Having cruised Europe's coastal ports -- the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the British Isles -- I felt like I'd earned a good birds-eye view and a tremendous perspective on the continent. I'd spent days in London, Paris, Athens and Helsinki and was lucky enough to revisit enchanting places, including Edinburgh, Istanbul, Lisbon and Barcelona.
But what I was missing -- and didn't realize how much -- was the rest of Europe! That's because cruise ships, by and large, limit sightseeing to coastal cities like Barcelona, Athens and Stockholm, among others. Or, while designating somewhat inland cities like Berlin, Rome and Paris as ports of call, they neglect to mention that they're hours away from the ship's docking point and make for a long day of sightseeing.
And since so many of Europe's classic cities actually were born of their proximity to its rivers, the original trade routes -- places like Vienna, Budapest and Paris to name a few -- their waterways are not large enough to house mainstream cruise ships.
Still, they're not too small for a flotilla of specially designed river ships and cruise barges. As a niche of cruising, river and canal voyages are an increasingly popular option, particularly for travelers who enjoy the comforts and variety of cruising, but want to see more of the heartland.
River and canal cruising are not limited to Europe, either. In the United States, the Mississippi River (and its connecting tributaries) is experiencing a renaissance with the launch of American Queen Steamboat Company's refurbished American Queen in spring 2012 and American Cruise Lines' newly built Queen of the Mississippi.
In Asia, China's Yangtze has long been a river cruising staple, and the newly ascending Mekong Delta, which travels through Vietnam and Cambodia, is gaining steam.
What's not so hot right now? Up until the Arab Spring of 2011, Egypt's Nile was seeing major growth from U.S.-oriented river cruise lines. But demand has, for the moment, stalled, though many are still sailing. And, while South America's Amazon has long been an exotic destination for mainstream cruise lines, we're only just now seeing interest from river operators, too.
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What to Expect
Wherever you go, river cruising and canal cruising share some similarities. Mealtimes are a major focal point of the day. Itineraries are port-intensive. (On some trips, you may visit more than one port per day, and an actual full day "at sea" is uncommon, though there is some cruising time.) Onboard, the experience is more laid-back than it is on oceangoing voyages. (Entertainment is not as sophisticated, and meals can be fairly regimented.) And on ships that rarely top out beyond the 200-passenger capacity limit, you certainly won't get lost in the crowd.
Here's what else you can expect:
Onboard, river ships feel like smaller versions of seagoing ships. Where they are limited is in onboard features and amenities, particularly in Europe, where ships must be low-slung enough to sail under low-lying bridges. (However, as you'll see below, the lines are getting more creative about adding amenities that fit within their ships' size constraints.)
On some cruises (particularly in Europe and China), you can expect to sail with a very international passenger mix.
Itineraries may incorporate major cities as cornerstones, but your experience will focus as much on smaller towns and villages that you come across along the way.
One big difference between river cruising and ocean cruising: In the former, operators often include shore excursions, typically guided walking tours, in the overall cruise fare. (Double-check though, as policies may vary.) Some lines do charge for specially planned tours (cooking classes, trips to the market and other more offbeat adventures). Your ship may also carry bicycles onboard for complimentary passenger use in port.
Due to the short distances between ports, full days of river cruising are rare. However, there is usually commentary over the public address system during sails along extra-special river banks, such as the Wachau Valley in Austria and the Iron Gate gorge between Serbia and Romania.
Beyond mealtimes, entertainment onboard may be limited to shuffleboard or book-reading. (We're serious.) These ships carry no casinos and offer little in the way of evening entertainment, except, perhaps, a piano player or a local act brought onboard to perform.
Inland waterways are much calmer than those on ocean-based trips -- which is great news for those prone to seasickness.
Finally, while these vessels are comfortable to be sure (and the newer the riverboat, the more amenity-laden the cabins will be), staterooms tend to be smaller and more basic than those on oceangoing vessels. The river lines have recently embraced upgraded staterooms and are building ships with elaborate suites and real balconies (as opposed to the French balconies that used to be the best you could get). Because cabin configurations may vary from ship to ship within a fleet, be sure to get all the details on how your stateroom will be set up before you book.
