What Are River Cruises & Why Are They Suddenly So Popular?

  • 01 of 09

    River Cruising: a Refreshing Alternative to Mega-Cruises

    Abercrombia Kent's river cruise ship, Amadeus Brilliant, in Prague
    Where megaships don't go: Abercrombie& Kent's Amadeus Brilliant glides down Prague's Charles River. ©Abercrombie& Kent River Cruise Journeys

    Are You Over Big-Ship Cruising?

    Many of us have taken a mega-ship cruise and vowed, “Never again!” We felt you hardly experienced the ports, just the ship’s restaurants and karaoke bar. And we felt lost and insignificant on your floating behemoth If this describes the way you feel about cruises, there's a compelling new way for luxury travelers to sail...

    The antidote to mega-ship cruising is. River cruises are the hot bucket list vacation right now for several good reasons. One, river cruisers are smaller ships that sail on rivers, not oceans. Two, they voyage on the inland waterways -- rivers -- of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Three, they stop at river ports: often the region's oldest and most colorful towns

    River cruise ships are quite small. They range in size from canal barges that are hardly bigger than deluxe houseboats... ot long, low-lying European river cruisers that hold 100 to 200 passengers.

    I’m picky, and I love river cruising. I’ve been on a few, and here are my picks of the best river cruise lines. In a nutshell: I think river cruising is an exciting and inspiring new way to see the world: close-up, in cozy, convivial comfort

    Next: will river cruising be your style? Take the quiz to find out!

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  • 02 of 09

    Will River Cruising Be Your Style?

    Belmond River Journeys France Alouette Cruise Ship
    Belmond River Journeys' Alouette sails through the heart of Burgundy, France. ©Belmond River Journeys

    Will You Like River Cruising? Take the Quiz! 

    You will probably enjoy a river cruise if:
    • You like the idea of coming to a new place every day...without having to pack, travel, check into another hotel, unpack
    • You're fascinated by history and maps and want to experience the legendary rivers that connect people and cultures
    • You like exploring a town's old, historic sections, often in or around its port
    • Your kind of entertainment is cultural activities and walking tours
    • You welcome the idea of getting to know other passengers
    • You're OK with dining with them at set meal times
    • You are either over age 50 or like being with sophisticated people this age
    • You prefer quiet, sociable evenings to razzle-dazzle nightlife 
    • You need a good Internet connection (and have found this frustrating on ocean liners)

    A river cruise may not be your style if: 
    • You like the glamour, energy, and nightly entertainment of a huge cruise ship
    • You'd prefer large-scale travel across oceans and seas to town-by-town river travel
    • You like big international ports and have little interest in exploring small river towns
    • You like mixing with diverse generations and families on board a big ship
    • You like being able to eat when you want, and are fond of 24-hour room service
    • You'd rather do your own thing and blend into a big cruise ship than participate in a small river cruise

    Next: So who goes on river cruises? People like you?

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  • 03 of 09

    Who Are River Cruise Passengers?

    Viking Odin River Cruise Ship Budapest
    The Viking line's Odin river cruise ship gliding along the blue Danube in Budapest. ©Viking

    Who Goes on Luxury River Cruises?

    River cruising is a fast-growing phenomenon fueled by travelers who have time and money. In general, river cruisers are experienced travelers with upscale cultural interests. They've already done all the travel clichés and seek more enlightened vacations. They want to really dig into a destination and pursue meaningful experiential travel rather than "Top 10 Tourist Sites" travel. Many, but not all, river cruisers are well-to-do couples in their forties and beyond. Some river ships offer family-friendly river cruises (though babies are rare). Some river cruises focus on solo travelers; these cruises are extra-social.

    Still undecided? Compare river cruising with conventional ocean cruising 

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  • 04 of 09

    Compare River Cruising with Ocean Cruising

    Hurtigruten Norway Fjord Cruise Raftsund Strait Trollfjord
    Norway's national cruise line, Hurtigruten, explores the fjords. This one is Trollfjord. ©Hurtigruten

    Ocean vs. River Cruises: The Ship's Creates the Big Difference

    The key difference between ocean and river cruising influences every aspect of the river cruise experience. We mean: the size of the vessel. Mega-ships carry thousands of people. River cruise ships typically host fewer than 200 passengers.

