The ABC’s of River Cruising
Choosing a river cruise can be a source of consternation, confusion and frustration. In Europe alone there are more than two dozen navigable rivers and canals. Add the confluence of companies offering seemingly similar experiences and you might just end up feeling as though you’re going upriver without a paddle, so to speak.
That’s where I come in. I’m here to help you navigate the ever-changing currents that define river cruising today. As many of you might already know, I produce tons of content for my sites avidcruiser.com and rivercruiseadvisor.com to help travelers make informed cruise vacation decisions. I decided to create an ebook to streamline this information even further, devising a step-by-step guide to selecting the right river cruise for you. Believe me, it is a process. There are so many personal factors that go into making river cruise vacation decisions. What I think is incredible might be a total miss for you.
Having focused my travel writing career on the cruise industry for nearly three decades, I’ve taken hundreds of cruises, and in the past ten years, added more than 50 river cruising to my proverbial travel bucket. Personal preferences aside, what I can tell you is that I have garnered a lot of insights that can help you understand the many options available to you.
Clearly, I adore this segment of the travel industry and am grateful for each day that I spend on the rivers in Europe. But more importantly, I can take what I’ve learned and pass it along to you to ensure your time and money are wisely spent.
But just how does one start to peel back the layers of what seems to be an upstream endeavor at first glance? I decided to apply a journalistic principle that I had to strictly abide in college: “The 5 Ws and one H.” I bet that you all know where I’m going with this; it’s the Why, What, Where, When, Which, Who and How. (Okay, that’s 6 Ws, but who’s counting? I like to go the extra nautical mile.) If you answer these questions and take into consideration the many aspects that add up to a memorable river cruise, you won’t be disappointed. As someone who has traveled all of my life, I can say without reservation that river cruising is one of the most rewarding ways to experience the heart of Europe.
Whether you’re considering your first river cruise or simply planning for your next great journey along the waterways of the world, you’ll find lots of river cruise reviews here on River Cruise Advisor. Read more about how to choose a river cruise.
The Appeal of River Cruising
River cruising was an entirely new concept to Europe when it was introduced in the mid-1970s: a floating hotel that journeys between destinations. In its simplest form, a river cruiser is nothing more than a barge with a hotel on top. For many travelers, the slow chug along the river is just the right pace for getting the lay of the land. Sitting on the top deck of a ship under brilliant blue skies, you gaze on fabled landscapes dotted with castles, villages, and vineyards. A flight of stairs down you have all the amenities of a modern hotel—restaurants, bars, lounges, fitness facilities, spas, Internet access, and comfortable staterooms.
River cruises offer opportunities to step ashore in fairy-tale towns and major European capitals that can’t be reached on a traditional cruise ship. Most river cruisers take these trips to immerse themselves in Europe’s contemporary culture in a way they can’t when traveling between a different Mediterranean port every day and to learn something about the history of the towns along the Continent’s greatest rivers.
What is it Like Onboard?
The onboard ambience spans such a range that there are ships to suit most travel preferences and lifestyles. While some vessels emphasize elegance, others are much more casual. Travelers can find river cruisers that rival Europe’s finest boutique hotels at one end of the spectrum while at the other, it’s possible to cruise Europe’s rivers much like an independent traveler who opts only for basic accommodations and dining.
Amenities onboard vary, but standard on most river cruise ships are a restaurant, bar and lounge, library and sky deck.
Most river cruise ships have a fitness center with a few pieces of fitness equipment and possibly a sauna. There is often either a hair salon and/or a masseuse on board.
Some ships might have a whirlpool; others, like those on the Nile, almost always have a dipping pool on the top deck.
Increasingly in Europe, ships are adding elevators and smaller, alternative dining lounges at the aft of the ship. Outdoor grilling on the top deck is also becoming more popular on newer ships.
What is the food like?
The food on river cruise ships in Europe is generally very good. It is European-influenced cuisine.
Breakfast and lunch are usually buffet style. Breakfast usually consists of cereals, yogurt, fruit, pastries, egg dishes, meats, juices, tea and coffee.
At lunch there is often a salad bar, soups, several hot and cold dishes and desserts.
Dinners are generally three-course meals with table service. The cuisine often ties in the local dishes of the region passengers are sailing through. Some river cruise companies include wine and beer during dinner at no additional charge.
When Can I Sail?
The main river-cruising season begins in March and continues through the end of December, beginning with “tulip time” cruises in the Benelux countries and ending with “Christmas market” cruises in Hungary, Austria, and Germany. The majority of itineraries are seven nights, though longer cruises are available. For popular itineraries, you may need to book your cruise up to a year in advance, but if you can’t deal with so much advance planning, consider cruising from March through May or from September through December, when the crowds are thinner and airfares may be more reasonably priced than during peak periods.
River cruising is perfect for those who want a relaxed grand tour of Europe and for cruisers who want to explore Europe beyond the coastline. River cruising presents the grandeur and charm of Europe as well as the indelible landscapes that inspired Europe’s great artists. Few things in life can beat the views of Europe over the ripples of its rivers.
Where do river cruises go?
River cruises travel along many of the major rivers in the world. In Europe, the Danube River is second in length only to the Volga River in Russia. The Danube is one of the most popular rivers to cruise along, and many river cruises include the Danube as part of their itinerary.