Editor's Note: Barge cruising -- which mostly focuses on boats that carry less than 25 passengers and ply the waters of even smaller rivers (and often just stay in canals) -- is a completely different style of cruising. Read more about it in our Canal Cruise Basics piece.
Popular Destinations and Operators
We've noticed three confusing trends when it comes to river cruise lines and the travelers they serve. First, they all advertise their cruises as luxury without being clear that there are different types of luxury (as there are different types of budgets).
The second? Just like big-ship cruise lines, each river cruise line has a different style and personality. And confusingly (and also similar to the big ship brethren), comfort and ambiance can vary widely between lines' own fleets; new trends in riverboat design mean that vessels debuting after about 2008 offer a lot more extras and lot more space than the older boats.
And the third? Each river has its own limitations, and these determine what size ships operate on them. Locks can limit length, low-hanging bridges can restrict height, and union rules for lock managers can determine times boats can cruise. Here are more specifics, by river region.
Europe's definitely the best place to start if you've never tried a river cruise. Typically, river ships sail the Rhine (which travels through the Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland, among other countries) and the Danube, which crosses through Germany. In fact, river cruising in Europe got a major boast in the 1990's with the creation of the Main canal, which connects the Rhine and Danube and enables ships to travel between the two.
Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and even Bulgaria, offer a great balance of marquee cities, delightful villages and small towns.
Other popular rivers include France's Seine. Ships are based in Paris and cruise down to the Normandy region. The Rhone, also in France, offers Provencal experiences between Lyon and Arles.
Other Europe rivers you can cruise include the continent's Elbe and Moselle (which often connect to other major river itineraries), Italy's Po and Portugal's Douro.
Russia's Volga is another popular river for cruising, and voyages typically sail between Moscow and St. Petersburg. In spring, "tulip time" itineraries, based in Amsterdam, favor the Netherlands and Belgium. And in winter, Christmas Markets voyages, primarily along the Rhine and Danube, are magical ways to celebrate the season.
Who Goes There:
The key players in the river cruise world are Avalon Waterways, AmaWaterways, Viking River Cruises, Uniworld, Grand Circle, Tauck and ScenicTours.
In Europe, the river cruise season begins in early spring (typically in late March) and runs through late fall (the best time for value-seekers). Lines keep a handful of ships available for the holiday markets season (late November through New Year's Day) on the Rhine and Danube. And then they put ships away for the season, usually spending off-months on maintenance and refurbishment.
Too much rain or not enough can really be problematic for river cruises, particularly in, but not limited to, spring (when snowmelt fills the rivers) and fall (when the rainy season begins). Rising or falling rivers can mean that passage under low bridges is not possible or that water levels are too shallow to permit safe cruising. Typically river lines plan ahead -- and in these situations may organized longer day trips, using roads to get around, or even for passengers to swap ships at key trouble points.
China is a hot destination, appealing to both cruise line operators and passengers. Not only is the Yangtze a most exotic trip for even well-traveled cruisers, it also doesn't face the limitations -- such as low bridges -- posed by Europe's rivers. That means U.S.-based operators can add a lot of traditional cruise amenities like cabins with balconies, Internet cafes and coffee bars to their China-based ships. Typical Yangtze River cruises are paired with land tours, as well; expect to visit Beijing and Shanghai and lots of little villages along the way.
Elsewhere in Asia, the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam is an up-and-coming destination. Cruises wend their way from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (many then opting for land tour extensions that visit Hanoi), passing rural villages, exotic temples and floating markets.
Who Goes There:
Viking River and Victoria Cruises are the main players on the Yangtze. Grand Circle Small Ship Cruises also has a Yangtze offering in association with Victoria Cruises. On the Mekong Delta, AmaWaterways, Uniworld and Viking River all have made commitments to the region.
Some Asia operators will go year-round, while others stick to the April-to-October season.
On the ships, the cruise lines offer similar levels of service and quality as compared to other regions, but ashore, the terrain can be rugged, and touring can be challenging. The focus is on smaller, more rural pleasures, rather than major cities. (Visits to the major urban metropolis are usually organized as pre- or post-voyage experiences.)
