Here you are, reading about river cruising, and we’re guessing something piqued your interest? Was it a recommendation from a friend, a TV programme, or maybe just simple curiosity? Whatever the reason, we’re going to tell you all about it!
Having started as a niche holiday choice for those ‘in the know’, based around a limited number of sailings and destinations, this diverse holiday choice continues to grow in popularity year after year, so much so that it has created its own space in the wider cruise industry. With such choice and competition, there has never been a better time to dip your toe in.
If you’re looking for a slower pace of travel with the chance to fully immerse yourself in the places you visit then the question should be ‘why wouldn’t you choose a river cruise!’
Here's our Top 10 reasons to choose a river cruise:
A floating city break or into the wilderness - out of the 7 continents in the world, rivers run through 6 of them. Most of the major cities in the world are situated on the banks of rivers, with fresh water, food & transport and playing their part in the creation of many cities and civilisations.
Sailings along Europe’s rivers take you into the heart of the Continent’s most beautiful and historical cities, including Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna on the Danube; Cologne and Strasbourg on the Rhine; Lyon on the Rhône; and Paris and Rouen on the Seine.
Far-flung waterways enable passengers to delve into depths of the jungle along the Amazon; through the tropical landscapes along the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia; past golden temples gleaming alongside the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers in Myanmar; and headlong into the cultural marvels of the Ganges.
Active and relaxing – sitting on deck and admiring the constantly-changing views is one of the biggest pleasures of river cruising, but then so is exploring ashore on cycling trips, hiking treks, walking excursions and even jogging tours. Enthusiasts can also make a splash on kayaking and canoeing outings.
Sociable and intimate – with the largest vessels taking up to 200 passengers and the smallest accommodating just a handful of guests, river cruising resembles more a floating house party where the camaraderie flows as smoothly as the waterways thanks to a relaxed ambience that lends itself to convivial conversation.
A family affair – river cruising is crossing the generational divide thanks to dedicated sailings and activities aimed at younger cruisers. Specially-designed family cabins, children’s clubs and special child prices are helping to woo more youngsters and their parents, along with multigenerational groups where grandparents come along too.
Classily casual – you don’t need to pack your poshest glad-rags as there are no black-tie events and the dress code is as laidback as the onboard lifestyle. Exclusive nights at private concerts ashore and the Captain’s dinner, often on the penultimate evening, are the main occasions that call for smarter attire.
Top marks for value – while river cruise prices are generally higher than for ocean cruises, much more is included. In addition to accommodation and food, rates often include drinks either with meals or 24/7, free wifi, gratuities, shore excursions and activities.
Soak up the views – river sailings offer some of the best vantage points, from the dramatic castle-topped hills of the Unesco-listed Rhine Gorge to the Gothic glories of Budapest’s parliament building (beautifully illuminated at night) and the majestic Iron Gate Gorge east of Belgrade.
Ripe for exploring – excursions tend to be informative and offer a cultural flavour of the destinations visited with walking tours a popular mainstay, plus concerts and recitals, wine tastings, cookery classes and trips to local points of interest, museums and castles.
Culinary feasts – expect to dine royally on river cruises with haute cuisine three or four-course dinners that follow expansive breakfasts and lunches, plus the chance to top-up in-between with a mid-morning snack and afternoon tea. Early risers can dip in before breakfast with early-morning coffee and pastries too.
Smooth sailing – nervous sailors or those who suffer from seasickness do not need to worry about rough conditions on rivers. Vessels tend to sail during the evening and moor up late at night, so as not to disturb guests, before starting off again early the following morning.
Generally speaking, there are four types of cabin on river cruise vessels; Window/River View, French Balcony, Verandah & Suite. The starting grade tends to be on the lowest deck often with small, narrow windows. On higher decks (most vessels have two or three decks), cabins have larger windows which can often be turned into French balconies at the flick of a switch that lowers the top section of glass, or with doors that slide open, with a safety rail. Selected river ships have full walk-out balconies and in some cases, these also have windows that can be closed to create a sun-lounge. Suites on river ships will often offer a combination of full and French balconies, though some suites may be just slightly larger than the average cabin while others will offer separate bedrooms and living spaces.
As a rule of thumb, cabins come as double or twin-bedded with flat-screen TVs, wardrobes and storage, a coffee table and seating. There is often a fridge or minibar and bottled water is generally provided free of charge. Ensuite facilities are well designed and have a shower, with baths not being common. The new generation of river cruise ships has also brought accessible cabins offering more space and modified facilities, plus inter-connecting cabins and accommodation aimed at families plus solo travellers. On certain vessels, beds face the windows allowing for all-encompassing views, but remember that when river ships are moored up two or three deep at some docks, the view is temporarily obscured and guests can find themselves looking into someone else’s cabin.
