The Ultimate Guide to River Cruising in Europe: All You Need to Know


To the uninitiated, a river cruise might not seem too different from an ocean cruise. But to those in the know, cruising the world’s most picturesque rivers unlocks all manner of new and exciting adventures in areas that larger ships simply cannot reach. Coursing through the heart of Europe’s most beloved cities, the waterways and banks of this part of the world have more than their fair share of history and heritage.

Whether you love gorging on local culture or like to let incredible scenery pass you by without a care, a river cruise caters to all travel styles, with something for everyone, however they holiday. High crew-to-guest ratios ensure a refined, personalised experience where the emphasis is very much on the bespoke, with everything from dinner services and entertainment packages tailored to guests’ wants and needs.

Hop on board a cruise of this kind and you’ll soon see why so many guests rave about the river experience. With so many lines, rivers and itineraries to choose from, things might seem daunting from the outset. Luckily, we’re on hand with this ultimate guide to European river cruising to help you decide which trip is the one, along with tips and advice before you go as well as how to get the most from your jaunt.

Deciding on your trip

Decisions, decisions.

With each river having its own distinct character and complexion, knowing where to set sail can often feel like you’re spoilt for choice. As unique as the countries they flow through, they all offer their own splendid architecture, scenery and sights, with a plethora of hidden gems nestled amongst their respective ports. But how do you know which one is the right river for you? With your own inclinations to take into account, you might feel like there’s a lot to weigh up.

Berlin sunset

That’s why we’ve created a quiz to make the choice a little bit easier for the indecisive out there and help with picking which river in Europe is right for your cruise. From your preferred activities and interests to the surroundings you can see yourself sailing through, we’re confident it’ll help you decide where your next adventure should be in no time.

With the river whittled down, there’s still the choice of which cruise line you decide to holiday with. With such a varied choice out there, determining the line with the most to offer you presents another cruise conundrum. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to immerse yourself in local life or the promise of all-inclusive extras that prove irresistible on your travels? Maybe you like your cruise experience with a traditional British feel or experiencing as many cultural hotspots as possible is your thing.

Whatever you want from your holiday, the cruise lines we work with have something for everyone. If a decision is proving tricky, we’ve weighed up our six top operators to see how they compare, including crew-to-guest ratios, capacity, destinations, and any unique features.

By this point, you’ve probably formed a picture of where you want to go and who you’d like to cruise with. But before you start slathering on the sun cream, don’t forget that a river cruise experience differs from what you might be used to. From the fact you’ll spend time on land each day to the prospect of dining with other guests, the more you know before you go, the better prepared you’ll be! Be sure to check this guide to the things you should know before throwing down your money and booking that first-time river cruise.

Before you go

Though everything may be crossed, dotted, underlined and booked up, you’re not quite ready to break out the deck chair just yet. Whether you’ve gone on an ocean cruise before or not, river cruising is an entirely different kettle of fish. Getting to know the ropes before you go is as important as packing the right clothing for the occasion.

To help you prepare for your adventure, we’ve collected all manner of tips, advice and opinions from our favourite travel bloggers who are well versed with Europe’s collection of waterways. Equipped with a selection of much-needed know-how, they were more than happy to offer us a variety of hacks and tips, from carving your own path of culture to dressing for comfort whatever the weather. Wherever you’re heading, be sure to make a note of these last-minute pointers before you go.

The differences between ocean and river cruises extends to what you should pack too. For instance, you might not have known that river cruises don’t bother with formal nights, so there’s no need to bring along your glad-rags. By and large, there’s more freedom compared to an ocean cruise, but there’s still plenty to consider when it comes to what you stuff into your suitcase. This guide to what to and what not to pack on your river cruise is here to help with any baggage blues you might have.

River cruise at destination

From details on dress codes (good news: they’re relaxed) to the practical things you should definitely bring with you, you’ll also find helpful hints on what to wear during which season, as well as the unnecessary extras you should think about leaving at home.

Getting the most from your adventure

With all the preparation and legwork you’ll be doing beforehand, it might seem as though we’ve forgotten that the point of your river cruise is to have an amazing time. Rest assured however, we’ve got this part of your holiday covered, too. Although new experiences are undoubtedly exciting, knowing what to expect during your time away is a great way of getting most from a river cruise adventure.

