A guide to choosing your first river cruise

Summer River Cruise

River cruising has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, as travelers who have been cruising on the oceans now look towards destinations that cannot be reached by ocean liners. In addition to the popular European rivers such as the Rhine, Danube, Rhône, Saône, the Volga, and the Douro, we have seen expansions into the exotic rivers, from South America’s Amazon, Africa’s Nile and the Zambezi, to Asia’s Irrawaddy, Mekong and the Ganges.

Top 5 Reasons to Choose a River Cruise

What makes river cruising so appealing? Here are our top 5 reasons:

1. Smaller Guest Count

River ships typically carry less than 200 guests. This means no crowds and no lineups. It also makes for a congenial onboard atmosphere, as guests see each other every day, dine together, and participate in tours together. It is impossible not to socialize and make new friends.

2. More Inclusions

An excursion is included at every port, either as a walking tour or a visit to the top points of interest. Wine, beer, and soft drinks are complimentary with lunch and dinner, bottled water, specialty coffees and teas are complimentary all day. Most ships in Europe also have free wi-fi. Some river cruise lines are all-inclusive, with open bar, prepaid gratuities, and airport transfers. This translates into tremendous value, where one price covers almost all expenditures.

3. Culinary Journey

Since the galley caters to a much smaller group, all meals are cooked to order. The menus feature regional specialties made with locally-sourced ingredients. Think Wiener schnitzel and Hungarian goulash on the Danube, crispy roast pork and hearty bratwursts on the Rhine. Accompanying wine and beer also reflect the ship’s itinerary – imagine sipping a glass of Bordeaux or Burgundy, or sampling Bavarian beers while cruising through Europe’s top wine and beer producing regions.

4. Enriching Travel Experience

River cruising is a chance to delve deep into the destination, blending history, culture, arts, and architecture of the region to create an immersive experience. Visitors discover both bustling city life and rural peacefulness through guided tours by local experts, with excursions to castles, museums, concerts, or even private homes and farms to engage with the owners. The enriching experience continues onboard ship, through regional food and wine, local lecturers, musicians and performers who come onboard to educate and entertain guests.

5. Easy Access to Sightseeing

Before roads were built, the prominent cities of the world, along with charming hamlets and towns, were established upon the river banks. This allows for convenient access to sightseeing, with city centers often within walking distance from the ship. You can come and go as you wish, and on evening or overnight calls, enjoying dinner or taking in the nightlife ashore is made easy. River cruising is also an excellent way to explore remote destinations – such as pilgrimage sites along the Ganges, thatched-roof villages on the Irrawaddy and Russian communes on the Volga – with your welcoming floating hotel at the end of each day. The convenience of unpacking once and enjoying multiple ports and countries simply cannot be beaten.


4 River Cruises Intricacies You Need to Know

Walking tour in a river cruise

Source: Shutterstock; Cobblestone street in Bremen, Germany

Unlike ocean cruising, there are certain intricacies that apply to river cruising.

1. Accessibility

In short, river cruising is not for those confined to a wheelchair, or have mobility challenges. Older vessels do not have elevators or may have one that does not reach the upper deck. Guests will need to climb gangways which may be steep and negotiate the cobblestoned city streets on walking tours. In Europe, many ships are tied up side by side, making it necessary to walk through other ships to get ashore.

2. No Motion Sickness

One welcoming difference on a river cruise is the lack of motion. River ships are stable, built low, and the rivers they ply are calm and shallow, making smooth sailings possible.

3. Dress Code

River cruisers enjoy a casual and relaxed dress code, where there is no need for tuxedos or gowns. A collared shirt and slacks for men, separates or casual dresses for ladies are more than sufficient onboard every cruise line.

4. Water Levels

One potential disrupter of river cruises is the rise and fall of water levels. In heavy spring melt or rainfall, river swells may prevent ships from passing under bridges. In severe drought, rivers may be too shallow for ships to stay afloat. When ships are unable to operate, the contingency is to transfer the guests to another ship or continue the program by motorcoach. In the most severe circumstance, sailings may be canceled altogether. Cruise lines do an excellent job of handling these interruptions and will look after their guests to their utmost capability.


4 Types of River Cruise Travelers

Active travelers in a river cruise

Source: AmaWaterways; The Wellness program at AmaWaterways

1. Seniors

If you’re wondering which river cruise lines are best for seniors, we can confidently say that all of them are. Unlike ocean cruise lines whose onboard atmosphere range from boisterous to sedate, all river cruises are similar in nature, in that they appeal to travelers looking for an intimate social environment, enriching discoveries, and destination immersion. Follow the above-mentioned tips on choosing the right cruise and you won’t go wrong.

2. Solo Travelers

While all river cruise lines cater to solo travelers by their intimate and social environment, most also offer added value by waiving the single supplement as a limited time offer or early booking promotion. In addition, Tauck River Cruises and Riviera River Cruises also offer single occupancy staterooms without the supplement on every sailing.

3. Active Travelers

Avalon Waterways recently introduced Active Discovery cruises with hiking, cycling, and paddling excursions. Ama Waterways and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises both employ certified wellness instructors onboard to lead fitness classes, informative lectures, and active excursions. Ama Waterways, Avalon Waterways, Crystal Cruises, Emerald Waterways, Scenic, Tauck, and several of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ ships carry a fleet of bicycles that are available for guests to take ashore free of charge. Most new ships are now built with dedicated fitness and spa spaces.

4. Luxury Travelers

For those looking for a luxurious river cruise experience, consider Crystal Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, Scenic or Tauck. These cruise lines excel in guest satisfaction through an all-inclusive environment, spacious staterooms and an array of luxury suites, fine dining restaurants, and exemplary service. Rates include all premium beverages, butler service (where available), and crew gratuities.


4 Tips on Choosing the Best River Cruise

River cruise experience

Source: Uniworld; Suite Stateroom at S.S. Bon Voyage

With so many different cruise lines, it can be a daunting task to select the right river cruise. Here are the criteria you should keep in mind while making your decision.

1. Passenger and Crew Capacity

Although river ships are roughly the same size so that they can fit under bridges and into locks, passenger and crew capacity varies between the cruise lines. Ships with fewer guests will have larger staterooms and more onboard amenities, while a higher crew to guest ratio will enhance service levels.

2.  Stateroom size and Layout

Staterooms and suite sizes also vary between the brands. Will you be spending more time on deck and ashore during a river cruise? Absolutely – but having a little extra space may be appealing if you are looking to relax in the privacy of your room.

3. Onboard Amenities

While all river ships feature a restaurant, lounge and upper deck, amenities such as bicycles, pools, fitness areas and spa services are not always commonplace. If you find these amenities important, choose a cruise line that offers them.

4. Inclusiveness

Although budget is often a deciding factor, an all-inclusive cruise line may provide better value if all expenses are paid upfront, with larger staterooms and higher service levels. Eliminating the hassle of paying for à la carte items is a terrific benefit of an all-inclusive cruise.


Our final tips – reserve your river cruise early. Unlike large ocean ships which may have last-minute sales to sell the last cabins, river ships generally sail full, because of their small capacity. We recommend booking at least 12 to 18 months in advance, especially during the summer or holiday season. Also, you might want to consider working with a professional travel advisor. You can get help selecting the river cruise line and river cruise ship that is right for you, based on your interests, wishlist and budget. Travel professionals also receive early notices of special promotions and extra incentives to get you the best river cruise deal.


Find your River Cruise here!


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