A Guide to River Cruises

Intro Guide to River Cruises Pin
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Imagine sailing dreamily past landscapes dotted with castles, fairy-tale villages, and vineyards. Sitting on the sundeck, drinking in new scenery every day. Docking right in the heart of a city, making it easy to explore by just strolling off the gangway. Enjoy a quiet, intimate setting with delicious local food and wine each night. River cruises are a unique way to travel, with a focus on the destination and the local culture. They offer you an almost- or all-inclusive luxury vacation, combined with easy-to-access sightseeing in the most incredible towns and cities. If you’re intrigued, here’s our mini guide to river cruising.

River Cruise vs. Ocean Cruise

Ocean cruises and river cruises share a few traits. They are an easy way to see multiple destinations without having to worry about how you’re getting from place to place or having to unpack each time. You get to enjoy the gentle sense of travel on a body of water. And you can easily sign up for shore excursions and guided tours at each destination. But that is where the similarities stop.

River cruises are smaller so you don’t have such long lines or big crowds. They are far from the “floating cities” that describe the larger ocean liners. Their size contributes to many of the key differences. There’s a greater since of intimacy with only around 150 – 200 passengers. You also won’t have as many amenities and onboard activities as the ocean cruises, because the focus of a river cruise is on the destination.

Generally, this means there won’t be any casinos or large-scale production shows. But they might have a small spa, some live music, a small pool, and some onboard lectures.

Typically, they dock right in the middle of a city/ town. You’ll have no long transfers to get to the places you want to see – just stroll off the boat!

River cruises also offer more included in the upfront price. Shore excursions, drinks with dinner, and sometimes even gratuities will be included in the price.

[Photo Credit: Dima Fedorov via Unsplash]

a group of teens and kids in traditional Bulgarian dress kneel for a photo after performing a local folk dance

Because of their close connection to the ports they visit, river cruises celebrate the local culture. The lectures and live entertainment will be local experts and performers.

Each day the ingredients, wines, and beers for dinner are sourced locally. River cruises give you an in-depth experience, ensuring you get a real sense of the destination. They are a great way to explore multiple countries with local guides to give you the context and history.

[Photo Credit: Ann via Shared Adventures Travel]

Where Do River Cruises Go?

You can find great river cruises all over the world. Europe, Asia, Africa, and the USA all boast incredible itineraries. Choosing to do a river cruise won’t limit your destinations and might even expand them. 

The Budapest parliment building lit up at night from the view of the river cruise

One of the most popular first-timer itineraries is the Upper Danube through Germany and Austria. This itinerary is a great starting place because it has a little bit of everything. You’ll get to visit famous cities like Nuremberg, Vienna, and Budapest. And also a few small fairy-tale villages, outdoorsy adventures, and UNESCO sites. It’s a great introduction to all that river cruises can offer in one trip.

[Photo Credit: Ann via Shared Adventures Travel read about her Danube Adventure Here!]

Other popular routes include Amsterdam to Basel, Paris to Normandy, along the Nile in Egypt, and the Douro River in Portugal. 

Who Would Love A River Cruise?

  • Anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a “cruiser” or who dislikes the big ocean vessels. River cruises are a more intimate experience with less than 200 passengers. So they still allow you to have authentic experiences in a destination. 
  • Someone looking for the ease/ convenience of a guided motorcoach tour, but without having to pack and unpack every day or two. 
  • An independent traveler who typically does their own thing and enjoys multi-city trips. Someone who likes the idea of docking in a new place every day and heading out to explore. 

How to Choose the Right Cruise?

There are two things to consider when selecting the perfect river cruise — Cruise lines and Destinations.

Cruise Lines

Like ocean cruise lines, each river cruise line has a slightly different “personality”. An experienced travel agent can help you find the right match. Our top three lines are:

The sun deck with pool of an AMA waterways river cruise

Ama Waterways – aimed at slightly younger, more active working professionals. They have more included excursions, more “active” excursion choices like hiking and biking, as well a small gym on board. They usually include drinks not just at dinner but for happy hour each evening as well.

[Photo Credit: Ann via Shared Adventures Travel read about her Danube Adventure Here!]

Viking Cruises – a popular entry-level option. Viking has a lower price point, with just the basics included. (i.e. beer/wine only at dinner; just one shore excursion included and the others are optional with added cost; etc) They’re a great starter line to test out the river cruise waters, and they do a lot of promotions and sales, so you can often catch a great rate.

the entrance staircase and chandelier of a Uniworld River Cruise

Uniworld– a slightly more upscale line. Their ships are all very uniquely decorated to emulate a boutique European hotel. The cruise fare includes all alcohol and gratuities, so there’s very little you have to add to the upfront price.

[Photo Credit: Ann via Shared Adventures Travel]


River cruises are destination-focused, so make sure to choose an itinerary that plays into your interests! Are you a history buff? A wine lover? Do you dream of seeing fields of tulips or picturesque castles? Each itinerary offers something a little bit different and depending on what you’re most interested in experiencing, the destinations will have a starring role.

As with any trip, you should be mindful of seasonality. European rivers can have water level issues at certain times of the year.

Some months are colder than others and whether you’d like to wear a jacket or a swimsuit on the sundeck will affect when and where you go.

[Photo Credit: Ann via Shared Adventures Travel]

Finally, you’ll find there are often promotions/specials for 2-for-1 cruise fares or discounted airfare. You can search the internet for these deals, or keep an eye out for them in our newsletter! 

Does the adventure of visiting many ports without the hassle of re-packing, plus the intimate connection with the destinations and local customs appeal to you? Let us know! We’d love to help you find the perfect itinerary and cruise line!

You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)