If you're not sure if a river cruise is your kind of holiday, Teresa Machan provides the perfect steer on what to expect.
What's the appeal?
Whether it's vine-combed valleys, perched castles or the appearance of an ancient temple around the next bend, river cruising is all about the scenery. Communities sprouted along riverbanks for a reason and this mode of travel puts you at the heart of it all. In Europe that could mean a memorable mooring in a grand city such as Budapest or Paris. In Asia you'll observe vignettes of rural life and share the water with small cargo craft chugging up and down rivers on their daily errands.
Although prices may seem steep compared to similar holidays, value for money is excellent (the majority of fares include excursions), and there is little outlay once on board. And motion sickness is extremely rare.
Describe a river ship
Small (from 12 cabins to 70), well designed and comfortable. All new-build river ships in Europe have a top deck running the length of the ship for panoramic views and walls of windows inside. If you like the idea of a pool and maybe a gym or spa, plenty of ships have these, too, along with bikes and e-bikes for pedalling ashore. Cabins are plush, with TV, Wi-Fi, good beds and adequate storage, and most have Juliet (rail) balconies.
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How might the days pan out?
Itineraries are pretty active but there's no obligation to do anything. The day's first excursions can start as early as 8.30am and most guests will want breakfast first. An early start brings passengers back on board for lunch — around 12.30pm. In the afternoon there may be sightseeing from the ship as it moves to the next destination, or another excursion. In the midst of all of this there might be a wine and cheese tasting, guided commentary along a significant stretch of river and time for a spa treatment.
Dinner is served from about 7pm. If you fancy a day on board, river ships have comfortable lounges designed for watching the water, a bar that will also serve snacks and coffee, plus massage services and small libraries. And you'll be well looked after.
What are the excursions?
In Asia you might find yourself cycling to temples or monasteries, drifting over golden stupas in a hot-air balloon, trying new foodstuffs at a local market, joining a cookery class at a local restaurant or exploring stilted villages in the Mekong Delta on an small boat. In Europe there are trips to vineyards, palaces, rides on historic trains, an evening at the ballet or opera and walks and bike rides into the countryside. In the United States, on the Mississippi the intrigue of the Deep South awaits, with the opportunity to delve into Nashville's music scene and to let your hair down in New Orleans.
What's the food like?
The bar is set high. On the luxury lines expect fine dining with service to match (the more affordable lines offer excellent food and service, too). Dinner is typically a la carte, there'll be a cold and hot buffet selection at lunch and often a la carte items; likewise for breakfast. Expect several types of fresh bread, diabetic and vegetarian options, creative salads, good use of local ingredients and quality fish and meat. Wine lists tend to reflect the region and often present pleasant surprises. Often there are lighter lunch options and some ships offer an alternative restaurant. Fares include three-plus meals a day and some include drinks. I can't vouch for the coffee, which can be hit and miss.
How formal is it?
Comfort is the key consideration, especially if you plan on a lot of walking, but you might want to pack something smarter if you're considering an evening excursion. Some guests like to dress more smartly for dinner on board. Depending on where you're headed you'll also need to pack for wet-flannel-slapping humidity and/or unseasonal rain and cold. Packing layers, with a couple of smarter or dressier items for evenings, is a good place to start.
How long are the cruises?
Allow a week, 10 days or even two weeks if it's a longer river that takes in several countries. If you're flying long-haul it's worth considering bookending a cruise with a stay in the arrival and/or departure port (which the cruise line can also help with) or perhaps time on a beach.