Choose Your River Cruise Cabin
Find the best company, cruise, and cabin
In some respects, your
cabin choice on a river cruise ship will make a bigger
difference to your experience than is the case on a typical
Part 3 of a series on river cruising.
Please also see
All About European River Cruising
How to Choose Your
European River Cruise
How to Choose Your River Cruise Cabin
New 'super' river cruising
ships offer a much greater range of different cabin types and
Some cabins now have outside balconies and even
butler service, while others have a floor below the outside
water level and small portholes only.
Clearly there are major
differences in cost and also in travel experience associated with
the different cabin types.
Which is the best choice for you?
This article helps you choose.
What Type of Cabin to Choose
These days you can have a
choice of as many as 15 (or even more!) different combinations
of cabin type and deck level on a river cruise ship.
In 'the good old days' all
cabins were the same size and there was very little difference
between them, but the new 'super' river cruisers (ie ships longer
than 400 ft) have used their extra space not just to add more
cabins, but to increase the size of some of the cabins and to
create more cabin categories.
So now you have a wealth of
choices - sometimes a good thing but definitely a bad thing if you
end up regretting the choice you have made!
There are several things to
consider when choosing a cabin on a river cruise.
In particular, we suggest
you understand the implications of your cabin choice under these
We discuss these issues in the
Height Above Waterline
You know, on a normal cruise
ship, or anything/anywhere, that the higher up you are, the
further you can see. That almost goes without saying.
The height issue is much
more impactful on a river cruiser than on an ocean going liner.
On the big liner, even the lowest deck cabins are still a
considerable distance up from the water line. But on the
river cruiser, you typically have three levels of cabins, and the
floor on the lowest deck is actually below the water level
outside. The portholes in such cabins are maybe only 3' above the water
Now, on a river or canal,
within 100ft or so of the boat will be the side of the
river/canal, and that side is of course in the form of a bank that rises up
from the edge of the water. Sometimes that bank may be
higher than your window, meaning that your view goes no further
than a boring bank.
The mid and upper levels are
less likely to have this same problem, but there can still be issues with the
mid-level cabins when docking. Sometimes the mid-level
cabins can have their view of the town/city obliterated by the
dock/pier the ship is moored alongside, and instead of having a
nice view and being able to sit out on your balcony and enjoy the
stop, your cabin is hard up against a concrete or wooden pier, and
is dark with no sunlight making its way into the cabin.
pretty much guaranteed not to experience such height related
problems on the top deck, and you'll in general have a better view
over and down to whatever it is that is on the bank as you cruise
The picture here clearly
illustrates the different experiences from the three different
decks on a typical river cruiser. You can see the small
portholes very close to the waterline at the bottom, the mid level
floor to ceiling windows above them, and then the top level floor
to ceiling windows too (for clarity, we choose a ship with no
So there is a definite and
tangible benefit to you in choosing a higher level deck over a
lower level deck.
Some ships have all their
cabins the same exact size, with the only exception being possibly
some suites. Other ships may have cabins of several
How much space do you really
need in a cabin? When does cramped and crowded become roomy
The answer to this question is
in several parts. One big issue is whether you are traveling
alone, or with an intimate partner, or with a friend (or even
stranger). If you're traveling alone, you don't need quite
as much space. At the other extreme, with a semi-stranger,
you're going to want as much space as possible just to keep out of
each other's personal space zones.
The point at which a cabin
moves from seeming small to seeming big depends on the cabin
design and the amount of space taken up by furniture, the
bathroom, and so on.
It also depends on if you have
an outside balcony/verandah or not. If you do, that space is
almost certainly figured in to the total area of the cabin, but if
you are only in the inside part of the cabin (for example at
night, in the rain, in cold weather, etc), then you're not
actually treating the balcony as usable space and so you need to
consider the net enclosed indoor space as a measure of the indoor
Too Small and Too Big?
The smallest cabin we've been
in was 110 sq ft, with two single beds in it. This was
probably too small, particularly for two people traveling
together, whether intimately acquainted or not.
We've been in plenty of cabins
in the 150 - 170 sq ft size range, and they've felt adequate to
This is particularly
surprising because if you found yourself in a hotel room that
size, you'd almost certainly complain about it being too small.
Maybe this is in part due to people having less expectation for
plenty of space on a ship, and maybe this is in part due to the
ship cabins being very carefully designed to give as much
impression of space as possible, whereas small hotel rooms are
also typically 'cheap' hotel rooms and have usually not been
carefully designed to optimize space utilization.
