations we had with them.