River Cruises Offer Pros and Cons for Budget Travel

Danube River cruises take visitors through the scenic Wachau Valley in Austria

Mark D. Kahler

River cruises offer pros and cons that are well worth considering. For travelers who want to see the world's great cities without investing stress, these trips have proven to be an excellent choice. Think about it: you'll only unpack once, you'll need not push through crowded train stations, and you'll have a lot more freedom of movement than any tour bus affords.

River cruises -- especially in Europe -- have become incredibly popular in recent years. Industry experts estimate that river cruise bookings have increased about 50 percent in the past 10 years. The Cruise Lines International Association, Inc. calculated that its members offered 170 river cruise vessels. and although the building boom is slowing a bit over recent years, it is not unusual for 15-20 new ships to enter service in a given year. 

Most of the travelers who favor river cruises are baby boomers in their retirement years. This is a market reality to which river cruise lines strongly respond. Senior travelers tend to like smaller ships, detailed assistance with even the smallest arrangements, and several tiers of involvement. Flashy entertainment is sometimes far down on the list of priorities.

Traditional river cruises do not cater to children or young families. In fact, some lines do not allow kids. The itineraries don't appeal so much to families as they do to history buffs and those who appreciate cultural and geographic diversity.

01 of 07

Smaller Ships are More Personal

Destinations become more memorable when you're invited into a local home.

Mark D. Kahler

It will come as no surprise that river cruise ships are quite different from ocean-going vessels. But many travelers don't stop to think about how that will impact their voyages.

A typical river cruise ship hosts fewer than 200 passengers for each itinerary. An ocean-going ship might house three times that many passengers on a single deck.

Because the numbers are relatively small, river cruises become far more personal. Some cruise lines take great advantage of this fact.

For example, on Grand Circle Cruise Lines, itineraries include a stop at either a local school or a visit to a local family sometime during the trip as part of the line's Discovery Series. The passenger list is divided into groups of eight and local transportation is arranged for the visit. You'll meet people who live in Bratislava and find out what daily life is like in the city. It's a dimension beyond checking off a series of tourist sites and sailing to the next port-of-call.

Grand Circle and other lines will invite you to a pastry demonstration, or you can visit the bridge as the captain navigates river locks.

Another plus with river cruising is that you are more likely to make friendships with fellow passengers. Acquaintances you strike up are not going to get lost in the crowd. That couple you met on Monday is likely to be sitting near you at breakfast on Tuesday morning.

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02 of 07

Food Costs and Choices

On most river cruises, the cost of meals is included in the overall price.

Mark D. Kahler

As with all cruises, river voyages typically include most of your meals as part of the total costs. Meals tend to be served at one sitting, with open seating. Every table has a view.

Unlike many ocean-going trips, some river cruise lines often include beer, wine or soft drinks with dinner at no added charge. These offers vary, sometimes widely, by line.

Breakfasts and lunches are often served buffet-style, although a chef will prepare cooked-to-order omelets or sandwiches at one end of the buffet table.

Fixed food costs are a bonus for budget travelers since these expenses often are unpredictable on many trips. Train travelers usually eat in the cities they visit and sample local cuisine. On river cruises, you will miss out on this essential part of learning a new city's ways.

Cruise lines might serve goulash in Budapest and apple strudel in Vienna. But if you are intent on sampling these local specialties at local restaurants in port, you'll need to put forth extra money and effort.

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03 of 07

Limited Entertainment Options

Entertainment options on a river cruise can be quite limited.

Mark D. Kahler

If lavish shipboard entertainment is your chief priority, river cruises probably won't satisfy.

Unlike ocean-going cruise lines that stage Vegas-style shows and provide floating casinos, the river cruise entertainment is limited to far more basic offerings.

You can visit the galley for a look at how more than 400 meals a day are prepared in a relatively small space.

You might see a folk dancing exhibition one night, or watch the crew become the cast in a talent night presentation.

The entertainment options reflect passenger preferences. River cruises are far more likely to attract travelers who would look forward to commentary over the loud speaker about the castles and monuments they are passing. These passengers enjoy sitting on deck, watching the scenery and sipping a cup of coffee.

Personally, I find that to be grand entertainment. But many other budget travelers would disagree.

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04 of 07

Younger Travelers are Scarce

The average age of passengers on many river cruises is about 65.

