Although I’ve been cruising for nearly 20 years now, I didn’t take my first river cruise until late 2011. Already well-versed in how to book an ocean cruise, I didn’t think twice about booking a river cruise – until I saw how different it was. Brochures were laid out differently than their oceangoing counterparts. Deck plans were nondescript. The ships looked the same. The itineraries looked identical. How on earth could I possibly decide?
That was five years ago – before river cruising really hit its zenith. Before Viking River Cruises brought out its new Viking Longships and sparked a newbuild war that has seen every major cruise line substantially ramp-up their product offerings. Some lines prefer to focus on their balconies: real, step-out, French, solarium or otherwise. Other lines, like Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, went all-inclusive. Ditto for Scenic and Tauck; the former offers butler service, while the latter places emphasis on providing guests with exclusive on-shore experiences they couldn’t buy their way into. Then along came Crystal, with its remastered Crystal Mozart, double the width of the standard river cruiser, multiple dining venues and butlers to boot.
So how do you pick the right river cruise for you? It depends less on the ship or the itinerary, and more on your personal preferences and interests. Here are a few things to consider before you book your first (or next) river cruise journey:
Who Are You?
This is probably the single most important question you can ask yourself when you’re planning a river cruise: who are you? What are your interests? For example, my colleague Ralph Grizzle is an unabashed cycling fanatic. For him, taking a river cruise that has onboard bicycles – or even a cycling-themed cruise along the Danube – would be of primary importance.
The same might hold true if you’re passionate about wine: looking for a wine-centric river cruise, like the wine-immersion journeys through France’s Bordeaux region, might be a better place to start than a river cruise down the Danube. Likewise, Portugal’s Douro River offers plenty of wine-appreciation excursions, being the heart of port wine production.
In fact, there are river cruises that cater to nearly every interest – and not just the usual suspects of art and history, which are to be found on nearly every river cruise. Those who have done Europe by land and are looking for something more exotic might want to take a cruise down Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River or explore the mighty Mekong through Vietnam and Cambodia.
If flowers are your thing, you can’t beat the Tulip Time Cruises through Belgium and the Netherlands. But, these voyages are only offered at set times of the year – typically March through late April. Which brings us to the next important consideration …
When Do You Want To Go?
Determining when you want to (or can) travel is the next important consideration. If you can only take time off during the busy summer travel months of June, July and August, you can expect to pay top-dollar for a European river cruise. While most cruises are available during the summer, some are not: Christmas Markets cruises and Tulip Time voyages are two great examples of European-based river cruises that are only available at set times of the year. Other itineraries, particularly in Southeast Asia, might not operate during the summer months that are typically the height of the rainy season.
Looking to travel in January or February? Bad news: European river cruises basically cease to operate come January 1. They resume again typically in mid-March, but some runs won’t start up until late April or even early May.
Determining when you can cruise will also tell you where you can cruise.
How Do You Like To Travel?
This is another important – and often-overlooked – consideration. How do you like to travel? To answer this question, you might want to ask yourself two questions:
- What kind of hotel do you normally book? Is it a Holiday Inn, a Marriott, or a Ritz-Carlton?
- How do you normally fly? Coach? Premium Economy? Business Class?
Let’s look at hotels. All three (Holiday Inn, Marriott, and Ritz-Carlton) are good brands. But they target very different types of people who are looking for three very different styles of accommodations.
The person who picks Holiday Inn’s (I’m one of them, frankly) wants value. They want a good, clean hotel that’s got a comfy bed and decent amenities and gets the job done with a minimum of fuss. Value is the word of the day. The river cruise line comparison might be CroisiEurope, which offers some of the best value sailings out there, while still maintaining a very high level of quality.
The Marriott guest wants a little more bling than the Holiday Inn guest. A few more features here and there – maybe even more personalized service – and they don’t mind paying a bit more to get it. The river cruise comparison, roughly, would be Viking River Cruises, which offers very acceptably-priced river cruises with more features and inclusions, and a good sense of style.
The Ritz-Carlton guest wants the best of the best, and isn’t afraid to pay for it. Have you stayed at a Ritz-Carlton? I have. The service alone is worth the price of admission. A room is just a room – no matter how nice it is. You go to a Ritz-Carlton for the service, the ambiance, and the amenities. The direct river cruise correlation here might be all-inclusive lines like Uniworld, Scenic, or Tauck or Crystal. You’re going to pay more for these lines than their competitors, but you’re going to be treated to the best of the best of everything river cruising has to offer.
Are Inclusions Important?
This is becoming an increasingly important question. Here’s why: lines like Uniworld, Scenic, Tauck and Crystal are all-inclusive. That means you don’t reach into your pocket for change to tip the tour operators or the onboard staff, or have to fuss with signing a chit for that pre-dinner glass of wine or that late-night nightcap: it’s all included in the cost of your fare.
But, for €150, Viking River Cruises will sell you its Silver Spirits Drink Package that makes all beverages – even the selections from the premium wine list – absolutely free. Sure, you still have to pay gratuities of about €14 per person, per day, but for a little bit of money, you come very close to the level of inclusiveness offered by the more upscale lines. The question then becomes: Do you need the more elaborate room, or butler service, or things like electric-assist bicycles?
Do You Need A Balcony?
The final question to ask yourself is this: do you need a balcony? Balcony cabins – particularly if they feature full, step-out balconies – come with the highest premium outside of a full-fledged suite. And not all balconies are created equal: will a French balcony do? If not, it will limit your choice of ships: There are more ships with French balconies than there are with full, step out balconies.
Booking a river cruise can be a daunting process, but if you ask yourself a few basic questions, it can really help to narrow down your choices. Happy cruising!
Also check out How To Choose A River Cruise