Last Updated on January 1, 2024

Welcome to the world of river cruising, where you can travel by and through some of the most picturesque landscapes, historical cities, and cultural locations. River cruising offers a unique way to explore the heart of destinations, offering a blend of relaxation, exploration, and cultural immersion unlike any other travel experience.

River cruises guide

What Is River Cruising?

When we think about cruise travel, most of us tend to think of ocean cruise liners and the large-sized ships that we see with the likes of Royal Caribbean, P&O Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Lines.

The large ocean liners need water deep enough to reach ports but river cruises, on the other hand, are much smaller boats that can (as the name suggests) travel on small rivers and take you much closer to more narrow waterways.

River cruises allow you to cruise through small picturesque towns, and small river towns, and to see some charming cities close-up as you sail through or right up to the destination.

What Is the Difference Between a River Cruise vs an Ocean Cruise?

River cruises typically navigate inland waterways, using smaller ships that foster an intimate ambiance, and offer close-up views of picturesque landscapes.

Furthermore, the focus of a river cruise can also be themed to connect to cultural immersion, historical sites, a region of scenic beauty, or a specific river (such as the Daube or Rhine).

Conversely, ocean cruises cover vast distances across open seas, accommodating larger ships with a multitude of amenities, entertainment options, and diverse itineraries spanning continents.

They cater to a more expansive travel experience with panoramic seascapes, numerous onboard activities, and visits to various destinations, emphasizing entertainment, and a bustling atmosphere.

Ultimately, river cruises prioritize intimacy, cultural exploration, and close-up scenery, while ocean cruises offer extensive itineraries, diverse entertainment, and larger-scale experiences.

River Cruises vs Ocean Cruises: Pros and Cons

Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons of river cruises compared to ocean cruises:

River Cruise Pros

River cruise Germany
  1. Intimate Experience: Smaller ships and river routes allow for a more intimate and immersive experience, getting closer to cities and towns. It’s also easier to meet fellow travelers on a river cruise.
  2. Cultural Immersion: Visiting smaller ports and historic towns often offers deeper cultural immersion and access to inland destinations.
  3. Scenic Landscapes: Sailing through picturesque landscapes and scenic riverbanks, providing stunning views throughout the journey.
  4. Relaxed Atmosphere: Generally, a more relaxed and laid-back atmosphere with fewer passengers, allowing for a more serene journey.

River Cruise Cons

  1. Limited Onboard Amenities: Smaller ships might have fewer onboard amenities like theaters, casinos, or expansive entertainment options compared to ocean cruises.
  2. Fewer Days at Sea: River cruises often involve more frequent stops, which might limit the time spent onboard and at leisure.
  3. Limited Itineraries: River cruises are limited to rivers and specific routes, restricting the diversity of destinations compared to ocean cruises.
  4. Potential for Water Levels: Variations in water levels due to weather can sometimes impact the cruise schedule or necessitate changes in itineraries.

Ocean Cruise Pros

Costa Fortuna Cruise ship
Costa Fortuna cruise ship in Norway
  1. Vast Entertainment Options: Larger ships offer a wider array of entertainment, including theaters, multiple dining options, pools, and extensive onboard activities.
  2. Numerous Destinations: Ocean cruises cover vast distances and offer diverse itineraries, visiting various ports and countries in a single trip.
  3. More Days at Sea: More sea days allow for onboard relaxation, providing ample time to enjoy ship amenities and activities.
  4. Stabilization: Ocean cruises tend to have smoother sailing due to the larger size of ships, reducing the impact of waves or rough seas.

Ocean Cruise Cons

  1. Crowded Ports: Larger ships often visit popular and crowded ports, potentially leading to more tourist-heavy experiences.
  2. Less Intimate Experience: With more passengers onboard, ocean cruises might feel less intimate and personal compared to river cruises.
  3. Extra Expenses: Additional costs for excursions, drinks, and specialty dining might not be included in the base fare, leading to higher overall expenses.
  4. Environmental Impact: Larger ships have a larger environmental footprint compared to smaller river cruise vessels.

The choice between river and ocean cruises often depends on the type of destinations, level of intimacy, onboard amenities, and the overall experience one seeks during their journey.

Top River Cruise Destinations

1. Europe

  • Danube River – A detailed exploration of the Danube’s allure, encompassing its historic cities, stunning landscapes, and cultural treasures along the way.
  • Rhine River – Unveiling the charm of the Rhine, with its medieval castles, vineyard-draped hillsides, and storybook towns that capture the imagination.
  • Seine River – Exploring the romanticism of the Seine, winding through the heart of France and past iconic landmarks in Paris and beyond.
  • Douro River – Discovering the beauty of Portugal’s Douro, famed for its terraced vineyards, picturesque villages, and rich history.

