10 Surprising Things About a River Cruise

Written by: KHM Staff on December 08, 2022

Church along a river bank
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By Carolyn Orf, Education Manager at KHM Travel Group

No matter how much traveling you’ve done, it’s always exciting to experience another “first.” I recently had the pleasure of taking my first river cruise. We sailed round trip from Budapest with Riviera River Cruises on the MS Emily Brontë. Our itinerary, “The Blue Danube,” visited a different port each day as we explored towns and cities in Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria. This new-to-me style of travel taught me a lot, including these ten surprising things about my river cruise experience.

#1 – How small the ship is

I’ve completed training programs for a variety of river cruise lines and listened to countless presentations about this type of travel. Yet I still didn’t fully understand the size of the ship and how the space works. There’s no denying that a river cruise ship is small. Although everything is compact, at the same time, it’s oddly spacious. I’d compare it to the concept of a tiny house, which focuses on maximizing space. Décor, seating, storage—everything is carefully designed and all of it makes sense.

#2 – A smaller cruise doesn’t mean less service

Sailing on a smaller ship also means fewer crew members. With a more limited staff, every detail matters. During our cruise, the crew was on top of everything. They were efficient, courteous team players. I loved seeing everyone assisting with luggage on arrival and departure days, or when the hotel manager stepped in to take lunch orders at the Bistro in the afternoon. It was wonderful to watch everyone work together seamlessly.

#3 – (Balcony) size doesn’t matter

This can be a big debate! Do you need the amount of space as a traditional, ocean cruise balcony? I don’t think so. We had a French balcony—basically a sliding glass door that opens up to a railing, but no space to step outside. I loved being able to open the massive doors all the way, turn my cushioned chair to face the water, sit with a glass of wine, my laptop, or sometimes both, and watch the beautiful scenery along the riverbanks.

#4 – History can be enjoyable

I genuinely enjoyed learning the history of each destination we visited. Every evening or morning, we would learn a little bit about the next port. This prologue got you excited about what you would be seeing and experiencing. While in the towns or cities, it was easy to pay attention to our engaging guides, which lead to many interesting discussions during each night’s dinner.

Woman standing in European courtyard pointing to the castle behind her

#5 – The “whisper box” is magic

Speaking of guides, our tours used a “whisper box” wireless audio system. Each group member wears a headset to hear what the tour guide is saying. The first thing my husband said when he put his on was that he felt old. I didn’t disagree, but WOW, it was magic to have someone talking right in your ear and not have to worry about crowding around the guide. I didn’t miss a thing and was able to learn so much more!

#6 Being social isn’t so bad

On a larger cruise ship, it is not the norm for me to sit and chat with other passengers. It’s just not my idea of relaxing. But somehow, the vibe on a river cruise is different. After a day full of learning and exploring such rich destinations, it was easy to ask others about their experiences, how they’d spent their free time, and what special items they’d purchased. I realized chatting doesn’t have to mean talking about myself, but that it was easy—even enjoyable—to ask questions and let the conversation keep coming as everyone else participated.

#7 – The amount of walking

The level of activity was more rigorous than I’d expected. It wasn’t too surprising that our walking tours involved, well, walking. But it was a LOT of time on our feet, followed by spending our free time wandering through town or visiting a museum, and we often finished the day by walking back to the ship. We racked up many more miles than anticipated, but the extra activity also made eating dinner that much more fun!

#8 – The peacefulness

The river water is calm and the overall pace of travel is more relaxed. No one seems to be in a rush to get somewhere. That’s not to say you can’t see and do a lot during your river cruise, if you want. But even if you’re a person who likes to be on the go, there are still times when a sudden peace comes over you. It allows you to be present in that moment and enjoy the scenery around you, a truly wonderful part of the river cruise experience!

#9 – Locks are fascinating

Locks are devices along a section of river that raise or lower ships, allowing them to transition from one water level to another. I have been hearing about this for years, and once again, I thought I knew what to expect. In reality, what I had envisioned was not at all what happened. Watching two boats in such a close space suddenly rise together to meet the river was nothing short of amazing. I wanted to stay up all night to watch every time this happened.

A couple stands overlooking a vineyard and river valley

#10 – I really, really like river cruising

Honestly, there hasn’t ever been a travel experience that I didn’t like. But I also wasn’t expecting to enjoy river cruising THIS much. There were so many things to explore and learn. It was very different from other types of trips I’ve taken in Europe and was definitely one of the most enjoyable.

There you have it, ten surprising things about my first river cruise experience. It may have been my first, but it definitely won’t be my last!

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