Always wanted to go on a river cruise? Here's everything you need to know

·7-min read
Photo credit: Scenic
Photo credit: Scenic

New to river cruising? For a holiday to escape from your daily routine, discover new places and experience a different pace of life, a river cruise might just be the perfect getaway for you.

If you've never been on a river cruise before, you've come to the right place as we've answered some of the most common questions travellers ask before embarking on their first sailing.

BEST RIVER CRUISES FOR 2022

From why a river cruise might be better for you than an ocean cruise to what to expect and the dress code for river ships, you'll want to keep reading for our first-timer's guide to river cruising.

Why should I choose a river cruise over a cruise at sea?

A river cruise is a more boutique cruising option and is ideal for travellers looking for their first cruising experience. With smaller ships and fewer passengers on board, river cruises feel more intimate and relaxed.

They are also a more cost-effective way of having a big adventure, as you’ll visit a variety of places in a week or 10 days, for the price of one holiday. Many river cruises are all-inclusive, which means you don’t have to think about the day-to-day costs of your holiday.

Eco-conscious travellers might also want to choose a river cruise over an ocean voyage, as smaller ships are kinder to the environment than larger vessels.

Photo credit: Scenic/Pam McLean
Photo credit: Scenic/Pam McLean

Unlike cruises at sea, river cruises usually take you to the centre of the city you're visiting so you can do more sightseeing and spend less time making your way to the destination. The ports are the main attraction on a river cruise, so you can tick more beautiful places off your travel bucket list.

You'll also find that river cruise ships are less entertainment-packed than larger cruise ships, which often impress travellers with sprawling water parks, theatres and cinemas. On a river cruise, the entertainment is low key and could be a cooking demonstration (check out this Rhone River cruise with Raymond Blanc), a pianist in the bar or an educational seminar.

What can I expect on a river cruise?

Depending on the ship and destinations you visit, there is plenty to experience on a river cruise holiday. Throughout your trip, you can enjoy excursions and activities in the location you're visiting, as you would on a land-based holiday.

Unlike a cruise at sea, a river cruise allows you to be immersed in nature and feel closer to the surroundings as you make your way down rivers, such as the Rhone and Danube, or the waterways of Holland.

While on board, you can expect a range of cabin types, from spacious rooms with queen beds to luxurious suites with lounge areas, walk-in wardrobes and private balconies. You might also find loungers on the sun decks for you to soak up the sun as you drift along the waterways.

Emerald Cruises Liberte, for example, which you can experience on a French river cruise with chef James Martin, features a stylish sun deck and a stunning pool with a retractable glass roof and views from floor to ceiling windows.

Photo credit: Emerald Cruises
Photo credit: Emerald Cruises

With multiple on-board restaurants, you’ll be able to sample a number of cuisines during your trip, and some ships even have a cookery kitchen where you can enjoy live demonstrations. If you prefer keeping active, there are usually fitness suites, swimming pools and hot tubs, or you might like to join a yoga or Pilates class.

Many ships also have complimentary bikes so you can explore your surroundings more fully when you disembark at a port.

Tell me more about the ships...

There are different types of river cruise ships and it will depend on the destination you choose as to which ship serves the route, but what many have in common are facilities to ensure you can relax on board, as well as welcoming cabins and friendly service to make you feel at home in a boutique space.

Photo credit: Uniworld
Photo credit: Uniworld

You won't find inside cabins on river cruise ships and as these vessels are smaller overall compared to their ocean counterparts - the cabins are smaller too. A river cruise ship could have around 60 to 90 cabins, while some of the ships at sea have thousands of cabins for passengers.

As the entertainment is more modest compared to what you'll find on a large cruise ship, the evenings can be spent in the lounge with a cocktail and enjoying live performances from musicians.

How do I know if a river cruise is for me?

A river cruise is ideal if you're looking to slow down from the hectic pace of everyday life and soak up the beauty of a variety of destinations.

Many river cruise itineraries are suited to lovers of culture who like to visit fascinating cities, too. A Danube river cruise, for instance, takes in the likes of Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava, and is ideal for packing a few cities into one trip.

Photo credit: extravagantni - Getty Images
Photo credit: extravagantni - Getty Images

Travellers who prefer to keep moving can visit a different location every day. For example, on a cruise around Bordeaux and the Medoc this summer, you'll experience historic Blaye Fortress, the town of Pauillac and medieval Saint-Emilion. If you’re someone who likes your holidays packed with experiences, an excursion-rich river cruise can be an excellent choice for you.

River cruises are also enjoyable for travellers who don't drive or don't fancy planning a rail trip, as your transportation is taken care of. This is especially helpful if you are visiting wine country, like the Rhone region, which you can experience with James Martin and Susy Atkins this year – you can enjoy tastings at your leisure without having to arrange a taxi or appoint a designated driver.

Photo credit: Uniworld/Pam McLean
Photo credit: Uniworld/Pam McLean

Or if you want to save your legs, a boutique cruise around Venice allows you to explore the Italian city without having to navigate boat timetables or getting from one part of the city to the next.

A river cruise isn't just for experiencing European destinations either. Head to the States and you could make your way down the Mississippi River on a paddle steamer while exploring the likes of New Orleans, Natchez and Vicksburg.

Will I have to organise my own shore excursions?

Another benefit of a river cruise holiday is handing over the planning and organisation of your trip to the professionals. You don’t need to figure out where you’re going or how you’ll get there, you can just sit back and enjoy your holiday as it unfolds.

Whether you like gourmet tastings and guided walks (try Good Housekeeping's literary cruise), visits to vineyards and olive farms (try a Rhone cruise with a Michelin-starred chef), browsing markets (experience a flea market trip with Antiques Roadshow presenter Hilary Kay in Arles), or the chance to watch incredible shows (try a Sound of Music-themed Julie Madly Deeply Danube cruise), you'll find a range of excursions included in the price of your trip.

Photo credit: SolStock - Getty Images
Photo credit: SolStock - Getty Images

Trips to food markets, walking tours around historical sites and the chance to get active exploring the scenery by bike are just a few of the amazing ways to get to know the destinations you're visiting.

Is there a dress code?

The dress code for river cruises is typically smart casual. You can leave your heels and ties at home for most river cruise holidays and consider them a city break on water, where you'll want to spend your days in comfortable clothing and footwear for exploring the highlights.

Photo credit: Scenic
Photo credit: Scenic

What you pack will depend on what's on your itinerary though, as you might want to wear your finest dress for a private concert in Vienna, for example, if this is part of your holiday.

The dress code can also vary depending on the ship and theme of your cruise, so it’s best to check when you book.

Ready to try a river cruise? Check out some of the exciting trips available from Good Housekeeping Holidays this year.

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