We've also been fortunate to
be in junior and full suites, with more than 200 sq ft, and they
of course have felt increasingly more and more luxurious and
There's an interesting issue
to consider when evaluating cabin sizes. The effective
difference in space is much greater than it might seem - for
example, a 180 sq ft cabin, while being mathematically 20% larger
than a 150 sq ft cabin, might actually feel like it is twice as
This is because much of the
space is used up, and there is only a little bit of 'free' space.
When you subtract the space taken for the bathroom, the bed, the
dresser/desk, the sofa/chair, and the wardrobe, and then when you
allow for the absolute bare minimum of open space so you can at
least squeeze between each item/object already in the room, you'll
find that almost the entire 150 sq ft is accounted for.
Maybe there is 20 sq ft of 'bonus' or free space remaining.
When you then expand to 180 sq ft, the extra 30 sq ft is all bonus/free space. You've
gone from 20 sq ft of free space to 50 sq ft of space.
So the actual comfort and 'liveability'
and 'openness' of the cabin has greatly increased, way beyond the
apparent 30 sq ft and 20% increase.
However, there also comes a
point of vanishing returns, where extra space is no longer adding
to any feeling of increased comfort or wellbeing, and is merely
'wasted space' that you have no use for.
When does high value extra
space transition to low value? We're not sure, and the other
factor is that as you get more and more space, the cabin design
changes to reflect that. The bathroom gets bigger.
Maybe you get a separate partitioned space for a bedroom.
Larger closets. A second toilet. Additional furniture.
Outside deck areas. And so on.
We've stayed in some huge
spacious ultra-luxurious multi-room suites on ships and we've yet
to reach the point where we felt there was too much space
(although the suite that included a tiny servant's room was
starting to get close to it!).
However, we will agree that
once the floor space starts to go over about, say, 350 sq ft, then
you are starting to enter the realm of diminishing returns.
A Summary of Space Issues
So, to summarize this rather
bewildering series of numbers.
First, anything under about
135 sq ft starts to get appreciably and uncomfortably small.
Second, each extra square foot
up to about 200 - 220 sq ft of space will appreciably add to your
feeling of spaciousness.
Third, larger than 200 sq ft
cabins will start to have extra furniture and other space
consuming uses to match the extra space available.
Fourth, at some point over
about 350 sq ft, you're probably no longer getting much
appreciable extra quality living experience for your extra space.
Your cabin will either have
small portholes which may possibly not even open at all, larger
windows (possibly half height) that open to some degree, or a
complete glassed outside wall, with a slider that opens up a
complete part of the exterior.
Cabins on the lowest level
necessarily have smaller windows or portholes that only open a
little. But as you get up above the waterline, there's no
real reason why the window/glass portion of the cabin's outside
wall can't expand all the way.
Some cabins will boast a
'French balcony'. Whoever invented this term clearly doesn't
like French people, because a French balcony is basically no
balcony at all! What it means is you can slide open a floor
to ceiling window/door, but it opens to nothing except a safety
rail immediately outside.
Since 2008, a new
generation of 'super' river cruisers have started appearing.
These are about 85' longer than the previous generation (ie they
445 ft long), with much of the extra space being used for larger
cabins than before, rather than simply more cabins the same size.
This extra space has also seen
the introduction of true balcony/verandahs for some cabin
categories on some ships.
These are wonderful, but there
are two things to consider. First, the space for the outside
verandah means you have less space inside. Second, the
outside verandah is lovely to sit on and watch the world go buy,
but only on a nice day.
By all means pay a premium to
get an outside verandah/balcony with your cabin, but there is
probably less value for this if you are going on a Christmas
cruise than if you are going on a midsummer cruise.
Basic cabin amenities tend to
be the same in all categories of cabin. They'll probably all
have a hair drier, an in-room safe, a phone, radio, television and daily linen
service, for example.
But as the cabin gets larger,
other amenities may be added. For example, the bathroom may
grow in size at some point, and perhaps go from a shower over the
bathroom floor to a shower in its own compartment, or from a
shower to a bath, and from very tiny and crowded to more spacious
An obvious difference is that
sometimes the smaller cabins have two single beds and larger
cabins give you the option of two single beds or one double bed.
Larger cabins and suites will
have extra furniture. Maybe a couch as well as an easy
chair, and might also have a refrigerator and bar provided.
Some ships now offer 'butler
service' to their suites.
Other upgrades can include
free laundry, free mini-bar drinks, and breakfast delivered to
your room rather than needing to go to the restaurant.
If some of these extra
amenities have value,
they can help offset the extra cost you pay upfront for the
Fore, Aft or Midships Location
On a regular cruise ship, you
know that the ship moves about the most at the front, and the
least midships, and you also know that some parts of the ship are
a very long way from other parts of the ship (as much as 2/10th of
But river cruising ships never
experience weather or motion issues at all, so there is need to
think about where the most stable experience will be.
