At Select Travel Holidays, we're very proud to be the home of Cruise Select, leading cruise specialists for 20 years. Cruising will always be a large part of who we are and what we do, but - whilst we may love cruising - we realise that it's not quite everyone's cup of tea! However, if you think cruising isn't for you, river cruising might make you think twice about that, and Bedfordshire's only accredited CLIA Cruise Master, our very own Amy, explains why river cruising is perfect for non-cruisers...
'I'll be seasick!' 'Cruising is stuffy and formal!' 'I'd hate to be stuck onboard at sea with nothing to do!' 'They look like bloody massive blocks of flats!' Not quite quoted verbatim, but you get the gist; these are some of the objections commonly raised to cruising, and I've heard them all before, and seen them on Facebook comment threads etc. Whilst I am quite happy to argue that all of these objections are myths, and that cruising isn't really like that, if people are really dead set against ocean cruising, that is their prerogative. But I see your objections to cruising, and I raise you river cruising, arguably the cruising style that is perfect for non-cruisers!
Hands up, I am going to admit right here that nowadays river cruising is my preferred style of cruising. It's not that I don't still enjoy ocean cruises - of course, I do! - but river cruising is on the ascendancy, and it's got many of the same advantages of ocean cruising, as well as its own unique benefits. It also really sets my cruise geek heart alight, as river cruise lines have to work a lot harder to differentiate themselves from each other, due to restrictions in ship design, so it's more about the unique onboard and shoreside experiences that can be offered! As a touring convert, I sometimes find that river cruising is the happy medium between cruising and touring, and can offer the best of both worlds, making its appeal that much wider.
'I'll be seasick' or 'I'd hate to be stuck onboard at sea with nothing to do!'
If you're afraid of being seasick, and that's the biggest obstacle to you choosing to cruise, then river cruising really is a viable alternative. Ironically, despite cruising for 20 years myself, I'm not the best at sailing (or flying, or travelling in general), so I do have some sympathy. However, river cruising has always been a smooth experience for me, and the vast majority of the time, you'll have land surrounding you on both sides, which for many people makes it much more reassuring! River ships glide along rivers exceptionally smoothly, so you can put away the Stugeron and the ugly, useless wristbands, which can never be properly accessorised with clothes.
Furthermore, on the rivers you'll find that sailing is generally during the day, mostly to make the most of the beautiful and fascinating scenery as you pass (although, of course, this does vary according to itinerary). On some rivers, such as the Douro, ships are not allowed to sail at night anyway, so you can rest easy that your sleep won't be disturbed! Cruising very often tends to be in shorter bursts on the rivers, with shorter sailing distances (again, as an example, the Douro river is only navigable for river ships for about 130 miles in total!). Your cruising experiences, therefore, will be smooth and scenic, and you won't be stuck sailing for days, unlike some ocean cruise itineraries (I do stress 'some' here, particularly as some cruise lines pride themselves on offering more time ashore and port-rich itineraries).
When you are sailing, you're not 'stuck onboard with nothing to do!' Of course, you can while away your time and take in the scenery, which really is very relaxing. Some river ships even have pools, either on deck (if cruising through a particularly warm clime, such as the Douro or the Mekong), or inside, if the weather is a little less dependable. It's worth noting that going through locks are a fascinating experience in their own right, almost entirely unique to river cruising (the Panama Canal is one exception for ocean cruisers, as other canals that can be transitted on an ocean cruise, such as the Kiel and Corinth Canals, do not feature locks). River cruisers will gather at various different spots on the ship for the best vantage point, watching and waiting as the lock opens, the ship is slowly lifted up or lowered while the lock is closed, before opening again, and proceeding with its course along the river. Sometimes the Cruise Director may provide a running commentary pointing out notable passing landmarks, or such a commentary may be listened to on your 'QuietVox' system, or there may very well be an onboard activity going on to keep you busy; cooking demonstrations or alcohol tastings are popular activities, particularly when sailing for an area notable for a particular delicacy or alcoholic beverage. Other activities I've enjoyed whilst a river ship has been sailing have included a painting class and Portuguese tile painting!
