First Timers’ Guide to River Cruising

First Timers’ Guide to River Cruising

To all you ocean cruisers and even the anti-cruisers… it’s time to give river cruising a chance! It has been all the buzz in travel and not just for the traditional cruisers – families, couples, and friend groups of all ages are heading to the rivers. And now after experiencing it for myself during a cruise with Uniworld, I can attest to the truly delightful nature of exploring interior lands via boat. Learn more about my adventure and more in my first timers guide to river cruising below.

Who should take a river cruise?

family cooking class
The whole family will love taking a cooking class together!

Social, active travelers who have a passion for culture, history, food and wine are the big winners when it comes to river cruising.

The itineraries tend to be more active so the average guest is generally younger than a large ocean liner. People who really enjoy river cruises are destination focused and love the idea of being centrally located in a city and using their downtime to transition from location to location.

Families and multi-generational groups are some of the newest demographics onboard river cruises. Many of my river cruise partners feature family-focused sailings (AmaWaterways has a partnership with Adventures by Disney!) and some new ships have connecting rooms, so river cruising is a great way to create lasting memories that can meet everyone’s needs.

Why a river cruise?

Think of a river cruise as a floating, centrally-located, five star hotel. You can easily see multiple destinations without the dealing with transfers, checking-in and out, and other logistics. Plus, you only have to unpack once! You can discover some of the most charming and interesting cities and towns and then relax and enjoy the view as you cruise to the next location.

What Itinerary?

Now here is the fun part! Europe used to be the main river cruise destination but now many of my partners offer exotic destinations like Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and even Africa. Many experts will say a good place to start is still a French river cruise or Blue Danube sailing from Prague (or even Amsterdam) to Budapest. I say…start with a destination that inspires you!

Which cruise line?

There are many options out there when it comes to river cruising, but just like hotels and resorts, there are different levels of quality and service as well as styles and experiences. Just because one itinerary looks similar you could have vastly different experiences. My inaugural river cruise was with the lovely Uniworld Boutique River Cruise line, and I was simply spoiled – the service, amenities, cuisine, and activities were top notch. Some of our favorite luxury partners include:

  • Uniworld
  • Tauck
  • Crystal
  • AmaWaterways
Uniworld is old world European feel
Uniworld has a very Old World European feel that I just loved!

When looking at different lines, be sure you are comparing apples to apples. At first glance some may seem more expensive, but it might be an all-inclusive model that includes an incredibly high staff to guest ratio, 5-star cuisine, complimentary transfers, top notch guides/local experts, alcohol on board (with bartenders who remember your order after the first night!), 24/7 room service and more!

It is important to look at the complete experience and what is included with the price – you may pay less to get on some ships but you’ll end up paying more to get off.

River Cruising vs. Ocean Cruising

Oceans take you to countries, rivers take you through them.

River cruising market with gluten free macarons


Though river cruise ships are gorgeous, it is more about the destination than the ship itself. You will meet many ocean cruisers who choose an itinerary because it is on a new ship. The ship is literally the focus of the trip. For river cruising, you are definitely more focused on the culture, history and culinary aspects of a given port/itinerary.

Port Location

The ship can take you right into the middle of a city or town so you can immediately start exploring the destination. They often dock walking distance from the main sites so you could even pop back to the ship for lunch or an afternoon nap before late afternoon shopping and an aperitivo or glass of champagne.


Forget traveling with thousands of other passengers; most river cruises are less than 200 passengers and some even max out at 130. That means the staff gets to know you and your preferences for an even more personalized experience. Plus you can make friends with like-minded travelers that often result in lasting friendships beyond the time on the water.


Unlike many large ships, there lives a feeling of spontaneity on a river cruise. In many cases you don’t decide your days activities until the morning you are leaving the ship (following an overview of options the night before). Often the ships fitness instructor will add an early morning yoga session or afternoon bike ride to a day in port. You will not have to decide on each and every day’s activities months in advance.

These reasons and more (did I mention unpacking once?!?) are why I have fallen in love with river cruising. I can’t wait to take my children on their first one as their introduction to Europe!

And don’t forget – when you work with Catherine Parkin Travel, we will help you find the cruise line and itinerary best for you plus you can access exclusive amenities such as unique excursions, private cocktail parties and even shipboard credits. So what is holding you back? Reach out now for us to start planning an amazing holiday!

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