River cruises, as a destination? That’s right! You will reach many destinations within a country, or countries, while on a cruise, but only unpack once. It’s like having a floating hotel! River cruises have been increasing in popularity since the early 90’s, when the Main-Danube canal opened thereby connecting the main water arteries of Europe. Since cities and towns historically grew alongside of rivers, it is an excellent way to step off a boat and into the heart of the city. River cruise ships tend to be smaller than oceangoing ships, so they can navigate narrow waterways. As River cruise lines like to say, “Oceans take you to a country, rivers take you through them.”
There are almost too many attractions, or cruises, to list them all. Sail the Danube River taking in the countryside of Austria, Czech Republic, Germany and Hungary with its castles and history. Journey through France on the Rhine River stopping at small towns and cities (including Paris!) along the way. Visit the Netherlands during the spring time to see the tulips, or France in the summer to see the lavender fields. Cruise through the African countries of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe or down the Mekong River through Cambodia and Vietnam.
There are also specially themed cruises centered around history, genealogy, and wine with cruises through Bordeaux and Portugal. More and more ideas for itineraries just keep coming, there’s little doubt you can find one that interests you.
The average time of a river cruise is 7 days, but can be 9, 14, 21 or more depending on the itinerary of choice. Travel time to the port of embarkation must be factored in as well; make sure that you schedule enough time to get the ship. Consider pre- and post-sail stays. Enjoying an additional night or two in a port city is a great way to make the most of your trip.
Know Before You Go
River cruising is different from ocean cruising in many ways. For starters, the average number of passengers is approximately 200. On board entertainment is not the focus of the trip, and the daily interaction in the port city is the star of the show. The ships normally depart ports late at night or early in the morning, leaving much more time to be immersed in the town you are visiting. Daily excursions with different themes and activity levels are often included in the overall price of the trip. Some lines are now including fleets of bicycles for passengers to cycle to the next town or port. That is not to say that the ship is devoid of entertainment, as there are many options, including wifi, movies, flat screen televisions, wellness centers and fitness centers, pools and/or spas, and of course, bars and restaurants. Most food and drink are inclusive, some will offer a happy hour before dinner or an after dinner drink, depending on the cruise line you choose. It is important to always look at the inclusions before making your decision. The food on river cruises are often locally sourced at the town or port and have top tier chefs. Often onboard lectures from local experts or concerts are held in the evenings.
Each river cruise line has their own distinct style, from no frills to luxury, to opulent and over the top (e.g., with famous artist’s works hanging in the cabins), there is a perfect option for everyone. Cabins vary widely, with small windows in the basic cabins, to balconies and sliding glass doors in the upper deck cabins. While once thought of as a vacation for retirees, the river cruise is going main stream and cruise lines are accommodating the trend. Some lines have ships that focus on millennials and the younger crowd while others are building new ships with connecting rooms, triples, and suites with pull out sofa beds for families and multigenerational travel in mind. Some cruises have dates specifically focused on families with children based on school holidays and vacations.
The best part about river cruises, is that they take care of most of the travel. The boat is the transportation and shore excursions are coordinated from there.
Passport Validity and Visas
This will vary greatly depending on the type of cruise you choose. The rules for a cruise on the Mekong River through Cambodia and Vietnam may be different from a wine cruise in Portugal. Vaccinations required, if any, will vary as well.
Travelers Who Require Accessibility Assistance
There are elevators onboard, but many cruise lines do not have wheelchair accessible rooms. Keep in mind that tours in the small towns and ports, especially in Europe, can include walking tours over narrow cobblestone streets, which can be difficult to navigate.
Families with small children are encouraged to read through the recommended guidelines of their chosen cruise lines. Some do not allow children under a certain age while others do, but restrict the type of tours based on age. Parents should keep in mind the activity level of their child/children. There is a limited amount of space compared to that of an ocean liner.
Interesting (and Important) Facts
River cruises tend to book far in advance. Many a year or more ahead. There may be cruises still available, but the type and dates will be limited. If you have your heart set on a Christmas Market cruise in December instance, it is best to book it sooner rather than later.
The popularity of traveling solo on river cruises is growing. It’s an ideal way to enjoy some camaraderie with fellow passengers in a small group.