River cruises have been around for decades, but have typically always attracted a more seasoned traveler. That’s all changing now.
Rather than just catering to an older demographic (55+ years of age), river cruising is now picking up steam in terms of popularity with millennials and Gen Zs. Younger generations want in on the river cruising experience, too, and why shouldn't they?
With its laid back atmosphere, elegant and undauntingly-sized ships, charming daily destinations and generally smooth sailing, there's a whole lot to love about this dream-like style of travel. And river cruise lines are releasing even more exciting itineraries with young cruisers in mind, giving them the activities they’re looking for.
I sailed on a seven-day Active & Discovery European river cruise on Avalon Waterways' Avalon Imagery II. As a millennial and avid traveler, I wanted to see for myself why river cruising is becoming so enticing to those of my generation. Here's what I learned -- and what you need to know.
Full disclosure: river cruises still mostly attract those of an older demographic and it shows onboard. River cruises are typically more expensive than most mainstream ocean cruises, which does tend to draw people who have had a chance to work and earn more money. But having older, more experienced travelers onboard wasn't something that took away from my experience in the least.
The people I met onboard -- both the crew and my fellow passengers -- were easy-going, like-minded travelers. Age wasn't a factor; it didn't matter if someone was 30 or 85 onboard -- everyone was there to enjoy our European river cruise and its ports of call. No passengers were exactly my age, but there were some in their late 40s and above -- and even an 18-year-old traveling with her family.
Everyone seemed to get along exceptionally well and throughout the week, friend groups naturally formed. Laughter was the perpetual theme song of Avalon Imagery II, and it was a contagious, great reminder that age is just a mindset.
I was onboard one of Avalon Waterways’ unique Active & Discovery cruises, which played a slight factor in that easy bonding since they tend to attract a more active clientele. Active & Discovery cruises with Avalon Waterways are river cruises with more daily excursions that are slightly more physically demanding than traditional river cruise excursions.
Hiking up volcanoes and mountains to scenic views, walking through quaint European towns to castle grounds and cycling along the riverside are just some of the active excursions you can involve yourself in with Avalon's Active & Discovery Cruises.
River cruises are certainly a worthy vacation option for young travelers, particularly those that offer more cultural and activity-based forms of touring ashore. From luxury river cruises in Europe to small-ship river cruises in Southeast Asia, there's a lot to discover.
River cruises still mostly attract those of an older demographic, but that shouldn't be any reason to not join in on the fun. Here are just some of the many reasons we loved the experience.
River Cruise Ships Are Less Crowded, Both Onboard and Off: My sailing on Avalon Imagery II had a maximum double occupancy of 128 passengers (the average maximum for river cruise ships is 200). Compare that to most oceangoing cruise ships that can easily carry between 2,000 and 6,000 passengers, and the difference is clear: River cruise ships feel more like a small group trip than cruise ships.
Visiting ports of call on a river cruise is generally far less stressful than ocean cruises, too. There are fewer people looking to embark and disembark, and fewer crowds mean more room for onboard your ship, and far less crowding ashore.
Laid Back and Quiet Atmosphere: Your vacation is a way to relax and take a step back from it all while taking a step into a new and exciting place. River cruising supplies that in a low-stress environment. The overall atmosphere is more relaxed and quiet, providing you with less unwanted stimuli to better take in your surroundings.
Indulge in Local Wine Tastings: If you’re a wine connoisseur or even a casual wine drinker, then river cruising could be the ideal pick for you, as many river cruise itineraries -- like those that wind through places like France, Germany and Luxembourg -- offer local wine tastings for excursions. A glass (or six) of Bordeaux in Bordeaux anyone?
Itineraries in European Countries and Beyond: River cruise itineraries vary by destinations. You could explore several European countries -- and certainly more than one per sailing -- or snake along the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam, or traverse India’s historic Ganges River. Whatever your bucket list destination, a river cruise will very likely help you tick it off.
Traveling Without Packing and Repacking: No matter what age, no one really enjoys daily unpacking and repacking of backpacks and suitcases when traveling. River cruises allow travelers to leave their belongings behind on their "hotel on water" while still hopping from city to city and even country to country.
River Cruises Can Be a Foodie Heaven: As a foodie myself, I place the quality of food and trying unique flavors at the top of my list when traveling. Fortunately, river cruises mostly supply foodies with local delicacies and dishes for cruisers, allowing for a taste of the local cuisine and beverages without ever leaving the ship.
More Ports, More Adventure: Unlike ocean cruises, there is no such thing as "sea days" (days spent at sea with no port of call) on a river cruise. River cruises stop quite often -- every few hours or so -- and even visit more than one port of call per day.
