If you like the idea of watching landscapes drift by from your stateroom window on your way to a new destination, then a river cruise might just be for you. On these cruises, exciting activities await you at each port, which you can visit before heading back to your cabin to be comfortably transported to the next exotic destination.
A river cruise is a spectacular way to explore new places at a leisurely pace. Unlike ocean-going cruises that focus on onboard entertainment, river cruises focus on the destinations just beyond the river bank. Taking a cruise on an inland waterway is a pleasant but exciting way to discover new regions and have unforgettable experiences.
A river cruise eliminates all the work and uncertainty from travel. There are no bumpy transfers and adjustments to new hotel rooms. With a river cruise, your hotel moves with you, the company arranges all the activities, and you'll travel like royalty from the comfort of your floating home away from home.
Where to Go
Idly float by medieval castles and past bucolic farmland to reach the old world cities that Europe is famous for. With its many large meandering rivers, it’s no wonder that Europe is the world’s number one destination for river cruises. The Rhine River in Germany and the Danube, which can take you from Vienna to the Budapest, are the two most popular rivers to cruise. Along these waterways, you will get a magnificent overview of the region, from its vibrant cities to its peaceful countryside. Most cruise companies operate from March through October, but it is also possible to take a holiday market cruise in late December.
Just like they did in the days of Mark Twain, steamboats still ply the Mississippi River and its tributaries, stopping at lively destinations such as Memphis and New Orleans. Or you can follow the historic path of Lewis and Clark through gorges, canyons, and wine country along the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest. In the warmer months, the St. Lawrence River along the U.S./Canada border is a popular route taking cruisers from the Great Lakes through the 1000 islands to Quebec City. Depending on the destination, it is possible to take a river cruise anytime between March and December.
It’s a shame that many people considering a river cruise overlook Asia. From India’s holy Ganges River to the temple-lined Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam to China’s massive Yangtze River, there are no shortages of exotic and exciting waterways to explore. The high season for Asian river cruises runs from April to October. However, some cruises operate year-round, allowing you to avoid the summer monsoon rains.
The Amazon River offers a unique experience for adventurous river cruisers. Instead of being a means to reach different cities, Amazon cruises focus on the river itself -- allowing you to see monkeys, sloths, parrots, and river dolphins in their natural habitat. Amazon river cruises in Peru and Brazil operate year-round. However, the water-levels do fluctuate, so check with the cruise company about what activities are offered during the time of your travel.
Planning Your Trip
What to Look for in a River Cruise Operator
River-going vessels are much smaller than ocean-going cruise ships. Some have as few as a couple dozen passengers meaning you will get to know your shipmates very well. Decide how many fellow passengers you want to be on board with when selecting your cruise.
Cabins can vary in size but tend to be on the small side. Be sure to select a ship and stateroom that suits you best. Some are quite cozy and big enough for just a single person. Others have more amenities like a mini-bar and private balcony.
If you’re traveling alone and want privacy, you may be required to pay a single supplement fee if the vessel doesn’t have single staterooms. However, if you’re traveling as part of a group, you may be entitled to extra perks like discounted room rates.
Average Tour Cost & Length
Costs vary widely depending on your where you go and the level of luxury you desire. Asia tends to be less expensive with a simple cabin costing as low as $150 per day. Of course, you can splurge as much as you want and get a fancy private cabin with your own French balcony for about $600 per day. A middle of the road (or rather middle of the river) package will likely cost between $250 and $400 dollars per day.
Some packages include airfare in the total cost, so consider this when budgeting for your trip. Also keep in mind that on-shore excursions that would normally cost $50-$100 on their own are usually included in the package price, making a river cruise more economical than it appears at first glance.
One great thing about river cruises is there are options out there to fit any schedule. Whether you have one, two, or three weeks to spend cruising through inland waterways, there exists a tour to fit your needs.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
Luckily for you, most of your needs will be taken care of by the cruise company. Toiletries and standard amenities are usually included. Any special equipment for excursions should be provided for you. Your stateroom likely won’t have much space for extra storage, so try not to overpack.
The dress code on board the ship is usually laid-back and casual. It’s a good idea to pack in layers if you’ll be cruising through different climates and might run into unpredictable weather. Comfortable shoes for walking excursions are a must.
On river cruises, you’ll spend a lot less time aboard ship than you would on an ocean cruise. Rather, the ship serves as a comfortable form of transportation between exciting and interesting destinations. You’ll only spend a day or two at most in each port, so don’t expect to go deep into your location. Instead, a river cruise is a great way to get an overview of a region.
All meals are included on most river cruises. Most have excellent dining services. However, the downside here is that you won’t have many opportunities to sample the local cuisine unless you want to venture out on your own and pay separately for it.
If your cruise transits between more than one country, you’ll need to exchange currency when you cross borders. You may also need to go through immigration in each new country. Fortunately, your cruise operator will streamline this process for you.
Qualification & Training
There are no particular qualifications or training required to go on a river cruise. The crew will go over basic safety protocol at the beginning of your voyage. They will show you where all the safety equipment, such as life vests and first aid kits, are on board.
Activities associated with river cruising tend to be relatively safe. Since you’ll be navigating smaller waterways and populated areas you don’t need to worry about your vacation turning into a castaway situation as you’ll always be close to shore. On river cruises, you can safely leave your valuables on board when you go ashore so you don’t have to worry about losing anything precious.
Just like any other type of travel, you’ll want to know about required vaccinations before you leave home. Alcohol is usually included and readily available in the tour package. That being said, drink responsibly and know your limits. As always, follow the safety recommendations of the ship’s crew and your guides. They want you to have a fun yet safe experience!