    What river ships' small size makes possible: a river ship is narrow and agile, and can enter waterways, locks, and docks closed to big ships. It can sail under bridges in cities like Paris, Prague, and Budapest. A small river ship is sociable and convivial, with a spirit of camaraderie impossible on a ship of thousands

    River Cruises and Ocean Cruises, Compared

    River cruises: river water is smoother
    Ocean cruises: open seas can be rough

    River cruises: stop at a different port (sometimes two) daily
    Ocean cruises: usually have at least one "sea day" with no port to visit

    River cruise ports: are historic trade cities whose port is its oldest, most colorful section
    Ocean cruise ports: are often vast, industrial, and far from the city center 

    River cruise ships: pull right into port in the town's historic center. Just saunter down the gangway, and you're there
    Ocean cruise ships: often anchor in the port's harbor, so you must wait for tenders (transfer boats)

    River cruise ships: do not offer gambling, discos, karaoke, Vegas or Broadway-style shows.
    Ocean cruise ships: party on!

    River cruising: asks your participation in communal activities: daily walking (sometimes cycling) tours, meals, onboard discussions, workshops, and cooking with the chef
    Ocean cruises: let you be as anonymous or as engaged as you wish: you can roost on your balcony or a bar seat, or join a shore excursion with dozens of other passengers

    River cruise ships: have one main restaurant, perhaps a café or bistro, and limited or no room service
    Ocean cruise ships: offer a vast array of dining options at your leisure, plus room service

    River cruise ships: have one seating for each meal at a set time
    Ocean cruise ships: let you eat when you want

    Next: what you get with your all-inclusive river cruise fare

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  • 05 of 09

    River Cruises Are All-Inclusive. What Do You Get?

    Amawaterways AmaVida River Cruise Passengers Sandeman Winery Tasting Portugal
    All excursions and activities are included in river cruises. Here, passengers on AmaWaterways' AmaVida ship take time out for a tasting at Sandeman in Portugal. ©AmaWaterways

    River Cruises Are All-Inclusive (Hooray!) What Do You Get?

    River cruise fares are all-inclusive...with airfare packaged in. Find out what is meant by all-inclusive pricing. River cruises fares give you more than an ocean cruise fare. Conventional ocean cruise fares include only the basics: your cabin and meals on the ship's second-tier restaurants. You pay extra for high-end meals, port excursions, wine. wifi, tips, more.

    Most river cruise fares include a lot more, all for one price: your cabin; port excursions and activities; all onboard meals; complimentary wine, beer, soft drinks, bottled water, coffee; overnight stays in nice hotels (with pre- and post-cruise packages); shipboard activities; Wifi Internet access. Gratuities are often (but not aways) included.

    Best of all, your flights are included with your river cruise fare. Yes, your airfare is part of your river cruise fare. This is a big money-saver, particularly when your itinerary is “open jaw," meaning that you fly in to embark at one port, and disembark and fly home from another.

    Now for the reality: river cruises cost more than ocean cruises. It's true. River cruises are a luxury travel way to sail. They are not mass-market and not priced for the average traveler. And are priced higher than ocean cruises (except those on very deluxe ships like Europa 2). As a ballpark figure, river cruises (including airfare) begin at around $2,000 per passenger for a short voyage and can go over $10,000.

    Elements that may raise or lower your river cruise fare: voyage length (could be three nights, could be  21); ports of call (an exotic itinerary tends to cost more); your stateroom category; double occupancy or solo status; time of year (holidays and summer are higher).

    Next: where in the world can you go on a river cruise?

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  • 06 of 09

    Where Can You Go on a River Cruise?

