Credit: Viking/Tauck

How to pick a river cruise cabin - best cabins and what to avoid

Author: Jeannine Williamson

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River cruise cabins are an important decision to factor in when booking river cruises - how do they differ from ocean cruise lines and which cabin is best for you? Our guide will help.

It’s widely believed the word posh comes from ‘port out, starboard home’. The 19th-century acronym denoted the most desirable cabins - namely the ones that didn’t get the heat of the sun - on sailings from Britain to India and back.

Since then much has been written about how to choose a cruise ship cabin, but there’s not much out there on how to pick the river cruise cabin that’s right for you.

So we’re here to debunk some of the myths, explain the terminology and help you find the accommodation that’s right for you.

Small is beautiful

If you’re used to ocean cruising you need to manage your expectations when walking into a river cruise cabin for the first time.

Ships sailing in Europe have a maximum length of 443ft (135m) and width of 11m (37ft) - in order to fit in narrow locks - and three passenger decks so they can sail beneath narrow bridges.

Everything is much smaller than seagoing ships and cabins start at around 150 square feet. That said they’re cleverly designed to maximise space with plenty of cupboards, drawers and storage shelves plus room to stow suitcases under the bed so you can keep everything neat and shipshape.

Lines such as Uniworld Boutique River Collection have novel mirrors that double as televisions and on CroisiEurope’s fleet of hotel barges the compact cabins have TV sets that fold away into the ceiling.

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Is there a right or wrong side to book a cabin on river ships?

The answer is no. Firstly, there are no windowless inside cabins on river vessels and all rooms face the water. Because rivers, canals and waterways are relatively narrow there is always going to be something to see on both sides of the ship.

If there is a passing landmark, such as the Lorelei Rock on the Rhine, there is always an announcement as the ship draws near and you can pop into the lounge or up on the sun deck to see it.

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How do I decide which deck to book?

Unlike ocean ships, which can have a large number of cabin categories, on river ships the majority of cabins are of a very similar size and the main decision is which of the three decks to choose according to personal preference and budget.

Things to consider are the fact there are no ‘sea days’ where you are just sailing. The daily ports of call - sometimes two per day – mean you are probably not going to spend much time in your cabin as you will be out on shore excursions, on the sun deck or in the lounges.

A balcony cabin is an attractive proposition but work out how much time you plan to use it and if the extra expense is worth it. On a Christmas market cruise you are unlikely to be sitting outside so you might want to save money and spend it on presents instead.

River cruise cabins: Uniworld Boutique River Collection have novel mirrors that double as televisions. Credit: Uniworld

The waterline cabins on the lower deck are the most affordable and have fixed windows that don’t open but still provide plenty of light.

Those at the back of the ship are the cheapest, but they can also be the noisiest as they are nearest to the engines and the door to the crew quarters.

The cabins on the middle deck are closest to the reception, disembarkation area and lounge which will save time going up and down stairs or using the lift.

- READ MORE: How to pick the best cruise ship cabin -

The priciest cabins are on the top deck and offer the best views; however one thing to note is that you might hear crew members walking around overhead as ships sail throughout the night, which can also involve navigating locks. So you might want to take a pair of earplugs.

Lastly, on ocean ships the most stable cabins are situated in the middle of the vessel but this is not a consideration for river vessels as the waterways are very smooth and there is no danger of feeling seasick.

Credit: Avalon Waterways

Are there suites on river ships?

If you want to push the proverbial boat out many river ships boast larger suites; sometimes only two so you need to book early if you want to secure them. Some suites are larger cabins with more facilities, such as bigger bathrooms and a larger seating area.

If you want a separate bedroom and lounge you will find them in Viking’s Explorer Suites, which measure 445 square feet and have a wraparound balcony.

Scenic and sister brand Emerald Cruises also have two-room suites. Some of the swankiest suites on the river are on Crystal River Cruises’ supersize 75ft-wide Crystal Mozart, where the pair of two-bedroom Crystal Suites measure in at a whopping 860 square feet.

On Uniworld all suites come with butler service and are lavishly decorated, including staterooms with four-poster beds.

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Book a bed with a view

If you want to relax in your cabin and watch the world float past at a leisurely pace then book with Avalon Waterways or CroisiEurope which feature beds facing the river, rather than the traditional setup of being side on to the window. Tauck also has river-facing beds on some of its ships.

River cruise cabins: If you want a separate bedroom and lounge you will find them in Viking’s Explorer Suites. Credit: Viking

How to understand the different types of balconies

Not all balconies are created equal, so check what you are getting before you book. A French balcony comprises a floor to ceiling window which slides down halfway to a railing so you can look out but you can’t step out.

Avalon Waterways has innovative ‘open-air’ balconies where the windows slide across widthways. Emerald Waterways and Scenic have panorama balconies where windows lower at the press of a button to create ‘indoor’ balconies that can be sectioned off by glass doors from the rest of the room.

Lines with walk-out balconies with room for a table and chairs include Viking and Amadeus River Cruises. AmaWaterways combines the best of both worlds with its twin balcony staterooms which feature a French balcony and a step out veranda.

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Do river ships have accessible cabins?

Lines which offer accessible cabins, usually situated close to the reception area, include AmaWaterways, CroisiEurope, Emerald Cruises and Scenic.

If you have mobility issues but don’t need an accessible cabin you will benefit from booking a room near the centre of the ship, which will also be close to the dining room and bar, to save a long walk every time you go back and forth from the cabin.

Enjoy your cabin onboard. Credit: Amadeus River Cruises

How about family cabins?

AmaWaterways has ships with interconnecting cabins that can accommodate families along with suites that sleep up to four. Tauck and Uniworld also offer cabins with sofa beds that can be used by families.

Family river cruising will come to the fore in 2022 when A-Rosa Cruises launches the first-ever dedicated family ship, with cabins sleeping up to five.

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Finally, what do cabins include and what do I need to take?

River cruise cabins might be smaller than their ocean-going counterparts but that doesn’t mean they’re the poor relations.

Staterooms on modern river vessels include hotel-style amenities including comfy beds that can usually be configured as twins or doubles, a television with on-demand films and entertainment, Wi-Fi, air conditioning, a safe, phone, toiletries and a hairdryer.

Higher grade cabins often include tea and coffee making facilities, a minibar, bathrobes and slippers. Most ships offer a laundry and pressing service. In short, your river cruise cabin will be a floating home from home.

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