Skip to Content

Why Take a River Cruise? 5 Great Reasons!

I think we’re riverholics.

Why take a river cruise? We want to float down another lazy river on another lovely river ship – and fall in love with another place we’ve never been.

Meandering along serene waterways, river cruises offer an intimate perspective of picturesque landscapes and charming towns.

If you’ve read our post on the world’s best river cruises, you’ll know we’re looking into another river cruise.

Maybe in the Amazon, or Vietnam, or possibly India. (Who knew you could go river cruising in India!) Oh, and if you twist our arms, we’d be willing to sail the Douro in Portugal, look at the wine grapes growing on its steep terraced riverbanks, do a little wine tasting…

Curious? If you’ve never taken a river cruise, read on to discover why you might love river cruising too!

Uniworld's River Countess river ship on the Seine River in France
Uniworld’s River Countess on the Seine River in France

Why take a river cruise?

Actually, we’re not that different from many other people. River cruising is quite the rage these days!

Here are five reasons to take a river cruise…

1) River ships are small

An Alaska cruise on a sizeable Holland America cruise ship (1,500+ passengers) was perfect for our family’s reunion celebration a few years ago.

There were enough pools, hot tubs, wine tasting events, cooking shows and various other activities to keep everyone, from grandparents to teens, happy and entertained.

But, personally, for just the two of us, we like smaller cruise ships. No breathless long sprints back to the cabin to retrieve that forgotten camera or hat! Getting on or off is a breeze too (no waits).

Well, river ships are small.

They typically carry fewer than 200 passengers.

The Zambezi Queen – which pampered us on an African river safari (worthy of its own National Geographic documentary) – only has a total of 14 staterooms.

Imagine watching elephants this close on an African river safari! (Credit: Zambezi Queen)
We saw elephants from the Zambezi Queen river boat (Credit: Zambezi Queen)

The small size of a river ship encourages easy mixing among guests.

River cruises attract mostly fit, well-traveled mature couples (often retired), but we’ve also enjoyed the company of younger travelers.

On some ships, dining rooms have tables for dining à deux, but we’ve joined other guests too at larger tables – and our meal conversations with outgoing Aussies and cultured Germans, fellow Canadians and friendly Americans, have always been lively!

Cruising alone? As travel writer Irene Levine notes, smaller and more intimate river cruises are ideal for solo travelers (especially boomers), who can easily meet and find companions onboard.

2) River ships get you right up close to the action

Temples and trishaw rides? You bet! And lots more on our Myanmar river cruise on the Belmond Orcaella

River ships – maybe they should be called riverboats? – often tie up right in the heart of the city or village you’re visiting.

Talk about convenience! You can literally walk to the main sights.

Take Les Andelys – the quintessential Normandy village. It’s a stop on a Uniworld Seine River cruise.

We docked by a neatly manicured stretch of lawn, shaded by weeping willows, where a pair of young lovers smooched on a park bench.

Lace curtains framed the windows of old stone and brick houses; fat cows roamed the emerald hills above.

For our guided excursion, we simply walked off the ship and followed a path that meandered alongside the river, then scrambled up some rocks to see the impressive ruins of the 12th-century Chateau Gaillard built by Richard the Lionheart.

river cruising - Bratislavia, Slovakia
In Bratislava, Slovakia, you can walk right off your river ship into the town center (Credit: Viking River Cruises)

Sometimes a bit of a drive is needed to get you from your ship to the key attractions.

In Egypt, for example, you have to drive to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, with its more than 60 excavated tombs (including King Tut’s).

However, cruise on the Oberoi Zahra as we did, and you’ll be transported in comfort in black, air-conditioned Mercedes vans.

Guests are divided into groups of six, each touring with its own van (which shadows the ship onshore), driver and Egyptologist guide. Not exactly a hardship, right?

3) You get to see and do a lot! (As much as you want, anyway)

If you’re wondering what to expect on a river cruise in terms of time ashore, know this: River cruises maximize your sightseeing time.

Except for really scenic stretches, river ships typically travel to their next destination at night while you’re asleep.

On our Seine River cruise, we were off the ship every day, both morning and afternoon (typically returning just for lunch).

We saw and did much more in a concentrated week than if we’d taken the train, rented a car or booked a bus tour.

On a river cruise, you waste no time shifting hotels or packing and unpacking all the time.

There are times, of course, when we want to spend a few days just staying put in one city or place. (The best Russian river cruises spend two or three days in St. Petersburg).

To satisfy that yen off the rivership, we try to book-end a river cruise with extended land time before and after.

And sometimes a river cruise is the only or best way to see a country.

In Myanmar, poor roads and infrastructure, at least between Yangon and Bagan, mean you’d want to travel by river. (You could fly, but you’d miss the exotic sites on this stretch of the Irrawaddy River.)

We took a horse-cart ride to see Bagan on our Myanmar river cruise (and later rented bikes), but you can also get around in an ox-cart

And if we hadn’t cruised the Nile in Egypt, would we have seen the biblical scenes of village women washing clothes by the riverbank, fishermen casting nets from small wooden boats and farmers on donkeys carrying sugar cane?

4) River cruising is relaxing

Even though you can see and do a lot on river cruises, you don’t always have to.

You can skip out on excursions if you want, put your feet up and just soak in your surroundings.

