River Cruising in Europe

River Cruising – The Definitive Guide from an Industry Expert

Everything you ever wanted to know about river cruising but were too afraid to ask.

 

Oh, the wonders of river cruising…Imagine finding that perfect boutique hotel room. The one located in the city centre, close to everything. The one that, as soon as you walk through the front doors, you instantly recognize Franco, the front desk clerk, always smiling, awaiting your arrival. Franco asks you how you enjoyed La Pepi Bone, the family-owned bistro he recommended you try for lunch. You say…”It was superb, Franco, merci.”

You then head to your room, which, while not exactly like home, you feel a sense of having landed in a retreat that has become your second home.

Only tomorrow, when you awaken, you’ll step out your front door, and a brand new adventure awaits. It will seem like you haven’t moved; the world has moved in front of you.

Kind of like a conveyor belt sushi bar, you remain stationary, and a mix of dragon rolls, eel temaki and spicey tunas pass in front of you.

That is the world of river cruising.

There is something kinda special about having the world come to you. No wonder river cruising has made it on most new travel trend lists. Chances are, if you’ve never been on a river cruise holiday before, you know someone in your immediate circle of friends who has.

Inside my own travel business, river cruising is the fast-growing travel style bar none. That’s why I thought it was time I came up with a definitive guide that should answer every question you ever thought you needed to ask about river cruising. These questions have been compiled from my own clients and over my many years of selling river cruising. 

luxury river crusing in Myanmar booked through a Toronto travel agent
Cruise to remote places of the world otherwise inaccessible by car. Luxury Cruising aboard the Road to Mandalay

What are the benefits of river cruising?

There are many, many benefits to river cruising, but I’ve narrowed it down to a list of the top 12.

1. River cruising offers small and intimate settings:

River cruises offer small and intimate settings, so you’ll have a better chance of getting to know both your fellow traveller and crew members personally.

2. River cruising allows for navigating “off the beaten path.”

River cruising allows you to reach areas of a country not always accessible by land, which make them ideal for those travellers looking for something a little different than the norm.

3. Experience the most scenic routes aboard a river boat.

River cruising provides a chance to see some of the world’s most beautiful scenery up close and personal, including stunning landscapes and charming towns.

4. River cruising offers cultural and historical exploration

River cruises take you to some of the world’s most famous and historically significant destinations. You’ll have the opportunity to explore some of the most iconic landmarks and historical sites, which are often located directly on the riverbanks.

5. And active exploration too

Many river cruises offer active exploration options like biking, hiking, and walking tours, allowing you to explore your destination actively.

6. Enjoy culinary delights on board a river cruise

River cruising provides a chance to experience the local cuisine, often with fresh and locally sourced ingredients. River cruises also offer onboard cooking demonstrations and culinary workshops to enhance your experience.

7. River cruising allows for convenient itineraries

River cruises typically provide itineraries that allow you to visit several destinations in one trip. This means you can experience multiple destinations without worrying about travel logistics. Further, most riverboats dock in centrally located areas of a city. As soon as you disembark, you can immediately start walking and exploring. And even if a museum and or a gallery is located away from the port, it’s never that far in distance.

8. Enjoy a relaxing pace on board a river cruise

River cruising is a leisurely way to travel. You can relax and enjoy the scenery while enjoying all the onboard amenities. You can also enjoy the slower pace of life in the towns and cities you visit.

9. River cruising offer all-inclusive amenities

River cruises offer all-inclusive packages that typically include meals, drinks, shore excursions, and entertainment. This means you can fully immerse yourself in the experience without worrying about additional expenses.

10. And hassle-free packing

A benefit of all types of cruising is the advantage of only having to unpack your things once, store your luggage and never have to worry about it again until the end of the trip. You don’t have to worry about leaving your passport in the safe and you move from hotel to hotel or forgetting your undies under the bed.

11. Have access to onboard river cruise experts

Most river cruises come with a crew of professionals and educators well-versed in the areas they visit. And due to the limited guests on board, you’ll have a much better chance of having your questions answered firsthand.

12. River cruising is a form of sustainable travel

River cruising is one of the most sustainable forms of travel. With a lower environmental impact than other forms of travel, you can feel good knowing that you’re doing your part to protect the planet.

River cruising in Portugal booked through a Toronto travel agent
Experience multiple cities in one river cruise experience.

Just how big are river ships?

First up, let’s clear up some common nomenclature misnomers when it comes to river cruising. The term ship is usually reserved for large ocean-worthy vessels, so when we are talking about river cruising, we generally speak of river boats or river barges and not ships. Think of it this way…you can transport a boat on a ship, but you can’t transport a ship on a boat.

And now that that’s out of the way, the difference between riverboats and river barges is defined by the depth of the hull. Barges are flat-bottomed, allowing them to travel through shallow passageways. But it’s not uncommon to have the terms interchanged.

The sizes of passenger riverboats have grown in recent years. They typically range between 100 to 300 metres long and carry up to 450 passengers, but the average falls somewhere between 120 to 180. It’s rare that riverboats will tower higher than 3 or 4 decks.