'Cruising is stuffy and formal!'
For those who think that 'cruising is stuffy and formal'*, river cruising will come across as a breath of fresh air. Although there are certainly luxurious river cruise lines (some of which I've cruised on), the ambience onboard a river ship is much more informal and congenial. On average, European river cruises may have up to 150 passengers (some will pride themselves on much less), and passengers numbers are much lower on more exotic rivers. With fewer guests onboard, river cruising is guaranteed to be a more intimate affair, with better opportunities to get to know your fellow passengers.
Smaller passenger numbers isn't the only reason why river cruising can be considered more informal than ocean cruising. Although there will be variations between cruise lines, you'll often find that dining options are more relaxed, with breakfasts and lunches generally served buffet-style, and dinner often four- or five-course a la carte waiter service. However, dining will again generally be open, without set places so you can sit wherever you like, and smart casual is the order of the day. I've often noticed that most of the other guests do not appear to have changed for dinner, and I might stick out a little (or a lot!) as I've gone and gussied myself up, because frankly I enjoy that, and I damn well will wear my pretty dresses and heels (on a recent river cruise on the Douro, my friend and I dressed up in sparkly dresses for the Captain's Welcome Dinner so we certainly stuck out!). I guess you can take the girl off the ocean cruise ship, but you can't take the ocean cruise ship glamour out of the girl! After a day of exploring on (usually) included tours and excursions, many people on river ships prefer to simply relax, so there is no requirement for formality on a river cruise. If the idea of having to wear a dinner jacket (or 'penguin suit' as my dad likes to call it) puts you off an ocean cruise, a more relaxed and informal river cruise may be more up your street.
'They look like bloody blocks of flats!'
Ocean ships come in all shapes and sizes, and many of the newest ships (particularly the ones which garner a lot of press attention) can be in excess of 5,000 passengers, sometimes even over 6,000. In a previous blog (about future cruising trends), I noted that the traditional promenade deck (usually wrapped around a mid-ship level deck) had 'for some time...seemed to fall out of favour in modern ship design.' This has often led to comparisons (rightly or wrongly) of modern ships looking like 'blocks of flats', usually from people who have never stepped foot onboard a ship, or possibly been near a port.
Ship design has its many quirks, and restrictions, particularly regulating use of materials, which cannot be combustible, and has to be focussed on ensuring that everything is as light as possible. However, ocean ships do not - generally - have to take bridges and locks into as much consideration as river ships (although the lower bridges of Singapore can make it a challenging port of call for many ocean-going cruise ships). River ship design, however, does have to factor in the height of bridges and the width of locks, and the depth of the draft below the keel (which can be variable, and on some rivers can, at its lowest, be only a few centimeters!). With these additional restrictions, river ships can - certainly on the outside, at least - have a more uniform appearance, and tend to comprise only a few decks, and cannot be not too wide (a notable exception being AmaWaterways' pioneering double-width ship AmaMagna, which can only cruise on the Danube as a result of its unique width). To put it simply, river ships couldn't possibly be accused of looking like blocks of flats! (Although my mum, Rachel, sometimes calls them 'long tubes'!) River cruising is, therefore, ideal for those put off ocean cruising by ship aesthetics!
Much more compact onboard, all amenities are much closer to hand on a river ship. Whatever grade of cabin you have, you'll always have a river view, with the vast majority offering gorgeous panoramas of the passing river life, perhaps even from a balcony. Most balconies on river ships tend to be of the French or Juliet variety (particularly on European rivers), although there are some clever exceptions, with AmaWaterways (and, therefore APT too, as they charter AmaWaterways' ships for their luxury river cruises) offering unique 'twin balcony' cabins, with both a traditional sit-down balcony, and a Juliet balcony. Other river cruise lines, such as Emerald Waterways, Scenic, and Amadeus River Cruises, transform staterooms into an al fresco space with a floor-to-ceiling window that lowers half-way to let in plenty of fresh air.