    Avalon Affinity River Cruise Ship Cochem Mosel Germany
    Classic European experience: river cruising along the Mosel through Germany into France. Here: the Avalon Affinity in Cochem, Germany. ©Avalon

    Where Do River Cruises Travel? Five Continents and Counting

    River cruises travel along the major rivers of the world. They are very popular in Europe and are expanding in Asia, North America, and South America.

    You won't be taking a river cruise in oceans or in tropical seas that ocean cruise ships trawl, like the Caribbean, Mediterranean, South Pacific, and Hawaii.

    River cruising was pioneered in Europe, with many time-honored itineraries. The big ones: the Danube River is one of the most popular rivers to cruise. Other in-demand rivers: the Main, Rhine, Moselle, Elbe, Rhone, Saone and Seine. Fjord and coastal cruising are big in Norway

    The most popular European river cruise itineraries are: Christmas Markets on the Danube, coursing through Germany, Austria, Bratislava, and Hungary (stopping at markets in Nuremberg, Linz, Salzburg, Vienna, Budapest, others).

    Market Towns of Provence and Burgundy, France, along the Rhone and Saone Rivers. Famous French ports include Lyons, Arles, and Avignon..Passengers on Rhone wine cruises skim down explore wineries in the Cotes du Rhone, Beaune, and more 

    France's Canal du Midi hosts trim barges not much bigger than houseboats. This classic, charming French experience explores the historic canal that connects the Mediterranean with the Atlantic

    The Douro Wine Valley of Portugal is scenic and historic. The most in-demand itinerary goes from Lisbon to Porto down the Douro River, famed for its wineries

    The Fjords of Norway are on many luxury travelers' bucket lists. Hurtigruten, Norway’s national steamship/cruise line, travels through Norway’s most famous fjords

    Russia's Volga River gives passengers a good look at the European portion of the world's biggest country. Itineraries include the Black Sea (Odessa to Kiev) and Moscow to St. Petersburg

    River Cruising in the United States: The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers host the States' most popular river cruises. This route is finessed by American Cruise Lines' American Queen, a replica of Huckleberry Finn-era stern-wheeler

    Alaska's inner Passage hosts numerous river ships including American Cruise Lines. The routes, along and in Alaska's Southern peninsula, trace coastal waterways and Glacier Bay National Park.

    River cruising in Asia is becoming popular, especially the Mekong River in Southeast Asia: river cruises on this fabled waterway experience cities, villages, and UNESCO Word Heritage Sites. Cities include Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam (formerly known as Saigon), and Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia. Amazing sights include the Mekong Delta's floating markets and floating villages, and the spectacular Angkor Wat temple city (see a photo here). Here on Trip Savvy, read about a luxury cruise on the Mekong Princess river ship.

    Yangtze River, China: more than 60 river cruise operators ply China's lifeline river, the Yangtze. It stretches 3,900 miles from Shanghai through China’s heartland. Ports include Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chendu, and Lijiang. Some itineraries include an excursion to Tibet/

    Th Irrawaddy River, Myanmar (Burma) flows from the frosty Himalayas into the tropical Andaman Sea. Belmond Road to Mandalay, an elegant, three-deck cruiser, offers Irawaddy journeys of from three to 11 nights.

    The Ganges in India is a Hindu pilgrimage place. Uniworld line's all-suites river ship Ganges Voyager II carries 56 passengers max on the Ganges from New Delhi to Kolkata. (See a photo of Varanasi, the Ganges' most sacred city.)

    Specially built Amazon river cruisers glide along South America's mysterious river, the world’s wildest place. Ships depart from two ports: Iquitos in Peru on the western end and Manaus, Brazil on the eastern. Add-ons can include Peru’s tourism treasures amidst the Andes: the Incas' capital city of Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Machu Picchu 

    Nile River cruises have been undertaken four thousands of years. Cleopatra's barge skimmed the NIle. Today's Nile cruises follow the river down to Lake Nasser, where the giant statues of Rameses II and Nefertiti reside at Abu Simbel/

    AmaWaterways' Africa itinerary aboard the Zambezi Queen explores the Chobe River, mostly in Botswana and Zambia.  The itinerary also offers land experiences: stays in luxury safari lodges and a two-night journey aboard the Rovos Rail luxury train.