Calmer Waters: Seasickness is no joke. Luckily, river cruises are on the calm inland waters of the world, making the chances of experiencing seasickness very low.
More Authentic Entertainment: While you won’t find massive Broadway-style production shows on river cruises, river cruises offer more authentic entertainment. Performers on river cruises are often locals brought onboard in various ports of call to offer up authentic entertainment, and river cruise ships typically offer a piano player who entertains in the evenings.
It’s a much more personalized, intimate style of entertainment -- one that lends itself authentically to the region you’re sailing. On our sailing, a local and truly exceptional violinist performed for us while we were docked in Cochem, Germany. We also had a local band playing the classics and a solo singer who was also a natural comedian. In short, we were pleased with both the quality and diversity of authentic entertainment aboard the Avalon Imagery II.
Close-Knit Staff and Guests: Both the staff and passengers on river cruise ships are far less in number than on ocean cruise ships. Because of this, it can more often than not feel like you are a part of a close-knit family with everyone. That can lead to an elevated experience onboard and even life-long friendships after disembarkation.
There Are Likely No Kids: Whether you don't have children or have left them at home to have your own getaway, you'll be pleased to know that almost all river cruises don't allow children, with the exception of select family-friendly sailings offered during the summer months and around the Holidays.
For those with cruising kiddies, there are some family-friendly river cruises available. Disney, A-Rosa, AmaWaterways (on select ships), Tauck, Uniworld and CroisiEurope do offer select itineraries that are just for families. Minimum age limits differ across cruise lines.
Opportunities to Mingle -- or Not: Onboard your river cruise ship or when out on excursions, there are numerous opportunities to mingle. But many of us sometimes need some alone time to recharge and get our minds right. Even though river ships are small in contrast to mega-ships, there are fortunately plenty of moments for some solo downtime.
You could relax and unwind in your room, soak up some sun on the top deck, read a book in the onboard lounge -- you name it. Plus, you'll feel that serenity no matter where you go to be alone, even in more public spaces, because there aren't many other people onboard.
River Cruise Lines Want You: Young adults are finally taking notice of river cruises -- and the feeling is mutual. River cruise lines are doing their best to make shifts to their current offerings in order to cater to younger demographics, too. Young adults on river cruises can really feel the love -- and who doesn't want that?
European river cruises for young adults tend to be the most sought after, but there are countless other options, too. You could go along the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, sail on the Nile, cruise along the Mississippi and so much more. If there's a river, there's likely a cruise for young adults on it -- usually with their older parents enjoying time together.
Avalon Waterways, specifically their Active & Discovery itineraries, are perfect options for young adults. Cruisers can experience excursions that get them moving while visiting beautiful ports, including biking, hiking, jogging, kayaking, walking and more. They can even participate in more creative excursions as well, like painting, pottery-making and wine-tastings.
AmaWaterways kickstarted the active river cruise movement, making them arguably the leaders in this niche -- and therefore attracting a large number of young cruisers. AmaWaterways offers wine-themed river cruises but also plenty of activities on their sailings, like hikes, long bike rides, Champagne yoga (you read that correctly) and beyond.
AmaWaterways also has itineraries that are sponsored by Backroads, an "active travel" tour provider, which gives cruisers even more active excursions to enjoy. The Backroads' and AmaWaterways collaboration has led to active river cruises that include expert Trips Leaders on every excursion; these excursions include enhanced biking tours.
Emerald, especially EmeraldACTIVE itineraries, keep their cruisers moving, both onboard, with yoga, pilates and aqua aerobics; and ashore, including guided hikes, bike rides, and even canoeing. Plus, being the less expensive river cruise option from sister company Scenic, the fare may be more digestible for young adults.
Adventures by Disney is a great option for young river cruisers both traveling with or without children. Adventures by Disney river cruise itineraries can be family-friendly or exclusive to adults 18 years old and up. All cruisers can anticipate experiencing the world via charming AmaWaterways river cruise ships, with whom Disney partners for river cruises, with Disney-trained guides with magical Disney touches. (Don't expect Mickey Mouse, however; Adventures by Disney trips tend to focus on the destination and not characters).
Both family-friendly and adult-exclusive sailings highlight countless enriching excursions, like canoeing on the Rhine, macaron-making, bike riding and even cheese-tasting in Normandy. For the adult-exclusive sailings, think a smidge more sophistication onboard along with enticing experiences like Oktoberfest on the Danube and guided vineyard tours in France.