Booking a river cruise was dominated by older travellers who prefer the genteel way of holidaying on European rivers as the ships dock right in the city centre so they can hop off and immediately go sightseeing.

How times have changed?

Today, riverboats have morphed into more contemporary vessels and are increasingly patronised by younger, adventurous GenXers. They want to explore rustic villages, charming towns and historic cities that big ocean ships can’t access. And many of them want to explore these fairytale towns. Not necessarily on foot or by coach, but on an electric scooter or bicycle.

Experienced riverboat operators such as Viking, Avalon Waterways, Scenic and Uniworld have been heavily investing in new ships. They are incorporating more modern features including activity hardware such as e-bikes. The new builds are long, sleek and more spacious with full balconies. There is also good Wi-Fi connectivity, alfresco cafes, swimming pools, gyms, spas and even art collections. Hence, river ships are often known as boutique hotels on water. 

What do you need to know about booking a river cruise?

Typically, river ships accommodate fewer passengers. At Viking River Cruises, its European river ships cater for 190 passengers. While its Magnificent Mekong itinerary cruises the Mekong River between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City with only 80 passengers on board. Having fewer guests on board brings fellow travellers together. This makes it easier for them to get to know each other, exchange travel tales, make friends and enjoy dining together.

For many people, the gentle glide on the river is just the right pace for getting the lay of the land. On Europe’s rivers, sitting on the top deck of a ship, under a brilliant sun and blue skies, you will take in the lovely landscape dotted with historic castles, fairytale villages and pretty vineyards. A flight of steps down and you have all the amenities of a modern hotel – restaurants, bars, lounges, a fitness centre, a library, internet access and modern, comfortable staterooms.

River cruises throughout Europe, Asia, Egypt and the Americas can offer a great value holiday as meals, entertainment, excursions and local wines with lunch or dinner are usually included in the fare. Most river lines also offer flights to Europe or Asia as part of the fare – a big bonus in today’s climate of soaring air ticket prices.

Couples enjoys Uniworld accomodation.
Uniworld’s luxurious suite.

Sights and sounds

River ships mainly sail during the day which means passengers can take in the changing scenic vistas, particularly through gorgeous stretches of the Seine heading to Vernon or through the Danube’s Wachau Valley. The ships also berth in the heart of cities and towns, allowing passengers to walk straight off the ship into town. This gives them sufficient time to sightsee, have a leisurely lunch, go shopping or have dinner onshore before returning to the ship. Avalon, Viking and Tauck supply passengers with headsets that plug into wireless receivers so you can comfortably hear the tour guides.

River cruise excursions provide a real insight into local cultures, starting with lectures on board to tours ashore led by expert guides who give passengers a real introduction to the heart, history and culture of the destinations and tourist landmarks.

Some retirees often book back-to-back itineraries so they can fully appreciate the grandeur and charm of Europe. In France, a focus for many passengers is seeing the landscape that has inspired some of the world’s great artists. You can see through the eyes of Claude Monet in La Roche-Guyon, a charming, tiny village with narrow streets and picturesque houses. It is also the gateway to the town of Giverny, where Monet lived from 1883 until his death in 1926.

On the Danube, travellers marvel when their riverboat goes through a series of 16 locks which lifts the vessel 426 metres above sea level as it transits the Main-Danube Canal to cross the Swabian Alps, south of Nuremberg.

Luxury on the river

At the top end of the market, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises cater for just 120 guests with a crew-to-passenger ratio of 1 to 2.4. The line offers five-star, farm-to-table dining on board, prepared with only the finest ingredients, sourced locally at every port, and served with premium wines, beer and spirits. 

Uniworld river ships are modelled on the five-star Red Carnation Hotel Collection with destination-inspired interiors designed to create an elegant and relaxed atmosphere. The line takes great pride that no two suites are the same. They feature marble bathrooms stocked with Asprey bath and body products, handcrafted Savoir beds of England, a well-stocked bar, and fresh cookies and fruit delivered daily.

Cruisers enjoy Scenic luxury river cruise service.
Scenic’s five-star service.

Europe: Which river?

Some of the most popular European river itineraries for first-timers are the Danube River cruises visiting Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia. 

Alternatively, Rhine River cruises cover the Netherlands, France, Germany and Switzerland, while the Seine takes cruisers from Paris to Avignon in France.

Avalon employee shows off wine collection.
Avalon is very proud of their wine collection.

Experienced cruisers tend to dig deeper into Europe’s waterways, such as the Douro in Portugal, Main River in Germany, the Po River in Italy, and the Rhone and Saone rivers in France.

River cruises run an average of seven nights but longer cruises are also available. The season for river cruising in Europe usually kicks off with tulip cruises in Amsterdam in March and ends with Christmas markets cruises in Austria and Germany until the end of December.

To learn more about River Cruises, check out our Cruise Planner series hosted by Rosie Jacobs