Written by 3:37 pm News, River Cruises

10 things that surprised an avid ocean cruiser about river cruising

We have been cruising on the waters of the world for more than 25 years. Because we love cruising, we have gone on many more than most people, both for fun and work. We’ve lost track, but we’ve been on between 50-100 cruises and have been on all the major lines. But after all that time, we have finally gone on our first river cruise. A lot is the same, but there are a lot of differences. Here are the top 10 things that surprised me about it.

When our friend Lou Mongello from the WDW Radio podcast told us he had a group trip planned with his travel agent sponsor (and ours), MEI and Mouse Fan Travel, down the Danube to see various Christmas markets in December, we knew we wanted to join. Many in our group had also never been on a river cruise, so we were discovering everything together. We sailed on the AmaViola from Hungary to Germany.

Top 10 Surprising Things about River Cruising, in no particular order

1: How Small the Ship is

The main lounge on the AmaViola.
This is the extent of the main public area.
Photos by Matt Roseboom

I knew river cruising ships were smaller than ocean-liners obviously, but I never realized just how small they actually are. Our ship was the average size for river cruising ships and it was four decks high if you include the outdoor top deck. The first floor had the main restaurant (which isn’t very large itself), a small workout room, a tiny one-room spa, and some cabins. The second floor had the main lounge, a tiny gift shop, a small library, the reception desk and more cabins. The third floor had a very small specialty restaurant and the last set of cabins. That’s it. For public spaces to hang out, there’s basically just the lounge area and the top deck. And since our cruise was in the middle of winter, not many people were on the top deck for very long. (There is a small pool on the top deck, but it’s best used during the warmer months.) The ship’s smaller size was also a benefit because everything is just a few steps away.

2. There’s No Theater, and Limited Entertainment Options

A guest performer balances a bottle of liquid on her head.

As you may have noticed in my first surprising thing, I didn’t list any sort of theater onboard, because there isn’t one. That said, they do have some movies available on the television in your room, and there is a small dance floor in the main lounge where a nightly act performs. Some nights it was just a piano player, but on other nights they brought some local musicians onboard for a short show after dinner. So don’t go expecting broadway style shows like the big cruisers have. But that’s OK, because …

3. All Excursions are Included

Statues from The Sound of Music.

Some major cruise lines do included excursions, but it’s usually the more expensive ones, and usually not every day. But with our AmaWaterways river cruises, they not only had no-extra-cost excursions every day, sometimes they were multiple times a day (more on that below). For my wife and I, if an excursion is included, we don’t want to miss out, which made for a not very relaxing trip. I’m not complaining, we loved it all, but don’t expect to have too much down time unless you skip an excursion or two – at least it was this way with our Christmas Market cruise. We did have one friend disagree with us and said she found it more relaxing than ocean cruising, but I guess it depends on how many activities you usually do. Another unique thing about the excursions is that you don’t have to plan ahead. When they offer more than one option at a particular stop, you can just decide which you want to do the day before, or sometimes as you’re getting off the ship.

4. You May Make More than One Stop Per Day 

A mansion in Vienna at night.

Only on a rare occasion have we ever visited more than one port on the same day while ocean cruising. Most ports just aren’t that close to each other. But with river cruising, the next dock is sometime just down the river. So one morning you may be doing a walking tour of a Hungarian town, and that evening you could be seeing a concert in a town in Austria.

5. Ease of Docking Options

Flooded waters in Passau Germany.

Just like the rising tides of the ocean, large rivers can be affected by not only the tides, but also dry spells and flooding. We couldn’t get to one of our last stops because the melting snow from the week before flooded some docks, and the rising waters under some bridges meant the ships wouldn’t fit under. But the good thing about river cruising in these situations is that there’s always another place to dock nearby. Even though we couldn’t dock where we wanted, we were able to dock close enough that they could bus us to our scheduled excursions and back to the ship. That’s convenient.

6. How Close The Land is when Docked

Guests stick their heads out of their cabins, over the dock.

I knew the ships would be docking, but I thought we would dock onto a pier we had to walk down, and we did at some stops. But I didn’t realize I could have literally climbed over my balcony and onto the ground at some ports. Of course I didn’t because I knew they want everyone to scan in when leaving and returning to keep track of the passengers, but I totally could have. This brings me to my next surprising thing … 

7. Security isn’t as Tight

The exterior of the AmaViola.

Yes, they scanned us in and out each time we left and returned to the ship, but I could have easily climbed over my balcony and left the ship and no one would have noticed. A couple of times, we had to find a crew member to scan us back in when returning. On the large ocean cruise ships, you not only have to scan in and out, but the crew checks that you match your ID, and you go through a metal detector. There were no metal detectors on our river cruise.

8. There are a Lot of Other Ships, And You May Have to Go Through One, or More

Three river cruise ships parked next to each other.

At each stop I saw numerous other ships by AmaWaterways, Viking, and other brands I didn’t recognize. There are so many ships that sometimes they dock two or more side by side at the same dock. This only happened to us once during our trip. Our captain moved our ship away from the dock during our stop to allow another ship that was staying longer to park right next to the dock. When this happened, if we wanted to get off our ship, we had to pass through the other ship next to us to get to the dock. So at any port, you may have passengers passing through your ship to get off theirs, and vice-versa.

9. FOMO for Each Town We Passed

A cute town we passed by.

Not only are the ships sometimes docked right next to land sometimes, but some parts of the river aren’t very wide, so you may wake up, look outside and see someone’s backyard passing by about 50 feet from you. Looking out at the ocean while on a mega cruise ship can be relaxing, but it can also get boring when all you can see is water. So river cruising can be more interesting, being able to watch small towns and villages pass by, but it can also make you wish you could stop and explore those small towns. The Fear Of Missing Out is real! It also makes you want to stay up all night looking out to see what passes by (but you’re too tired from all the excursions).

10. How Fun It Is

Matt and Jackie Roseboom smiling on a river cruise.

We really didn’t know what to expect when we booked our first river cruise and didn’t do much research. All we knew was how the ocean cruises operate, but we are happy to report we loved it, and are looking forward to doing it again. From talking to other guests who had done other ships and lines, it seems most ships are about the same are the one we experienced. AmaWaterways does have one ship that is twice as wide as the one we were on, but we’ve heard the amenities are the same. With ocean cruising, sometimes the ship is as much or more important than the locations it visits. With river cruising, the onboard experience is great, but it’s the locations and excursions that matter most.

Here’s a full tour of the AmaViola ship we sailed on:

Here’s a video tour of our room:

• If you’d like to book a river cruise, we highly recommend MEI Travel. They can provide you a free quote and help you throughout the trip.

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