river cruising: ships against historic European buildings
You’ll receive great value on a river cruise, since many advantages are included in the price.

The wave of popularity river cruising enjoys is showing no signs of diminishing. The Cruise Lines International Association reports that 71 percent of travel advisors say river cruising is their fastest-growing type of cruising. River cruise lines are adding 18 new ships this year to keep up with demand.

What should you know before sailing away on a river cruise? These 14 essential facts will help prepare you for a wonderful experience on the world’s rivers.

River cruising provides great value.

Cruising in general is a wonderful value, since your accommodations, transportation between ports and meals are included. Above and beyond that, river cruising offers perks that many ocean vessels don’t. Savor your wine with lunch and dinner – it’s part of the package. Take as many expertly guided shore excursions as you can to experience the ports you visit. Some lines even include gratuities and other benefits, such as airport transfers.

River cruises are different from ocean cruises.

Most river cruise passengers have already taken an ocean cruise. But they may not know what to expect from a river cruise. The river cruising experience is all about the destinations and scenery. Since river ships are smaller than ocean vessels, they can’t provide the same wide range of choices. You won’t find restaurants by celebrity chefs. In fact, you’ll usually have just a couple of dining options. There’s no room for big entertainment productions or over-the-top ship features and on-board activities. Staterooms are also smaller as a result.

You’ll get to know your fellow passengers.

Because river ships are so small, you’re part of an exclusive community of just a couple hundred passengers (or even fewer). Dining with a variety of people is a great way to meet others. Shore excursions are another. You might end up making a new friend and even future travel companion.

river cruising: ship in budapest
You’ll savor local cuisine like Hungarian goulash when you’re sailing through various countries

You’ll be immersed in your destinations.

You’ll experience destinations by day in port. Then you’ll learn about them and savor their cuisine back on the ship at night. River cruise lines offer lectures, presentations and films to educate passengers about the historic, cultural and natural aspects of the destinations they’ll visit. You can even watch local culinary demonstrations and take language lessons. Dinners are four- or five-course events starring ingredients from markets on shore. Regional cuisine takes center stage, with dishes like Hungarian beef goulash, Chinese chicken lettuce wraps and coq au vin.

Passengers on river cruises are getting younger.

It’s not your grandparents’ cruise anymore. Younger boomers and Gen Xers are discovering river cruising and bringing their families along. River cruise lines are increasing the number of sailings around school vacation times. They’re also adding shorter sailings to mesh with the limited vacation schedules of passengers in the work force. As well, more ships are configuring cabins for families, plus offering interconnecting rooms and suites.

You won’t have to bring the tux and gown.

Unlike ocean cruises, you won’t find any formal nights on board river ships. People dress casually by day and spiff up their looks just a bit for dinner. That said, pack for unpredictable weather. Bring layers and rain gear, especially in the spring and fall.

You can indulge your favorite interest on a themed cruise.

Are you a wine connoisseur? An art lover? A wellness guru? There’s a river cruise for you. Many lines offer special – and popular – themed sailings. You’ll find everything from golf to history to jazz to beer to Jewish heritage to chocolate.

river cruising: sunset shot of river cruise ship along portugal's douro river
Fall is a perfect time to cruise Portugal’s Douro River for the wine harvest

There’s a river cruise perfect for any time of the year.

Head to the Mekong in Southeast Asia in the winter. (Asia is seeing the fastest increase in river cruising passengers.) Flock to the Netherlands for tulip viewing in the spring.  France and its various itineraries are perfect in the summer, including Paris, Bordeaux, Normandy and Provence. Spend fall in Spain or Portugal to sync with the grape harvest. Or head for the Amazon in fall instead. End the year visiting Christmas markets in Hungary, Austria and Germany.

River cruising is great for solo travelers.

Solo travel is booming these days. River cruising is a great option for people on their own, with the onboard camaraderie and numerous options for activities and excursions. Even better: more river cruise lines have been dramatically reducing or even waiving the usually substantial single supplements for specific dates.

Wellness choices abound while river cruising.

It may be a small ship, but it packs in plenty of wellness options. Take a dip in a heated swimming pool. Work out in the fitness center. Take yoga or exercise classes. Book a session with the onboard wellness coach. When heading on shore, ask for a walking and jogging map of the port. Or book a active shore excursion (hiking trips are one option).

You’ll get the best views with a little help.

Part of river cruising’s appeal is how close everything is to the ship. You’ll see amazing scenery from your stateroom, since you’re just 30 feet from shore. But you’ll see more if you bring along a pair of binoculars. And invest in a zoom lens for the best shots from your smart phone or camera.

river cruising: family in Austriam street with Christmas tree behind them
The slower pace of river cruising allows you to really explore the ports of call

You’ll savor the slower pace.

River cruising is a calmer experience. You’re traveling slowly along rivers, close to land. You can even hear people talking on shore and wave to them. Many ships stay overnight in port so you have more precious time to explore a destination. Pick up a map of the next port the night before and circle the sites you want to see so you can make the most of the visit.

You’ll have opportunities to explore before and after the cruise.

Make a point of flying in at least a couple of days before the cruise departs. Don’t risk plane delays, which can cause you to miss the beginning of your cruise. You’ll also give yourself time to adjust to the time change so you’ll be fresh for the cruise itself. Enjoying an additional night or two in a port city helps you make the most of your trip.

Seek expert advice to help with your river cruise.

There’s so much variety among river cruise lines. Some ships will have modern décor. Others have an ornate, historic feel. Some lines emphasize experiences. Some focus on luxury and service. AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Tauck River Cruising, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Viking River Cruises all offer excellent choices.

A Virtuoso travel advisor who specializes in river cruises can help you sort out the options. They can also plan activities and book accommodations for your stays before and after the cruise. You’ll get more out of your river cruising experience with a professional advisor’s guidance.