Tens of thousands of vacationers have embraced the idea of meandering along a river in ships that carry 200 people -- or less -- rather than dealing with crowds aboard the mega-cruise ships that accommodate thousands. The cozier atmosphere of river cruises originally attracted an older clientele, one that looking for cruises that deliver them closer to city centers, serve regional cuisines and locally produced wines, and provide small group excursions. But this mode of travel has grown more mainstream in recent years, beyond the niche market it had begun in.
Need proof of river cruising's popularity? Just take a look at the numbers. The demand for river cruising has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. Viking River Cruises alone added 18 ships in Europe last year and in 2015 will debut another dozen, bringing its fleet to 64 vessels. Other lines such as AMA Waterways, Uniworld, and Avalon Waterways are adding to their fleets as well, albeit at a slower pace. River cruising has also been spreading quickly in Asia and is amping up in the States.
Whether you've already booked your cabins or are still contemplating a future trip, here are five river cruise basics you should know:
1. You can't always walk into every port. River cruise brochures and television commercials frequently show a ship docked alongside a pier in (or very close to) historic city centers, enabling cruisers to walk or bike into towns and villages. That often is the case, but in several locations along the Rhine, for instance, passengers still must board motorcoaches that transport them into the heart of the action.
2. Wine, beer, and guided excursions are included in the cruise fare -- but not in the same way. Virtually every major river cruise company covers these amenities in the cruise fare. In most cases all brands of beer and house wines are included. In some cases the lines charge extra for non-house brand wines or for drinks outside of certain dining hours. As far as excursions go, one guided activity is typically offered free in every port of call. These often are walking tours that last an hour or two, meant to provide an overview of the destination.
3. Smaller ships mean fewer public spaces. On river ships, travelers dine in the same restaurant for each meal unless they use room service or the ship offers a buffet or lighter fare service in another venue. For those who do enjoy a little more choice, a few river cruise lines have created small, specialty dining venues that can accommodate limited numbers of passengers. Avalon, for instance, transforms part of its main lounge into a separate dining area two or three times one some weeklong cruises (reservations are required). Many lines also host outdoor barbecues on the upper deck once per cruise, weather permitting.
4. River cruises attract families and young couples as well. It's not just the older crowd on board. This is a change in demographic that's emerged in the last few years. As the river cruise boon blossomed, the industry niche began to draw multi-generational families, often with children, because of ample exploration time and attentive service. The size of the ships, however, preclude river lines from providing dedicated spaces for structured children's programs, so parents should expect to have their youngsters in tow while aboard the ship and on shore excursions. Younger couples typically are drawn to river cruising because of the cultural offerings and romance factor -- what could be better than drifting along the Danube on a warm summer evening with your sweetheart?
5. Local entertainment is brought onboard at port calls. The fun doesn't stop after dinner just because river cruises cater to a generally more mature crowd. Since ports of call usually are not far apart, river cruise ships can remain in port until the late evening, enabling the local talent to spend a few hours on the ship for post-meal entertainment. You might hear traditional music or sometimes watch local artists create unique pieces. In Holland, for example, passengers might see a craftsman carve Dutch clogs from a block of solid wood. In Germany, a polka band might come aboard and teach passengers a dance.