What Is a River Cruise?

Cruise ship on the Mosel (Moselle) River near Wintrich, Germany
Cruising on Germany's Mosel River. Michael Runkel / Getty Images

River cruising is the fastest-growing segment of the cruise industry, according to The New York Times and industry experts. River cruises are still a small part of the overall cruise industry, but river cruising continues to grow in popularity each year. With smaller, more intimate ships and itineraries that take travelers to big cities, small villages and lovely landscapes, river cruise lines offer a very special type of cruise experience.

Smaller Scale, Greater Intimacy

River cruise ships tend to be much smaller than ocean vessels. European river cruise ships, in particular, are relatively narrow and compact because they need to be able to pass through locks and under bridges. This means that you will share your journey with fewer passengers. It also means that there are fewer shipboard activity areas; if your idea of a great cruise vacation depends on the availability of multiple restaurants, spectacular shows and an all-night casino, a river cruise might not be your ideal getaway. Some river cruise ships are so small that they don't even offer a self-service laundry or fitness center. Your meals will be well-prepared and beautifully served, but you will probably have only one or two dining venues onboard your river cruise ship.

Although you probably won't watch a Broadway musical revue on your river cruise ship, you will have plenty of opportunities to relax and to learn about the countries you are visiting. Many river cruise ships offer live piano music in the evenings, a perfect background to the harbor lights you will see on your journey. You may be able to watch local craft demonstrations, listen to lectures, participate in exercise classes or take in a narrated pre-dinner cruise. Open seating during meals will allow you to meet as many of your fellow passengers as you like. You can pack lighter, too, because the dress code on most river cruises is casual.

Focus on Port Calls

On a river cruise, port calls are the main activity. You will probably spend longer in port than you would on an ocean cruise, depending on the itinerary you choose, and many river cruise lines include all or most shore excursions in your cruise fare. Because your journey will take you from place to place via rivers and canals, you will be able to see the countryside surrounding each port from your stateroom or your ship's viewing lounge. You will probably dock in town, relatively near to the heart of each port, because your ship is small enough to dock at smaller piers. Once ashore, you can strike out on your own or sign up for one of your ship's scheduled excursions. Most river cruise lines offer a wide variety of shore tours.

River Cruise Considerations

Here are some points to consider when planning a river cruise:

Disability access varies from ship to ship and from country to country. Some river cruise ships have elevators; very few offer wheelchair-accessible staterooms. Gangways may be very narrow, in some cases too narrow for a wheelchair, or they may be very steep. Shore excursions may take you to places where pavements are uneven or climbing stairs is required. Be sure to ask about excursions that move at a slower pace before you book your cruise.

Your river cruise is likely to be a one-way trip, starting in one city and ending in another. This will make your airfare more expensive, but also offer you the chance to arrive early and / or stay longer in order to explore one or both cities.

Many river cruise lines offer free wine, beer and soft drinks at dinner.

You are less likely to become seasick on a river cruise, but it could happen if your itinerary takes you out onto open water and you are very sensitive to the motion of your ship.

Because you travel so close to land, most river cruise ships do not have doctors or medical professionals on board. If you need medical care, you will be directed to a pharmacy or doctor in town.

Water levels in rivers and canals may affect your itinerary. If the water level is too low, your ship may not be able to navigate shallow rivers, and if the water level is too high, your ship may not be able to pass underneath bridges. Your river cruise line will have a plan for dealing with these issues, of course, but you should be aware that last-minute changes to your itinerary might occur.

Popular River Cruise Itineraries

  • European rivers (Rhine, Danube, Douro, Moselle, Volga, Vistula and more)
  • China's Yangtze River
  • Mekong River (Cambodia and Vietnam)
  • Nile River
  • Mississippi River
  • Amazon River