Whilst river ships may not have the space for the numerous dining and entertainment venues that ocean ships can boast, what they lack in size, they certainly make up for in style and views! Step onboard a river ship, and you'll discover that, inside, river ships boast a spectrum of beautiful interiors, from contemporary to timeless classics, modern monochrome to colonial style, and everything in between! Uniworld in particular are renowned for their unique style, with each ship reflective of the regions it's passing through, and distinct from the rest of the fleet. With views of land available on both sides, complete with beautiful scenery and fascinating river life, river ships certainly make the most of this advantage they have over ocean ships, with panoramic views wherever possible, particularly in the Restaurant and the Lounge, which is always the ship's social hub and heart, whatever the ship. River ships are much more akin to a boutique hotel, with the added benefit of the best views of the river guaranteed, and you can also think of them as your transportation to cities, towns and villages.
The Happy Medium Between Cruising and Touring
Without needing to fear seasickness, being stuck at sea with nothing to do, nor having to worry about a river ship being too stuffy or formal, or looking like a hideous floating block of flats, it's easy to see why river cruising is an ideal alternative for non-cruisers. The popularity of river cruising has increased dramatically; the numbers of river cruise passengers from the UK increased by 44% between 2012 and 2018, with 232,300 Brits taking a river cruise in 2018, compared to 129,700 in 2012. (For those, like me, with a certain fondness for cruise statistics, 2018 represented a 10.4% growth in river cruise passenger numbers from the year before!). Of course, many of those passengers will be familiar with ocean cruising, but for others, a river cruise will be the only way they would countenance cruising!
River cruising hasn't grown in popularity purely because it doesn't make people feel seasick, of course! There are many other reasons to entice people to take a river cruise. Like ocean cruising, they promise the convenience of only unpacking once, whilst visiting multiple destinations in one holiday. Whether on the ocean or on the rivers, a cruise ship is perhaps best thought of a floating hotel. However, river cruises arguably have some advantages over their ocean-going cousins. Perhaps one of the best ways to explain this is to quote Stuart Perl, the Managing Director of AmaWaterways in the UK, when he said at the 2018 River Cruise Conference in Paris: 'ocean cruises take you to countries, but river cruises take you through countries.'
Think about it, an ocean cruise will almost exclusively dock at ports on coastlines (there are some exceptions, with smaller ships able to traverse a bit further inland and even along some rivers). There are many beautiful and fascinating cities and destinations which can be visited on the coastline, but also think about the many cities that were built upon the banks of rivers, from Budapest to Paris, Vienna to Porto, Bordeaux to Cologne, and so many more. Rivers provided both access for trade and transportation, as well as the river's own natural resources, and could often provide strategic assets for defence, and were popular places to build cities historically. The ancient Egyptians were particularly notable for using the flooding and irrigation of the Nile for their agriculture, and many of the most treasured monuments of the ancient kingdom of Egypt can best be explored from a river cruise. The richness of history and culture that can be consumed on a river cruise knows no bounds, as you cruise from destination to destination, travelling further inland than is possible on an ocean cruise. Put simply, river cruises have greater access to some of the world's most fascinating destinations than an ocean cruise ever could; as an example, a Mekong river cruise will include a visit to Angkor Wat, which, set in northwestern Cambodia, is over 300 miles away from Sihanoukville, Cambodia's only deep water port. There are some parts of the world - such as Asia - where it is simply better to take a river cruise, rather than an ocean cruise, because the most interesting and beautiful destinations are further inland, and along the riverbanks, rather than the coastlines.
With their ability to take you through countries, river cruises offer more in-depth explorations. Even whilst cruising, you can gain a better appreciation of the country's changing scenery, and get a sense of the destination (as opposed to yet more blue sea and sky). It's not all cosmopolitan cities; a river cruise can offer you access to smaller towns and villages along the river banks (or, sometimes, just a short coach journey away), some of which might be lesser known gems. A river cruise in a more exotic location, such as one of the Asian rivers, often takes you to remote villages, some of which are almost inaccessible by road (particularly along the Brahmaputra or the Irrawaddy). With such unprecedented access, you can truly witness and even immerse yourself in the authenticity of the destinations you're visiting. For such communities, the river is their hub and very often the lifeblood of the region.
