How to get the Right Cabin on your next River Cruise

Cabin type (or category) is an important factor in deciding on which river cruise line is for you.   All claim to have the best cabins of course, and there is quite a bit of innovation among the different companies.  Even if you have decided on which line, there can be quite a cost & experiential difference depending on the cabin category you select.

Common types of cabin categories on riverships

  1. Interior Cabins –  On most ocean cruises, these are the lead-in cabins (lowest advertised price), but with the exception of a few older European lines, this category does not exist on modern riverships.  
  1. Riverview –  Small Window Below the Waterline on the lowest deck.  This is the category that the “lead-in” pricing is referring to on a river cruise (the price you see advertised)..  Most of the cabin is below the waterline of the ship, but it typically has a “transom” window higher up on the wall than a normal window (just above the waterline).  It is almost always the smallest category of cabin, a notable exception being Viking Longships, where it is the 2nd smallest.  This is also known as a Standard cabin, but some humorously call this a “swan” room as that will be your view…a swan or perhaps just their feet as they paddle around.
  1. French Balcony – typically on the top 2 decks of a rivership, a sliding glass door opens up to railing, but you cannot step outside.     This is the most common type of cabin available, and the one I recommend, excepting Viking Longships.  This is also known as a “Juliet” balcony.
  1. Infinite Balcony – a version of a French Balcony where the construction is a bit different and has a floor to ceiling window that the top half of the window lowers with the push of a button, and then that becomes your railing, aka “Infinite” balconies.
  1. Loft Cabin – combines a Riverview cabin sleeping area with a loft featuring an Infinite balcony and a seating area. 
  1. Balcony – typically on the top 2 decks of a rivership, it has a sliding glass door that opens up to a narrow balcony that you can walk outside.  Often space is given up in the interior of the cabin to make room for the outdoor area.   It may be referred to as an Outside Balcony or a Veranda.
  1. Suites – these are the higher end of the price range, and afford more space on a river cruise.   Depending on the level of suite, it will have one or more balconies, possibly of multiple types.   Some cruise lines use the word “suite” in place of “cabin,” so pay attention.

Innovative cabin designs

The president of AmaWaterways, Rudi Schreiner, is credited with inventing the French balcony.  Obviously this has been a game changer by increasing indoor usable space yet by opening the door you can enjoy fresh air and watch the world go by.  Rudi has been awarded CLIA’s Lifetime Achievement Award (CLIA is Cruise Line International Association).  They also introduced a first of “Twin Balcony” staterooms  that have one french balcony and another standard exterior balcony.

Let’s move on to the elephant in the room, Viking Cruises.  After all, they are without a doubt the most well-known river cruise company to the US market, and they have the most number of ships by far.   Chairman Torstein Hagen has been instrumental in the growth of river cruising, and through creative and persistent marketing has really created a huge interest in the entire market.

Viking patented an “offset” deck plan, and it is certainly an innovation for Viking, though the prospective guest should be aware of it when considering cabin category.

Most river cruise ships have a hallway that is centered on the ship, with more or less equal width cabins along the corridor.  On a Viking Longship, that is not the case; the corridor is offset by a few feet giving more room to cabins on the port side of the ship than those on the starboard side.  

Viking Deck Plan provided courtesy of Viking Cruises

Viking French balcony cabins are always on this shorter side, and the Veranda Staterooms are on the wider side of the ship.  This is really smart as the drawback of outdoor balconies is that it typically takes away from the rest of the cabin space.  On Viking it instead takes the space away from the neighbors cabin across the hall!  

The result is that the Veranda Staterooms are 205 sq feet (interior), and French Balconies are 135 sq feet.   That may not sound like a lot of difference, but 135 sq feet is really a very small amount of room to live in for two people – especially on cruises longer than a week.  Remember that these figures are the total for the bathroom, bed, and “living” space.  Even the lead-in “Standard River View” cabins are billed as 150 sq feet on Viking River Cruises.

