Cruising down the river

Think cruises are all about “floating resorts” and packed ports of call? More cruise fans are heading inland for their trip — to inland waterways, that is. River cruising is gaining favour among travellers looking for a new cruise experience or a new way to experience a destination.

“It’s the fastest growing trend in the travel industry,” says Stephanie Bishop, Managing Director, Canada, for Avalon Waterways. “There have been major changes over the past decade, and ships are bigger, sleeker and more modern. There is lot of choice, and a little something for everyone.”

Why give it a try? Smaller, lighter ships can go where the big ones can’t — like some of the world’s most beautiful waterways and historic cities. There are enough river destinations to fill any bucket list — like the Amazon, Mississippi, St. Lawrence, Rhine, Danube, Nile, Yangtze and Ganges (to name a few). There’s always scenery in sight — not to mention views you’ll only see from the water.

What about the ports? Think small towns and historic cities where you can really get a feel for local life and culture. For instance, a Seine river cruise might take you from Paris to Arles with stops in Rouen, Lyon and Avignon while a Danube cruise will take you through Budapest, Vienna and Nuremberg. Because many places “grew up” along the rivers, so you won’t be far from the action in any port of all.

“You are walking off the vessel and right in to history,” says Bishop. “There’s that instant sense of ‘I’m here, and I’m walking in the footsteps of history.'”

In addition, many cruises cover multiple rivers and waterways, or sneak off to explore tributaries and canals too. You can explore one country more thoroughly, or even visit a few — all without spending hours in buses on highways.

The smaller size ships boast other advantages too. While you won’t find a movie theatre or a dozen different dining options on board, you will find the atmosphere more relaxing and inviting.

“Travellers are looking for something that’s smaller and more intimate, something that’s easier and more ‘up close’,” explains Bishop. “They want to focus on meeting new people and exploring the local culture. They want to really take their time and enjoy the moment. River cruising lets you do that.”

This type of adventure also lends itself well to group and multigenerational travel, says Bishop. There are opportunities for the group to split up and explore on their own, but then reconvene for dinner or sightseeing and share their experiences.


What to look for

“River cruises” is a broad category, so it’s important to do your homework to find the best option. While destination may be your priority, there are other things to consider as well:

Ship design. Ships come in many shapes, sizes and styles — but a typical size is about 150-200 passengers. Bigger ships tend to have more amenities, while smaller ships or barges offer a cozier and more intimate atmosphere.

Common areas like lounges are also important — but pay special attention to the observation decks, notes Bishop. For the best views, look for viewing spots on the upper deck that give you a 360-degree panorama.

Trip length. Most river cruises tend to range one to two weeks, but many companies offer 4-5 day samplers to introduce people to river cruising as well as longer voyages. You can also add a few days at either end of your trip to do some further exploring. Be sure to balance time and distance so you aren’t sleeping through scenery or missing out on interesting experiences.

Theme. There are many different ways of seeing the same destination, so watch for themes that match your passion. For instance, Avalon Waterways offer cruises that focus on Canadian war history or focus on a particular passion — like local food and wine in Southern France.

Pace and flexibility. Do you prefer lots of relaxation or a packed itinerary — or a little of each? Different cruises offer different types and levels of activity, so it’s a matter of finding one that best suits your preferences.

However, it doesn’t have to be “either/or” — many cruises offer options to suit any pace. For instance, instead of one walking tour in a port city, you might have a choice of three depending on your interests and abilities.

Port excursions. Where do you stop, and what activities are included? A port call could include activities like guided tours of the area, visits to local attractions, experiential activities like tastings and demonstrations, shopping and free time to explore. Check out the tour’s itinerary to see if it has the right balance of structured versus unstructured time.

Amenities. Want wireless internet? A fridge and coffee maker in your room? An onboard gym or spa? A private bathroom or a balcony? River cruises can’t offer the same luxuries and entertainment options as a bigger ship, so you may have to adjust your expectations and pay careful attention to what’s offered.

Special needs. Is mobility an issue? Find out what you can about the ship’s layout and accessibility, and look into what kind of terrain you might find on shore excursions (like cobble stone streets or climbing steep steps.) Many companies are able to accommodate special diets — like low-salt, kosher, vegetarian and gluten-free meals — but you’ll have to provide advanced notice.