Mark D. Kahler

If you see a young person on a traditional river cruise, chances are it is an older grandchild who was chosen to accompany grandparents. Travelers under the age of 13 aren't likely to be found.

Many river cruises simply are not programmed for families. The entertainment programs, water slides and rock-climbing walls found on many ocean-going ships are far less likely on the river.

For years, the target audience for these trips has been the baby-boomer generation, and the median age on traditional ships is probably in the mid-60s. Many of the passengers are retired and simply want to spend some quiet time exploring places they've read about all of their lives.

As with any general rule, this one has notable exceptions. Some river cruise lines have sought out younger markets. Tauck, for example, offers its Bridges itineraries to destinations such as France. Family activities include a scavenger hunt through the Louvre. Uniworld markets a series of "family friendly" cruises designed for multi-generational family excursions.

Keep in mind that family friendly doesn't always mean budget friendly.

If you want to show your children Amsterdam, Vienna or Budapest, you'll need to think about train travel. River cruises usually cater to older adults.

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05 of 07

Better Tour Options

River cruises offer a variety of port tour options.

Mark D. Kahler

Cruise lines have established the shore excursion business as a key profit center. You'll be urged to sign up with the cruise line before spaces are taken.

Although river cruise lines do offer some shore excursions at added cost, many of the basics for each port are covered in the price of the trip. You'll get at least an orientation talk for each port, and sometimes a few added tours.

River cruises frequently attract passengers with a variety of physical abilities. A few will skip the orientation tour, while many others will take that tour and return to the ship without any further explorations. A third group will use the included orientation tour to learn about additional locations to visit during their free time in port.

These itineraries frequently include such freedom for those discoveries, but some passengers are more interested in relaxation than exploration.

River cruise lines focus significant marketing efforts on extensions, which last up to a week and include a region or city adjacent to where the cruise begins or ends. These are often bus tours and sometimes include the same program directors you've had on the ship. Price these opportunities carefully. Sometimes, you can make similar arrangements at a lower cost.

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06 of 07

Relatively High Daily Costs

River cruise cabins tend to be small, but almost always offer panoramic views and personal service.

Mark D. Kahler

Ocean-going cruise prices usually are compared on the basis of daily costs. It's still possible to find bargains that come in under $150/day per person, although they are becoming scarce.

River cruises tend to cost quite a bit more than ocean-going trips. But making the cost comparisons between these two products usually is rather pointless. You'll enjoy different benefits in each excursion. Approach your attitude about price with that in mind.

As previously mentioned, port tours often are included in the price of a river trip. Ground transportation between port and airport typically is covered in the basic price. For European river cruises, rates below $250/day per person are becoming more difficult to find.

Tipping is an added cost for which you should budget. Remember that cruise workers usually derive their incomes from gratuities. If they serve you well, they deserve to be rewarded. On river cruises, you'll be asked to tip your program director separately from the crew. The crew receives a lump sum that you'll determine with guidance from the line.

Traveling alone? Expect to pay a single supplement that will add as much as 50 percent to the cost of your trip. While this is an industry standard, it can vary by line, and some offer incentives for solo travelers.

River cruise cabins are rather small, but interior cabins are rare. The views are nice, and rooms with a balcony often are smaller and come at a higher rate. Twin beds are common.

River cruise lines will make your flight arrangements at an added cost. Some will offer free airfare incentives at slower times of the year. Those deals tend to sell out quickly.

As with other forms of cruising, there are lines that specialize in lower-cost river cruises and others that provide a more luxurious experience, with prices to match.

It's not always possible to categorize river cruise lines by price. The range is typically $250-$500/day per person, and note that great values can be found at all price points. Remember to shop for more than price. Each line offers a unique experience with features not found elsewhere.

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07 of 07


A view of Slovakia's capital city of Bratislava.

Mark D. Kahler

Why do you want to take a cruise?

If you are primarily interested in the ship's amenities, river cruises won't rank at the top of your list.

But if you shop for cruises based on itineraries, a river cruise will often provide more time in port, better tour options and greater opportunities for independent explorations. The itinerary-based shopping model fits nicely with budget travel, where value is key.

Most river cruises are not a good choice for families or for people who enjoy extensive on-board entertainment. The daily costs for these trips generally are higher than for ocean-going cruises, although that is not always the case.

But river cruises offer an excellent opportunity to explore a region without a lot of packing and unpacking. Details are handled by the cruise line, and personal service is enhanced because the passenger list is relatively small.