by Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert
“What type of balcony is best for my river cruise?” We are often ask this question. It can be very confusing trying to figure out the different approaches to balconies by various river cruise lines. Balconies or lack of balconies, is often one of the key defining differences between river cruise lines in cabin accommodations. This blog should help you understand each line’s approach to balconies and should help you evaluate whether a balcony, and what type of balcony, would be best for your river cruise.
On river cruise ships, there are 6 possible views from your river cruise cabin stateroom. They are: 1) a small window, 2) a large window, 3) a French balcony (a vertical sliding glass door), 4) a balcony with a window that opens half way, 5) an outside balcony, and 6) a twin balcony.
Deck Designs of a River Cruise Ship
River cruise ships have 4 decks, but the upper deck, often called the sun or sky deck, is just a roof. There are guest cabins on the remaining 3 decks. Deck 1 (the lowest deck) is for crew and guests and may have some public areas. Decks 2 and 3 have guest cabins and other public areas. Balcony cabins are only allowed on the upper two decks (2 & 3) of a river cruise ship. Balcony cabins are always more expensive than window cabins. On the first deck, nearest to the river line, all cabins only have small or large windows, but most only have the small windows. There is a very good safety reason that only windows are allowed on Deck 1, as the windows are just a few feet from the water line. The cabins with only a small windows are usually the least expensive cabins on each ship. So, with that background, let’s explore river cruise cabin balconies on the upper two decks.
What are the 8 Major River Cruise Companies that Market to US Travelers?
There are currently 8 companies who are the primary suppliers of river cruises to the US market. They are 1) AmaWaterways, 2) Avalon, 3) Crystal, 4) Emerald, 5) Scenic, 6) Tauck, 7) Uniworld, and 8) Viking. Each of these companies usually have different approaches to balconies on their river cruise ships. Although beyond the scope of this blog, if you would like a detailed comparison of these 8 river cruise lines, PLEASE CLICK HERE
Since 2009, when we took our first cruise on AmaWaterways, we have watched balcony cabins evolve on our favorite river cruise line. At first, they only had French balconies on all cabins in the upper two decks. However in 2010, starting with the AmaBella, they introduced the concept of twin balconies—½French balcony inside and ½ balcony outside. Since that time, all 135 m river ships on AmaWaterways use the twin balcony concept. No other river cruise line at present uses this concept for a majority of their upper deck cabins, however, Viking does use twin balconies on a limited number of their suites. Twin balconies really are the best of both worlds—outside when the weather is good or inside with the sliding glass doors of the French balcony at other times. While there are a few French balconies on the upper two decks of their 135 m longships (they call them Cat C cabins), all of the remaining 49 have the twin balconies. 65 of the 82 cabins on the 135 m long ships have balconies. Here are some pictures of the twin balconies and French balconies we have taken on various cruises:
AmaWaterways Twin Balcony
A French Balcony Cabin on AmaWaterways
Avalon uses French Balconies only. They call their concept an Open-Air Balcony. This concept is that the whole stateroom is the balcony, with the bed facing the window and it has larger windows of 11 feet in the Panorama suites. They heavily promote the “wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling” windows of their staterooms. 68 of the 84 cabins on their longships have the Open-Air Balcony concept.
Crystal only has one ship at present and there are only French balconies on the ship. It is called the Crystal Mozart. 37 cabins have French balconies and 41 have only windows.
All Emerald ships on the 2 upper levels have balconies. They call their balconies an open-air system and it uses a button to lower the window horizontally half way down from the closed position. 72 of their 90 cabins on their 135 m longships have the open-air system. Here is a picture of the Emerald Sun balconies from a ship inspection we did in 2015:
Emerald Open-Air-System Balcony
Scenic features a balcony they call the Sun Lounge—at a push of a button, the glass enclosed lounge converts to an open air balcony by going horizontally down half way—it is awesome! All cabin categories on the upper two decks have full balconies with the Sun Lounge. 68 of the 81 cabins on their 135 m longships have the Sun Lounge. Here is a picture of the Sun Lounge from our 2015 Scenic Opal cruise:
Tauck river cruise ships have only French Balconies. 55 of the 67 cabins on their 135 m long ships have balconies. Tauck is unique in its approach to some of their river line cabins. It has 8 cabins that are called loft cabins—they have a sitting area loft that is raised up from the rest of the cabin area and extends from the first deck to the second deck.
Uniworld’s brochure has the least information about its cabins than any other river cruise lines. Other lines reported in this blog, have diagrams of each category of staterooms, but Uniworld, with its elaborately decorated boutique river ships, offers the fewest details. Generally speaking, the larger 135 m longships have French balconies on the second deck and outside cabins on the upper deck. On their 135 m ships 62 of the 77 staterooms have balconies.
Viking on its 50 longships at present, use a patented off center deck on their upper two decks. This allows for one side of the ship to have verandas (outside balconies) and the opposite side has French balconies. There are 2 large suites (445 sq ft) at the aft end of the ship that have wrap around balconies and 7 veranda suites (225 sq ft) with an outside balcony and a French balcony. 39 state rooms (205 sq ft) have outside verandas. 22 staterooms (135 sq ft) have French balconies. 69 of the 94 staterooms have balconies. The outside balconies have 2 mesh chairs and a small drink table.
How To Decide If a Balcony is Important for your Cruise Experience.
Most river cruise guests spend most of their waking hours outside their cabins either in the main lounge or on the top deck, when they are not eating, or on tour. While a private balcony of any type is cool and really great, we have seldom spent more than an hour on any of our balconies during any cruising day (12 river cruises). I will admit, though, it is tough to beat having a bottle of wine together on your private balcony—a great escape and some quality together time. That alone, makes a balcony important to us—it really doesn’t matter if it is a French Balcony or an outside veranda or a twin balcony—it all is good! However, it is important to realize due to limited docking space, river ships often raft, or tie up next to each other, so you wonderful view now becomes a view into someone else’s cabin. Also, in some ports, the docking location has walls to obscure views. There is also no view during time in a lock except to look at the concrete lock walls. A final point to consider is that sailing often is done at night, so tours can take advantage of daylight hours, and this limits what you are able to see from your balcony during some sailing times. Even with these limitations, we always prefer a balcony of some type.
Should you get a Stateroom with a Balcony?
In my opinion yes! One of the best things about river cruising is the constant views along the banks of the river and the more you get to see, the better! We always recommend a cabin on the upper 2 decks for that reason. Another point to consider is that cabins on the river line deck with small windows often only are accessible by stairs and can feel cramped with the limited light from the small window.
We hope this has helped understand more about balconies that are offered on the various river cruise lines. With these great views, it is easy to see what a great way a river cruise is to explore Europe! We also hope this will inspire you to try river cruising–we will be glad to help. Please give Hank a call at 713-397-0188 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can help you Savor life . . .make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!