Shoreside experiences are often richer and more immersive on river cruises. You're not simply dropped off at a port and left to your own devices (although, of course, if you wish to have a wander around on your own, you can!). Most river cruise lines include excursions as standard, whereas excursions are an additional expense on most ocean cruise lines. Furthermore, river cruise lines offer ever increasingly diverse experiences whilst ashore, to appeal to wider ranges of guests and their discerning interests. Experiences offered are more exciting than panoramic coach journeys with 'tea and pee' stops, but can range from active hikes, vineyard tours, kayaking, curated tours of museums, visits to local families, and so much more. Whether you're interested in culture, history, and art, or gastronomy, or whether you're looking to keep active or want something less strenuous, there's options to keep you covered! In particular, river cruise lines are increasingly keen to emphasise authentic, local experiences - and regional specialties and wines are always found on their menus - as well as an increasing focus on wellness and keeping active.Some cruise lines even offer tours a little later for those who need their lie-ins! Exclusive access - whether it's a private tour of Saint Mark's Basilica, early access to Monet's Garden, a private classical concert in a Viennese palace, or dinner in a private castle hosted by a princess, to name but a few - offers guests unique experiences. For some river cruise lines, these unique experiences are a core part of their offerings.
River cruising's focus on immersive experiences is arguably better reflected in touring, than ocean cruising. With touring, excursions are included as standard, just like the majority of river cruises. And like, river cruising, many tours are increasingly offering more diverse and immersive experiences as guests are becoming less passive, and more discerning and more curious, along with a greater focus and desire for experiences, for memories to be created (and later shared with friends and family). Some of the regions visited on a river cruise can also be visited on a tour; you can choose to visit New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville on a tour, or you can cruise the Mississippi between New Orleans and Memphis (admittedly, Nashville would have to be a pre- or post-cruise extension). The same could be said for many different river cruise itineraries. Many of the same places may be covered, but your bed moves with you on a river ship, rather than hopping between hotels. However, there will be some towns and villages that are more accessible from the river. In this way, I believe that river cruising is a happy medium between ocean cruising and touring.
If fears of seasickness, being stuck onboard with nothing to do, or a preconception of a cruise being too stuffy or formal or a ship looking like hideous floating blocks of flats puts you off ocean cruising, then rest assured that river cruising is a different prospect, with none of the above objections to get in the way of your enjoyment! With immersive experiences offering deeper insights into the regions visited, surrounded by stunning scenery, and the added benefit of your 'hotel' travelling with you (complete with unbeatable river views), and only needing to unpack once, river cruising is not only a happy medium between ocean cruising and touring, it's the perfect cruise holiday for non-cruisers! I wouldn't be surprised if you, too, became a river cruise convert, and once one river has been cruised, plans will be made to cruise another, and another, and another! After all, each river has something unique to offer, and a river cruise offers the perfect mix of exploration and relaxation, with multiple destinations, friendly service, and fantastic food, all included in the fare.
If you would like to find out more about river cruising, contact our river cruise experts today
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About the author:
Amy has cruised for 20 years, and has been a part of our Marketing team since 2015. She is an avid river cruise geek, having experienced over 30 different river ships from 16 different river cruise lines, including AmaWaterways, APT, Emerald Waterways, Uniworld, Tauck, Amadeus River Cruises, and many more. She's cruised on six different rivers, and her favourite rivers (so far) are the Mekong and the Douro. She was accredited with Cruise Master status by CLIA in 2018, an accolade which is recognised by City & Guilds, and in 2019 she made the shortlist for Travel Agent Marketing Star at the 2019 Cruise Star Awards, by Cruise Trade News. Amy has also written for Cruise Adviser. Amy is also a passionate advocate for touring and adventure holidays, and was a finalist for the (inaugural) ATAS Ambassador Award at the 2019 Travel Agent Achievement Awards, held by Travel Weekly. ATAS is the Association of Touring and Adventure Suppliers, and Amy has been a travel agent member since its inception in 2017.
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