The ultimate river cruise guide: All you need to know
By Cruise International | 14 Jul 2022
Sailings have begun in earnest on many of the world’s great waterways, so there’s never been a better time to try a river cruise. We ask industry experts what you need to know before embarking on your first river adventure.
Spectacular scenery, excellent value for money and multiple destinations are just some of the benefits of a river cruise. If you’re not sure what to expect, we spoke to the experts who tell us all you need to know about river cruises, from how to book to their favourite destinations.
The ultimate river cruise guide: All you need to know & what to expect
Expect endless variety
“River cruising is a serene and relaxing way to travel – no waves, just quietly and comfortably making your way between cities and towns, admiring the views along the way,” says Mark Sage, Senior Cruise Commercial Manager at TUI River Cruises.
“The most attractive thing for me, regardless of which river or itinerary you choose, is the variety; all itineraries feature cities and lesser-known little gems, plus scenic areas, some of which are UNESCO-rated. Even at night there can be great photo opportunities, such as when passing the brightly illuminated Hungarian parliament building in Budapest – stunning!”
Discover destinations galore
John Warr, Group Managing Director at Travel Village Group, says: “The highlight for me is the destinations. To get the most out of the destination excursions, do some reading about the specific stops en route, and if you like social media, invest in a phone with the best camera. It’s easy to take great photos and there will be plenty to see along the way.”
Think about seasons
“Many first-time river cruise clients are put off by the terminology, but a river cruise is really more akin to an escorted tour (without the coach) on a floating boutique hotel. You can be as social or as private as you want,” says James Hill from Go River Cruise.
“Ask yourself when you would like to go – a spring cruise on the Moselle is very different to a late-autumn one, while a Mekong cruise is best from November to January. Are you travelling to celebrate a birthday or wedding anniversary with family or friends, or is it a quick holiday with a partner?
“A trip with two or three generations means bikes, a pool and other adventures, while a solo trip to look for peace and quiet – perhaps to finish a novel or to pursue an interest in golf, music or architecture – can be arranged without single supplements. And there’s no need to despair if you don’t fly as there are European sailings easily done by rail, car or even as a foot passenger on a cross-Channel ferry.”
Find fantastic value for money
Jenny Wade, UK Account Manager at Amadeus River Cruises, says: “People often make the mistake of thinking a river cruise is expensive, but in many cases it represents fantastic value for money when you look at all the inclusions. We include five-star accommodation, all meals on board, beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, tea and coffee, Wi-Fi and use of all facilities, including bicycles.
“It would be very difficult to do a seven-night city break for the same cost, and this isn’t just one city! I love river cruising on the Rhine – it has a great combination of iconic cities and quaint towns and villages, scenic cruising in the breathtakingly beautiful Upper Middle Rhine Valley and, most importantly, the region’s wines are fabulous!”
They’re great for first-time cruisers
“River sailings are a great introduction to cruising,” says Andrew Iwasyszyn, Head of River and Third-Party Cruising at Saga Holidays.
“They tend to be shorter and the ships are significantly smaller, so they are a great option for a first-time cruiser. The smaller number of guests makes them more intimate, meaning they are also perfect for a solo traveller who may find a larger ocean cruise more intimidating when travelling alone. River cruises are a great way to immerse yourself in a country’s culture and explore some real hidden gems.”
Shop like a local in Cologne
Nichola Absalom, Director Global Brand and Marketing at Scenic, says: “My top destination is Cologne. From the moment you float into the city on a Rhine cruise, you’ll spot the towering spires of the cathedral – once the tallest building in the world.
“Our Scenic space-ships dock right in the heart of Cologne, giving guests as much time as possible to explore this fascinating historic city. One of my favourite things to do there is shop like a local – a unique ‘Veedel’ tour will take you to the lesser-known shopping districts, an area not regularly visited by tourists. Filled with markets, boutiques and independent stores aplenty, this is
the perfect way to get to grips with an alternative, more local side of Cologne.”
Consider a shorter cruise
“Look at taking a shorter cruise to begin with – our five-night Tulips and Windmills cruise is a perfect choice for a first river cruise holiday,” explains Rob Stapley, Cruise Product Manager at Titan Travel.
“Enjoy spending time chatting with your fellow travellers – cruising is very sociable and you’ll have time to spend with new-found friends, perhaps joining in one of the onboard activities or sharing a drink in the lounge.”
Choose a ship with lots of outdoor space
Wendy Atkin-Smith, UK Managing Director at Viking Cruises, says: “The Rhine is still one of my all-time favourite river cruises. It’s where my love of cruising began nearly 30 years ago with its majestic landscapes, fairytale castles, cathedrals, fortresses and historic towns and villages.
“The scenery along the Middle Rhine, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is absolutely spectacular. One of the most overlooked destinations on the Rhine is Basel – it is a fascinating city that sits right where the French, German and Swiss borders meet and can easily be explored by foot.
“One aspect I particularly love about river cruising is that you get a glimpse of local life along the riverbanks, and in Basel lots of local residents commute to work by swimming or rowing with their clothes in a waterproof pack, which is fun to watch. Make sure you choose a ship with plenty of outdoor space to make the most of the views – and the people-watching.
“This winter we have a new festive cruise, Christmas on the Rhine, to see Basel’s medieval Old Town transformed into a magical Yuletide wonderland. We are already seeing a high level of demand from our UK guests so it’s going to be a popular itinerary.”
Add city stays to your river cruise
“My favourite region to cruise is the Rhone, says Giles Hawke, UK Chief Executive of Avalon Waterways. “The food, the views, the weather, the wine and the people all combine to make it the perfect destination for me, and by adding Paris at one end and Nice at the other it can be turned into an amazing 10-day holiday.
