River cruising is a relatively new travel phenomenon, having become popular in the 1990s. River cruise ships are smaller and narrower than their oceangoing counterparts, and they offer a convenient vantage point from which to view the passing scenery. River cruising also focuses much more on the destinations themselves and less on onboard amenities and entertainment.

Those interested in river can choose cruises based on destination, special interest or other options. Many options are available to suit every kind of traveler.

Top 9 Best Rated River Cruise Lines

Explore the Mississippi, Chesapeake Bay, Alaska and other top United States destinations on American Cruise Lines. These trips follow historic paths, serve fine dining and include themes for holidays and seasonal attractions.
The award-winning Grand Circle Cruise Line offers exclusive vacation packages worldwide. Combined ship and land tours focus on cultural immersion, so vacationers can more deeply experience the cultures of each port of call.
Viking River Cruises offers daily shore excursions, exemplary service and comfortable ships. The company also has a staff of over 4,000 English-speaking professionals and cruises going to Europe, Russia, Asia and Egypt.
Offering cruises along some of the world's most beautiful rivers, Avalon Waterways has trips running in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. In this unique fleet, most beds face the windows, offering exceptional views.
Tauck Cruises specializes in European vacations, offering cruises along the banks of the Seine, Rhine, Danube and more. Combining the convenience of cruising and a variety of land excursions, vacationers get the best of both.
AmaWaterways offers luxury vacation packages that include both river cruises and hotel stays. The company's themed vacations allow visitors to enjoy sights like castles, Christmas decorations, wine tours and more.
AffordableTours.com offers some of the lowest prices on river cruises. The company has departures all around the world, including major destination cities like Paris, Venice, Milan, Prague, Calcutta, Istanbul and more.

Michelle Baran is a senior editor at Travel Weekly, where she has been reporting on the travel and river cruise industries since 2007. Baran has also written about river cruising for Travel + Leisure, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia and Budget Travel, and co-authored Frommer’s "EasyGuide to River Cruising.” She received her Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University.

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What features matter most?

Pricing

It's important to read the fine print when selecting river cruises. The prices depend on what time of year the cruise is sailing, the level of accommodations and whether the river cruise line is more budget-conscious or more upscale.

  • Price ranges: The cost of a river cruise can run from several hundred dollars (for a shorter, off-season cruise) to many thousands per person (for a high-season river cruise in a decked-out suite).
  • Discounts for early booking: Some cruise lines encourage early booking by discounting their prices or throwing in free or reduced airfare. Because demand is so high, it's unlikely a consumer will find last-minute deals (although they do occasionally happen).
  • Hidden charges: Consumers should learn whether there might be additional costs such as port surcharges, optional excursions that cost extra and alcoholic beverages that are not included in the retail cruise price.

Cabins

A river cruise ship serves as a floating hotel; get cabins on higher-up decks with French or step-out balconies for the best views.

  • Height: The typical river cruise ship in Europe has three passenger decks (as well as a fourth outdoor Sun Deck). A cabin on the lowest deck typically only has porthole windows with a water-level view of the river, while cabins on the second and third decks offer better views and balconies. Lower-deck cabins tend to be the most affordable.
  • Design: Staterooms on river cruise ships come in all shapes and sizes. They can be cozier lower-deck cabins at 120 or 150 square feet each or sprawling two-bedroom suites with 400 square feet of space and multiple balconies. Prices range drastically so passengers need to weigh the features that matter most to them against the price they are willing to pay.

Ship features

River cruise ships tend to have many of the same standard features onboard, but increasingly river cruise lines are trying to differentiate with new and different onboard amenities. Standard features include a main restaurant, a bar and lounge and a reception area. More innovative features might include one or two alternative dining venues and a Jacuzzi or small pool.

