River cruising remains a hot ticket in the world of cruise vacations, with no sign of slowing down any time soon. Cruise travelers enjoy many of the same benefits they came to know and love on ocean cruises, regardless of what like they sail on rivers or at sea. The value is there; compared to doing the same itinerary on land, river cruises come out far ahead just like their oceangoing counterparts. The convenience is a plus; unpack once and see multiple locations just like on a big ocean ship. Inclusive by nature, one stop shopping is just as easy on a river cruise as on an ocean cruise too. Still, after a number of sailings, some river cruise facts not found in the brochures.
The Itinerary Is More Of A Guideline
On just about any cruise line’s ocean itinerary, it pretty much takes a hurricane to alter itineraries. Occasional mechanical problems or strong but not hurricane force winds can change plans too. Still, for the most part, ocean cruise ships go from port to port like clockwork with few exceptions. An element of river cruising that can be surprising to first timers: the itinerary is more of a guideline. In fact. you’ll be hard pressed to find a river cruise itinerary on any cruise line that lists times in port due to a number of variables. Going through locks, for example, is not an exact science and depends on how many ships happen to be going through at the same time.
River Levels Change Quite A Bit
If an ocean cruise itinerary was changed because the level of the ocean rose an inch, odds are that a giant fireball from outer space landed at one end of the planet or another, causing rapid melting of a polar ice cap. As far as we know, that has not happened. River levels, however, are an entirely different animal that can change the experience dramatically. Low water means ships can’t sail because they would hit the bottom of the river. High water levels mean they can’t sail because they won’t fit under bridges. River cruise lines are really good at predicting these things though and have backup plans in place.
Travelers Need To Be Flexible
On a recent sailing of ours with Viking River Cruises, Germany’s Elbe River was too low for ships to sail. Thankfully, Viking had another ship positioned about a third of the way along the stretch of river we were scheduled to see on our voyage. That meant we used the ships as our “base of operations” and did what they call a “ship swap” about halfway through the 10 day experience. We saw everything and a bit more than promised, although some places we saw via motorcoach as opposed to sailing there. If everything going exactly as planned is a deal breaker, river cruising might not be for you. Actually, if everything going exactly as planned is a deal breaker, nearly all modes of travel should be off the table and you should lock yourself in the house, never leaving. Such is the nature of travel and those variables can bring some of the best experiences ever
The Safety Focus Is Different
Big ocean cruise lines take great pride in securing the closed environment of their floating hotels. Rightfully so, they are indeed floating cities with a wide variety of passengers from assorted backgrounds. Must-participate activities like the safety drill are serious business on ships that can be surrounded by ocean as far as the eye can see in all directions. On a river cruise, should the ship sink that really means that the lowest deck would be under water. That’s it. Also, unless you are booked on an old Chinese junk/raft, odds are staggeringly against bad things happening due to safety concerns gone wrong. Not to be scary but, frankly speaking, a big ocean ship is a far more attractive target to evil doers.
This Is A Far Less Formal Experience
While dress codes vary among cruise lines, using the word “dress code” is really not applicable for the most part. This is not a travel experience where someone is likely to show up in the dining room in a swimsuit as pools are limited in size and number. It’s just not the focus of a river cruise. That focus is mainly off the ship, at the amazing destinations visited as you glide long the river in comfort.
Last-Minute Bargain Window Much Tighter
European river cruises are really not the sort of travel product one can easily book at the last minute unless they live in Europe. Travelers from North America will need airfare to get there as opposed to a swing through the Caribbean they could drive to from anywhere in the United States. Whereas ocean cruise lines selling the Bahamas or Caribbean can dump the price 30 days in advance of sailing and fill ships, the river cruise business model calls for a far longer lead time. That makes booking far in advance (like years in advance) the smart move and perhaps the only move on a river cruise.
River Cruise Ships Fill Faster And Differently
Due to the abovementioned booking window, river cruise ships fill fast and early. Most common to fill quickly: french balcony cabins (like a balcony without the balcony, just the slider). That seems to be the sweet spot on pricing and often the best value and for good reason. River cruise ships are extremely limited in size. They must be no wider than the narrowest lock they will pass through and no taller than the lowest bridge they will go under. On ocean cruise ships, the first to go are the least expensive and most expensive with everything in between up for grabs and subject to cruise line pricing and promotions. On a river cruise ship, except for tip top end accommodations, there is not all that much price difference between categories.
You Might Not Use Your Balcony Much
The desirable balcony on an ocean ship is the dream of many or a required must-have part of the deal for others. On a river cruise, not so much for a couple of bona fide reasons I would get heckled about if I said them in reference to an ocean cruise. First, the balcony on a river cruise ship is not going to be your private refuge from a mass of people you don’t really care for. Also, the balcony is not much of a balcony as compared to an ocean cruise ship. Again, as mentioned, space limitations prevent large balconies. Another reason you might not use your balcony all that much: you might like your fellow travelers more, which brings us to the last point here.
To make their business model work out, ocean cruise companies largely want to be everything to everyone. Thus the plethora of onboard activities, top deck features and more restaurants, venues and things to do than any one person could possibly accomplish during their time on board. Ocean cruise companies are (comparatively) throwing spaghetti on a wall to see what sticks. They know not everyone will want to do all those things but they sure don’t want to run the risk if not occupying our time for us. Basically because they believe we need our hand held and told what a good time is. On a river cruise, the golden moments happen off the ship. There are some river cruise lines that pretend that is not so much the case and offer a lame spa or more than one restaurant. They are just trying to differentiate themselves from other lines in one way or another. At the end of the day, river cruising is totally about destinations, that’s just all there is to it.
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