Called “one of the hottest trends in travel” by Conde Nast Traveler, river cruises are a popular version of leisure travel and a fun way to explore the world. Popular on rivers in Africa, North America, Asia, Australia and Europe, river cruises are similar to ocean cruises but not exactly the same. River cruises are sometimes shorter than your average ocean cruise, but sometimes longer; river cruises can last for a few hours, a few days or even a few weeks. Riverboats are also much smaller than cruise ships, holding a few hundred people instead of a few thousand, leading to a more intimate and less crowded vacation.

The Basics

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On a river cruise, you rarely spend a day entirely on the water; river cruises stop in a port just about every day (you might visit as many as four countries in a single week). There is also constant scenery to enjoy since you never leave sight of land. Plus, you’re able to gain access to inland cities that you could never visit on an ocean liner.

“From iconic ‘must-sees’ like Paris, Amsterdam and Budapest to quaint villages and towns waiting to be discovered, a river provides you easy access to savor the delights of both. Cities like Berlin, Lisbon, Prague, Vienna, Moscow, Cairo and Beijing are just a few that are accessible on a river cruise,” says Viking River Cruises, a popular river cruise company.

Most river cruises offer three options when in port: Enjoy a guided tour, book an optional shore excursion or simply wander around by yourself and see what you can find. Often, shore excursions are included in the upfront price, so it’s easiest to buy everything then and enjoy several tours with your fellow cruisers.

Onboard

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Like ocean cruise ships, river cruise ships have beautiful staterooms and other onboard amenities, such as restaurants (although most of your meals are taken at a buffet) and well-maintained public sitting areas. When it comes to entertainment, river cruise ships do have some entertainment options, but the choices aren’t as many or as flashy as the choices you’ll find on an ocean cruise ship.

“You will find a lone resident pianist or small ensemble on most ships, plus folk dancers, singers or other local troupes brought onboard for a quick evening show,” says Cruise Critic. River cruise ships don't pack tons of activities like their larger counterparts, but there’s no need for them to be since you won’t spend a full day on the ship. With river cruises, the focus is placed on the ports.

Who They Are For

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Who can enjoy a river cruise? It’s not the best vacation for families; river cruise lines tend to have age restrictions, Viking River Cruises says, and there isn’t much for kids to do on the ship. Plus, most cabins only hold two people. Instead of families with children, river cruises are largely populated by those who enjoy slow mornings on their stateroom balcony and long walks through quiet cities.

What to Expect

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The Paris to the Swiss Alps cruise by Viking River Cruises is a good example of your average river cruise. Lasting 12 days with 10 guided tours included, the cruise starts at $3,499 and visits four countries. Ports include:

  • Paris, France
  • Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
  • Trier and Bernkastel, Germany
  • Cochem, Germany
  • Koblenz, Germany
  • Mainz, Germany
  • Speyer, Germany
  • Strasbourg, France
  • Basel, Switzerland
  • Zurich, Switzerland

All of these ports have two common themes: breathtaking beauty and fascinating history. If you want to travel by water, visit unique cities and have a simple, low-fuss vacation, a river cruise might be the right choice for you.