River cruising is the fastest-growing sector of the worldwide cruise market, and it’s hardly surprising. It’s a wonderful way to relax, watch the world drift by, and explore the towns, cities, and countryside of Europe and exotic destinations around the globe. And there’s never been a better time for first-timers to get onboard.

What you can expect from a river cruise

While river cruising shares similarities with ocean cruising, river ships are much smaller than ocean vessels. Unlike ocean cruise vessels, river ships visit a new port each day, giving you the chance to explore even more destinations. It’s not uncommon for cruisers to visit up to four countries in a week!

All meals are included, with many river cruise lines offering complimentary wine, beer, and soft drinks for lunch and dinner, plus unlimited tea and coffee. Some lines are all-inclusive and cover gratuities, too.

There is no formal dress code for onboard dining, which is great news for those who hate dressing up for dinner.

The most important packing tips are to take layers to cope with unpredictable weather and comfortable shoes for shore excursions when you may have to negotiate rough terrain or uneven roads.

As far as entertainment is concerned, it’s pretty low-key.

Accommodation-wise, staterooms are smaller than oceangoing vessels but not short on home comforts and amenities.

Where to travel for a river cruise

Europe, the Rhine and the Danube

Europe is the world’s top river cruising destination, and it’s the best place to start if you’ve never tried a river cruise.

The most significant number of cruises can be found on the Rhine, which flows through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands, and the Danube, which flows from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, passing through or between Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria on the way.

Most of the major river cruise lines, including AmaWaterways, APT, Avalon Waterways, and CroisiEurope, sail in Europe.

Asia, the Irrawaddy, the Mekong and the Yangtze

Other destinations to consider include Myanmar in Asia. Most cruises are on the Irrawaddy, ranging from four-night mini-cruises from Mandalay to Bagan to two-week itineraries from Yangon and Mandalay or Bagan.

The Mekong River runs through Cambodia and Vietnam. The most popular seven-night cruises wind their way from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, passing rural villages, exotic temples, and floating markets. New cruises take in the Upper Mekong, from Laos to China.

Elsewhere in Asia, China’s Yangtze River is a river cruise that typically starts and finishes with a land-based stay in Shanghai and Beijing. Cruises range from three days to one week and include a transit through the Three Gorges Dam.

Asia River Cruise Lines include APT, Abercrombie & Kent, AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, CroisiEurope and Viking River Cruises.

India, the Ganges

An up-and-coming destination is India. Most river cruises in India are seven-night sailings along the Ganges from Kolkata, a land-based itinerary, and a visit to the Taj Mahal.

Africa, the Nile

Cruising the Nile through Egypt is an impressive and authentic way to trace Egyptian history. Abercrombie & Kent, Oberoi, Uniworld, and Viking are among the river cruise operators offering Nile itineraries.

North and South America

South America, the US and Canada are also terrific destinations to visit on a river cruise. North American river cruise lines include American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Company, Blount Small Ship Adventures and French America Line.

Embarking on your first river cruise? Cruise Passenger is here to guide you every step of the way. From choosing the right itinerary to planning shore excursions, our comprehensive handbook of tips and advice, alongside our in-depth and unbiased reviews, is your go-to resource for making the most of your maiden voyage on the rivers of the world.