Everything you need to know about booking a river cruise

Pat Richardson
The Douro is becoming increasingly popular for river cruises - wayfarerlife photography
The Douro is becoming increasingly popular for river cruises - wayfarerlife photography

With spring comes the start of river-cruise season. To whet your appetite, and help plug any gaps you in your knowledge of this most relaxing of holidays, here's our handy A-Z guide.

A is for ALL-INCLUSIVE                                                                                   

With a few exceptions, most river voyages are all-inclusive, which usually means the cruise fare covers tips, wine with meals, all-day coffee and tea, plus at least one excursion at every port.  

B is for BUTLER

You don't only find butlers in hotels. On board river ships suites generally come with butler service. He or she will restock your mini-bar, take your clothes to be pressed, bring breakfast to your cabin, and assist with personal arrangements. 

...and also for BALCONIES

It’s rare to get a room without a balcony on a river ship. This may be an outside space, but river vessels in Europe can’t be wider than the locks they pass through, so many have Juliet balconies. This means a railing set directly outside a window or French doors to give the look and fresh-air access of a balcony. In others an inside space near the window is designed to serve as a balcony, with seating and a table.


Cabins are outside on virtually all river ships, so there is always a window – although on lower decks it may be high on the wall. Suites have a separate seating area, but few consist of more than one room. "Presidential suites" are the ultimate in luxury. The more you pay the better the amenities – and the view. 

The Owner's Suite on board Sanctuary Ananda - Credit: Getty
If you're looking for a cruise further afield, the Mekong or the Amazon could be the answer Credit: Getty

....and also for CHILDREN 

In the summer, lines including A-Rosa and Uniworld offer family sailings on certain dates for children aged 12 or over. Tauck has just launched the first dedicated family cruise on the Douro, in Portugal.


From the Amazon or Zambezi to the Mekong or Irrawaddy, there are rivers worldwide where you can cruise. Don’t forget the less obvious and increasingly popular Douro in Portugal, the Mississippi, Snake and Columbia rivers in the US, the Murray river in Australia and, maybe the most exotic, the Sepik in Papua New Guinea


Gyms and small spas are becoming more common on river ships. Some offer on-board yoga or exercise classes, most have a walking track on the sun deck and many carry Nordic walking sticks to use ashore. Many ships carry bicycles and e-bikes for passenger use.

New Orleans seen from Mississipi
For a family holiday on the water, look out for specific sailings that cater for children

F is for FOOD

On all ships, a main restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Many have lighter lunch options elsewhere – usually in the lounge – and some do sun-deck barbecues. Increasingly, ships offer one or two alternative evening dining venues (an additional charge may apply). Scenic offers cookery classes and in the evening top-end ships – La Cave du Vin on some Uniworld ships for example – might offer wine-pairing.


If these are not included in the fare a daily charge is added to your bill. Tipping can vary according to destination – expect to tip well in Egypt. If gratuities are included, check whether they cover guides or drivers on shore excursions.

H is for HEALTH

Don’t expect a doctor on a river ship. If there are no chemists ashore, the ship should stock basics but give advance notice of special dietary requirements or allergies.

La Cave du Vin - Credit: Uniworld
Uniworld's La Cave du Vin on SS Bon Voyage, where you can sample a wine-pairing menu Credit: Uniworld

I is for INDEPENDENT sightseeing

If you have visited a port before, or want to experience an attraction not covered by the ship’s excursions, you can explore on your own. Just note the time to be back on board, and the ship’s docking address and phone number. It's wise to attend the previous evening's port lecture as the speaker can advise on local museums and attractions. An on-board concierge can help with these too; Avalon goes one step further with its dedicated "adventure host" and Avalon Go app which once downloaded has essential information, including maps, which can be downloaded offline.

J is for JUST YOU

River cruising is a great choice for solo travellers. You’ll find people to talk to, yet plenty of chances to be alone if you wish. Meals are usually open seating, so you can dine with who you like. Cost can be an issue; cruise lines want two spenders in a double cabin, so few charge half the price for just one. Look for single-occupancy cabins or discounts for solo travellers – a specialist travel agent can help. 


This 60-mile canal transits 40,000 vessels a year, saving a 300-mile detour. It runs from Kiel on the Baltic to Brunsbattelkoog at the mouth of the Elbe river.

L is for LOCKS

Your vessel will pass through several on most European rivers. It’s quite an experience: the ship enters a watertight chamber and gates close at each end. The chamber is filled with or emptied of water until it reaches the same level as the river ahead. Then the gates open to let you through. 

The AmaMagna on the Danube
An artist's impression of the AmaMagna on the Danube


Lots of cruise lines take this into consideration, but on the whole river cruising is not the best choice of holiday for physically challenged passengers. Very few have a lift and riverside docking places are often not suitable for wheelchair users.