    Next: find out what river cruise ships & their cabins are like

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  • 07 of 09

    What River Cruise Ships & Their Cabins Are Like

    A&K River Cruise Ship MS Amadeus Cabin
    Cabins are sleek, spacious, and stylish on Abercrombie & Kent's river cruise ship, MS Amadeus Silver II. ©Abercrombie & Kent

     What Are River Cruise Ships Like?

    Conventional, huge cruise ships are like floating resorts: sprawling and sometimes overwhelming.

    River cruise ships are more like boutique hotels: compact, stylish, personal. They use their space well, with everything you need and a little more. One dining room serves all three meals.  (Space permitting, you might find smaller specialty restaurants.)A bar and lounge near the dining room and a café. A library and quiet areas. A sun deck and sometimes an outdoor bar/smoking area. Usually, a small business center, gym, spa, sauna, pool, hot tub. Observation decks/lounges, fore and aft.

    Cabins are comfortable and well-configured, with around 150 to 350 square feet of living space. Beds are full-sized. Bathrooms are well-appointed, with showers but rarely tubs. Room amenities: TVs, safes, robes and slippers, desks.

    And of course, the best rooms have full balconies

    All accommodations have river views, and tend to come in a range of categories: a cabin with half-window, standup balcony, or a suite with a full balcony.

    Next: things you can do aboard a river cruise ship, & in port

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  • 08 of 09

    What Can You Do on a River Cruise?

    Belmond-Road-to-Mandalay-River-Cruise-Ship-Myanmar.jpg
    The Belmond Road to Mandalay river cruise ship gets deep into Myanmar's Irawaddy River - and culture. ©Belmond

    What Sort of Activities Do River Cruises Offer?

    The main attraction of river ships is the chance to explore Europe's oldest and most flavorful towns and cities: its river ports. But there's more to do. River ships offer fitness and recreation. There's usually: a small gym and pool; classes like yoga; a library and game room; and an observation deck, lounge, and bar for socializing

    River ships provide onboard activities. They can be culinary (local wine and cheese tastings, cooking classes);  cultural (music and dance performances, destination language workshops);  itinerary-related: talks and presentations about your port towns' history culture, food.

    Today's river cruises offer specialized, theme-based voyages, so you can dig into something your passionate about, and sail with like-minded people. Often, specialty cruises will feature a guest artist who leads workshops and expeditions.

    Many river cruise lines offer itineraries focusing in cuisine; wine; classical musical; Jewish Heritage. Some more unusual offerings: Avalon Waterways Art & Impressionism; Golf; Jazz; Wellness Yoga/Pilates;  AMA Waterways Chocolate; Gluten-Free cruises; Abercrombie & Kent Local History ; Belmond: Nature Photography.

    Next: what's the food like on a river cruise ship?

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  • 09 of 09

    River Cruise Ship Dining

    Amawaterways AmaVida River Cruise Ship Douro River Porto Portugal
    AmaWaterways' AmaVida river cruise ship in Portugal's legendary wine region, the Douro River. ©AmaWaterways

    How's the Food on River Cruises?  

    The food is very fresh, and very good. Often, chefs shop daily in each port for fresh, local produce, seafood, meat, fish, cheese, and wine. Typically, river cruise chefs have substantial culinary backgrounds. Many have cooked in high-end hotels, and most are Swiss- or French-trained

    One popular pastime of foodie passengers: to accompany the chefs as they shop in the port's markets, usually very close to the dock.

    Booze is included in your river-cruise fare. But the inclusive selection will often be limited to house wine and "well drinks." On cruises that sail through famous wine regions such as in France, onboard wines are local. Many cruise lines offer spirits/drink packages for the duration of the cruise. Booze packages cover premium cocktails, high-end spirits, craft beer, premium wines

    Most river cruise ship kitchens will happily accommodate specialty diets like vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and lactose-intolerant. 

    Happy River Cruising! Intrigued? See my picks for the world's best river cruise lines.