“On a river cruise, pretty much everything is included so you can choose excursions, have drinks at lunch and dinner, films in your stateroom, gratuities, bikes and walking poles all within the price you pay. You can be as active or as relaxed as you like – the cruise director and adventure hosts can help you make the most of your holiday in whatever way suits you.”
Pack comfortable shoes
“Pack comfortable walking shoes – many of the immersive excursions on a river cruise are on foot, and they’re to places that can’t be missed,” says John Fair, UK Sales Director of CroisiEurope.
“I’d also take a good book to enjoy while relaxing on the top deck and watching the world drift past as you sail on your chosen river. My favourite place on a river cruise is Avignon on the Rhone – history, culture, architecture, food and wine all in one beautiful, easily walkable setting.”
Mix rail and river
Cruise Product Manager at Great Rail Journeys Andy Hawke suggests: “A rail and river cruise holiday delivers the perfect mix of relaxation and enjoying the sights, with your floating hotel taking you to new places every day.
“A personal favourite of mine is Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands, which you can experience via a river cruise between late March and May when the flowers are in breathtaking bloom. Keukenhof is described as the ‘most beautiful spring garden in the world’ and I hear that echoed back from our passengers year after year.”
Chat with your cruise director
Managing Director UK & Europe at APT and Travelmarvel Paul Melinis says: “River cruising is an incredible way to visit multiple destinations on one holiday because you awake each morning in a new city and, because we dock in the heart of the city, you simply step ashore and begin your discovery.
“Your cruise director is your friend in the location, and their local knowledge is unsurpassed. I’d recommend guests use them as a sounding board for the best things to do in each destination, so that when combined with the included sightseeing, you are getting the best out of each place you visit, and able to maximise free activity time and spend it on your personal passions.
“For anyone nervous about a return to travel post-pandemic, river cruising is a fantastic way to holiday and we take care of every detail.”
Keep things casual
Tim Fleming, Sales and Business Development Manager at Arena River Cruises, says: “Cruising the Danube is absolutely incredible, with wonderful scenery and a variety of interesting places to visit. Bratislava is a real highlight – it’s less well known than Budapest but there’s so much to see with its pedestrian-only Old Town full of historic buildings, cobbled streets and squares, not to mention the impressive castle and suspension bridge.
“River cruise ships are small compared with ocean vessels, so those travelling for the first time should expect an intimate experience where they will quickly become familiar with other passengers and crew. Expect a more casual and relaxed atmosphere on board too, usually without a strict dress code apart from the occasional gala dinner or special event.”
Sit back and relax
“River cruises are calm, relaxing and there’s always something to see on shore,” explains Andrea Kruse, Chief Operating Officer at Viva Cruises. They’re different from a city break or a road trip as passengers just need to unpack once and explore multiple cities in a short space of time.
“I’m a big fan of the Rhone River, as it’s always warm and sunny, as well as the Danube as it offers endless nature experiences.”
Do your research
“My biggest tip for anybody looking to book their first river cruise is to do your research both on the destination and the cruise line, explains David Winterton, Global Director of Brand and Marketing at Emerald Cruises.
“As with all holidays, there is a wide choice. Destination-wise, each river offers something entirely different with vastly different experiences. You may be wine lovers so choose the Rhone in France or Moselle in central Europe. You may love history or culture, so head to the Danube or the Rhine.
“And as for the cruise line, consider how you like to holiday. Do you want luxury, contemporary or traditional surroundings? If you are quite active, look for cruise lines that promote wellness – our onboard activity managers run EmeraldACTIVE hikes, biking and yoga, along with aqua-aerobics in our unique indoor pool.”
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ Managing Director Chris Townson emphasises: “Book early, especially as we emerge from the pandemic.
“Our guests have waited a long time to travel, and in many cases they have saved money, so they want to travel further, for longer and in style. If that sounds like you, get in quick to avoid disappointment, because those top-category suites are being booked out on multiple cruises, back-to-back, as guests look to rediscover the joy of travel.”
It’s easy to budget
“River cruise cabins can be every bit as luxurious as a room in a five-star boutique hotel,” says Phill Hullah, Chief Executive at Riviera Travel.
“All are beautifully appointed and include a comfortable hotel-style bed that can also be set up as twin beds, as well as deluxe en-suite bathrooms. Our cabins include a French balcony or window, so you can admire the ever-changing scenery from the comfort of your room, plus everything guests need for a fantastic luxury river cruise experience is in the up-front booking prices. This means it’s easy to budget for your holiday, because the price will cover costs including flights, transfers, tours with expert guides and full-board.”
Speak to your travel agent
“Speak to your expert travel agent because there are lots of river cruise lines that aren’t consumer-facing brands but work directly with travel agents,” says Jamie Loizou, UK Managing Director at AmaWaterways.
“You need to have a good understanding of what’s included within the cost of the river cruise because it’s all about the value. Agents understand the rules and regulations and can give you the best advice and the best value, and make sure you get the product that suits you.”
Go further afield to the mighty Mississippi
Michelle Daniels, UK & Europe Commercial Director at Light Blue Travel (representing American Queen Voyages and Nicko Cruises), says: “My favourite river has to be the mighty Mississippi. There is something for everyone – music, culture, history, food and wine. From cities such as New Orleans and Memphis to the beautiful antebellum mansions full of history and culture in Nottoway and Natchez, not forgetting civil war heritage in Vicksburg.
“And you can travel almost any time of year from February through to December. River cruising can be as busy and fast-paced or as relaxing and gentle as you want it to be. You can take advantage of organised shore excursions or simply wander and explore independently at your own pace, knowing that your ship is always close to hand.”