  • Amenities: Most river cruise ships these days will offer Wi-Fi access and will also have a gym onboard, hair salon and/or spa treatment rooms and a small boutique shop. In Europe, some vessels feature a pool or Jacuzzi. Most staterooms will have ensuite bathrooms with standing showers (bathtubs are rare and typically only in suites), flatscreen TVs with satellite channels and on-demand movies, closets, hairdryers and safes. Most river cruise vessels do not allow smoking onboard, and those that do will typically only allow it in one or two designated outdoor areas.
  • Entertainment: As opposed to the casinos and Broadway-style performances on oceangoing cruises, entertainment on river cruises tends to be much simpler and pared down. Live piano music in the bar, local folk dance or music acts and the occasional performance at a venue onshore (such as a classical music concert in Vienna) will be the extent of the nightly entertainment offered.

Logistics

Consumers need to plan their trips carefully and understand how river cruises operate.

  • High and low water: When there hasn't been much rain and water levels are low, river cruise lines may have to alter their itineraries to avoid having vessels run aground in shallow water — they might simply bus passengers to destinations that can’t be reached by riverboat or do what is called a ship swap, whereby passengers will be swapped from one vessel to another vessel on the other side of the low water area and continue their voyage from there, in a different ship. In flooding situations, high water levels can make it so that ships can’t fit under the bridges. In these cases, similar itinerary adjustments might be made.
  • One way: Many river cruises sail routes that run one-way only, requiring consumers to fly out of a different city than they flew into or to make arrangements to return to the original city they started from.
  • Packages: Many cruises are part of a larger trip package that begins with, for example, a two-night stay in London and then a train trip to France, where the cruise itself begins.

Itinerary

River cruises generally last from a few days to several weeks. Some cruises focus on larger, more well-known cities, while others travel lesser-known regions and towns, all of which depends on the itinerary. The Upper Danube, for instance, includes stops in the more bustling ports of Vienna and Budapest. The Rhone and Saone rivers in the south of France, on the other hand, include more under-the-radar provincial towns.

  • Free time: Many river cruise ships do a good deal of sailing at night, so passengers who want to experience more city nightlife may want to look into cruises that overnight in popular ports. Also, some cruises have more guided tours included, while others offer passengers more free time to explore on their own when docked in port.
  • Tours: Most river cruise lines typically offer at least one included guided tour option each day of the cruise. Passengers are divided into smaller groups for the guided tours and may be offered a more active version of the tour, a tour at a gentler pace or an off-the-beaten-path alternative tour. There may also be additional premium excursions offered for an extra cost.

Destination

River cruises are available in a wide variety of destinations throughout the world, including in Europe, the United States, South America, China, Southeast Asia, India and Africa.

  • Season: In Europe, the river cruise season typically runs from March through November and closes out with some holiday-themed cruises at the end of the year. In other destinations, such as Southeast Asia, river cruises will run year-round.
  • Country: Different countries have different entrance and visa requirements. For example, travelers to Myanmar, where the Irrawaddy River has become a popular river cruise destination, need to have at least two blank visa pages in their passport.

What are different types of river cruises?

Seasonal and themed

Seasonal river cruises focus on yearly occurrences such as the spring tulip season in the Netherlands or the Christmas markets in Europe in December. Themed cruises cater to enthusiasts such as wine lovers or art lovers. There are also history themed cruises and culinary cruises, among others.

One-way

Most river cruises are in fact one-way cruises, meaning they start in one city and end in another.

Round-trip

Some river cruises will do a round-trip cruise up and down the river from a given port of embarkation.

Family-friendly

Increasingly, river cruise lines are offering family-friendly river cruise departures on which kids are encouraged and kid-friendly activities and meals are offered.

Who's it for?

Retirees

River cruises are popular with the 65-and-up set, who make up the largest demographic. They have money to spend and time to enjoy the sights.

Couples

Whether it’s for a romantic getaway or a wedding anniversary, river cruises offer an easy way for couples to travel through picturesque destinations.

Younger, active travelers

Some cruise lines offer shorter cruises in an effort to attract working adults with less time to spare. Such cruises also tend to offer onshore activities such as bike rides and may allow more time docked in port at night for nightlife activities.

Families

Cruise lines with family-friendly departures offer kid-friendly onshore excursions that might include scavenger hunts, picnic lunches and more active walking and biking trips.

