A river cruise is a wonderful way to relax, watch the world drift by at a leisurely pace and explore the towns, cities and countryside of Europe and exotic destinations around the globe. With more than 100 river ships launched over the past four years, and many more New Ships debuting along with an increasing number of river cruise lines and itineraries on offer, river cruising is the fastest-growing sector of the worldwide cruise market.
This means there's never been a better time for first-timers to get onboard. Seasoned river cruisers can expand their horizons and experience new and up-and-coming places. Where will your journey take you? The answers are endless.
Whether you're in Europe, South America, Asia, the U.S. or Africa, river cruising shares similarities, along with plenty of dissimilarities, from ocean cruising. The first point is that ships are much smaller than ocean vessels, particularly in Europe, where they are restricted in width and length to fit into locks and sail beneath low bridges, and parts of Asia where they have to navigate shallow waters. So what are the other differences with rivers cruises from their big sisters, cruise ships, let’s take a look.
Unlike ocean ships, river vessels visit a new port each day, sometimes even more than one and passengers can visit up to four countries in a week. Itineraries are port-intensive with a busy program of culture-rich shore excursions, mostly included in the fare and some fee-extra. An actual full day onboard is uncommon, though there is always cruising time, including nighttime sailing on some itineraries.
All meals are included, with many lines offering complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, plus unlimited tea and coffee. Some lines are all-inclusive and, in addition to an open bar, they also cover gratuities. There is generally an open-seating policy, so you can sit where you want. Meals can be fairly regimented due to the small size of the galley, so one sitting for breakfast, lunch and dinner is the norm, although some lines are more flexible with timings than others. Lighter meals can be enjoyed in the lounge, or outside on the deck, and some vessels have additional specialty restaurants.
The onboard experience is more laid-back than it is on oceangoing voyages, with no formal dress code. There's usually a captain's reception and gala dinner, where some people opt for smarter outfits, but it's not obligatory. The most important packing tips are to take layers to cope with unpredictable weather and comfortable shoes or sneakers, as many tours involve walking on cobblestones or uneven surfaces.
Entertainment is low-key with the major attraction being the passing scenery and there is always plenty to see on both banks and ports of call. The intimate nature of river ships also means you'll soon get to know your fellow passengers, and you certainly won't get lost in the crowd.
Staterooms tend to be smaller than oceangoing vessels, but they are not short on home comforts, particularly on the newest ships. Standard amenities include hotel-style beds, bathroom with high-quality toiletries, TV and entertainment system, hair dryer, safe and ample storage space. Some cabins have French balconies and proper walkout verandas, along with stocked mini-bars, suites with butler service and four-poster beds. If you're on a budget, the lower deck cabins have fixed windows but still provide a view, albeit at water level. Because cabin configurations and facilities vary from line to line, and ship to ship within a fleet, be sure to get all the details on how your stateroom will look before you book.
motion of the ship
When it comes to sailing, inland waterways are very calm and flat, so seasickness is never an issue on a river cruise.
River cruises are not well suited to wheelchair users or passengers with severe mobility issues. Most modern ships have elevators, and some have adapted cabins, but gangways can be steep, depending on the level of the river water, and sometimes ships are moored side by side, necessitating walking across one or more to disembark. Always check with a line before booking to assess how user-friendly it will be.
choosing a river cruise line
Just like ocean cruise lines, each river cruise line has a different style and personality, even though the ships all look pretty much the same on the outside. Comfort and ambiance, as well as inclusions, can vary widely between lines' own fleets. New trends in riverboat design mean that vessels debuting after about 2008 offer a lot more extras and lot more space than the older boats.
Each river has its own limitations, and these determine what size ships operate on them. Locks can limit length, low-hanging bridges can restrict height and union rules for lock managers can determine times boats can cruise.
Europe is the world's top river cruising destination, and it's the best place to start if you've never tried a river cruise. The largest number of cruises can be found on the Rhine, which flows through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands, and the Danube, which flows from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, passing through or between Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria on the way.
Offshoots of the Rhine include the Moselle, known for its steep vineyard-covered hillsides and the Main, which connects the Rhine with the Danube through a series of canals. The Danube doesn't have as many tributaries, but if you've already done the central section through Austria's Wachau Valley, try the Lower Danube, which runs through Serbia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, has become the hot destination for river cruises in Asia, with lines launching more ships in order to meet demand. Most cruises are on the Irrawaddy, ranging from four-night mini-cruises from Mandalay to Bagan to two-week itineraries from Yangon and Mandalay, or Bagan. Even more remote is the Chindwin, the largest tributary of the Irrawaddy.
Another up-and-coming destination is India. Sailing on the Ganges, the country's holiest river, most cruises are seven-night sailings from Kolkata coupled with a land-based itinerary and visit to the iconic Taj Mahal. Even more remote is the Brahmaputra, in India's Assam district.
The Mekong River runs through Cambodia and Vietnam, with the most popular seven-night cruises winding their way from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City. Many passengers then opt for land tour extensions that visit Hanoi, passing rural villages, exotic temples and floating markets. New cruises take in the Upper Mekong, from Laos to China.
Several oceangoing cruise ships offer itineraries on the Amazon River, but they tend to focus on Brazil. From Manaus, the Amazon's largest city, to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, where the river is wider and ports are more urban. A cruise on this section of the river is almost like being at sea.
But riverboats that ply the Amazon can maneuver into even more offbeat parts of the Amazon basin and offer a much more adventurous experience. Peru's portion of the Amazon is particularly popular.
Ships embark in Iquitos or the newer port just upriver in Nauta. Instead of touring cities or ancient temples, you'll trek through the rainforest to look for monkeys, river dolphins, parrots, sloths, insects and fascinating plant life or visit small villages where you can interact with the indigenous people. More so than on other river cruise itineraries, you'll actually spend little time ashore because the voyages focus on the river itself, with motorboat rides along the water's edge to look for bird life, piranha fish and alligators.
u.s. and canada
In 2012, the Mississippi River, which had seen several of its riverboats go out of business, began a true renaissance when American Queen Steamboat Company refurbished the 1995-launched American Queen. In 2015, American Cruise Line (ACL) launched the brand-new Queen of the Mississippi paddleboat.
The Mississippi and its connecting tributaries is the most visible of North America's rivers when it comes to cruise lines, and the main itinerary is a seven-night cruise between New Orleans and Memphis, although you can also take an Upper Mississippi cruise between St. Louis and St. Paul. The Ohio River is also popular. ACL's other boats cruise along the East Coast's Intracoastal Waterway, the Chesapeake Bay and New York's Hudson River.
In Oregon, there are also seven-night cruises on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, which are gaining in popularity. They follow the historic route used by 19th-century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark when they journeyed across the U.S. in search of the Pacific Ocean. Several lines also offer warm-weather cruises along the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which skirts the borders between New England and Canada, as well as the Great Lakes.
Following the course of the Nile is an impressive and authentic way of tracing the course of Egyptian history. Nile river cruises traverse the waters between Luxor and Aswan, with itineraries ranging from three days to a week in length. On most trips, the major port stops along the Nile include Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo, but longer cruises may also call at Dendera and Qena.
Abercrombie & Kent, Oberoi, Uniworld and Viking are among the river cruise operators offering Nile itineraries, although travelers can also book Nile cruises on chartered vessels through various tour operators. Nile River cruises operate year-round, but the high season is typically from October to May when it's not too hot.