2. Asia

  • Mekong River – Embarking on a journey along the Mekong, delving into the cultural tapestry of Southeast Asia and exploring its diverse landscapes and traditions.
  • Yangtze River – Unveiling the majesty of China’s Yangtze, navigating through dramatic gorges, ancient towns, and historic sites.
  • Irrawaddy River – Venturing through Myanmar along the Irrawaddy, encountering ancient temples, serene landscapes, and local traditions.

3. Americas

  • Mississippi River – Exploring the heartland of America along the Mississippi, steeped in history, music, and Southern charm.
  • Amazon River – Embarking on an adventure through the Amazon, a wilderness teeming with biodiversity and indigenous cultures.
  • Columbia & Snake Rivers – Traversing the scenic beauty of the Pacific Northwest along the Columbia & Snake Rivers, rich in natural wonders and history.

Best Companies to Book a River Cruise with?

Determining the “best” river cruise company can vary based on individual preferences, destinations, amenities, and personal experiences.

However, here’s a list of most of the best-regarded river cruise companies known for their quality service, diverse itineraries, and exceptional experiences:

  1. Amadeus (USA) Amadeus offers refined elegance and impeccable service, providing a sophisticated experience with well-curated itineraries and luxurious amenities onboard.
  2. AmaWaterways: Known for its luxurious ships, exceptional cuisine, and immersive shore excursions, AmaWaterways offers a premium river cruising experience with a focus on cultural immersion.
  3. APT: APT provides all-inclusive luxury river cruises with a strong emphasis on personalized service, unique experiences, and meticulously curated itineraries across Europe and beyond.
  4. A’Rosa Cruises: A’Rosa offers a relaxed and casual atmosphere perfect for laid-back river cruising, combining comfort, affordability, and family-friendly options.
  5. Avalon Waterways: Avalon stands out for its innovative suite ships with panoramic views, offering a modern and immersive cruising experience along with a wide range of destinations.
  6. CroisiEurope: CroisiEurope provides diverse European river cruises at affordable prices, focusing on value and quality while offering a wide array of itineraries.
  7. Crystal River Cruises: Crystal offers elegant ships, exceptional service, and curated itineraries, providing a luxurious and enriching river cruising experience.
  8. European Waterways: Offers luxury hotel barge cruises across Europe, known for personalized service and culinary experiences.
  9. Emerald Cruises: Known for its modern ships and inclusive pricing, Emerald Cruises offers active shore excursions and a contemporary approach to river cruising.
  10. Grand Circle Cruise Line: Offers value-oriented river cruises with a focus on cultural experiences and discovery.
  11. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises: Offers luxury expedition cruises, including some river cruise options in Europe and beyond.
  12. Heritage Line: Focuses on river cruises in Southeast Asia, offering intimate journeys along the Mekong and other rivers.
  13. Hurtigruten: Offers expedition cruises exploring destinations like Norway, Greenland, and Antarctica, including some river cruise options.
  14. Mekong Kingdoms: Offers boutique luxury cruises along the Mekong River, providing exclusive and personalized experiences.
  15. Nicko Cruises: Nicko provides personalized and intimate river cruise experiences with a focus on discovery and authenticity, exploring lesser-known destinations.
  16. Pandaw River Expeditions: Specializes in unique river expeditions in Asia, providing an intimate and immersive experience.
  17. Riviera Travel: Riviera offers value-oriented river cruises with a focus on cultural enrichment, providing quality experiences at affordable prices.
  18. Saga: Catering primarily to over-50s, Saga offers comfort, leisurely pacing, and enrichment activities, providing a relaxed yet refined river cruise experience.
  19. Scenic: Scenic provides all-inclusive luxury river cruises with impeccable service, featuring unique experiences, innovative amenities, and breathtaking views.
  20. Tauck River Cruising: Offers upscale river cruises with a focus on cultural immersion and personalized experiences.
  21. Tui River Cruises: TUI offers modern ships and diverse itineraries at affordable prices, combining comfort and convenience for a relaxed cruising experience.
  22. Uniworld: Uniworld stands out for its boutique river cruises, offering opulent ships, exceptional service, and immersive itineraries with a focus on luxury and style.
  23. Viking River Cruises: Known for its extensive European river cruise offerings, Viking provides enriching cultural experiences and exceptional service aboard its elegant ships.
  24. Viva River Cruises: Viva offers boutique-style river cruises, focusing on personalized service and authentic experiences, catering to discerning travelers seeking intimacy and luxury.

FAQs About River Cruises

Visiting Amsterdam during a river cruise trip
Here I am visiting Amsterdam during a river cruise trip

1. What is the typical cost for a standard river cruise?

Just like with any type of holiday you book, the prices can vary so drastically according to:

  • what type of accommodation (in this case cabin type) you want to book
  • the destination and itinerary
  • whether drinks and tips are included
  • what month of the year it is
  • if the river cruise is a special themed cruise
  • if a flight is included, etc.

