Updated 06/07/2023

River cruises are fast becoming a popular choice for holidaymakers, offering luxury accommodations, world-class cuisine and exciting destinations.

For those who are seasoned ocean cruisers or who have never experienced cruising before, a river cruise offers a getaway from a whole different perspective.

What to expect on a river cruise?

River cruising through Budapest

A river cruise is similar to lots of city breaks rolled into one, reaching a new destination each day without the hassle of packing and unpacking in between. Enjoy staying in a cabin with similar décor to a boutique hotel where the views constantly change as the world’s waterways pass by on either side.

Compared to ocean cruise ships, river cruise ships are much smaller, allowing them to sail further into the ports and inner-depths of the cities on your itinerary.

River cruises tend to sail during the morning and night, mooring throughout the day for you to explore the ports and cities. There are no days at sea on a river cruise, much to the opposite on an ocean cruise. Every day there is a new destination for you to explore and experience, making it a truly immersive cruising holiday.

Where can you sail on a river cruise?

Many river cruises explore the waterways of Europe, sailing on the Seine or roaming the Rhone. Those new to river cruising may not realise that you can sail further afield on a river cruise, venturing to Asia on the Mekong or China on the Yangtze.

Popular destinations on river cruises include Germany on the Rhine, Budapest on the Danube and Portugal on the Douro.

Who will you see on your river cruise?

Couple on-board a river cruise excursion

It’s often thought that the demographic for river cruises is an older audience, mainly the over 50s. However, river cruising is appealing to younger groups and gaining a wider interest in the cruising industry.

There will also be significantly less passengers as river cruises only carry between 120 and 160 guests. When compared to the average 3,000-passenger megaships, this means you will be able to mingle better with your fellow passengers and will have less waiting in line for dining or waiting to disembark your ship in the mornings.

Features to look out for on a river cruise

River cruise ships are much smaller than ocean ships, meaning that certain facilities are adapted to ensure complete usability alongside elegant décor and luxurious fittings.

Do river cruises have balconies?

Dolce Suite on-board AmaWaterways

Quite a number of river cruise ships now offer all-balcony cabins, where each room offers space for guests to gaze outside and enjoy the breeze from their own private area.

French balconies, or Juliet balconies, are usually floor-to-ceiling windows which open to a certain point allowing you to enjoy the fresh air and view, without the added outdoor space and seating. Full balconies include this outdoor space, as well as seating and a table for you to relax while sailing.

Over the years, river cruise ships have expanded to include elegant accommodation styles, with premium bathroom products and luxurious bed linens. Uniworld’s sumptuous décor is inspired by boutique hotels, whereas Scenic boasts a decadent range of cabins on-board their cruise ships, with beautifully-coordinated colour schemes.

What are the communal areas like on a river cruise?

Viking alfresco dining at Aquavit Terrace

Outdoor space is maximised on a river cruise ship, with alfresco dining and unique features including herb gardens, all-weather seating areas and swimming pools.

Many cruises have been designed to offer luxurious shared spaces and communal areas. Restaurants feature stunning designs and inspiring menus, such as Avalon’s Fresh menu and FlexDining venues.

What can I do on a river cruise excursion?

Ebike Active Excursion - Couple on Scenic River Cruise

For the most part, river cruise excursions are more culturally in-depth and educational than those offered on ocean cruises. Excursions can include bus tours or walking tours, with history and culture top of the agenda.

However, river cruises are now offering more active and adventurous excursions as passengers of a younger demographic, and those looking for variety, are joining the river cruise industry.

Emerald Waterways offers EMeraldACTIVE, where experiences are geared more towards outgoing guests, with excursions including cycling tours around Belgrade and hikes through Europe’s countryside.

AmaWaterways includes several limited small-group experiences, intending to offer guests the chance to encounter local culture in every way. Examples include knotting German pretzels in Wertheim, exploring Vienna’s secret spots and sampling Bavarian specialities in Regensburg.

You don’t need to book your chosen excursions in advance, as your cruise line will assume you will be taking part – though you are never forced to take your space. Many are included as complimentary meaning you just have to confirm your place.

What’s included in my river cruise fare?

Couple enjoying dinner on-board Scenic

Most river cruise lines include excursions in their initial fare, as they have a partnerships with companies and a vast network of local guides. Though there are a few that charge an extra-fee for selected trips and tours, as they tend to be more intimate and specialised.

Typical inclusions on a river cruise include:

  • Your cruise and accommodation
  • Beer, wine and soft drinks at lunch and dinner
  • Complimentary shore excursions
  • Wi-Fi

Some cruise lines offer extra inclusions such as gratuities, airport transfers, room service and butler service – it all depends on what you’re looking for from your cruise. Check with the cruise line to see which works best for you.

Sail along the world’s waterways

VIking river cruise sailing through Europe

Enjoy encapsulating scenery and beguiling ports as you roam the region of Europe, Asia and beyond. Booking a river cruise can be daunting, especially for the first time. Take a look at our quiz below to find the best cruise line for you to gain a better idea of who to sail with!

If you have any further questions or would like to make a booking, call our Cruise Concierge team on 0800 197 0854 for award-winning advice and customer service, ensuring you secure the best deal for you.



Updated 08.02.23

Share this:
(Visited 5,717 times, 4 visits today)

About Emma Smith

Emma has more than seven years' experience as a writer and has been in the travel industry for nearly five years. She loves learning about new places and cruise ships coming to market, as well as discovering fun and exciting activities to do while you sail. She has cruised with Princess Cruises, Cunard, Celebrity Cruises, Virgin Voyages, Avalon Waterways and Royal Caribbean and is looking to get something in her diary for 2024! Her favourite things to see on a ship include excellent entertainment, a delicious cocktail menu and extraordinary dining venues.

2 Responses to “An introduction to river cruising: First-time cruising”

  1. gravatar
    Audrey fairbotham

    My friend and I are looking to book a balcony cruise in Europe June or July. Two separate cabins.i do not want a strenuous. Cruise with lots of walking and standing around. I like tours by coach cars etc but no cycling .this is my first river cruise but I have done over 50 ocean cruises mostly Cunard and seaborne. Can you suggest. Please one for us that fits this criteria. Thanks Audrey

    • gravatar
      Emma Smith

      Hi Audrey, Thank you for your enquiry. I’ve passed your details on to our Cruise Concierge team, who will be able to provide further details for you. Thanks, Emma.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)