On some cruises, downtime is built in, so you won’t feel like you’re missing out on anything.

river cruising - China
Cruising on the Yangtze River in China (Credit: Sanctuary Retreats)

After exploring Egypt a little on one trip, we returned to Egypt for a longer, more leisurely river cruise on the Oberoi Zahra.

Because this ship offers seven-night itineraries, rather than the usual three- or four- night ones offered by most other river cruise companies, we had oodles of time to explore all the amazing Egyptian tombs and temples around Luxor and also visit Cleopatra’s beloved Temple of Hathor in Denderah.

And we had time too for swimming in the largest ship pool on the Nile, spa treatments and lingering over lunch on deck while being sprayed by a cool mist from above.

Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III
George with our Egyptologist guide at the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III

On our most recent Myanmar cruise, the lovely Belmond Orcaella spent the first few days languidly navigating the shifting sands of the Irrawaddy riverbed (punctuated by only one excursion).

How nice to have this gift of time to doze on deck, read, and listen to fascinating lectures on Buddhism and Aung San Suu Kyi, the then Burmese opposition leader.

5) River cruises are all-inclusive

river cruising - adventures by disney
In partnership with AmaWaterways, Adventures by Disney has launched family-focused trips in Europe, where bike rides included (Credit: Adventures by Disney)

Have you ever taken an ocean cruise thinking you’ve pretty well paid for your holiday – only to rudely discover you have to pay extra for cappuccinos or bottled drinking water in your cabin?

And those shore excursions do put a dent in the wallet, don’t they?

The extras can sometimes double the cost of your ocean cruise.

Not so with river cruises – one of the big reasons people love river cruising.

Fares on premium river cruises typically include all your shore excursions (except for, say, hot-air ballooning).

Free WiFi and a good selection of wines at lunch and dinner (perhaps even cocktails too) are also included.

river cruising - China with Sanctuary Retreats
One reason people love river cruising is because interesting shore excursions are typically included -(like an excursion on the Yangtze River (Credit: Sanctuary Retreats)

And speaking of shore excursions, don’t think just walking (or bus or van) tours.

On the Zambezi Queen, we zipped along the Chobe River in a small aluminum boat to see colorful kingfishers, Nile crocodiles and herds of elephants on the riverbanks.

And in Chobe National Park, we bounced along in an open Land-Cruiser (giraffes, impala, buffalo, warthogs, baboons – here we come!).

In Myanmar, on our Belmond Orcaella river cruise, we visited villages, monasteries, forts and temples by ox cart, horse cart and trishaw.

How’s that for fun!

So do you see now why people love river cruising?

River cruises, with their blend of luxury and adventure, captivate travelers’ hearts.

The unhurried pace allows you to savor local cuisine and explore historic sites – leaving time too for unwinding on the river ship. It’s the perfect fusion of relaxation and exploration that draws people (including us!) to the enchanting world of river cruising.

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more. We also have and recommend Medjet for global air medical transportation and travel security.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

Pssst! If you make a booking or purchase through our site, we may earn a small commission (at no cost to you). Thanks!

Photo credits: © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except where noted) | 1 Scenic | 2 Uniworld

About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

Amanda Woods

Sunday 24th of January 2016

Great piece, and I loved seeing River Countess at the start there. I spent a week or so on her in and around Venice. A bit of a river cruise with a difference as we didn't go from A to B but apart from a trip down the river Po we spent most of the time around Venice. In the past my Venice stays had always been in, shall we say, less glamorous accommodation. It felt divine to spend a day wandering around and then come back to that ship every night as I'm sure you can imagine.

And I so want to do Myanmar on that Belmond one. I did the Mekong years ago and adored that and have said ever since I need to do a river cruise in Myanmar. You're inspiring me again!

Janice and George

Sunday 24th of January 2016

Yes, we can imagine it would have been lovely returning to the River Countess at the end of each day in Venice :-). Now, the Mekong - that's on our wishlist as you may know. Sigh... There are just so many wonderful places to travel to!


Thursday 21st of January 2016

You've almost got me sold. We're not much into boat excursions - we've taken half day tours and get so bored and you're stuck. Spanky doesn't even swim. What you're suggesting is different but I still have this fear of being mindlessly bored and stuck on a damn boat. Your photos are incredible though and the idea of seeing all that without the hassle of travelling independently sounds kind of nice...

Frank (bbqboy)

Janice and George

Thursday 21st of January 2016

On most river cruises, you're out and about onshore much of the day - so you're not likely to feel too "stuck on the boat." For the guided walking shore excursions (in towns where you walk right from your riverboat), you could peel off from the group if you wanted, so you'd have some freedom there. You don't even have to join the guided group excursions! (But they're usually included in the cost, and having a guide explain things is so helpful.)


Wednesday 13th of January 2016

Vietnam & Cambodia was indeed amazing. A powerful and life-changing adventure. AmaWaterways' attention to detail was incredible. Angkor Wat was an OMG Moment! Put this one on your Bucket List.

Janice and George

Wednesday 13th of January 2016

That's great to hear you enjoyed your AmaWaterways cruise! And, yes, we do have Vietnam and Cambodia in our sights - at least sometime in the future!

Paula McInerney

Friday 25th of September 2015

You have me totally convinced on river cruising. We did the barge cruise on the canals in Burgundy, France and loved it. Think we might have to look further into some. Thanks guys!

Irene S. Levine

Wednesday 16th of September 2015

I, too, have fallen in love with river cruising. It's a great way to get up close to wonderful places---even to see zebras! Best, Irene