Quality rather than quantity is the mantra when it comes to the culinary appeal of river cruises. Restaurants on river ships offer an upmarket ambience and there’s more chance of being able to bag a prime spot by the window as seating is not pre-allocated.
Many river cruise lines still have set dining times, particularly for evening meals, though some offer more flexibility with a time window when you can arrive. River vessels increasingly have additional dining venues that supplement the main restaurant. These are generally smaller, with some adopting a more casual atmosphere and serving lighter bites or, alternatively, focusing on haute cuisine and a more upscale feel - they often require reservations and there may be limits on how many times passengers can dine there during a sailing. There may also be an extra charge, but aside from this, all food is generally included.
Another factor that marks out river cruises is the complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks often included at meal times. While dinners tend to be four courses or more, lunches and breakfasts have traditionally consisted of high-quality buffet fare, complemented by chefs at cooking stations preparing freshly-made dishes. Anyone not wanting to take breakfast or lunch in the main restaurant can often choose from a pared down selection of casual bites in the lounge, from where they can take them out on deck if they wish. Between mealtimes, there are early-riser breakfasts of pastries and coffee, mid-morning snacks and afternoon tea, while predinner drinks will often be spiced up with plates of hors d’oeuvres, ensuring that there’s no chance of going hungry!
Onboard Wellness. More modern river ships are leading a wave of onboard wellness and fitness facilities on the waterways. Several vessels now have hot tubs and/or deck pools, some of which are under cover, but have retractable roofs. The expansive top decks allow room for walking or jogging tracks and areas where al fresco yoga and keep fit sessions are held to a backdrop of river views.
Several cruise lines employ fitness hosts who organise classes or coordinate activities in onboard fitness rooms that generally include a handful of cardio machines (running, cycling, rowing) and free weights. Some vessels have small spas that include saunas and relaxation areas while most, at the very least, have a treatment room for massages and other therapies, plus a small hairdressing salon. Onboard fitness sessions help to complement activities ashore with a growing range of keep-fit excursions, from cycle rides and energetic hikes (which may be split into ability-based groups), to canoeing, kayaking and jogging.
Shore Excursions. River cruise excursions are informative and educational, reflecting the cultural riches of the destinations they sail through. Walking tours and coach trips have been the traditional mainstay of ocean cruises with city tours and visits to sites of historical and architectural note. But the growth of river cruising has brought a proliferation of different options, with more hands-on experiences such as cookery classes with a chance to rustle up local dishes, wine-tastings and truffle-hunting trips aimed at giving you a more immersive flavour of destinations along the route. There are even visits to locals’ homes, where you can see how they live and enjoy a snack or meal while chatting about their lives. Exclusive experiences, such as orchestral concerts, dance displays or visits to palaces and castles where passengers enjoy a private tour and a chance to meet the local nobility, are also popular.
A growing trend is the rise of more active-based outings, from bike rides and kayaking adventures to hiking trips and jogging excursions. Many riverboats carry their own fleet of cycles, just help yourself and cycle off under your own steam if you don’t wish to join a tour. Family-friendly cruises have excursions to match with scavenger hunts, fun-filled water play sessions and visits to local attractions with accompanying activities designed to appeal to younger tastes. Two other factors that differentiate river cruise excursions are that at least one excursion per day/port may be included within the price, and walking tours normally involve the use of wireless audio headsets which enable you to hear your guide from several metres away, making life easier all round.
Europe is by far the most common starting point for British cruisers, with the Rhine and Danube taking top spot, passing through some of the continent’s most spectacular scenery and landmark cities. The region has grown increasingly diverse as it expanded from its Germanic roots to encompass rivers in France, Portugal, and Italy.
Asia has become the rising star of the river cruising world in recent years with Mekong sailings through Vietnam and Cambodia sparking the imagination of travellers, along with Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River and India’s holy river, the Ganges.
Paddle-steamer cruises capturing the romance of The Big Muddy, namely the Mississippi, have propelled the USA on to the river cruise scene, while in South America Amazon cruises have injected a heady flavour of rainforest adventures.
Floating safari cruises on Africa’s Chobe River, while lesser-known arteries such as India’s Brahmaputra and Myanmar’s Chindwin rivers provide a route into the remote regions of Asia rarely visited by tourists.
With such a vast choice of destinations, cruise lines and experieneces, we know it can feel a little overwhelming, please don't worry we're here to help. We have a team of friendly, knowledgeable and well trained river cruise nerds waiting to take your call (we have even named one of them the 'River Queen'). All joking aside, we know what we are talking about, many of the team take river cruises for their own holidays. Feel free to browse the site and choose a cruise yourself, alternatively pick up the phone and give us a call if you're not sure where to start, we'd love to help and set you up on your first river cruise adventure...