The rivers of the world are fast becoming hotspots for travelers. European river cruising has boomed in the last decade, and cruise lines are expanding to more exotic and interesting parts of the globe every year. So whether you'd like to sail gently along as medieval castles float by your balcony or you prefer the hustle and bustle of a trip through an Asian metropolis, we can help you find your perfect river cruise.
What to Expect on a River Cruise
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.
Unlike ocean ships, river vessels visit a new port each day, sometimes even more than one; 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 (there is always plenty to see on both banks) and ports of call. The intimate nature of riverships 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 dyer, 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.
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.
Barge cruising -- which mostly focuses on boats that carry less than 25 passengers and ply the waters of even smaller rivers (and often just stay in canals) -- is a completely different style of cruising. They have a very cozy atmosphere and can also be chartered by families or groups of friends. The purpose-built hotel boats or converted working vessels contain comfy cabins and modern facilities, and most have onboard bikes.