If AmaWaterways invented the french balcony, Avalon Waterways re-invented it.   On their new class of “Suite Ships,” they have done an amazing job of re-inventing cabin layout and maximized the opening size of french balconies.  Remember these are giant floor to ceiling windows when closed!

Author aboard Avalon Waterways’ Poetry II in a “P” category french balcony (2019)

Avalon Waterways has really done a nice job on re-imagining the french balcony stateroom, and on their “suite ships,” 80% of the cabins are like this (Categories A,B, P).   Instead of a double door system, they have triple doors that are floor to ceiling glass, and they open up to 8’ – quite wide for a french balcony.   Then they put a nice sitting area right beside the opening to enjoy the space.  The more I looked around the room, I began to realize how much thought and engineering was put into this design.   The bathrooms are built with an angled wall, making them more spacious, and that angled wall (on the other side) is where the head of the bed is, facing the view, which is lovely.  (Note that Tauck in many categories also has the bed facing the view).  The TV is on a wall mount in the corner (out of the way) and then the vanity/desk/wardrobe combo makes organizing the next week or so a snap.   And in the end it feels spacious, luxurious, and the best view of any balcony stateroom.

An early adopter of the infinite balcony is Emerald Waterways, which is another way to maximize your view.  Although it is not as wide as the Avalon triple door, it doesn’t have a door at all!  That means no railing, which enhances the vistas along the river.  It’s a floor to ceiling composed of 2 windows.  Simply hold the button to raise or lower the top window to your desired position.  At the lowest position, it’s about railing height, and you can enjoy the fresh air from your stateroom.   

Again, any type of french balcony combined with a standard sized stateroom really maximizes living space without compromising what people really like about a balcony: a sitting area with fresh air and a great view!

Tauck Lofts – This is the one lower deck cabin I can definitely  recommend!  This Category 3 on Inspiration Class riverships (ms Esprit, ms Grace, ms Inspire, ms Joy, ms Savor) gives you a french balcony for the price of a lead-in “below the waterline” cabin.

Author’s wife coming downstairs from the loft area to the lower area (Tauck’s ms Grace, 2017)

In this category, the bedroom and bathroom are on the lower part – as on all riverships, but instead of a small window at the top of the room, there is instead a seating area with a floor to ceiling window that the top half lowers into an “infinite” french balcony.  Note that this would not likely be a good selection for those with mobility needs.

Summary

So let me say it again – on virtually every other cruise line, the French / Infinity Balcony is usually the best bet because you reclaim that outdoor space as much needed interior space, but not on Viking.  On Viking you want to get the Veranda Stateroom – not necessarily for the balcony itself, but for the extra interior space.

Fun Fact: On Viking Longships, it should be noted that along with the French Balconies on the “short” side are the Veranda Suites.  Because these take up the size of two French Balcony Cabins, they are 275 square feet with a separate living space and have 2 french balconies.  These are a nice upgrade from the Veranda Staterooms!

With regard to larger suites, of course the extra room is nice…but is it worth it?  On many ocean cruise lines, the answer is a resounding yes.   This is because of all of the perks and amenities that often accompany those suites, which in turn can make it an excellent value.   However, on river cruise lines a suite often affords you only more square feet.  And while the extra space may certainly be justified to you, be aware that they typically do not offer any extra on board amenities or perks.

One exception is the Viking Explorer Suite:  

  • early check-in (available from 12 PM)
  • complimentary Silver Spirits beverage package (open bar)
  • Viking Air Plus services (custom air)
  • laundry service (limited)
  • room service (during breakfast)
  • shoe shine service
  • private airport transfers in Europe
  • mini-bar with wine, beer & soft drinks

However you need to check the cost of those items against the increased upgrade price to make sure it is a good value.  Of course you also get a lot of extra space and an aft wrap around balcony!

When looking at cabins for a USA river cruise, these are typically larger staterooms than found elsewhere. They usually look and feel more like a standard hotel room, and there are more accessible options, thanks to the ADA. We recommend that you select a balcony for the fresh air and sweeping vistas to enjoy with your coffee.

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