The Main, Rhine, Moselle, Elbe, Rhone, Saone and Seine are also popular rivers in Europe for river cruising. Read more about Why River Cruising In Europe?
Elsewhere in the world, the Amazon River in Peru and Brazil, the Nile River in Egypt, the Yangtze River in China and the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia are also popular river cruise destinations.
Also see River Cruises Around The World
Is river cruising family-friendly?
One of the most frequently-asked questions that readers are emailing into us here at River Cruise Advisor is: Can I take my kids on a river cruise? We’re not talking teenagers or grown adult children here, but kids – specifically, kids under 12 years of age.
For those who are seriously considering taking their kids on a European river cruise, there are some important things you’re going to want to take into account. To start, we’d recommend only taking a family-friendly river cruise departure. Not only will there likely be other families onboard, but there will be more for your kids to do, with special activities onboard and ashore.
Click here to read our full article on family-friendly river cruises.
Can I river cruise if I am confined to a wheelchair?
This is a tough question for more than one reason – and sadly, the short answer is this: European river cruising in general is not well-suited to those confined to a wheelchair. River cruising through Europe can be surprisingly un-wheelchair friendly. Variances in water levels along the rivers can result in steep gangways, and some docking locations are downright unfriendly when it comes to the mobility-impaired.
For guests coming from North America, this might seem to be unfathomable. The simple fact remains, though, that many cities may not have wheelchair ramps at convenient locations simply due to the structure of the cities themselves, which can be hundreds of years old. While major cities will likely have facilities catering to those confined to a wheelchair, smaller towns and villages are less likely.
Is there Internet on board?
Most river cruise ships in Europe either have wireless Internet access on board or are trying to get it installed. Be warned, connection can be spotty and is often not 100 percent reliable. See What You Need To Know About Shipboard Internet On Your River Cruise
Three Modes Of River Cruising: River Cruisers, Barges and Paddlewheelers. Which Should You Choose?
While there are invariably differences between vessels—some boast indoor pools, spas, multiple restaurants and whatnot—these are the basic categories to help you wade through what’s out there. Read more.
You have questions; we have the answers. To learn more about river cruising, you’ll find the links below helpful.
River Cruise History:
- The Emergence of River Cruising – The industry that is expanding so rapidly at present is the product of decades of innovation, luck, and iron determination.
- Barging: River Cruising’s Father – Read Part I and Part II of our coverage on the history of Barging.
- A River Cruising Pioneer – AmaWaterways’ co-founder Rudi Schreiner is profiled.
River Cruise Basics:
- Frequently Asked Questions – Learn more about all aspects of river cruising, including popular rivers, how river cruising compares to luxury ocean cruises, what’s included on a river cruise and more.
- Why River Cruising? – So why would you want to consider a river cruise in the first place? Because it’s a great way to see Europe. Don’t believe us. Check out Why River Cruising?
- Will I Be Bored? It’s not likely. Have a peek at what a typical river cruise offers.
- How River Cruises & Barge Cruises Differ – They’re not the same, so don’t confuse these two great products. Barges typically are smaller, carry fewer passengers and cost you more on a per-diem basis. However, a barge vacation may be just what you’re looking for.
- Why River Cruising Is Not For Everyone – Are you a smoker? Traveling with infants? River cruising may not be for you.
- How River Cruising Compares To Luxury Ocean Cruising – While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, taking a look at how river cruises compare to luxury ocean cruises can be relevant for those familiar with one but not the other.
- Choosing your Ship – Like all of us, each ship has its own distinct personality. Learn how to find the one that suits you.
- Choosing Your Stateroom – How River Cruise ships and oceangoing cruise ships differ in their accommodations.
- QuietVox: There’s two headsets in every stateroom, so what is it and why should you be excited about using it?
River Cruising: Tips and Tricks:
- River Cruise Line Beverage Policies – Not every river cruise line offers the same policies for included beverages; in fact, some vary wildly depending on your destination. Cut through the maze of policies with our handy chart.
- It’s Complicated: Exploring River Cruise Beverage Policies – A companion article to the above piece. Why do beverage policies vary from destination to destination and line to line? It’s complicated.
- Airports and Airfare – Learning more about the airlines you fly and the airports you connect through can save you time – and money – on your next river cruising adventure.
- Finding Your Ship – This sounds simple enough, and indeed it is in most ports. But there are a more than a few cities where finding your river cruise ship can be an exercise in frustration. Here’s how to ensure to arrive prepared.
River Cruising: In-Depth:
- Theme River Cruises – Looking for a river cruise that offers a little bit more? Theme Cruises are a popular way to explore your interests while you sail the waterways of the world.
- The Magical Christmas Markets River Cruise. Christmas Markets river cruises, while not widely known, provide the perfect platform for experiencing all of the different Christmas festivities along the rivers of Europe.
- Making the Most of Your Time Ashore – By their nature, river cruises allow for an extended amount of time ashore – but it’s still important to have a plan and do your homework.
- The Main-Danube Canal – Do you like locks? The engineering marvel of the Main-Danube Canal is for you.
- Feeling Queasy? – Your ship might be transiting a lock. Avoid vertigo with our handy guide.
- Old Ships vs. New Ships – They each have their pro’s and con’s.
- Water Levels – Whether a river has high or low water levels is something you’re unlikely to consider when planning your river cruise – until it happens to you.
Still have questions? We’re here to help.