River cruising has become increasingly more popular in recent years. Cruisers are now seeing the value and benefits offered by river cruising compared to a conventional land-based holiday and ocean cruises. There are so many river cruise lines offering a wide range of destinations at both luxury and budget prices.
In this guide to river cruising, we explain everything you need to know about river cruises including what to expect on board, what’s included and where you can sail.
The River Cruise Experience
The image of river cruising may conger up long and boring sailings between ports but this is not the case. River ports are close together and sailing time between each port is short. You spend most of the time docked and it’s not uncommon to visit multiple ports in a day or have overnight stays in a port. One of the best parts of river cruising is that you usually dock in the heart of the destination meaning all the major tourist spots are literally on your doorstep. There are no long security lines to get on and off the ship, it’s like staying in a floating hotel, you can come and go as you please.
You will not have any “sea days” on a river cruise but you may have a scenic sailing morning or afternoon which will be accompanied by commentary over the ship’s speakers. This is one of our favourite parts of river cruising, sailing past rolling vineyards and past beautiful Disney like castles, it’s a wonderful experience.
Seasickness is non-existent on river cruises, the rivers are smooth and calm. It’s only when docking or going though a lock you feel any movement at all.
River Cruise Companies
As the industry continues to grow, so too do the number of river cruise companies. There is a wide range of companies offering different experiences to different markets.
Most river cruise companies fall into the premium or luxury category. These are generally more expensive. Most lines offer complimentary onboard extras such as WiFi, beer and wine with meals and some included shore excursions.
There is a smaller range of companies that offer more affordable options such as CroisiEurope and Gate 1 travel. We sailed earlier this year with CroisiEurope on the beautiful Loire Princesse, for a budget line we were super impressed with the ship, crew and the wonderful food.
What’s Onboard a River Cruise
Most river ships are similar in shape and size, due to the height and width restrictions on the rivers. Whilst the ships look similar on the outside the real difference is what’s inside, the onboard experience and the service you receive.
Most ships carry around 60 – 200 passengers so they are much more intimate than an ocean liner. By the first evening, you will know your crew and fellow passengers very well. This may be attractive to you if you don’t like the size of ocean liners and are looking for a more intimate sailing experience. We found passengers on all of our river cruises to be super friendly and welcoming. Every cruise we have been on we have made friends that we still keep in touch with.
All river ships feature a large sundeck on the top of the boat. On the sundeck, you will usually find plenty of loungers. Some also feature a bar, games such as golf, hot tub or even a pool.
Pools are becoming more popular on river ships and some river cruise lines such as AmaWaterways, Crystal River Cruises, A’Rosa and Emerald feature sizeable pools either on the top deck or in a solarium. Avalon Waterways features a hot tub on the top deck.
Inside you will find a lounge with large panoramic windows and one main restaurant.
Other features vary depending on the line but other common features include a small gym, a small spa or sauna.
River Cruise Cabins
Cabins on river ships range in size and style and all feature a least a window. Cabins are sized between 14 and 16 square meters, with suites at around 20 square meters.
There are four types of cabins on a river cruise:
- Lower Deck cabin with a porthole window
These have a porthole window high up on the wall to let in light. You won’t see much from this window.
- Upper Deck Cabin with a french balcony or balcony
These are higher up and feature a balcony you can walk onto or a french balcony which is a large window that opens to let in air.
- Suites with a french balcony or balcony
There is a wide range of suites available from a single room to multi-room suites.
You may be quick to book an upper deck cabin but think about how much time you will spend in the cabin. Most cruises do feature portions of scenic sailing so we love to spend time in our cabin with the balcony open. Bear in mind that even if you do have a balcony or window when docked you may be facing a wall or another river ship. River ships are usually parked or stacked next to each other in busier ports meaning that sometimes you need to enter another ship to get to port – this is one of the unique things about river cruising. It’s great to take a peek around the other ships as you pass through.
Life Onboard a River Cruise
Life onboard a river cruise is much calmer than ocean cruising.
But slower and calmer does not mean boring. In fact, river cruises can be jam-packed with excursions and experiences in port. Some days river ships will visit two or three ports meaning there is plenty to see and do each day.
Cruise lines such as Avalon Waterways and Emerald Waterways offer active cruises, we’ve done cruises with both companies and they are really fantastic. From cycling around cities to scenic hikes and canoeing there is so much on offer.
River cruises are definitely not boring. On our first river cruise we were exhausted each evening from the active excursions and multiple tours in each port. After dinner, we were ready for bed to be refreshed for the next days adventure.
The ports and destination are the real stars of the sailing and the time spent in port is much longer than ocean cruises. Port excursions are a big part of river cruising and you may find yourself doing multiple tours in a day.
Most river cruises include at least one complimentary shore excursion per port in their fares. These range from basic walking tours to full-day experiences.
Additional excursions and alternative experiences are available to buy. These are usually tours in smaller groups and offer a premium experience. For example wine tasting, cooking, helicopter flights, theatre and opera visits or tours further away from the port.
If you are docked overnight or into the evening you can also enjoy the nightlife of the port including theatres, restaurants and bars. Evening excursions to opera performances is a popular activity on many Danube river cruises.