And even though the ship is
long, it is still probably less than half the length of a regular
cruise ship, and the layout of the ship further compresses the
distances you'll have to travel from your cabin to anywhere else.
So from these points of view,
there's no tangible benefit to being further forward or aft along
the one corridor of cabins on each level.
But there are other
considerations. See the next point.
There are several sources of
noise on board a river cruise ship. The most significant two
sources are from the engines and propulsion units, and from people
walking about on the top open deck.
Engine and propulsion unit
noise gets stronger as you move further aft in the vessel.
Along with noise, there might be a bit more vibration as well,
particularly when the boat is maneuvering through the locks and
occasionally needing to throttle the engines up, causing
cavitation effects and also louder engine noise.
That is why the rear most
cabins on most river cruisers are lower priced than the forward
most cabins. If you are sensitive to such issues, you might
want to avoid the rear cabins accordingly.
The other source of noise
impacts only on the people with cabins on the most expensive deck
- the top deck. It is the sound of early morning exercise
enthusiasts jogging around the deck which is immediately above
their cabin ceiling, and these sounds can sometimes disturb people
in the cabins below.
This is of course less of an
issue in winter, when fewer people are on deck, than it is in
summer with early risers getting a healthy bit of morning
exercise. Most ships restrict the times of day when people
can do laps on the top deck, so these sounds are unlikely to be an
issue 24/7, but if you are trying to sleep in later than 'normal',
it might be a nuisance on occasion.
There is one other noise
issue. If you are on the lowest deck, and particularly
towards the front, it seems some people may notice some water noise
from the water moving alongside the ship while it is cruising from
location to location (usually done at night).
Some people find this
relaxing, others find it annoying.
We put this last in the list
of specific issues, and not just because you don't need us to
point out that some cabins are more expensive than others.
The main reason for placing
this last is because hopefully, by reaching this point in the
article, you will now realize that the price you pay has to be
balanced with all the different issues to do with the value you
The cheapest cabin is seldom
the best, and often it is not the best value, either. On the
other hand, the most expensive cabin might be overkill and not
provide you any better an experience than a cabin category one or
two or three lower down the list.
We've helped many hundreds of
people with their cruising arrangements, and as best we can
remember, we've never had anyone come back and complain at having
chosen too nice a cabin.
We've had some people laugh
somewhat shamefacedly and concede that perhaps they should have
gone for a better cabin, and others who've bravely avoided the
On the other hand, we've also
seen some people completely happy with entry level cabins, and
they've proved this by booking the same lowest category cabins on
You know yourselves best, and
you know where on the compromise scale between the best but most
expensive cabin at one extreme, and the cheapest/nastiest cabin on
the other extreme, you typically choose.
Do what is comfortable and
consistent with your lifestyle and preferred travel options.
The information above is merely to help you understand the
implications of your choices. It is absolutely not intended to
persuade you to choose more expensive cabins.
Some people point out
'We're not going to be in our cabin for much other than sleeping.
We'll be touring all day, and while awake and on board, we'll be
in the restaurants or lounges.' That's true too, and the
actual time you spend in your cabin may be minimal. The
inference here is that maybe there is little need to spend a large
amount of extra money on a cabin you'll almost never be in.
Again, you know your own travel style - maybe you enjoy the
quieter privacy of your own cabin during the day rather than the
more social and noisier atmosphere in a lounge.
acknowledge that an underlying reason for many people to travel in
the first place is to give themselves a treat and a special
experience. Your treat and special experience will be much
more memorable if you extend it to not just going on a cruise to
start with, but to choosing an upgraded cabin category too.
Which brings us to a closing
comment. As we said before, we've never had someone complain about having
chosen too nice a cabin. But we have had a lot of people
thank us for encouraging them to choose a better cabin category
than they otherwise might have chosen.
One last thought. If you
get on board, and notice, while walking back to your cabin, that
all the other cabins seem to be very much larger and nicer than
the cabin you chose all those months ago when booking the cruise,
you might be able to upgrade your cabin on board.
Although the cruises are often
either full or very nearly full, there is usually a last minute
cancellation or simply a passenger or two who just no-shows and
doesn't turn up, so there is also usually a cabin or two
available, and if you're in a low category cabin, the chances are
very good that the available cabin is in a better category.
Don't go to the front desk and
complain and demand a free upgrade because your cabin is no good.
You've only yourself to 'blame' for deciding to choose the cabin you
did, and unless there is something conspicuously wrong with the
cabin and not as promised by the cruise line, if you make a big
fuss and try to bully your way into a better cabin, you'll get
nowhere except make yourself prominently understood by the entire
ship's crew as a no-good complainer.