N is for NEW SHIPS

Spring is a popular time for launches – among the first this year are Avalon Envision and AmaMagna, both on the Danube, and AmaDouro and AmaMora on the Rhine. Viking has just launched seven new ships, including Viking Helgrim, built specifically for the Douro river in Portugal. On the Mississippi, in the US, the paddlewheel vessel American Harmony will launch this summer with 800 sq-ft “grand suites” featuring a wraparound balcony. Hoping to woo younger travellers with yoga and meditation classes is Amadeus Star, which will also have a wine cellar. 


It would be a shame to fly into Vienna, Saigon, Budapest or New Orleans for example, and head straight off on a cruise. If a pre-cruise stay isn't already offered consider adding a few days’ stay in a city, before or after your ship sails. Most lines can arrange this, often at a favourable rate. 

P is for POOLS                                                                                 

More and more river ships have a pool. It may be just a plunge pool on the sun deck, or a heated pool with a swim-up bar (AmaWaterways). Some Uniworld ships have an indoor pool in the intimate Leopard Bar and Emerald Waterways vessels have an innovative indoor pool with a retractable cover, which means it can be used as a cinema space at night.

A pool on Uniworld's SS Catherine
Fancy a US cruise? For a river sailing, the Mississippi could be the answer

...and also for PADDLESTEAMER                                                                                                 

These vessels on the Mississippi are instantly recognisable with their signature fire-engine red paddlewheels at the stern. Their distinctive appearance gives being on-board a rich sense of history as do their routes and itineraries.  

Q is for QUALITY

Whatever you spend, standards across the board are high. Expect chic and/or luxurious modern ships, state-of-the-art facilities, high-quality tours and excellent food. 

R is for RAIL

You may choose to travel by train rather than plane to reach your ship. Great Rail Journeys has departures from London St Pancras on Eurostar, as does Holidays by Rail. Some tours include a rail trip as an experience: APT incorporates the Majestic Imperator and the Grand Empress into some of its Central European itineraries.


Spring kicks off the new river-cruising season. In Europe, visits to gardens such as the famous Keukenhof (open this year from March 21 to May 19) and Monet’s Garden at Giverny (March 21 to November 1) are highlights.

Keukenhof - Credit: Getty
Keukenhof is a classic Springtime cruise destination Credit: Getty

...and also for SHORT SAILINGS

Next year Avalon Waterways will introduce shorter itineraries on the Rhine and Danube. There will be multiple departure dates for three new itineraries – the shortest is four days.                                                                                         

T is for TOURS 

These are a major part of the river-cruise experience and usually take place before and after lunch. An expert local guide will accompany you on excursions organised by the cruise line. Transport and admission costs to museums and other attractions will also be included. To get the most from the tour, attend the on-board port talk the evening before. If you sign up for a tour and decide to leave half-way through just let your guide know.

...and for TRIBUTARIES

Most rivers have tributaries, but not all merit a dedicated cruise, so any opportunity to sail on one will probably be incorporated into a trip on the main river. An example is the delightfully scenic and serene Moselle, which is usually coupled with a Rhine cruise.


U by Uniworld’s A and B ships cater to younger clients, with mixology sessions and decor that reflects their cool, energetic vibe. Crystal River Cruises takes guests ashore to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants. Some ships have wine or horticulture experts on board.

U by Uniworld's A ship - Credit: Simon Harvey Photography Ltd/Uniworld
U by Uniword's A Credit: Simon Harvey Photography Ltd/Uniworld

V is for VIEW 

There is always a view, which you can enjoy from your balcony, the lounge or the sun deck and – on newer ships –the restaurant. You’ll soon realise you don’t always have to go ashore to see the sights. 


Ships can’t pass under low bridges if the water is too high, or reach the bank if it’s too low (both are rare). In these cases, other transport and accommodation is provided, so the itinerary can be followed as closely as possible. 


Some top-end river lines offer exclusive events and behind-the-scenes tours. Scenic lays on dinner at Avignon’s Popes’ Palace, while Viking guests in Russia get an after-hours’ tour of the Hermitage. In Vietnam APT takes guests for a dinner hosted by chef Luke Nguyen, at his restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City and, in Porto, guests are taken on a tour of the Palacio da Bolsa before watching a traditional Fado performance in the Arabian Hall. From April (2019) passengers on APT’s Magnificent Europe cruise will ride the restored Grand Empress train between Budapest and Godollo.

Christmas decorations outside Vienna Town Hall - Credit: Getty
Vienna's Christmas market is one of many to try on a winter cruise Credit: Getty


River cruising in Europe during the festive Christmas and New Year season is very popular. Besides the markets, which are ideal for original gifts and tasting local food and drink, many towns and villages have local choirs and special advent-calendar unveilings, along with services at abbeys and cathedrals. It's possible too, to cruise over Christmas and New Year. But book early for all festive sailings.

Z is for ZEN

Life on board is very chilled. If you decide to skip the off excursion you'll find plenty of quiet time in which to read, enjoy the sundeck and simply enjoy the scenery and life on the river. Staff will ensure you're well looked after. Whilst there will be welcome and farewell drinks the dress code on ships is informal.