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River Cruising 101 – Answers to Your Top Questions About River Cruises

Imagine immersing yourself in Europe's culture, history, and beauty – without the exhaustion of traveling Europe. You check in to your luxurious floating hotel, unpack once, and you’re off to see the world. That’s the beauty of river cruising. It’s the grownup luxurious way to backpack Europe!

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t river cruising something my grandparents would do? I’m not an ocean cruise fan, so I wouldn’t love river cruising. Would my kids like it? Isn’t it expensive?

These are just some of the questions I'm asked about river cruising. At the ASTA River Cruise Expo in Amsterdam, I experienced 12 ships and 9 cruise lines – AmaWaterways, Amadeus, Avalon Waterways, Emerald Cruises, Riviera, Riverside, Tauck, Uniworld, and Viking. After immersing myself in this industry, I'm sharing everything I learned and answering the top 8 questions about river cruising.

1.   What makes river cruising so special?

Remember those carefree college years when you backpacked through Europe, exploring each destination with all the time in the world? You can explore that way again but with all the luxury you deserve as a bonafide grownup. With a river cruise, you get:

  • An easy and luxurious way to see the world in your own floating hotel. You dock in the heart of the city, walk off your boat in seconds and you’re seeing the sights.

  • Culturally-immersive experiences at every port.

  • A more intimate and personal experience with just 100 passengers on board (on average) and 1 crew member for every 2-3 guests.

2.   How are river cruises different from ocean cruises?

Whether you love ocean cruising or would never step foot on an ocean cruise liner, forget what

you know about ocean cruising because river cruising is completely different.


  • Ocean cruise ships are HUGE and hold thousands of passengers. The new Icon of the Seas can carry 8,000 passengers! I just sailed on an ocean cruise in Alaska with 2,500 passengers and even that was overwhelming. We spent so much time walking the ship trying to find our way around.

  • Rivers cruise ships are small and manageable carrying between 100-150 passengers. Walk out of your room and in minutes, you're in the restaurant, on the Skydeck, or off the boat exploring!

This photo dramatization depicts the new 8,000-passenger Icon of the Seas next to all 12 river cruise ships docked in Amsterdam for the ASTA River Cruise EXPO so you can understand scale differences.

Level of Luxury

  • Ocean cruise lines offer a wide range in level of luxury and service – from what I would call 3-star Carnival Cruise Lines up to 5+ star Silverseas or Seabourn.

  • In the river cruise industry, there’s not as much disparity. You can expect 4-5+ star service and accommodations no matter which line you choose. And for some, you can expect what we call 6-star luxury.

A high level of luxury on all river cruises


  • Ocean cruising crew to guest ratio is 1 crew member for every 3-4 guests, but much of the crew never interacts with guests as they are helping to run the ship.

  • On a river cruise, you have 1 crew member for every 2-3 guests, so the level of service is highly personalized. The staff will know you by name, know how you take your coffee in the mornings, and will be ready with your favorite cocktail in the evenings.


  • On ocean cruises, it’s more about the ship than the destination. You’ll spend more time on the boat then off.

  • With river cruising, you spend more time exploring the ports than you do on the ship.

Travel to this magical medieval town in Germany (left) or along the Douro River in Portugal (right).


  • Embarking and disembarking an ocean cruise can be a lengthy process with multiple steps, line-ups, and boat rides. Most ocean cruises spend 6-8 hours in port, so you usually only have time for one activity. Excursions are not typically included, and you may end up paying more for the excursions than you do for the cruise itself.

  • River cruises often spend 24 hours or more in port so you can explore at a leisurely pace by day and by night. You can experience a cultural excursion in the morning, come back for lunch, borrow the bikes on board to explore on your own that afternoon, and then go out for a night on the town that evening. In addition, excursions are usually included in the cruise price.

A look at the excursions from our Netherlands river cruise: walking food tour, very adventurous biking tour, and walking windmills tour of Kinderdijk - plus exploring Amsterdam on our own!


