River Cruises Are Expensive, This is What You’re Actually Paying For

If you are considering your first river cruise you might be wondering what you actually get for your money. I’ve been on two river cruises to date and was incredibly impressed with the value for money that river cruises offer. During this article, we will look into everything that a river cruise fare includes.

Why Are River Cruises Expensive?

River cruises are expensive because they include a lot compared to land-based vacations or mainstream ocean cruises. Most river cruises include food, excursions, and drinks. River cruising is a luxurious way to travel. 

There is a lot of variety within the river cruise industry when it comes to what is included in the cruise fare.

Top deck of the Emerald Liberte river cruise ship

Small Ships, Personal Service

River cruise ships typically only have around 100-150 passengers. For a ship of this size, there will be around 50 crew members which means that the crew are able to give a very high standard of service to all guests. On some of the most luxurious river cruise lines each cabin will have a butler who is on call for guests whenever they need anything.

On a river cruise, the same crew members may have multiple jobs to complete. For example, the waiters in the main bar may also work as waiters in the dining rooms during dinner. This is one of the reasons why you really do get to know the crew on board, you see them all day every day!

The Crew Live Onboard

The crew lives on the river ships and unlike ocean cruise ships do not have designated crew areas. This means that even when the crew aren’t technically working they’ll be found all over the ship and are always happy to chat with guests.

Emerald Waterways

The first river cruise I took was with Emerald Waterways. All Emerald Waterways cruises have an activities manager on board in addition to a cruise director and other cruise staff.

Our activities manager was an amazing man was Drazen, we quickly became friends with him and he even took us out for a drink (thanks Drazen)! Drazen was in charge of things like aqua aerobics, gameshows, guided walks, and hikes.

We joined Drazen almost every day for an afternoon walk or hike. One afternoon we hiked up a mountain and when we got to the top Drazen pulled 5 bottles of water out of his bag and offered them to the guests! I found it hard to believe that he had carried the extra bottles to the top, we each carried one up and that was hard enough.

This is just one example of how friendly and helpful the crew is on river cruises. Another example was on the Saga river cruise which I took, our cruise director Charlie made a point of telling guests when they should turn on and turn off airplane modes on their phones to avoid charges.

Port Talk Saga River Cruise
A port talk by the Saga team

Included Food

On almost all river cruises you’ll find that all food on board is included. There are some exceptions to this, of course, some budget lines have specialist options but generally speaking, river cruise lines include all food.

Food Quality

The quality of food on river cruises is some of the best that I’ve ever experienced. Below is an example menu from my Emerald Waterways river cruise. At a minimum, there will be a choice of starter, main, and dessert for every meal. On some river ships, you may find that you have 5 or more courses!

Emerald Waterways Menu Dinner Main Dining Room

Due to the smaller number of guests, it’s often easier for the kitchen crew to amend or change dishes for those who have special dietary requirements. Allergens were clearly marked on the Emerald Waterways menu and the menu was available to view before mealtimes. I loved this as I often had decided what I wanted for dinner before I even entered the dining room.

Food Options

On both my Saga and Emerald Waterways river cruises the breakfast was buffet style with lunch and dinner being waiter service.

In addition to the main dining room there is usually a second option for breakfast and lunch where guests can eat if they don’t want to eat in the main dining room. I often ate the ‘lighter’ lunch option when I didn’t want to dine in the main dining room, the food was just as good.

During our Emerald Waterways river cruise, we had the most amazing BBQ on the top deck. We were all chatting to each other in the sun and the waiters were bringing around wine and beet. It was incredible. Below is a photo of my lunch.

Emerald Waterways Barbecue BBQ Top Deck

Daily Excursions

On almost all river cruises you’ll find that at least some excursions are included. On many river cruise lines, daily excursions are included.

The included excursions are usually a combination of a walking tour with bus elements and they’re often run by local guides. In addition to the included excursions, there are usually excursions that guests are able to pay extra for should they want to take part in a certain activity.

Bike Tours

Many river cruise lines will offer bike tours free of charge to their guests. A number of lines also have bikes that they keep onboard which guests are able to take off the ship if they want to explore by themselves. The bike tours usually require quests to sign up ahead of time and there is a limited number of spaces available.

Daily Walks

In addition to the included excursions, there may be the opportunity to go on other included activities like guided walks or hikes. During our Emerald Waterways river cruise, we tried to take part in as many activities as we could and ended up with at least one tour, or usually two tours, per day.

The daily walks were a great opportunity to get to know the other guests. I’m not sure why but the people on the river cruises are just so friendly. It’s one of the main reasons why it’s almost impossible to get bored on a river cruise, to find out why river cruises definitely aren’t boring, and to learn what you can expect to get up to onboard, check out this post:

Are River Cruises Boring? Some People Say Yes, I Don’t! Here’s Why


Almost all river cruise lines do include some drinks with the cruise fare.

Partially Included

The most common option for included drinks is that beer, wine, and soft drinks will be included with meals. This means that the free drinks are available in the main dining room when meals are being served and also in the main lounge at the same time. You will probably find that you spend very little extra on drink when you are on a river cruise because of this. Dinner can often last a long time and with the drinks flowing guests are rarely in a rush to leave the dining room.

Top Tip: Make sure that you have a full glass before you leave the main dining room. You can take it with you to your cabin or into the lounge to continue your evening.

Saga River Cruise Table Sharing at Dinner

Fully Included

On some river cruise lines, all drinks are included at all times. These tend to be the more premium cruise lines but there are quite a few river cruise lines that do offer this. Guests on river cruises don’t really tend to drink to excess as they are busy exploring the ports or enjoying the food onboard.

The Ships Dock Centrally

On ocean cruises, you’ll often find that the port where you dock is miles away from the place that you want to visit. For example, if you are visiting ‘London’ on a cruise you’ll probably be visiting Southampton which is around 90 minutes on a train away from London. Actually getting into the city can be an added expense that can really add up, especially if there are multiple people in your family or group.

One of the main advantages of river cruising is that the ships dock right in the center of the town or city. You very rarely have to commute to visit your destination and you’ll usually be able to just wander off the ship and wander back whenever you wish.

Emerald Waterways Dress Code Excursions Viviers

Where To Next?

There is not a lot that I love more than going on a cruise, meeting new friends, and realizing that I paid considerably less than everybody else for the exact same cruise.

Finding and booking a cruise is no easy task. I’ve been able to cruise for as little as $50 per night and I regularly save over 75% compared to advertised brochure prices. You can do it too!

Start Today.

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Emma Le Teace

Hey! I'm Emma. A cruise blogger, YouTuber and founder of the 'Cruising Isn't Just For Old People' Facebook community and website. You can learn more here: About Me.

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