Large groups

Large groups may enjoy specialized itineraries catered to their interests and increased savings from some cruise lines.

Solo travelers

Some cruise lines have solo cabins onboard (with no single supplement) or will offer solo travelers departure dates that have no or reduced single supplements. Cruise lines that focus on the solo travel market will also offer more mingling opportunities.

Company reviews

  • Viking River Cruises

    Viking River Cruises, which launched in 1997, has its U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles. It has more than 60 ships that cruise rivers all over the world and targets cruisers from the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.

    • Best for Viking River Cruises is best for older travelers.
  • Avalon Waterways

    Headquartered in Colorado, Avalon Waterways offers a variety of river cruises in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.

    • Best for Couples, older travelers, younger adults and solo travelers should all have fun on an Avalon Waterways cruise.
  • Tauck Cruises

    Headquartered in Connecticut, Tauck was first founded as an escorted tour operator in 1925. The company launched river cruising in 2006, and now this family run and operated company consists of a fleet of nine vessels in Europe.

    • Best for Tauck Cruises pays special attention to families, large groups, younger adults and solo travelers.
  • AmaWaterways

    Founded in 2002, AmaWaterways offers river cruises in Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa. The company is headquartered in Calabasas, California.

    • Best for AmaWaterways caters to older travelers, couples and younger adults alike.
  • American Cruise Lines

    Established in 1991 in Guilford, Connecticut, American Cruise Lines specializes in U.S. river and small-ship coastal cruises. Its ships carry 50 to 150 passengers.

    • Best for Older travelers, couples and solo travelers that want to cruise in the U.S. should head for American Cruise Lines.
  • Grand Circle Cruise Line

    Grand Circle Travel, which owns the cruise line, has been based in Boston since 1985. Its philosophy includes encouraging people to try new things during their worldwide travels and cruises.

    • Best for Solo travelers, older travelers and couples would enjoy the cruises at Grand Circle.
  • AffordableTours.com

    AffordableTours.com is a travel agency headquartered in Stafford, Texas since 1999. It helps customers plan their vacations from start to finish.

    • Best for Older travelers, couples and younger adults find good deals through AffordableTours.com.
  • Sanctuary Retreats

    Sanctuary Retreats is owned by luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent and operates upscale river cruises in China, Egypt and Myanmar, along with safari lodges in Africa.

    • Family offerings: The company offers family-focused experiences on some its cruises, with children’s activities like walking safaris and canoe-making.
    • Intimacy: With as few as 18 cabins on its ships, guests enjoy a personalized and intimate experience.
    • Luxury: From the elegant furnishings and private balconies to the gourmet cuisine, these are truly luxurious cruises.
    • Rates: Rates include taxes, meals, sightseeing and accommodations. They do not include gratuities and some beverages, although consumers can purchase beverage packages.
    • Seasonality: The company has lower rates for low season cruises, with increased rates for the high season. Peak seasons command the highest prices. For a Nile cruise, premium dates are in April and December.
    • Best for Older travelers, families, couples and younger adults who enjoy luxury should head for Sanctuary Retreats.

  • Euro River Cruises

    Euro River Cruises, as its name indicates, has ships that cruise European rivers, although it offers cruises in other continents as well. It has nearly 25 years of experience as a tour operator.

    • Various lengths: With cruises ranging from four nights to 28, Euro River Cruises has journeys to fit a wide range of schedules.
    • Group travel: Euro River Cruises offers groups the ability to customize many aspects of their travel, especially when picking onshore activities.
    • Special accommodations: Many cruise ships offer dialysis treatment and are accessible to wheelchair users and people with mobility issues.
    • Themed cruises: Whether a cruiser enjoys safaris, tulips, music or food, there's a cruise to meet their needs. For example, the four-night African safari cruise lets folks enjoy the beauty of the African landscape from both land and water.
    • Specials: The company often offers specials on select cruises, with deals including shore excursions, cabin upgrades or 50 percent off for a second traveler.
    • Best for Older travelers, large groups, younger adults and families all stand to benefit from Euro River Cruises.