It’s one of the most stress-free ways to travel. The ships are small enough to feel friendly and relaxed, the water’s calm and the sights never stop coming, from castles and vineyards to sleepy riverside towns – not forgetting some of the world’s great capitals.
There won’t be beaches or nightlife, but if you like the idea of lazing on deck, watching the scenery drift by and exploring ashore every day with the cosy environment of a small ship as your floating home, a river cruise could be for you.
There’s a river, a ship and an itinerary to suit every taste and budget, but as with an ocean cruise, do your homework to find the one for you.
How large are the boats?
River cruisers are tiny compared with most ocean-going ships; in Europe, their size is dictated by the height of the bridges and the width and length of the many locks.
So you’ll be in the company of anything from 80 to around 170 fellow passengers with a typical crew-to-passenger ratio of around 40 crew to 140 guests.
All riverboat cabins have air conditioning, TV and a private bathroom with a shower – you’ll only get a bath in the very poshest suite.
Cabins vary from a very cosy eight or nine square metres on the very oldest ships, where some accommodation still has old-fashioned fold-down beds, up to 15 square metres on newer vessels — the equivalent of a small hotel room, but with lots of clever storage space and twin or king-sized beds.
You might want to opt for a balcony. This is usually a ‘French balcony’, a railing and doors that slide open to let in the river breezes; very pleasant if you enjoy spending time in your cabin. Accommodation with a smaller picture window costs less, of course.
Cruise some of the world's most beautiful waterways. Find out more here
Do you need to fly to join a river cruise ship?
Not necessarily. Rhine cruises starting in Amsterdam, or springtime voyages exploring the Dutch waterways are easily accessible by coach and ferry.
If you fancy a jaunt down the Rhône to sunny Provence, it’s easy enough to travel to Lyon, the starting point, by train, while cruises on the Seine, the Loire and the Gironde are easy to reach by rail, too.
What are the dining arrangements?
All river cruisers offer open-seating dining, which means you can sit where you want, with whom you want, although tables for two on all but the very poshest ships are rare.
Typically, breakfast and lunch are a buffet and dinner is served course by course.
Most river ships try to offer a taste of regional cuisine, so you’ll find local sausages and lots of pork on the lunch buffet on the Rhine, divine apple strudel on the Danube, and delicious cuisine on French cruises (along with a fine cheeseboard).
But menus on the whole are pretty international. And from time to time, there are other treats; on the Douro, for example, the crew might lay on a deck barbecue on a warm night.
What's life like on-board a river cruise?
Like ocean-going ships, river cruisers are cash-free and you’ll charge all expenses to your account and settle at the end.
The currency on most ships is the euro. What’s included varies from ship to ship. At the top end, you’ll enjoy free Wi-Fi, included excursions and an open bar.
On some cruises, though, you can pay individually for drinks. You may be able to buy an individual excursion package, too.
Pretty well all river cruisers offer Wi-Fi, sometimes free, but you’ll almost always find a better signal in port, and a café in a leafy square where you can catch up on your emails over a cappuccino.
How much baggage can you take on a river cruise?
All but the bulkiest suitcases can be stashed under the bed so what you can take is really limited by your airline, or what you can take on the Eurostar.
How formal is a river cruise?
Leave the ballgown at home. People tend to wear comfortable clothing for sightseeing during the day, while evenings are a little bit more dressy, although men certainly don’t need ties or jackets.
Will I get seasick on a river cruise?
You won’t get seasick! There aren’t any waves and the pace of sailing is gentle.
How long are the stops on a river cruise?
The idea is to give you as much time in port as possible, so generally speaking you’ll be moored most of the day, sailing in the evening or through the night.
Ships stay overnight in the most exciting places – Paris, say, Porto or Vienna.
5 places to visit in Vienna: Read more
The top things to do in Prague: Read more
Things to see and do on a French river cruise: Read more
Itineraries are such, though, that you’ll always have daylight for the most beautiful stretches – the sheer-sided Rhine Gorge, with a craggy castle on every bend, or the gorgeous Wachau Valley on the Danube, lined with vineyards and woodlands that rival the East Coast of the USA for their fiery autumn colours.
When the ship is sailing, or in the evenings, there’s entertainment: from lectures and cookery demonstrations to language classes and wine- tasting.
Most ships have a pianist in the bar and some bring on local bands or folklore shows in the evening – river cruising is not for hard-core party people.
When the ship is moored, usually in the middle of a town, you’re free to explore ashore or perhaps take a stroll or a bike ride along the riverbanks.
No fishing, though, or swimming; most rivers aren’t clean or serene enough (no swimmer wants a brush with the six-foot catfish that lurk in the muddy depths of the Rhône).
Is a river cruise suitable for disabled passengers?
A river cruise is an option for wheelchair users, but with caveats. Most newer ships have lifts between the decks (although not necessarily up to the sun deck) but wheelchair-accessible cabins are not a given and you’ll certainly need an able-bodied companion.
Getting on and off the ship can be tricky; often, riverboats will double berth so you’ll have to cross over one ship to get to another. Most ships don’t have special facilities for hearing or visually impaired travellers.
Having said all that, you’ll find river-ship crew friendly, helpful and patient. Tours are geared to a slower pace. There won’t be a cruise-line doctor on board (you’re never far from port) but there will be a crew member(s) with medical training.
The best river cruises...
Cruises from Bordeaux sail through the heart of some of the world’s most legendary wine-growing areas – the Médoc, Pomerol and Sauternes.
Spend a week exploring magnificent chateaux, tastings and chances to buy in pretty villages such as Saint-Emilion.
Discover good food, fabulous wine and amazing history and architecture on a river cruise along the French waterways. Find out more here
No question, it has to be the Rhine.
Pick a cruise that includes the Rhine Gorge (most do), where, between Bingen and Koblenz, there are more than 40 castles and fortresses, some ruined, some still inhabited, all with a tale to tell.
Discover a fairy-tale world of hilltop castles, wooded hills and lush vineyards on a Rhine river cruise. Find out more here
For Capital cities...
Love a city break? Cruise the Danube and you’ll visit three capitals in a week: Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest.
Most ships overnight in both Vienna and Budapest so you can enjoy a concert, or a stroll ashore after dark.
Few rivers can match the sheer variety that the Danube has to offer. Find out more here
A day at the dazzling Keukenhof Garden is the highlight of a Dutch waterways cruise – and in springtime the tulip fields all across the Netherlands will be at their most glorious.
Set sail on a wonderful river cruise through the Belgian and Dutch waterways. Find out more here
A voyage along Russia’s waterways combines overnights in both St Petersburg and Moscow with a chance to see the much slower pace of rural life along the rivers, and to delve into the country’s history.
Journey through historic Moscow and majestic St Petersburg on Russian river cruise. Find out more here
...and for further afield...
A Mekong cruise is the perfect introduction to southeast Asia.
You’ll visit the magnificent Angkor Wat temples at Siem Reap, as well as the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and the high-energy Ho Chi Minh City. History, fishing villages, floating markets and emerald paddy fields – they’re all here.
Sue Bryant is the award-winning river cruises editor of The Sunday Times
Read more about river cruising or book your next getaway...