  • On ocean cruises, seasickness is a valid concern because open ocean waters can be rough.

  • River cruises are on calm inland waters where it’s often hard to tell that you’re moving. Plus, most ships are only 3 levels (versus 18+ levels on an ocean cruise ship), so you feel stable and secure.

3.   Who are river cruises suited for?

Most people think river cruises are a good fit for their parents or grandparents. And they are! But the industry is changing as cruise lines are targeting younger travelers and tailoring their offerings to appeal to active families who desire once-in-a-lifetime experiences around the globe.

Traveling Europe is always an active endeavor, but many cruise lines place a special emphasis on wellness and fitness. I can personally vouch for that after our 13.5-mile bike excursion on the outskirts of Amsterdam!

River cruises are definitely more of an adult experience, but several cruise lines target families with kids and offer connecting cabins with special itineraries and amenities like scavenger hunts, kids cooking classes, kids menus, and discovery excursions targeted to kids of all ages. During Tauck’s Bridges sailings, the crew even brings their kids on board for special activities.

Because river cruises are more intimate experiences, the cruise lines have created themed itineraries so you can sail with like-minded travelers. Some of the themes include:

  • Wine connoisseurs

  • Foodies

  • Beer enthusiasts

  • Christmas lovers

  • History buffs

  • Family reunions – choose an itinerary to learn more about your family’s origins

4. What are the cabins like on river cruise ships?

I won’t lie, river cruise cabins are small – just like ocean cruise cabins. Most river cruise cabins start at 200 square feet, which is actually quite large for cruising. Suites can be more than double that with multiple rooms and living areas.

Unlike ocean cruise cabins where you can be in an interior room with no window at all, all river

cruise cabins have views and most have floor-to-ceiling windows with indoor/outdoor balconies. The space is designed very efficiently with convertible balconies - if it’s nice out, you open the doors and have a balcony. If the weather isn't cooperating, you have that space inside the cabin. A cool feature we loved is many of the ships orient the beds so that you look out the windows and can watch the world go by as you drift off to sleep.

The bathrooms are where I saw the most difference among river cruise lines in terms of size, counter space, and separation from the room itself. On our Avalon Waterways cruise, the bathroom was very separate from the bedroom, and my roommate and I could both get ready at the same time in the bathroom. However, during our stay on Emerald, only one of us could fit in the bathroom at a time. A travel advisor with river cruise experience can help you understand square footage and room layout implications.

Top: indoor/outdoor balconies and bed orientation put the views center stage.

Bottom: Luxury river cruise lines like Riviera and Uniworld offer posh bathrooms, walk-in closets, and multi-room suites.

5. What activities and entertainment are offered on board?

Given the smaller size and the ease of getting on and off to explore the port of call, river cruise ships have far fewer activities onboard than ocean cruise ships – because you don’t spend that much time on the boat. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be bored!

You’re always close to land and can enjoy panoramic views from the comfortable lounges, the Skydeck, and your cabin. You can see out both sides of the ship at one time so there’s no “best” side of the ship. The Skydeck often has a walking track, shaded and sun loungers, a pool or hot tub with a bar, shuffleboard, and putting green. One of AmaWaterways’ boats even has a pickleball court! A spa as well as hair and nail salons are offered on many ships, and almost all have at least a small fitness center plus fitness classes.

River cruising’s first-ever full-sized pickleball court on AmaWaterways!

Entertainment onboard includes a daily happy hour before dinner with complimentary drinks and apps. After dinner, you can expect live music, cultural demonstrations, karaoke, and dancing. While you’re at sea, the ships may offer onboard lectures to complement your itinerary.

6. What’s the dining experience like on board?

Let’s just say that you will be wow-ed by the food! Unlike ocean cruises that feed thousands of people at a time, river cruises source local food at each stop and pride themselves on offering regional specialties and the freshest food. If you venture into the food markets while in port, you’ll likely see the chefs buying ingredients for your dinner! And because of the smaller size, you’ll never fight for dinner reservations or wait in line for food.

