There’s no point in being coy about it: River cruises aren’t cheap. Yet, their popularity continues unabated among travellers who are just now discovering an industry that has been around, in one form or another, for decades.
One of the primary sore spots for many would-be river cruisers, however, is the relatively high cost of river cruises when compared with ocean cruises. A typical weeklong jaunt to the Caribbean might put you back a few hundred dollars on one of the megaships out there, but the average river cruise will run a couple travelling together a few thousand dollars.
For many who are looking into a river cruise for the first time, the sticker-shock can be off-putting. But there are a number of reasons for the increase in price when compared to most ocean cruises.
To start with, there are few entry-level river cruise lines. CroisiEurope may win this award with its plethora of shorter, more affordable journeys, but the fact remains that while ocean cruising has a number of entry-level options, river cruising has relatively few. There is no direct equivalent to Carnival Cruise Line or Royal Caribbean here; the average river cruise line starts off on a level that approaches the kind of upscale product offered by lines like Oceania.
You’re also getting more for your money on a river cruise than you might from a mainstream cruise. Mainstream cruises are priced inexpensively thanks to two economies of scale: lots of staterooms, and plenty of add-on costs onboard. Passengers may complain on message boards about being “nickled-and-dimed” for everything from drinks to excursions to specific items on dining room menus, but it’s those very things that allow cruise lines to offer a weeklong voyage to the Caribbean for less than a few nights at the Courtyard Marriott.
Because river cruise ships are dramtically limited in terms of their physical size, they can only fit so many staterooms onboard. Credit Viking River Cruises for removing lesser-used spaces like the hair salon and token gymnasium on its Viking Longship river cruise vessels and replacing those spaces with staterooms; like it or not, with every accommodation space added, the overall cost of the voyage comes down ever so slightly.
River cruises also maintain higher per diem costs precisely because they’re not nickel-and-diming you. Nearly every river cruise line offers beer, wine and soft drinks – unlimited – with lunch and dinner. Most offer coffee, tea and juice around the clock, without an extra charge. And for the most part, guided excursions ashore are offered complimentary to guests. Plus, WiFI is nearly always included at no charge.
There is also a substantial number of cruise lines who offer experiences that are firmly seated at the luxury level. Scenic, Tauck, and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection all include everything in the cost of the cruise, ensuring you never have to sign a chit or reach into your pocket for any extras. Tauck even takes things one step further, providing guests with Euro coins to use in the pay toilets that Europe is (in)famous for, just so they don’t have to pay for it themselves. It’s a decidedly luxe touch that would be completely missing from any entry or midrange-level ocean cruise experience.
So is it possible to take a river cruise on the cheap? Perhaps not, but there are certainly ways to limit your overall costs. River cruise lines are always running special promotions, from onboard credit offerings to complimentary airfare and pre-and-post-hotel stays. Rather than discounting, most river cruise lines prefer to take a page from the book of luxury hotels and cruise lines and offer extra added value options instead.
However, things may not stay this way forever: As river cruising gains in popularity, it becomes more and more likely that someone will decide to fill what is now a very empty niche — the mainstream, bare-bones, a la carte river cruise. Will that become a reality? Only time will tell.
Until then, river cruising is still well worth the price of admission.