In Life/ Travel

An Ocean Cruiser’s Guide to River Cruising: Ten Things to Know Before Your First Time

Munich, Germany

It seems like river cruising is all the rage right now. Everywhere I turn I’m hearing about different adventures and more friends and family who are going this route for their bucket list trips.

It makes sense. In a way it’s the best of both worlds. All of the adventures and world exploration of traditional travel with accommodations that follow you along the way like a snail with its shell.

At least that was my thinking when we booked our first river cruise: a 7-night sailing on AmaWaterway’s AmaViola in collaboration with National Geographic, where we’d visit Christmas Markets along the Danube. 

I’m not sure that I had vastly incorrect expectations going in. We’ve done countless traditional ocean cruises on different cruise lines and I knew the basics of what the differences would be: much smaller ship, much more destination-focused, etc. etc. But the reality of how that all plays out is really eye opening. And so I thought, having already written a recap of the trip itself, that it might be just as useful to take a step back and talk a little more about the differences between ocean cruising and river cruising for the first-time river cruiser.

AmaWaterway’s AmaViola

Because we sailed on the Danube on AmaWaterway’s AmaViola, that is my point of reference, but as much as possible I will try to keep these observations useful to river cruising in general.

1. Passenger Demographic

First and foremost, I want to address what I feel like is probably the elephant in the room for most of us and the reason why many people might be hesitant to take a river cruise: the perceived passenger demographic. It’s definitely true that river cruises tend to attract an older crowd for lots of reasons. The trips themselves tend to be more focused on destinations that adults would typically appreciate more than small children. You of course won’t find kids’ clubs or big pools with waterslides. Most of the cabins are going to be for just 2 people. That said, like anything, you know yourselves and your family best. If you have a 14-year-old daughter who would love nothing more than to wander ancient towns in Central Europe with a camera in hand, then maybe she’d love it. 

And the sailings are so small that the crew really is able to lean into the personalities of their passengers. Our ship, the AmaViola, has a maximum passenger capacity of just 156 guests and there were just 111 on our sailing. We tended to be a lively bunch, and the crew definitely had a blast playing dance music into the night with us in the main lounge. And because of the scale of the ship, everyone tends to be in the same places and meeting people just comes naturally. If you board the ship knowing no one, who won’t leave that way unless that is very, very much your preference. It’s tough not to make friends on board.

2. Scale of the Ship

Speaking of the scale of the ship, the other fairly obvious difference going into a river cruise is the much smaller ship size. But it’s one thing to know in theory that your cruise ship has just 78 cabins and a maximum capacity of 156 passengers with a crew of 51 and another to really appreciate how that plays out in reality.

For the sake of comparison, Disney Cruise Line’s Dream has 1,250 staterooms and hosts a maximum of 4,000 passengers and a crew of almost 1,500. Royal Caribbean’s new Icon of the Seas has 2,805 staterooms and hosts a maximum of 7,600 passengers and a crew of more than 2,300. 

It’s hard to overstate how much more cozy and intimate it is to sail to parts of the world with a fraction of that number of people. As I mentioned before, there were just 111 people on our sailing. There is one main gathering space, and one main dining room. When you go out for excursions in each destination, you are with a guide and a small group of people from your ship. You get to know each other. You get to know your small crew. You don’t wait ages for the elevator or in long lines to disembark. It all just feels infinitely simpler and more familiar–a little community seeing a new part of the world together. 

3. Cabins Matter Less

Or make that cabin location. Like on any sailing, there are some cabin levels and your needs in that department are a matter of personal choice. But cabins tend to house just two people (though some ships like our AmaViola have a handful of cabins suited to small families) and because the ship is tiny, location just doesn’t matter. A cabin in the back of the ship might be 100 steps farther from the main lounge than a cabin in the front. There are only a few levels and they’re all easily accessible from the elevator or the main staircase. There are no internal cabins without views. And because the ship doesn’t rock at all, there’s no reason to aim for the middle to minimize movement. If anything, on our particular ship, people on the highest cabin level complained a bit more about the noise of going through locks or people walking on the top deck than people on levels below. 

4. Scheduling

Your time on board the ship is going to be much, much more relaxing on a river cruise unless you really go out of your way to make it otherwise. Because there is only one main gathering space, things tend to be much less scheduled as a whole. While ocean liner trips generally have me on my phone in their app looking for what time bingo, trivia, karaoke, and the silent disco are each day, river cruising had me strolling to the main lounge to hear a lecture after grabbing a tea or hot chocolate at the little hot drinks machine. There is no shortage of things to do, but the trip is more about the destinations that you are visiting than the activities on board.

5. Destinations at the Heart

And speaking of those destinations–they are the good reason that the focus of a river cruise is generally not going to be the ship. When you are on a river cruise, you are there to see the world with your hotel on your back. The ships often dock right there on the banks of the towns you’re visiting. You stroll off the ship onto the sidewalk and start exploring, or join a local guide for a tour. (Each room is stocked with audio devices that you use to hear them better as you walk together as a group.) The ease of getting on and off the ship, the proximity to many of the locations, and the availability of the crew to help with any needed details made the process of visiting these very new parts of the world feel very accessible.

