If you haven’t tried river cruising before, Becky Wiggins has all the river cruise tips required to help you choose, plan and book a holiday of a lifetime.

The essence of river cruising is having the unique opportunity to delve right into the heart of the action, and to spend time discovering and exploring, all from small, intimate ships with interesting itineraries across the world. And if you’re looking for river cruise tips, this article has all the information and advice you need to make these amazing experiences a reality.

River cruise ships may not have the plethora of restaurants, expansive facilities and extensive selection of onboard entertainment boasted by their seagoing cousins, but don’t think of river cruising as ‘cruising lite’. It’s actually the perfect, easy way to discover new cities and countries without the hassle of navigating the local public transport systems, suitcase in tow.

River cruising gives you the luxury of hopping on and off with ease, spending time taking in a vineyard tour, city excursion or immersive museum visit, or spending lazy, sun-drenched afternoons on board, watching life go by while sipping a cocktail on your balcony. You really do travel deeper on a river cruise, and are able to uncover the true essence of a destination.

My fondest memory is waking early on China’s Yangtze River as the sun burnt away the swirling mist, listening to the local fishermen shouting to each other as they cast their nets into the soupy green water.

What to expect on a river cruise

relaxing by the pool river cruise tips

First-timers might worry about becoming stir crazy on a small ship, but, in reality, river cruising offers frequent stops, many in the very centre of a destination, with a lot more freedom to explore and minimal hassle to get on and off. You’ll find friendly crew who remember your name and your favourite tipple, and a laid-back atmosphere with plenty of opportunities to socialise with your fellow travellers.

As Giles Hawke, CEO UK & Ireland for Avalon, puts it: “We operate a relaxed luxury approach, with no formality or dress codes and certainly no butlers, but an intuitive and friendly service ethos and an atmosphere of a smart boutique hotel.” There’s often just one restaurant with a single dinner time, and with that comes a cosier dining experience, frequently at larger tables, so it’s easy to get to know your dining companions. 

What you won’t find on a river cruise

suite on a river cruise ship

Well first, there’s very little motion, so you won’t experience any seasickness. You also probably won’t find many added extras, as most river cruise lines operate on an all-inclusive basis, with excursions, drinks with dinner, 24-hour coffee, tea and snacks, and even tips included in the fare, so although the price might seem a little steeper, you know exactly where you stand financially before you travel.

Unlike ocean cruises, you won’t find inside cabins, so whether you have a porthole window, French balcony (floor-to-ceiling sliding doors but with no balcony space), or an actual balcony, you’ll always have a view of the river. You’re also unlikely to experience many ‘sea days’ as generally, apart from a few scenic stretches such as the UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley on the Danube, and the breath-taking Three Gorges on the Yangtze, a lot of river cruising actually takes place at night, delivering you neatly to your destination ready to start the day bright and early.

Unless you really splash out, you’re unlikely to find your cabin particularly roomy, but it’s basically just a place to rest your head. Likewise, you won’t find spacious spas or state-of-the-art gym facilities, but many offer sunrise yoga sessions and compact massage spaces, with Uniworld’s Serenity River Spa even offering in-chair massage options.

Which river cruise itinerary?

the hermitage river cruise tips

Visit the iconic churches, cathedrals and abbeys of Austria, Germany, Slovakia, Hungary and even the Czech Republic on a Danube cruise, visiting the majestic cities of Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest along the way. Explore some of Europe’s most historic landmarks with a Rhine cruise, taking in the Black Forest; Germany’s oldest city, Trier; and dipping into France with a wander around Strasbourg’s charming old town.

Discover Portugal by following the picturesque Douro from buzzing Pinhao to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Porto and the fascinating Spanish city of Salamanca. Glimpse stunning architecture with a guided tour around the palaces of St Petersburg on a cruise down Europe’s longest river, the Volga, past medieval cities in the very heart of northern Russia, and finally to the capital, Moscow, where cultural sites abound.

Of course, river cruising isn’t just limited to Europe. Wendy Atkin-Smith, Managing Director of Viking Cruises UK, says: “I visited Egypt about 20 years ago and would love to go back to do a cruise with Viking – the Nile is top of my list. Our Pharaohs & Pyramids cruise particularly appeals to me as Viking’s ships on the Nile are so intimate with only 52 guests, and the itinerary incorporates time in Cairo.” 

little street in Ho Chi Minh City river cruise tips

Uniworld’s spacious all-suite Ganges Explorer II offers 11 days of fully escorted excursions from New Delhi to Kolkata. G Adventures’ purpose-built Amatista cruises the Amazon in style with an impressive ratio of 15 crew members and two naturalist guides to just 28 guests, meaning there’s always an expert on hand to help you experience the diverse wildlife and ever-changing landscape of the rainforest, while learning about its fascinating history and culture with jungle walks, night excursions and even a visit to a local shaman.