How does a river cruise compare to an ocean cruise?

Other than the fact that both vessels travel on water, there is almost no comparison. I’ve heard it once said that ocean cruises take you to see countries, whereas river cruises take you through countries.

River cruising offers more intimate and immersive experiences, while ocean cruising tends to appeal to a broader demographic. Even though river cruises vary in size, and some carry as many as 300 passengers, that’s still no comparison to the large cities that ply through the oceans.

In addition, both types of cruises have loads to offer but in different ways. Large ocean liners are self-contained units. Some of my clients will book an ocean cruise and never leave the ship. For them, it’s more about the experience they have on board than it is about the destinations they are travelling to. Whereas, the same is not true for my river cruise clients. River cruise boats are a fraction of the size of their ocean colleagues. They just don’t have the deck space to have a rock wall, a gym, a discotheque and a golf course on one vessel, but what they lack in amenities…they make up for is their ability to maneuver and see more unusual places.

I can say this, though, generally speaking, if you like ocean cruising, you will probably like river cruising; however, the same can not necessarily be true for the reverse.

Are river cruises safe?

River cruises are as safe as any type of travel, if not more so, since you are travelling in a self-contained unit, where it is just you and your fellow passengers while the boat sails down the waterways.

In addition, security on board the boats has remained a top priority for most cruise companies. To date, there have never been any terrorist attacks and access to the boats is closely monitored. 

What happens if I get sick while cruising?

“River Doctors” are available round-the-clock to passengers and staff for advice, medication, or to come on board anytime for non-life-threatening situations. River cruises, in contrast to ocean cruises, can dock at numerous locations along the river to access paramedical or medical assistance.

What facilities can I expect on board a river cruise?

Every river cruise boat is a little different, but you can expect that most riverboats come with plenty of common areas to meet other travellers. Most will have a couple of different restaurants to enjoy, but space is at a premium, so all spaces are relatively small compared to the larger cruise lines.

You can probably expect to see some version of a:

  • Spa – where you can get a massage or facial or lose yourself in one of their saunas and steam rooms
  • Gym – for working out when you’re feeling energetic
  • Library – for reading books about your destination, or just taking some time out from all the sightseeing
  • Lounge – where drinks are served throughout the day, as well as complimentary afternoon tea with cakes (usually around 4 pm)

You’ll also find shops selling souvenirs and gifts at every port we visit along our journey.

River Cruise cabin on board the Les Bateaux Belmond
Upper Double Cabin aboard Les Bateaux Belmond

How big are river cruising cabins?

You might be surprised. Riverboats have come a long way in maximizing space in the best possible way. You’ll probably not be inclined to invite evening revellers back for drinks and dancing after hours, but you’ll have more than enough space to feel comfortable. 

Once you unpack and stow all your personal belongings away, you’ll have ample room.

Standard river cruise cabins are around 150-170 square feet, while suites can vary up to 250 square feet. All cabins will come with an ensuite bathroom (either bath or shower), and there will be some storage space in the cabin.  And as you’d expect from a hotel room, cabins come equipped with hairdryers and toiletries, so there is really no need to bring anything from home unless you are brand loyal to your favourites.

The best part, due to the design of river cruises, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get stuck with an inside cabin. Some riverboats come with balconies; others offer magnificent views of the countryside. There is something magical about opening your blinds first thing in the morning and seeing the shore nearby.

Will there be access to WiFi?

For travellers who can’t bear the thought of leaving their devices behind, most river cruises include free WiFi. What an advantage. You typically do not have to pay a premium for access, so take advantage and be sure to post videos on all your socials or just stay connected with loved ones at home.

What will the food be like on board?

Many river cruise lines offer gourmet dining experiences that feature fresh, locally sourced ingredients. The menus typically change daily and offer a variety of options, including vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. Depending on the cruise line, guests may have the option of choosing from several restaurants on board, each with its own unique cuisine and ambiance.

Breakfasts will include a wide range of options, including freshly baked pastries, bread, and rolls, eggs cooked to order, bacon, sausage, fruits, yogurts, cereals, and juices.

For lunch and dinner, you can expect a variety of courses, often consisting of appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, and desserts. Guests can expect to enjoy regional specialties, such as schnitzel in Austria or coq au vin in France, and maybe some Tam Mak Hoong (Papaya Salad) in Laos.

Many river cruise lines also offer a selection of complimentary beverages with meals, such as local beer, wine, and soft drinks. Some even offer a more extensive beverage package, allowing guests to enjoy a wider variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks throughout their cruise.

Many river cruise lovers will say the food was the best part of the trip, and the trip was INCREDIBLE!  

Luxury river cruising down the Nile booked by a Toronto travel agent
River Cruising near Luxor in Egypt

What is the best river cruise company?

With literally hundreds of river cruise lines and thousands of vessels to choose from, there are so many great options.

According to Statista.com, based on results provided by American travellers, the top-five rated river cruise companies of 2022 were: Viking, American Cruise Lines, Tauck, Scenic Luxury Cruises and Grand Circle cruises.