There are so many possibilities so the prices below are just to give some kind of general idea. As an estimate:

  1. Standard River Cruise: For a basic river cruise with a standard cabin and fewer amenities, prices can start at around £100 (USD$125) to £250 ($300) per person per night.
  2. Mid-range River Cruise: Mid-range river cruises with more amenities, better cabins, and possibly some inclusions (like excursions or drinks) might range from £150 (USD$200) to £400 (USD$500) per person per night.
  3. Luxury River Cruise: Luxury river cruises with spacious suites, all-inclusive packages, high-end amenities, and exclusive experiences can range from £400 (USD$500) to £800 ($1,000) or more per person per night.

Just remember that this is just an example and it’s best to get a quote (see the list of river cruise providers listed above in the last section).

Also, special promotions, discounts, and seasonal variations can significantly affect the final cost.

It’s essential to carefully review what’s included in the cruise fare and what additional expenses you might incur during the trip to get a clearer understanding of the total cost.

Booking early or taking advantage of special deals can sometimes help reduce the overall expense.

What is the best month if I want to go on a European river cruise?

The best month for a river cruise in Europe often depends on personal preferences, the specific region or river you want to explore, and what you’re hoping to experience during your cruise.

However, some generally recommended months for river cruising in Europe are:

  1. April to June: Springtime offers milder weather, blooming landscapes, and fewer crowds. Rivers are usually less crowded, and you can witness the beauty of blossoming flowers along the riverbanks.
  2. September to October: Fall brings cooler temperatures, stunning autumn foliage, and fewer tourists. It’s a great time for wine enthusiasts as it coincides with the grape harvest in many regions.

Both spring and fall can offer pleasant weather for exploring without the intense summer heat or the coldest winter temperatures.

However, weather patterns can vary between regions, so it’s essential to consider the specific itinerary and climate of the area you plan to visit.

Summer months (July and August) can also be popular, but they tend to have higher temperatures and larger crowds in some areas, which might affect the overall experience.

Ultimately, the best month for a river cruise in Europe depends on your preferences for weather, scenery, and the type of experience you’re seeking. It’s advisable to research the specific region you wish to explore and consider factors like weather patterns, special events, and crowd levels when planning your trip.

Which is cheaper, a river cruise or an ocean cruise?

Generally, river cruises and sea cruises can differ in terms of pricing, and several factors contribute to their cost structures.

In many cases:

  1. Base Fare: River cruises often have higher base fares per night compared to sea cruises. This can be attributed to the more inclusive nature of river cruises, where amenities, excursions, and sometimes drinks are included in the overall price.
  2. Inclusions: River cruises often include more amenities in their upfront costs, such as guided excursions, Wi-Fi, specialty dining, and sometimes even drinks, whereas sea cruises might charge extra for these services.
  3. Cabin Types: While both river and sea cruises offer various cabin options, river cruise ships tend to have fewer categories, with some lines offering all-suite ships, which can affect pricing.
  4. Duration: Comparing similar durations, river cruises can appear more expensive per night compared to sea cruises. However, river cruises often have shorter itineraries, so the overall cost might be comparable or slightly less for the entire trip.
  5. Destination and Season: Prices for both types of cruises vary based on the destination, time of year, and demand. Certain river cruise destinations or seasons might command higher prices, while sea cruises can vary widely based on the popularity of the itinerary.

Make sure that you are aware of what’s included in the fare when comparing costs between river and sea cruises.

While river cruises might seem more expensive initially, their more inclusive nature can balance out the overall value when considering what’s covered in the upfront cost.

What is the dress code for a river cruise?

The dress code for a river cruise is typically more relaxed and casual compared to some ocean cruises, emphasizing comfort and practicality. Do note though that each river cruise ship has its own policies so do check when booking.

Here’s a general guide to the dress code on most river cruises:

Daytime Attire:

  • Casual Wear: During the day, comfortable and casual clothing is the norm. This includes shorts, jeans, t-shirts, sundresses, and similar attire suitable for exploring destinations or enjoying onboard activities.
  • Comfortable Shoes: Since river cruises often involve walking during shore excursions, comfortable walking shoes or sneakers are advisable.

Evening Attire:

  • Smart Casual: Evenings typically lean towards smart casual attire. Men might wear slacks or khakis with a collared shirt, while women might opt for dresses, skirts, or nice pants with blouses or casual tops.
  • Casual Elegance: Some river cruise lines may have an occasional evening with a slightly more formal dress code, often termed “casual elegance.” This might mean a sports jacket for men and dressier attire for women, though it’s usually not as formal as black-tie events.