What is (and isn’t) included in the price? Industry experts note pricing is more transparent for river cruises than larger cruise lines, and port excursions and meals are usually built into the price. However, some unexpected costs could creep up — like tipping and port fees. As with any vacation, make sure you understand the total cost, taxes included, and get the details in writing.

To get the best price, Bishops warns to book early — very early. River cruise companies don’t have a huge inventory, so ships fill up quickly. Expect to book at least 9-12 months in advance, especially if you want to take advantage of early bird discounts and other promotions.

Contingency plans. While you won’t be facing hurricanes, high or low water levels can still impact your cruise. Find out what happens if the ship can’t make it through: Will your itinerary change? Will you take alternative transportation like a motor coach?

You can learn a lot from reading cruise company websites, but if you still want some help consult a travel agent who specializes in cruising. As well, review sites like include tips, user forums and reviews for an inside look.

Getaway ideas

Historic Riverboat Cruise
Looking for some historic flare? The Spirit of Peoria, a replica of the nineteenth century riverboats, paddles down the scenic Illinois River Valley from Peoria to Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois. This 3-day, 2-night cruise includes plenty of time to explore canyons and cliffs on land, and spend a night in the renowned Starved Rock Lodge. The trip is punctuated with period entertainment and river folklore — not to mention plenty of opportunities for mingling and relaxation.

Prices start at $550 USD per person based on double occupancy, and include meals, drinks and entertainment. For more information, visit USA River Cruises .

Kingston to Quebec City
Starting in the heart of Canada’s first capital city, this six night tour takes you along the St. Lawrence River to historic Quebec City. There’s lots to see along the way, including a stop at the Thousand Islands Sky Deck, a tour of luxurious Fulford Place Mansion in Brockville, a day at Upper Canada Village and time to explore Old Montreal and Trois Rivieres. You’ll spend the nights in port cities so you won’t miss the scenery — like the Thousand Islands, the locks that make up the St. Lawrence Seaway and the bluffs along the shore of Quebec City.

Prices range from $2155 to $3232 per person for double occupancy, depending on the style of accommodation.

Want to get a taste of the experience without a big investment of time and cash? Look for 3- or 5-night cruises travelling from Kingston to Ottawa or Montreal starting at $1077/night. For more information, visit St. Lawrence Cruise Lines.

Magnificent Europe
From the scenic canals of Amsterdam to the Fishermen’s Bastion in Budapest, this 15-day tour covers all the highlights of central Europe. At every stop, you’ll be treated to guided sight-seeing and a few extra perks — like an authentic baking demonstration in Miltenberg and a beer tasting in Nuremberg. Other ports include Cologne, the wine village of Rüdesheim, Melk, Passau and Vienna. Have your camera ready as you cruise through the Rhine Gorge and the Danube Canal.

Prices range from $4,680 to $8,555.00 per person for double occupancy, depending accommodations and when you travel.

Looking for a shorter sampler? Try the 4-day Taste of the Danube — travelling to Vienna, Melk, Dürnstein and Bratislava — starting at $926. For more information, visit Avalon Waterways.

China’s Cultural Delights
This 17-day adventure exploring China’s “cradle of culture” is part river cruise, part city escape. The river cruise itself is 11 days with extra time to explore the departure and arrival destinations, Shanghai and Beijing. Along the way, you’ll get to see many notable sites like the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Terra Cotta Army and Old Shanghai, as well as the sights that capture this country’s cultural roots, like Mt. Jiu Hua’s remote Buddhist Temple complex and Suzhou’s elegant classical gardens.

Regular rates per person range from $7999 for a basic cabin to a whopping $23,999 for a Presidential Suite. For more information, visit Viking River Cruises.

If the prices seem a little steep, remember to consider the all-in costs. Many packages include meals and shore excursions — costs which are often extra on larger cruises. Always check the special and promotions page too because early booking discounts offer steep savings if you’re willing to book — and pay in full — well in advance of your trip. Some deals offer up to $1500 off a cruise, while 2-for-1 pricing and discounts on airfare can make cruising much more affordable.

One final word of advice: take your time and do your research, says Bishop.

“Most people think the trip is just about the time you’re on the cruise, but planning is also part of the journey,” she says. “It’s exciting, so enjoy it!”

Note to our readers: prices and packages are current as of May 2012 but are subject to change.

Have you taken a river cruise? Share your experiences and tips in the comments.

Additional sources:, The Montreal Gazette, the Cruise Lines International Association

Photo © Vladimir Khirman

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