  • A typical day onboard a river cruise

With so much opportunity to finetune and tailor things to your liking, no two days on a river cruise are ever the same. You’ll enjoy plenty of freedom on board, but generally, your timeline is going to look a little like the below:

Morning: Certain lines feature a daily briefing on the in-room television, so be sure to tune in for extra info and history relating to the itinerary.

Fuel yourself for the day ahead with a hearty breakfast after you’ve woken up. There’ll be plenty to choose from, including cooked dishes, fresh fruit and cereals, along with tea, coffee and juice too. Top tip: bring something from the fruit selection when you’re exploring your surroundings on land.

After you’re suitably stuffed, guests are free to do as they please. If the ship is in port, you can enjoy the amenities and facilities, or you can head ashore and explore your surroundings. Depending on the line you’re travelling with, this can take the form of a walking tour, an immersive experience or you may find yourself venturing further afield on your own.

Lunch: All that time exploring new locales builds up an appetite. Head back onboard and get ready to feast in one of your ship’s dining venues. From British classics to local delicacies, there’s always plenty to choose from, so all tastes are catered to.

At this point, you’ll have plenty of options open to you. You can explore further while the ship’s in port, lounge on the top deck of the sun, relax in your cabin with a film or strike up a conversation with your fellow guests.

Early evening: Your ship will likely set sail at this point, so it’s the perfect time to take in superb landscapes unfolding before your eyes.

Evening: The ship’s dining venues come alive in the evening. Whatever takes your fancy, regional fare and international cuisine is sure to delight, whichever line you’re cruising with.

After dinner, guests will be thrilled by all manner of entertainment until the night draws to a close.

  • Tips and tricks for first timers
  1. Be sure to use the daily programme each evening before bed, as they provide plenty of about plans for the next day, insights about the crew, and times of activities and meals.
  2. Ask for another pillow if you’re not happy with the one on your bed – some lines even offer a pillow menu.
  3. Be aware of your own physical limitations during excursions. If you’re unsteady on your feet; cobbled streets, walkways and stairs might prove a problem. See if your cruise ship offers walking tours with a more relaxed pace.
  4. Don’t worry about getting seasick, when the boat is in motion you’ll never encounter any waves.
  5. Dining is open-seated, so it’s the perfect opportunity to mingle. Move around and meet other people!
  6. Make sure to bring your own electric current converter just in case. Lines don’t always have ones that they can lend out.
  7. It might be tempting to just lounge on the top deck, but make sure you make the most of your ship’s on-board activities too.
  8. Whether you’re an early riser or not, every guest should get up before sunrise at least once and enjoy the views of the river at its most serene, accompanied by early morning mist and birds chirping in the distance.
  • Making the most of the menu: On-board and in port

Rhein river cruise

The abundant foodie highlights across Europe means even the most ravenous of stomachs will be satisfied. With the finest food, both local and far-flung, awaiting you, gastronomes will be in their element whichever path they choose. From Viking’s Norse-inspired dishes to the many-splendored variety onboard Riviera, superb food is always close by.

And that’s just what’s onboard. When you’re in port, those who love to eat local are in for something truly special. The emphasis here is on rustic, traditional dishes that truly give diners a taste of the provincial. If you like to get adventurous with your eats, then be sure to check this guide to making the most of each rivers’ cuisine while you’re on holiday.

  • Picture perfect: Helpful tips for better photos

Looking to capture your holiday through the lens of your camera? From picturesque landscapes, incredible architecture and sprawling horizons, a river cruise offers up plenty of photo opportunities to get snap happy.

Some say the best time to take photos is during the Golden Hour, the hour before sunset and the hour following sunrise. Here, the lighting is softer, bathing surroundings in warm reds and yellows, accentuating shadows and depth, providing optimal conditions for your pictures.

If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out this interactive map of Europe’s finest riverside architecture. From your ship’s deck, you’ll be afforded some superb sights, all without having to get out of your deck chair! Indulge your creative side and be sure to get some snapshots to show your loved ones back home.


Like the sound of traversing some of the world’s most iconic rivers in pure bliss? Head to our extensive river cruise page for some travel inspiration, or give our friendly customer care team a call on 0808 2746 777 and book your next adventure today.


About Author

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Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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