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AAA Traveler Worldwise
First Timer’s Guide to River Cruising


Imagine yourself on the deck of a river ship, the hazel-hued waterways just a stone’s throw from where you stand and the scenery changing in front of you…cathedral spires rising in the distance…jagged cliff faces … great forests … occasional pleasure boats pass by like a curtain. In Germany, ancient castles dot the landscape and stare impassively as you cruise by. In France, the ship winds its way past vineyards and chateaus. You dock right in the city center in.

If you’ve been thinking about taking a river cruise vacation, there are many things to consider. Among the world’s most unique destinations, how can you possibly choose where to go? What are the differences between river boat operators? And, what can you expect once onboard?


River cruises are much smaller vessels than ocean vessels; and hold on average around 120 guests. This means you’ll get to know your crew and they’ll get to know you; including your drink preferences and your housekeeping needs. Depending on your cruise line, accommodations will range from modern and functional to ultra-luxurious; most with oversized windows or balconies. Your fellow passengers will hail from all over the world, mainly from Europe and North America, and most guests will be between ages 50 and 75. These travelers share your interest in food, culture, and learning about the places you’ll visit. Regardless of age, your travel companions will be very active – most cruises will offer at least one shore excursion a day (sometimes two) and when you’re not out exploring the port, you’ll be attending a cooking class, taking a language lesson, or learning about the history of the place you’re visiting. Expect top-notch cuisine sourced from local growers; your ship’s chef will take advantage of port days by visiting local markets and turning his bounty into the evening’s dinner.


Since river cruises generally dock in or very close to city centers, you’ll have more time to access the important sights. You’ll have the option of taking a guided tour; most cruise lines include at least one per day in your cruise fare along with optional excursions for an additional cost. Or you can venture out on your own in most destinations, since the city centers are an easy walk to the ship’s dock. Some ships offer bikes so you can pedal about the town or even catch the ship at her next port. Even in Russia, you can access the clean and easy to understand metro system without an escort.

  • Get a room with a view. You won’t regret the solace of watching the river from the privacy of your own verandah. Keep in mind that on some ships, all cabins include balconies – so be sure to review the deck plan with your travel agent for the best.
  • Attend lectures and history lessons. It will pay off when you’re on shore excursions and have a better understanding of place.
  • Plan for an active vacation. Good walking shoes are a must, for walking on cobblestones, gravel paths, damp docks, castle steps and perhaps bike riding. There will be easy-paced excursions offered, too. There may not be elevators on some ships; your travel agent can help you find a ship that will work for you if this is a concern.
  • Consider a travel money card. This is basically a debit card with a set amount of cash; and allows you to draw local currency at the airport when you arrive and then use it as a credit card where Visa is accepted. Get one at your AAA store before you go.
  • Don’t wait to book once you’ve decided on an itinerary. With limited inventory that opens up as far as two years prior, most cruises are sold out months before departure.
  • Your suitcase will need to roll under your bed or in a small closet. You won’t need formal wear, and moderate cocktail party attire is appropriate for a couple of nights only. You will need layers for chilly nights. Many ships offer laundry facilities so don’t worry about duplicating outfits.
  • Bring US dollars for tipping your cruise staff and tour guides at the end of your trip. Your local guides and bus drivers will appreciate a tip when services are rendered. Check the cruise lines’ website for suggested tipping practices.
  • Bring a small day bag along for your shore excursions; it should include a travel umbrella, hat and a light raincoat.

Ready to start planning? We can help. Find a River Cruise Expert Near You