The better question is:

How do I choose the best river cruise line for me?

With so many outstanding river cruise lines to choose from, it comes down to considering the things that are most important to you.

Itinerary

The itinerary is the most important factor when choosing a river cruise line. Look for a cruise line that offers an itinerary that covers the destinations you want to visit. Also, consider the length of the trip, the number of stops, and the amount of time you will spend at each destination.

Cruise line reputation

The reputation of a river cruise line is crucial. Check online reviews, ask for recommendations from friends or travel agents, and look for awards and recognitions from reputable travel industry organizations.

Onboard amenities

The onboard amenities of a river cruise line can make or break your experience. Consider what type of onboard amenities are important to you, such as dining options, spa services, fitness facilities, entertainment, and more.

Cruise line size

River cruise lines come in different sizes, from small boutique ships to larger vessels. A smaller ship can offer a more intimate experience, while a larger ship may have more amenities.

 

Accommodations

Accommodations on a river cruise ship can vary widely, from basic cabins to luxurious suites. Consider what type of accommodations you are looking for and what fits within your budget.

Inclusions

River cruise lines may offer different inclusions, such as shore excursions, gratuities, and alcoholic beverages. Make sure to check what is included in the price of your cruise to avoid unexpected expenses.

Price

Price is, of course, an important consideration. Consider the overall value of the cruise line, factoring in the itinerary, onboard amenities, accommodations, and inclusions.

When choosing a river cruise line, you’ll need to decide which of these considerations is the most important to you.

River cruising down the canals in Amsterdam booked through a Toronto travel agent
Travel down the canals of Amsterdam

Is river cruising appropriate for solo travellers?

This is the question that is on every single traveller’s mind. Compared to travelling solo on a land excursion, river cruising offers solo travellers baked-in travel companions. And unlike the big cruise lines where you’d think more people would mean more opportunities to meet new friends, oddly, the reverse is often true.

Because of their limited capacity and cozy, intimate nature, river cruising allows single travellers the opportunity to interact with other travellers in a more friendly and natural atmosphere.

Of course, if you are the type of traveller who prefers to explore on your own, you still have that option. You can go off and wander alone but then return to the boat and share your day’s events during dinner.

For more tips on solo travel, visit Cruising For Solo Travellers – Top Tips.

Will I get seasick on a river cruise?

If seasickness is a concern of yours, that usually means that you’ve experienced it to some degree before and from my experience, if you are prone to motion sickness, I recommend taking the necessary precautions to avoid disappointment on your cruise.

You might think that seasicknesses aren’t as prevalent because riverboats tend to navigate less choppy waters, but most riverboats do not come with motion stabilizers. 

Apart from selecting a cabin in the centre of the boat, be sure to consult your doctor before departure for alternate methods of motion sickness prevention. As long as you are prepared, there is no reason to allow fear of tossing your cookies to spoil your adventures.

Cruising in Portugal, Douro River
Birdseye view of a river cruise on the Douro River, Portugal

Can river cruising accommodate disabled passengers?

For travellers who require wheelchair assistance, an ocean cruise is probably a safer bet. Due to the limited size of river boats, cabins are cozy but small, and there isn’t a lot of extra room to store a wheelchair indiscriminately. 

If you are a traveller who requires a walker or walking aids, then the slow-paced and easy nature of a river cruise is a perfect holiday option. You’ll need to have enough mobility to climb at least a set or two of stairs, but most river cruises come with handrails to help guide you.

Won’t I get bored on a river cruise?

If you’ve never cruised before, this is probably the fear that is holding you back. And it shouldn’t. Cruise companies are excellent hosts and master entertainers. In fact, there is probably a larger risk of you not having the time to do everything you want than running out of things to do. 

And unlike ocean cruising, distances between ports are never very far, so even though riverboats move at a slow pace, it will feel like they’ve reached their next destination in no time.

How far in advance should we book our river cruise?

The answer to this question depends on the type of river cruise you’re looking for. If you have your heart set on a particular itinerary and cabin type (or vice versa), booking early will give you more flexibility in choosing those factors–which may be especially important if there are specific dates or times when certain cabins are available only as part of an early booking incentive offered by some operators.

Even though there are definite advantages to booking a river cruise in advance, it’s still important that you take your time reviewing your decision, and you should never feel rushed to do so. That’s not an invitation to overthink things either…chances are, you are going to be happy with whatever you decide.

River cuising in the backwaters of Kerela, India booked through a Toronto travel agent
Take a river cruise through the lazy backwaters of the Kerala region of India.

Do you have a question concerning river cruising that wasn’t covered?

I really did try my best to cover almost every question on river cruising I’ve ever been confronted with, but it is possible that not every stone has been left unturned.

If you have a question for me, drop it below in the comments or feel free to reach out directly.

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Picture of Jennifer Patterson

Jennifer Patterson

Small Ship Cruising Specialist

Is river cruising in your vacation future? Then this guide will answer all your questions, even the ones you didn't know you had.

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