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River cruising is quickly becoming one of the fastest growing and most popular modes of leisure travel. The ships are much smaller and more intimate than larger ocean-going ships and onshore excursions are usually included in the price. Then there's the continuous sights all along the riverfront, not just in port stops. Stride can help you navigate smoothly to the right river cruise for you.
As has been true across the globe, many of the great cities of Europe -- Paris, London, Rome, Florence, Budapest, Vienna, and Cologne to name just a few -- grew up along rivers, which have served as water-borne trade and transportation routes for thousands of years (and still do).
Rivers have also served as the lifeline for atmospheric European small towns and villages, many of them seemingly right out of the Middle Ages. So when you take a European river cruise, it’s a wonderful way to view both grand cities and picturesque towns that you often won’t experience by driving, walking -- or by ocean cruising.
The same is true for river cruises in other parts of the world as well. Manaus, Brazil, was settled along the Amazon; Cairo and Luxor in Egypt, flourished along the Nile; Mandalay, Myanmar, lies along the Irrawaddy; Shanghai, China, straddles the Yangtze; Calcutta (Kolkata), India, grew up along the Hugli River, an arm of the Ganges; Chiang Mai, Thailand, is set along the Ping River; and Memphis, Tennessee, St. Louis, Missouri, and Minneapolis, Minnesota are all situated along the Mississippi.
River Cruising is a delectable, luxurious, fun, and relaxing way to see the world. There are far more choices for destinations than ocean cruises which only traverse major ports and don’t manage the intimacy of a River Cruise, both literally and figuratively.
1. The Danube - One of the most classic and recognizable river cruise destinations in the world, the beautiful blue Danube is truly magical. You can travel the Danube several different ways - for most travelers who have a regular week or two week available, choosing a westbound or eastbound river cruise on the Danube is the only major decision you need to make.
The Danube is the second longest river in Europe (the first being the Volga), and as such many different directions to travel and things to see on a Danube river cruise. Westbound Danube River Cruises often begin in Budapest or Prague. You will typically hit Slovakia, Austria, and Germany. Eastbound Danube River Cruises often begin in Germany and travel through many of the Balkan States to end in Romania. There are many variations on these routes however.
2. The Nile - What could be more enticing than floating down one of the most ancient and historical significant rivers in the world. Nile river cruises are generally shorter than more traditional river cruises, and are often incorporated into tours of Egypt, Jordan, and the wider Middle East (rather than the other way around).
3. The Rhine - A river cruise on the Rhine is one of the best ways to see Germany (though the Rhine flows through Amsterdam and parts of Switzerland as well). Typically Rhine river cruises focus mainly in Germany. You’ll get a wonderful view of the country, including the food, culture, and architecture.
4. The Rhone - The Rhone is one of Europe’s smaller rivers by length, passing through France and Switzerland. On a river cruise down The Rhone you’ll be traveling on what was an ancient and important trade route during the time of the Greek and Roman Empires, and remains one today. You’ll also enjoy delicious food and wine from the wine region of the same name.
5. The Seine - A classic France experience, the Seine is beautiful and quintessentially European, lazily drifting by incredible historical landmarks and under spectacular bridges. River cruises tend to be history focused, visiting such incredible sights as Versailles, Notre Dame, and many significant regions from Avignon to Bordeaux to Giverny. Excursions to the Normandy beaches and tours that delve into their significance during one of the most important days of WWII, are also common.
6. The Amazon - Forgo the castles and medieval villages of Europe for an entirely different kind of river cruise experience all together when you enter the Amazon. The sounds of the jungle replace the sounds of church bells. And the mysterious, beautiful rainforest hides enticing secrets just beyond the banks.
The Amazon is the world’s largest river, stretching a whopping 4000 miles, across the northern part of South America from Peru to Brazil. River Cruises along the Amazon typically focus on specific sections, though they can last for up to 20 days, often encompassing a tour to the Galapagos as well.
7. The Ganges - The Ganges River in India is one of extreme contrasts, and has been gaining steam and popularity as a river cruise destination. The river is sacred to Hindi’s and one of the more mysterious and ancient rituals you will observe is people gathered on the tiered banks to wash themselves, gathered in large groups by the water.
Many great cruise port stops are only available via riverboats. Riverboats have the advantage of being much smaller and more intimate than most ocean cruise vessels, some of which are now the size of small cities. Most riverboats hold between 100 and 200 passengers, compared to up to 5,000 or more on the largest ocean cruise ships. That means you can get on and off the ships much faster -- especially since riverboats are usually able to dock right in the center of a city or town, which the ocean-going behemoths often cannot.
Port stops tend to be longer on river cruises as well, allowing for additional sightseeing time, while organized shore excursions and tours are usually included in the price (along with food and often drink). And there’s almost always something to keep your viewing interest -- whether it’s vineyards in Austria or temples in Cambodia -- while you’re on a riverboat, since you’re seldom far from shore. The chances of getting seasick on a river are also not nearly as high.
There are some things to keep in mind when booking a river cruise. Because of their popularity, river cruises -- especially the most coveted cabins -- can fill up fast. So it’s a good idea to book early, especially for European itineraries - such as a classic Danube river cruise. Lines like Viking River Cruises and CroisiEurope are adding ships as fast as they can, yet the demand is still greater than the supply on some routes.
If you travel during the rainy season at your destination, occasional flooding may make river travel difficult or impossible (in this case, passengers may have to travel part of the route on buses) -- though off-season travel does often bring good discounts, and the chances of severe flooding in any given year are fairly rare.
Be sure to check out our other river cruising guides as well: The Top 12 European River Cruises; The Top Seven Non-European River Cruises; and individual river guides including those to the Danube, Rhine, and Seine, among others.
River Cruising has a lot of positives. Only unpacking once, seeing the world in comfort, and getting to know everyone on board in a more intimate, personalized setting. However, if you have accessibility concerns, know that not all river cruise vessels are outfitted to properly host wheelchairs or other handicap assists.
This is due to a few factors. River Cruises are by nature smaller than ocean and small ship cruise vessels. Therefore, less space exists for implementing elevators, wider doorways, and larger bathroom space for example. Additionally, gangways from port to ship are often precarious, and very difficult to manage with a cane, walker, or wheelchair.
Many river cruise operators are beginning to add more handicap friendly accoutrements to their fleets, but if you’re not finding enough flexibility as a handicapped traveler, you may find that a small ship cruise provides better options for you.
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