This isn't a “piña colada in the hot tub” experience
Don't expect a passengers-gone-wild atmosphere on these generally relaxing cruises. It's often quiet after 10 p.m., and passengers tend to be older than those on many big-ship ocean voyages.
You may sail during the day
Guests who think they'll spend all their before-sundown time in port and all night cruising the river may be surprised to discover that sailing can also take place during the day — sometimes for a full day, especially if the ports are far apart. The cruise line will likely plan special onboard activities to entertain you, and you can always enjoy the view.
You can leave your ball gowns at home
The dress code on a river cruise is decidedly less formal than on some of the large ocean voyages. Daytime dress is casual and dependent on the temperature: jeans, running shoes, athletic wear. Comfort is key. For dinner, khakis or nice jeans with a shirt or sweater is fine. And bring rain gear.
You won't get seasick
Because the ships travel on rivers, not oceans, there are no significant waves, and even passengers who are prone to motion sickness are rarely (if ever) affected.
There are ways to save
To get the best rates, book far in advance, choose a less expensive room, go during shoulder season (November, January, February and March on the Mississippi, for instance), and forgo all-inclusive alcohol packages (if the cruise line charges extra for drinks) and certain optional shore excursions. Plus, you'll pay much less for an inside, viewless stateroom, if your ship has these, notes American Queen Steamboat Co. (AQSC) founder and CEO John Waggoner: “A lot of people who are budget conscious say, ‘I'm only using my room to sleep in anyway.’ “ And the lines also often have early-booking discounts, through which you can save as much as $600 per person by planning many months ahead.
Find out what's included in the fare before booking
Avoid surprises at the end of your cruise. On some AQSC itineraries, for example, you'll be billed for port charges of $119 to $599 per guest as well as $19.50 per day for gratuities. Some cruise lines include complimentary hotel stay the night before the cruise.
Choose a cruise that's your speed
Some are slow paced, which may be better for less mobile passengers or those who simply want more relaxation than action. Others have activities such as kayaking or have bikes and helmets to borrow when you're in port. Look at the kinds of excursions offered, and call the cruise line or read reviews to get a sense of the pace and decide whether it fits your travel style.
You don't need to sign up for every outing
Many of the cruises provide multiple options for shore excursions each day. “First-timers have a tendency to overschedule themselves,” points out Richard Marnell, executive vice president of marketing at Viking Cruises. His advice: Sign up in advance for whatever interests you most and play the rest by ear. Some of the best moments of any trip are unplanned.
Plan some time apart from your travel mates
If you're vacationing with a partner or group, you don't need to stay together for every activity and meal. Consider enjoying at least one experience without anyone you came with — do it alone or with someone you've met on the cruise — whether you're exploring the streets of a city or taking some other shore excursion. “Each of you will meet new friends you otherwise wouldn't have, and invariably you'll come back with stories to tell each other,” Marnell says.