Experience some serious Southern hospitality on board the largest steamboat ever built – the American Queen – which sails the mighty Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans in style, with opulent Victorian interiors and excursions included in every port of call, visiting the music meccas of Nashville and Memphis. Explore Asia by adding a couple of days either side of your Viking China itinerary to discover the glittering megacities of Shanghai and Beijing before experiencing some of the most beautiful river landscapes on the Yangtze; or discover the treasures of the Mekong sailing from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam on board Scenic Spirit.

Which river cruise line?

Pool deck on Viking Ra river cruise tips

A great travel agent will be able to chat to you and determine which river cruise line would suit you best. Although obviously much more compact than ocean vessels, river cruise ships come in all shapes and sizes, often purpose built to fit their destinations. Viking’s famous longships are chic, spacious, and – as the name suggests, long – perfect for the wide European waterways they sail on.

Specifically constructed to navigate the Nile, Viking’s Viking Ra is a compact, modern, all-suite ship boasting just 24 cabins with décor that’s an interesting fusion of Viking’s signature Scandi style and traditional local geometric patterns (and look out for brand new Viking Osiris, coming in 2020). Uniworld’s beautiful river cruise ships are like floating boutique hotels, offering the highest staff-to-guest ratio in the river cruise industry with unparalleled levels of service and super stylish accommodation.

“With Emerald Waterways, all our ships have pools,” says Marketing Manager Darren Birch. “So after a morning excursion, head to the pool with a delicious cocktail or coffee and relax while reading a book.” The line’s newest ship, Emerald Harmony, has been designed to sail the Mekong and dock in the very heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Ama Waterway’s Zambezi Queen is designed specifically for wildlife viewing along Africa’s legendary Chobe river, with unobstructed views from each of its 14 suites, and using an eco-friendly water jet propulsion system which is both quiet and kind to the environment. 

What river cruise excursions are there?

cycling on the Danube river cruise tips

Arriving in the very centre of your destination, it’s easy to strike out on your own or join a small group for a walking tour with a local guide, a bicycle tour or even an exclusive experience created just for you. Emerald Waterways’ Darren Birch recommends taking full advantage of the included guided tours: “They’re a great way of not only getting familiar with a destination, but the local guides are really knowledgeable about where to find a great cup of coffee, the best cake, or things to see and do with your free time.”

Scenic offer ‘Enrich’, their range of hanpicked experiences, such as a private orchestral performance at Vienna’s opulent Palais Liechtenstein, or small group wine tours and tastings at French châteaux, and on some of Avalon’s itineraries you can even strike out by bike, meeting the ship at its next port of call. Uniworld’s included Exclusive Experiences offer guests once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, including a private art tour of the Vienna Art History Museum or even the chance to meet a real-life Austrian princess in her 13th-century castle.

What do I pack on a river cruise?

Holiday suitcase

Obviously, this will depend on your destination, but river cruising tends to be quite informal. The focus is more on getting out and about and discovering your ports of call, so although you might need a couple of smart/casual outfits for dinner (what you would wear if you were visiting a nice restaurant), you can leave your ballgowns and tux at home. It’s worth checking out the weather for your chosen itinerary and packing accordingly: layers are best when you might be away from the ship for several hours, and a light, waterproof coat and some comfortable shoes are essential.

More top river cruise tips…

• Remember it’s generally your responsibility to make sure you have the correct visa for your visit, although some companies such as Viking River Cruises will introduce you to a preferred company who can organise the majority of the paperwork for you.  

• “Most river cruise lines give great early booking offers and many of them avoid discounts so you can usually book ahead safe in the knowledge that you are unlikely to see your cruise cheaper later on,” advises Avalon’s Giles Hawke.

• Consider adding on a couple of days pre- or post-cruise to extend your trip, especially if there are several things you want to see or do in your chosen city. 

• If you’re visiting several different countries, it’s often worth organising some local currency before you go.

• If you need special assistance, check with your cruise company. Some river docks can make access a challenge with steps and ramps, especially with unpredictable water levels, and sometimes river ships can be double (or even triple) moored, making it necessary for passengers to cross one or more ships to access the dock.

Are you a first-time ocean cruiser, too, or simply looking for more expert cruising advice? Read our guides on how to upgrade your cruise and how to be a savvy cruiser.

Alternatively, find your perfect cruise.