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How to Choose Your River Cruise Cabin

Find the best company, cruise, and cabin

Amacerto in Bratislava

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 mega-cruise liner.

Part 3 of a series on river cruising.  Please also see

1.  All About European River Cruising
2.  How to Choose Your European River Cruise
3.  How to Choose Your River Cruise Cabin



New 'super' river cruising ships offer a much greater range of different cabin types and sizes.

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 categories :

  • Height Above Waterline

  • Cabin Size/Space

  • Balcony/Windows

  • Cabin Amenities

  • Fore, Aft or Midships Location

  • Noise

  • Cost

We discuss these issues in the following sections.

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 line.

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.

You're 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 along.

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 verandah/balconies).

So there is a definite and tangible benefit to you in choosing a higher level deck over a lower level deck.

Cabin Size/Space

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 different sizes.

How much space do you really need in a cabin?  When does cramped and crowded become roomy and spacious?

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 living experience.

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 surprisingly roomy.

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 spacious.

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 big.

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 are about 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.

Cabin Amenities

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 in size.

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 upgraded cabin.

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 a mile).

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 receive.

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.

General Considerations

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 subject entirely.

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 future cruises.

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.

We also 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.

Onboard Upgrades

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 tiny!'.

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 conversation.

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 Upgrade

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.

'Cash Discounts'

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 becomes.

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 to ask. 

Read more in Parts 1 and 2

In the first part, we talk about the different types and styles of European river cruising and why you might enjoy a river cruise.

In 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 and back.

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Originally published 10 Jan 2013, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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