Instead, you should approach
it positively and apologize and say 'I'm sorry, but we didn't
realize from the brochure just how small the cabin would be, or
how low down in the ship it was. You know how it is, the
brochure somehow makes the cabins look huge, and the description
never says 'You'll be below the water line and the cabin is
Laugh as you say it, and the
crew will probably nod in agreement.
Then go on to say 'A friend
sailed on one of your company's cruises earlier in the year, and
he was able to buy an upgrade on board, for much the same reason
as me. I wonder if you have any available cabins that I could
upgrade to, also?
Maybe they'll then offer you
an upgrade to a better cabin. If they say 'I'm sorry, the
ship is full' then ask them 'Have all the passengers checked in
for this cruise yet, or might there still be a no-show or two?'.
Depending on how close to the sailing time you are having this
discussion, there's a good chance that not everyone has yet
arrived and checked in.
Obviously, if the crew concede
that not everyone has checked in, ask if you can put your name on
a waiting list for cabin upgrades, and no matter if they say yes
or no, check back with them when the cruise starts.
One more thing. We're
not going to say that the crew will directly lie to you, but they
might be, ahem, mistaken. If they tell you the cruise is
full and no spare cabins remain, look disappointed and end the
Then go and find the cruise
director and ask them whether the cruise will be full or not.
The cruise director is your friend - he reports through a different
channel than does the ship's 'hotel staff' and he also gets directly
tipped by you at the end of the cruise, whereas the rest of the
ship's crew share generically in the regular tipping and so
are little motivated to do anything special.
If the cruise director also
says it is full, then it probably is full. But if he/she
says there are a few empty cabins, then explain your situation and
ask for their help/advice on how to resolve the problem.
Include the suggestion 'Would it help if I phone back to the home
office and tell them the problem?' - something that no-one on the
ship is likely to want you to do!
How Much to Pay for an Onboard
If you are on a regular
European cruise, and if you are asking for an upgrade because you
want it, then you'll probably be charged full brochure price for
the difference in the cruise costs, just the same as if you'd paid
for the better cabin to start with.
But if you're just hoping to
get a deal, then you should approach the matter differently, and
ask if there are any 'space available upgrades' being offered.
Make sure you already know what the brochure cost of the upgrade
would be, and see if you can negotiate a lower price.
Referring to 'a friend who was
given a space available upgrade on a different cruise line's ship
earlier this year' might help to introduce and validate the topic.
You can't push too hard on
this, because it begs the question 'If upgrading was so important
to you, why didn't you do it when you first booked'. Your
answer to that, of course, is that you are now making a win-win
offer - you get a slight saving on the upgrade fee, and the cruise
line gets some extra money that otherwise it will not get.
Now, for the grey area of
upgrading. It is our sense that, just like on some
airplanes, not all upgrade fees are, ahem, reported back to the
cruise-line. Some might be pocketed by the staff on board
the ship and never reported to anyone else. Let's call these
'cash discounts', shall we. :)
This is more likely to be the
case in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe, and more likely to
be the case if the ship doesn't actually belong to the cruise
line, and/or if the ship's crew aren't actually employed by the
cruise line but instead are contract employees provided through a
third party crewing company. Clearly, there is less loyalty
and less accountability, the greater the arm's length relationship
If you want to try this
approach, you first need to try and ascertain if there are
available upgrade cabins to try and do a deal over. You can
ask that question normally at the front desk, and also see what
the official upgrade policy is.
If there are cabins available,
but not a generous upgrade policy, see if you can speak to the
Purser or the Hotel Manager privately - but don't make it too
obvious you are doing so.
Say 'a friend of mine arranged
for an on-ship upgrade on his cruise earlier this year, and
suggested I should ask you if you could arrange the same thing,
too'. Pull out a wad of cash, and say 'I understand you have
some (category type) cabins available, and I'm happy to pay cash
now for an upgrade if you can arrange one for me. What would
be a fair price?
Expect to pay no more than
half the official upgrade fee. Be prepared to bargain a bit
to get the best deal you can, and at the end of it, ask 'Is there
anything else you can include as part of this fee as well?'.
Maybe you'll get a bottle of wine or something - it doesn't hurt
Read more in Parts 1 and 2
the first part, we talk about the
different types and styles of European river cruising and
why you might enjoy a river cruise.
the second part, we talk about
how to choose the best
European river cruise - what to consider when selecting the best cruise
company for your cruise, and the best airfare to get you there
Related Articles, etc
If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.
10 Jan 2013, last update
26 Aug 2018
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.