Deciding whether to book a river cruise? If you've already read our primer on what it's all about and why we love it from a value standpoint, these tips and tidbits that we've gleaned firsthand give you a deeper glimpse into the experience:
1. Established companies are generally your best bet. Yes, we all love the thrill of discovery when we go off the tourist path, but the big names in river cruising are the ones everyone talks about for one simple reason: The staff speaks your language. Unless you're bilingual, you don't want to hop aboard a cruise only to realize that all the tours and programs are conducted in a language you don't understand. That's not to say you can't do any exploring beyond the staples – just be sure you do your research, particularly on your first trip.
2. When people say that river cruise ships are like hotels on water, they mean it. There's tasteful art in the hallways, little library nooks, and dining and lounge areas. (Newer, larger ships in particular have more of these facilities.) So while giant ocean liners can feel like a floating playground, a river cruise feels a bit more like a fully serviced home.
3. Your feedback matters. A great perk with a "boutique" experience, such as a river cruise, is that your voice is actually heard. River cruise companies know that its clients are investing a lot of money and vacation days into traveling with them, and they're keen on proactively asking for your opinion. And they do listen. Viking River Cruises, for example, review feedback immediately after sailing and will use customer comments to tweak their offerings and excursion structures.
4. You sail very close to shore. You'll be close enough to clearly spot church steeples and hillside homes from the ship. See these views along the Gironde River from a Viking River Cruise. In fact, Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, says that one of his favorite things about river cruising is sailing a mere 30 feet from shore.
5. Onboard internet is very slow. There are a ton of practical restrictions when you're on a ship, namely that you can't be connected via the fastest internet cables, as you would be in your home or office. Cruise networks rely on satellite connections that are sometimes routed through an entirely different country than your destination, and satellite dishes can't be placed on the decks. If you really need to get online, your connection will be better when the boat is docked. You can also try asking the staff where the router is located on the ship and use your devices closer to that area.
6. Service is impeccable. Chances are, you won't sit in a lounge for more than five minutes without someone asking you if you need a drink. Suddenly pouring outside? The ship likely has a stash of umbrellas – the superbly large ones – they can lend.
7. River cruises generally don't target families. But they can work for a multi-generational getaway, especially considering the flexibility in activities. Just know that the typical crowd really is older than 55, and children will be expected to blend in. (A few lines, like Uniworld and Tauck, do have a select sailings with family-focused programming.)
8. The itinerary can change. By virtue of cruising the rivers, ships cab be susceptible to fluctuating tides. This isn't typically a problem when you're docked, but high tides can prevent a ship from passing through certain locks. On occasion, sailing times can change, so double check with the concierge before leaving the ship, just in case.
9. You have plenty of dining options. While one of the joys of river cruising is that the dinner menu largely reflects the regional cuisine of your destination, there are typically classics like burgers and steak – as well as salads and vegetarian options – always available. If you have other dietary restrictions, speak to the staff beforehand; the chefs can generally accommodate you.
10. You aren't required to leave the ship. That's the beauty of river cruising – when you dock practically every day, you don't have to feel pressured to run around on land. Plenty of people enjoy taking an afternoon to relax on the ship itself, whether they catch some sun on the top deck, read in the lounge, or soak in the views from their staterooms.