Most river cruise ships have a main dining room for all three meals plus lighter fare for breakfast and lunch in the lounge. Snacks are available throughout the day. Many ships offer a chef’s table for all guests to enjoy once during their sailing. We dined at AmaWaterways’ Chef’s Table and it was so special. Some cruise lines also have a private dining area for larger families or groups.

Coffee, tea, and water are served throughout the day while soft drinks, wine, and beer are served during meals. Most ships also host a complimentary happy hour every day before dinner. The 5+ star cruise lines like Tauck offer unlimited premium drinks.

AmaWaterways' Chef Table with a seven-course tasting menu.

7.   What are the most popular river cruise destinations and itineraries?

The Rhine and Danube rivers in Europe are the most popular rivers for cruising as they flow through multiple countries, allowing for many different itineraries. Portugal’s Duoro River and smaller rivers in France round out the European itineraries. Africa (Nile and Chobe rivers), Asia (Mekong), and Columbia, South America offer newer, more exotic itineraries. Most river cruises last 7-10 days, although shorter and longer options are offered. Here are some of the most popular cruises in Europe.

Rhine River

From the canals of Amsterdam to the German Black Forest of fairytales, the Rhine is perfect for first-timers and wine lovers.

  • Germany, France, Switzerland – castles, vineyards, Christmas Markets

  • Tulip Time in Holland and Belgium

Danube River

The Danube rises in Germany’s Black Forest and flows through or along the borders of 10 countries. Everywhere you turn, you’re surrounded by emerald green valleys and magnificent castles that make you feel like you’ve traveled back in time.

  • Austria, Slovakia, Hungary

  • Switzerland, Germany, France

  • The Balkans – Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania

  • Christmas Markets from Budapest to Vienna or the Heart of Germany

8. How do I choose the right river cruise for me?

Now that you’re ready for a culturally immersive, more intimate, and personal way to see the

world, how do you choose the best river cruise for you? Working with an experienced Travel Advisor who has insights into all the offerings is critical. We can guide you through these key questions:

  • Destination/experiences: Where would you like to go? What experiences would you like to have? What sights do you want to see? The Rhine or Danube River is perfect for first-time cruisers.

  • Theme/target: Do you want a themed cruise like Christmas Markets or Jazz Lovers? Do you want a grown-up experience or a family-friendly itinerary?

  • Time of year: When are you able to travel? What kind of weather and climate are you hoping for?

  • Length of time: How many days can you be away? Do you want to cruise the whole time or do a combo cruise/land vacation?

  • Budget: Costs vary widely between cruise lines and itineraries, so knowing what you’re willing to spend and the level of luxury you expect will help narrow down your options.

Planning ahead is crucial, especially if you're interested in Christmas Markets, which have become the most popular river cruise itinerary. If you want your pick of cruise line, dates, and cabin, expect to start planning 1.5-2 years out! From a budget standpoint, a double balcony cabin on a 7-night 2025 Christmas Markets on the Rhine cruise on AmaWaterways is pricing at $12k for 2 people all-inclusive. You can easily add pre and/or post land tours to your package.


If you love ocean cruising but want an easier, more personal experience, river cruising is the perfect complement to your vacation style. If ocean cruising isn’t your thing because you’re worried about being seasick or you don’t love big crowds, then river cruising may be the perfect

way to see the world! After traveling Europe by land with my kids, I can tell you river cruising sounds like a much easier and more relaxing way to Show Them the World!

Heather Vergara is a former PepsiCo marketing executive who left the corporate world to be a Mom and never found her way back. Instead, she focused on her passion for travel and adventure and created Show Them the World, a travel concierge service for busy families longing to reconnect and see the world together. In less than four years, she's helped more than 300 families experience Hawaii, Alaska, Costa Rica, France, England, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Portugal, Spain, the Caribbean, National Parks, and more to come!

Heather has an MBA in marketing from Indiana University, a Digital Marketing Executive Education certificate from Columbia University, and a BA in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives with her husband, two kids, and two furry dogs in Zionsville, Indiana.

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