Special Events or Dinners:

  • Theme Nights: Some cruises may have themed evenings where passengers are encouraged to dress according to a specific theme, such as a country-themed night or a cocktail party. Participation is often optional but adds to the cruise experience.

Additional Considerations:

  • Weather-Appropriate Attire: Always consider the weather and pack accordingly. If your cruise includes visits to religious sites or upscale dining, having slightly dressier options might be useful.
  • Check Specific Guidelines: Some cruise lines might have specific dress code policies or recommendations outlined in their pre-cruise materials. Checking with the cruise line beforehand can provide more precise guidance.

Overall, the atmosphere on river cruises tends to be relaxed, focusing more on comfort and practicality rather than formal attire.

However, it’s always a good idea to review the cruise line’s specific guidelines to ensure you’re prepared for any special events or dining occasions during your cruise.

Tips for Taking a River Cruise

1. Plan Ahead

Do think carefully about exactly what you want.

Do you want a river cruise where you can visit lots of towns and cities in a short time?

Or it is about a specific theme such as dance or is meeting other people your prime goal?

Also consider factors like weather, onboard amenities, and included excursions.

2. Pack Wisely

Do not get caught out like we have a couple of times with the weather.

Even in warm months, it can get chilly late at night, for example. So pack something comfortable both for the daytime, evening, warm, and cooler weather.

Also, do not forget the formal wear that you might need for the evening dining onboard.

Consider the weather and any dress codes for special events or dinners.

3. Be Open to Exploration

Embrace the opportunity to explore different cultures and destinations.

Participate in guided excursions and immerse yourself in the local experiences offered along the way.

Make sure also to read our guide to socializing on cruises

4. Enjoy the Scenic Views

One of the joys of river cruising is the ever-changing scenery.

Spend time on the deck or in the panoramic lounges to take in the breathtaking landscapes as you sail.

5. Stay Flexible

River conditions or unforeseen circumstances can sometimes affect schedules.

Stay flexible and open-minded, understanding that slight changes might occur.

6. Take Advantage of Onboard Amenities

Explore the ship’s amenities, including lounges, libraries, fitness centers, and spas.

Relax and enjoy the onboard entertainment or educational sessions offered.

7. Engage with Fellow Travelers

River cruises offer opportunities to meet fellow travelers.

You can meet fellow passengers much more easily on these small vessels and this is indeed one of the things Valeria and I most enjoy about river cruises, as opposed to ocean cruises.

It is much easier to start a conversation and make new friends on a river cruise.

8. Taste Local Cuisine

Savor the flavors of the regions you visit.

Try local dishes and specialties offered both onboard and during shore excursions to get a taste of the destination’s culinary culture.

9. Stay Hydrated and Sun Protected

When exploring onshore, stay hydrated and protect yourself from the sun. Carry water and wear sunscreen, especially during outdoor excursions.

10. Relax and Unwind

Lastly, embrace the leisurely pace of river cruising.

Do not forget to enjoy the time onboard and ashore. Enjoy the landscapes and beautiful scenery. Leave the stress at home (if you have any)!

History and Evolution of River Cruising

River cruising has a rich history that dates back centuries, evolving from practical transportation to today’s popular leisure activity. Here’s an overview of its evolution:

Early Days (19th Century):

  • Steamboat Era: In the early 19th century, steam-powered boats revolutionized river travel, making it faster and more reliable. This technology resulted in the rise of river travel for leisure.

20th Century:

  • Industrialization and Tourism: River cruising saw a decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to the expansion of railways and roads, which became more dominant means of travel. However, as tourism gained popularity, river cruises started attracting travelers interested in exploring inland waterways and scenic regions.

Late 20th Century:

  • Revival of River Cruising: In the latter half of the 20th century, river cruising experienced a revival, particularly in Europe, with the introduction of modern vessels designed specifically for leisure travel along rivers like the Rhine, Danube, and Seine.
  • Modern Amenities: As the demand for leisure cruises increased, amenities improved. Modern river cruise ships began offering luxurious accommodations, gourmet dining, guided excursions to historical sites, and onboard entertainment, attracting a wider demographic of travelers.

21st Century:

  • Expansion and Diversification: River cruising continued to expand globally, not only in Europe but also in regions like Asia (Mekong, Yangtze) and the United States (Mississippi, Columbia, and Snake Rivers).
  • Specialized Themes: Cruise companies started offering specialized themes catering to various interests like culinary experiences, cultural immersion, and active adventures, diversifying the offerings for travelers.
  • Technological Advancements: Advancements in technology further enhanced the cruising experience, offering better amenities, sustainability measures, and personalized services.

River cruising’s evolution reflects a shift from practical transportation to a leisure-focused industry.

Paul Symonds