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So You Want to Try a River Cruise?

I’ve always wanted to experience what a river cruise would be like compared to the familiar big ship cruises I had already experienced, and fallen in love with. Although it was only a taste with just 3 nights on the water, 2 nights in Budapest before the cruise and 2 nights in Vienna afterwards, it was a complete package filled with many interesting activities.

So what are the differences between a large ship cruise and a small ship river cruise, besides the physical size? On the surface both are made up of similar components. They offer their guests a choice of accommodations, included meals and entertainment, excursions, a fitness centre, pools, whirl pools, different ports of call, Internet access, and public areas where one can meet other like-minded guests.

The following components: physical size, accommodations, food & hospitality services, entertainment, excursions, and the ship’s amenities will be the foundation for my comparison between traditional large ship cruising with my experience on my European river cruise.


The size of a cruise ship has many ramifications besides the number of passengers it can accommodate. Size also impacts the amenities available onboard. For example, on a river cruise ship you will not get many with one pool, never mind multiple pools, nor are you going to find waterslides, rock climbing walls, shops, casinos, and other features you would find on a larger ship. Multiple restaurants are also not likely, although this ship did offer a small Bistro (evening snacks) and a Club Lounge with complimentary cookies, pastries and a 24-hour multi-function hot beverage machine.

One of the benefits of a smaller river cruise ship, however, was the more intimate environment. It made it easier to meet and interact with a larger number of guests then on a big ship because of the more intimate setting. You see the same people everyday, in the dining room (open seating), on the included excursions (and the optional ones), and on the ship itself.


Although a river cruise ship is smaller, the smaller size did not translate into smaller staterooms. On the M.S. Vista the staterooms measured either 172 sq. ft, (lower deck with window) or 200 sq. ft. (top two decks with floor to ceiling sliding doors with Juliette balconies). The two Royal Suites on the top deck measured a whopping 300 sq. ft. in size.

Compare this to the largest ship out there, the Allure of the Seas, with twenty-four different categories, and you can see that overall ship size has no bearing on cabin size. The Allure’s staterooms range from 150 sq. ft. to 182 sq. ft. for inside, ocean view, and balcony staterooms (excluding family staterooms and suites). The suites, however, on the Oasis are a lot larger, both in size and capacity, but for two guests, the 300 sq. ft. suite on the Vista had more than enough room.

The quality and size of a river cruise ship stateroom are pluses. They are all outside cabins, and most come with a Juliet balcony. There are no inside staterooms here. The only negative is they only accommodate up to two guests. No triple or quad staterooms here.

Meals and Entertainment

The food, wine, and the service staff were excellent but not on the same level as that found on a big ship cruise. The same can be said for the entertainment.

There really was no option as to where to dine and when. The actual food choices were also smaller but considering the size of the kitchen, Avalon did extremely well. Because of the size limitations of the smaller ship we had set times for breakfast, lunch and dinner with open seating at each meal. The breakfast and lunch were buffet style while dinner was a sit down affair. At lunch you could order off a menu as well as partake in the buffet. At dinner, you chose from a menu, similar to that on a larger ship, however, with a smaller number of options for each course compared to the bigger ship cruise dining experience.

On the plus side, the smaller number of guests meant no line-ups at the buffet. Combine this with the included beverages, including wine at lunch and dinner, and the overall experience was very pleasant.

The dining experience on a larger cruise ship is a lot different. In this case size does help. You have choices galore. You can decide on early, late or anytime dining; set seating or open seating; buffet style or menu service or even an occasional specialty dining option. The dining experience on a large ship, to accommodate the 2500 to 5,000 guests has to be as big as the ship itself. The endless food choices and massive buffet spreads can be a positive or a negative, depending on what one desires. One negative, on most mass-market large ship cruises, is the additional cost for beverages at a meal both non-alcoholic and alcoholic.

As with the meal choices, the entertainment on the Vista was somewhat limited. We didn’t have any stage shows, or a theatre with a stage for that matter, but there was one evening with some local entertainment onboard.


The main reason, I believe, one would choose a river cruise is for the experience of visiting and learning about the countries and regions one visits. A river cruise is not a leisure cruise but, in reality, an in-depth exploration of different countries, regions, and the cities along its river highway. It is a tour product similar to an escorted coach tour with the added benefit of only having to unpack once (cruise-only tours).

On the “Taste of the Danube” river cruise tour, we had included excursions at most ports, and included sightseeing in Vienna and Budapest. We received a true appreciation and understanding of the architecture, culture and history of the area we were visiting. The quality of the excursions and the local guides were all top-notch. Which is not surprising considering Globus, with its 90 plus years of experience in escorted tours is behind Avalon Waterways.

With large ship cruising, it is all about the experience on the ship and less about the stops along the way. Large cruise ships don’t usually offer included excursions. Only the smaller high-end luxury cruise ships or the education-focused, non-mass market cruise ships offer included excursions.

Ship Amenities

The larger ship can, and has the room to offer a great deal more when it comes to amenities onboard. A river cruise ship, as mentioned above, has no rock climbing walls, waterslides, casinos, multiple dining rooms, theatres, discos and other amenities. What options it does have are more than adequate. On our ship there was a small fitness room, a complimentary Internet café, a lounge area to relax in, plus in-room television and complimentary on-demand movies. It also had a whirlpool and sky lounge on the top deck (too cold to use in November).

With a river cruise it is more about the destination than the ship. On a larger cruise ship, it is more about the ship and less about the destination.

Target Market

Although river cruising is open for all ages, it is not designed for young families since there are no triple or quad accommodations or adjoining staterooms available. Also, there are no kid clubs or activities geared to the young.

So it is safe to say the typical client would be older (50+), well educated, married or single, possibly retired, with plenty of vacation time (most cruises are over 7 nights in duration). A past cruiser who has “seen that and been there”, may also be a good candidate for a river cruise. It is definitely not for someone who wants to relax and do nothing.

In the end

Cruising is “where the voyage itself and the ship's amenities are a part of the experience, as well as the different destinations along the way”

(Wikipedia definition).

Both large ship cruising and small ship river cruising adhere to this definition for cruising found on the Wikipedia website. Each, however, places a different weight on the ship’s amenities, and the destination. For big ship cruising it is all about the ship’s amenities while river cruising is all about the different destinations along the way.

In the end it is all about the experience and what you want to get out of your cruise. Do you want to get away, relax and eat until you can’t eat anymore or do you want to learn about and experience the destinations you visit?

This time, for us, it was the latter. In fact we added an extra night at both ends, thus extending our cruise/tour slightly. It was well worth the extra expense. In fact, if one can do it, I would highly recommend it. The extra days gave us more time to adjust to the time change at the start, and more time on our own to explore the cities and countryside around Budapest and Vienna

River cruising is a different experience compared to large ship cruising. Both have their pluses and minuses and in the end it depends on the individual’s wants and needs.

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