Cruising is the easiest way for tourists to explore the Nile and the famous temples and tombs -- Luxor, Karnak, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Dendera, Valley of the Queens and Valley of the Kings -- that straddle it. Nile river cruises traverse the waters between Luxor and Aswan, with itineraries ranging from three days to a week in length. On most trips, the major port stops along the Nile include Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo, but longer cruises may also call at Dendera and Qena (and spend more time onshore, to boot). The Nile is so popular with tour operators that the river can get crowded during the high season.
Who Goes There:
Companies with more upscale offerings include Grand Circle, Abercrombie & Kent, Movenpick, Sonesta Nile Cruises, Nile Exploration Corp., Uniwiorld and Travcoa. If you're considering a splurge, check out the Oberoi Philae Nile Cruiser.
Nile River cruises operate year-round, but the high season is typically from October to May.
As a result of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and subsequent changes in Egypt's political climate, many cruise travelers have postponed trips until the situation consistently improves.
Several oceangoing cruise ships offer itineraries on the Amazon River, but they tend to focus on Brazil (from Manaus, the Amazon's largest city, to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires), where the river is wider and ports are more urban. But riverboats that ply the Amazon can maneuver into even more offbeat parts of the Amazon basin. (Peru's portion of the Amazon is very popular.)
Ships embark in Iquitos or the newer port just upriver in Nauta. Instead of touring cities or ancient temples, you'll be taking walks through the rainforest to look for monkeys, sloths, insects and fascinating plant life or visiting small villages where you can interact with locals. More so than on other river cruise itineraries, you'll actually spend little time ashore because the voyages focus on the river itself, with motorboat rides along the water's edge to look for bird life.
Who Goes There:
International Expeditions offers the best "of the place" voyage experience on the river, featuring trips on an intimate teak riverboat that accommodates 27 passengers. For a more chic and modern vessel, Aqua Expeditions cruises nearly the same route on its boutique-hotel-like ship, Aqua.
Amazon River cruises operate year-round (though big-ship lines typically visit in the winter). The water levels do fluctuate, however -- up to an astounding 40 feet -- with December through May being the high-water season and the rest of the year low-water season. High-water season floods the forest, allowing you to move deeper into the forest via skiff and zip around smaller tributaries that, otherwise, are inaccessible. Low-water season permits more onshore walks.
A rugged place to explore, there have been several reports of bandits robbing passengers while on riverboats in the Amazon.
In 2012, the Mississippi River, which had seen several of its riverboats go out of business, began a true renaissance when American Queen Steamboat Company refurbished the 1995-launched American Queen. This year has also seen the launch of the first new riverboat built for the Mississippi since then -- when American Cruise Line (ACL) debuted its Queen of the Mississippi paddleboat.
The Mississippi and its connecting tributaries is the most visible of North America's rivers when it comes to cruise lines, but it's not alone. ACL's other boats cruise along the East Coast's Intracoastal, the Chesapeake Bay and New York's Hudson River.
St. Lawrence Cruise Lines' Canadian Empress offers warm-weather cruises along the St. Lawrence Seaway, which skirts the borders between New England and Canada. In Oregon, the Columbia and Snake rivers are gaining in popularity.
Who Goes There:
Ships that travel North American waterways tend to be smallish, usually accommodating 100 passengers or so. Few are state-of-the-art, but they're comfortable. The primary operators today include St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, the budget line Blount Small Ship Adventures (formerly American Canadian Caribbean Line), American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company. American Safari Cruises and upscale expedition line Lindblad Expeditions also offer Columbia and Snake River itineraries.
You can find North America river cruises from March to December, but sail dates and seasons will vary, depending on the particular river you'd like to sail.
One big difference between European and American river cruising is that most of the latter's cosmopolitan cities grew up around coastal ports, rather than rivers. So while you may visit the Mississippi's St. Louis, the Chesapeake Bay's Baltimore or the Hudson's New York, these trips definitely are for slower-paced travelers.