Dürnstein, Austria

A bit of a subjective take on this detail, but, for me, I was also much happier quietly engaging with the cultures and being more of a spectator than I would be on another type of trip. Nothing that was happening in any of these places was happening for my entertainment. The locations do not feel touristy and, as such, they don’t feel like they cater to tourists–and I mean that in the best possible way. 

6. Excursions, Planning, and Levels of Activity

Being a fairly seasoned ocean liner cruiser, I was a little stressed going into the sailing having done very little research on the excursion options. You aren’t given many details in advance and don’t choose anything until you’re already sailing. Everything is very casual and, except for bike tours since there are only so many bikes on the ship, nothing ever hit capacity and you were free to change your mind up until the last moment. (In fact I don’t think the word “capacity” was ever used and honestly no one was doing the bike tours in the snow in December anyway.) 

The excursions are also at varying levels of activity–there were always more vigorous and easier options for people who wanted to keep moving all day and people who needed a more forgiving pace. There were also often bike tour options if that was your preferred way to see the destination–though like I mentioned above, they didn’t get much road time during our December sailing.

7. Panoramic Views & River Locks

Hungarian Parliament, Budapest

Another little detail that I definitely didn’t think about beforehand was the constant scenery surrounding the ship throughout the entire sailing. You are never just out at sea so at any time, out your cabin or dining room window, you’ll see gorgeous landscapes of villages, cities, rolling hills, and wildlife. It made me think of experiences like sailing through the fjords on our Alaska Cruise, but instead we had the 360 degree views throughout the entire voyage. 

You’ll also go through locks in the river throughout the journey–really fascinating feats of engineering used in waterways to allow ships to move between stretches of water at different levels. 

8. The Dining Experience

For better or for worse, you will not be stuffing yourself at the buffet on most river cruises. Don’t get me wrong–we ate. The food in the dining room was generally wonderful and often incorporated regional specialties. Because the crew can and does stock the ship at each port, the food tends to be very fresh and offered options typical to the area that we were visiting. Our sailing was also during Hanukkah, and they were thoughtful enough to put out a table of typical Jewish treats and kosher wines each night to celebrate. 

Chef’s Table, AmaWaterway’s AmaViola

The Chef’s Table experience on the ship was also phenomenal.


Christmas Market Fare

But it’s probably no surprise that, as destination-focused as the trip was, it was also the food at the destinations that was the focus. We ate sausages and chimney cakes. Gingerbread and langos. We drink glüwein and tea made of boiled ginger, cloves, and cinnamon with lemon and honey–both of which I’ve made multiple times since we’ve been home.

In short, you will eat. But it won’t be at the Cabanas buffet.

9. Entertainment

Dancers in Bratislava, Slovakia – the men were father and son

Entertainment on a river cruise is going to tend to me much, much lower key than you’d find on an ocean liner. There are no Broadway-like shows or grand halls. Instead, we gathered in the main lounge between destinations. In the evenings, our crew would arrange for local performers to join us on the ship to dance or sing or otherwise add a bit more cultural depth to the area that we’d just visited. We got to enjoy so many local singers and dancers–and on the last night, when we couldn’t get to Munich (more on that below), the AmaViola crew brought Munich to us with Oktoberfest right there on the ship.

Oktoberfest on board the AmaViola

There’s also a lovely educational element to river cruising that I really enjoyed. You can certainly skip them if they aren’t your thing, but throughout the sailing experts would join us in the gathering space to give lectures on topics relevant to the places that we were visiting. We learned about the Hapsburgs and the fall of Communism and Central European architecture. If you have an inner nerd that likes to be indulged as much as mine does, you’ll be in heaven.

Because our sailing was by AmaWaterways in collaboration with National Geographic, our lectures were given by a local expert and a photographer from NatGeo that joined us. Normally they would be arranged by the cruise line and its crew but they are always wonderful additions if you’re into this sort of thing.

10. Rolling with the Changes

While we are always at the mercy of mother nature, you really do need to accept her role in your river cruise and be ready to roll with any necessary changes to your itinerary. River cruise ships are wholly at the mercy of water levels to get under bridges, through locks, and into port at their destinations, so a measurable rise or fall in levels can make changes unavoidable. Instead of stressing the small stuff in these situations, just take a moment to appreciate your crew’s ability to make changes on the fly and the chance, perhaps, to see an unplanned town or city. 

As we were sailing up the Danube, water levels were increasing to the point that it made it impossible to fit the AmaViola under the bridges that would get us all the way to Munich. Instead, the crew made arrangements for us to dock in new, closer places, and made travel arrangements for us to be bussed to the planned destinations and then, the next day, all the way on to Munich Airport. We ended up with less time in the town of Passau, where we were supposed to be docked for most of our final full day–but we were still able to see the town, and also to see just how dedicated our crew was to doing everything that they could to make the most of our last days.

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You can find my specific full recap of our Christmas Markets sailing on the Danube on AmaWaterway’s AmaViola right HERE

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If you enjoyed the images throughout this post, you can find many of them on my photography site, Thousand Circles, where you can bring them home on canvas or as collectible metal prints.

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Huge thanks to my friend, Lou Mongello, for planning this amazing cruise and making it possible for us to see the world with our favorite people. You can check out his podcast at WDW Radio and his awesome community at the WDW Radio Clubhouse on Facebook. 

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