If group tours are not your thing you can choose to visit a port yourself. You are docked right in the centre of the destination and you can easily walk around or use local transport. The reception desk will be happy to offer any advice on what to do in a port.
Bikes are a regular feature on river ships and cycling in port is a great way to see a city. You can choose one of the many cycling excursions or take the bike on a self-guided tour. If your ship is taking in multiple ports in a day, a popular activity is to cycle between the ports. Just let the ship know you will be doing this and you will meet them at the next port.
Even though the ships do not have large theatres, waterslides or multiple bars there is still entertainment and activities on board.
Almost all river lines will bring onboard local performers and entertainers during the cruise. The lounge will also host talks, quizzes and sometimes karaoke evenings.
Many river lines now focus on wellness and feature yoga, core exercises and meditation classes on the sun deck each day.
Dining onboard is a big part of a river cruise. Whilst there are not multiple restaurants or extensive buffets there is still a great choice of dining and for the most part, food matches the standard of speciality dining on ocean cruises. Many ships make a point of sourcing ingredients locally from each port and reflecting the region you are sailing through.
Generally, the restaurant will feature a buffet for breakfast and lunch and a sit-down four-course dinner in an evening. This does vary between the different river lines.
Evening dinner is a set time with all passengers dining in one sitting. Seating is open-seating meaning you are not assigned a table and can sit wherever and with whoever you like.
Beyond the main restaurant and out of the dining times there are very little alternative dining options. Currently, only AmaWaterways and Scenic offer Speciality Dining restaurants. You may find a small buffet station in the lounge serving light bites during meal times and cookies or muffins at the drinks station.
Room service is not a common feature on river lines. If a company does offer it, its usually only during meal times or for suite guests.
We like to bring some snacks on board for our room if we feel hungry between-meal times. Alternatively, don’t be afraid to enjoy a meal in port if your ship is docked overnight.
Most river cruise lines serve complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks during meal times. A-Rosa, Scenic and Uniworld offer alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks at all times and many others offer drinks packages for an extra charge.
Complimentary water, tea and coffee and are available 24-hours a day.
River cruises tend to have more included than ocean cruises. Some of the most common inclusions are excursions, Wifi and drinks. Below is an overview of what is included on each river cruise line. This is an overview and does not include other extras such as fitness classes, flights, transfers, mini-bars or speciality dining.
✔ – Included
◆ – Beer & Wine Only
🍽 – Meal Times Only
E1 – Some complimentary shore excursions, varies by itinerary
E2 – Hop on-hop off the bus at each port
E3 – Limited number depending on the length of sailing
US – Bookings from North America Only
|Gratuity||Excur-sions||Wifi||Tea Coffee Water||Soda||Alcohol||Bikes|
|American Cruise Lines||EX1||✓||✓||🍽||◆ 🍽|
|Avalon Waterways||✓||✓||✓||✓||🍽||◆ 🍽||✓|
|Emerald Waterways||✓||✓||✓||✓||🍽||◆ 🍽||✓|
|Gate 1||E3||✓||✓||◆ 🍽|
|Grand Circle||✓||✓||✓||🍽||◆ 🍽|
|Saga River Cruises||✓||E3||✓||✓||🍽||◆ 🍽|
|Tui River Cruises||✓||✓||✓||🍽||◆ 🍽|
|U River Cruises||✓||✓||✓||✓||w||✓|
Europe is by far the most popular destination for river cruises. Whatever river you choose, your cruise will be full of history, culture, food and wine. Expect to see many castles, historic palaces and stunning gardens. You can also find some fantastic food and wine-themed cruises on Europe’s rivers. There are many rivers to choose from including;
- The Rhine, Main & Moselle
- The Danube
- The Rhône & Saône
- The Duro
Asia is becoming more popular for river cruising. Cruise through exotic culture and history. This is a fantastic way to see a lesser-travelled region in comfort. The most popular Asian rivers include;
- The Yangtze
- The Mekong
- The Nile
The US rivers continuing to attract travellers seeking an authentic slice of Americana. Discover the music, cuisine and culture of the Americas oldest rivers. Popular river cruises include;
- Mississippi River
- Columbia and Snake rivers
- Alaska Waterways
- Hudson River Valley
Who goes on river cruises?
It’s true that river cruises are an attractive holiday for older travellers. You will find that the age onboard is usually over 50 but there are some exceptions to this.
Many river lines are trying to attract younger cruisers. Avalon Waterways and Emerald Waterways all feature “Active Cruises” which are more attractive to younger cruisers. U by Uniworld is also aiming its product at younger cruisers with its new ships that feature trendy decor and unique excursions. AmaWaterways is focusing several of its ships on families making it more of a multi-generational cruise line.
Are children allowed on River Cruises?
Some river lines are adults only and whilst others may allow children, the experience is not fully catered to them.
However, recently there has been a rise in river cruises for families. Uniworld, Vantage, CroisiEurope and A-Rosa have dedicated cruises for families that feature kids clubs and children’s activities. Plus, AmaWaterways have launched sailings with Adventures by Disney and designed ships with families in mind.