River Cruising: Everything You Need to Know and Why You'll Love It

This new travel trend offers a unique way to explore the world

Glynnis MacNicol—When Yahoo Travel asked me if I wanted to go on a weeklong Uniworld river cruise up the Rhone from Avignon to Lyon I did not hesitate to say yes. Because when some asks you if you want to go to the South of France I think the answer is always yes, non?  The truth is, I had until that moment, never even heard of a river cruise, nor contemplated the existence of one beyond some vague association with the Circle Line that, as the name suggests, circle Manhattan and are generally filled with tourists and/or New Yorkers looking for some way to entertain visiting family members.

As it turns out river cruising is big business, and one that has exploded in the last two decades. Uniworld alone offers cruises all over Europe, including Russia, as well as China, Vietnam, Egypt, and now India. If there is a major river you would like to sail on, chances are there is likely a boat on which you can do it. Many boats, actually. During my seven days on the Rhone, I was stunned by how many other boats we encountered (sometimes right out my window, as I discovered one morning when, having gotten out of the shower, I opened my curtains and was greeted by the dining  room of a boat that had docked next to us during the night. Luckily, the windows are mirrored, though I didn’t find that out until a few hours later. Good morning!).

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For the uninitiated, the word cruising will likely bring to mind the large ocean liners whose reputation has been somewhat battered in recent years by mysterious viruses, irresponsible captains sailing ships into rocks, as well as images of over-crowding (though on my first big cruise earlier this year I found the reality to be far from this). However, with the exception of the fact you are traveling on water, river cruising could not be more different than the ocean version. Truth be told, it reminded me of nothing so much as a watery version of the famous train scene from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint encounter each other in the dining car and verbally spar over martinis: glamorous, intimate, and stacked with white-glove service. In other words, attributes that are no longer associated with travel.

In addition to feeling as though I was reliving an extended scene from some alternate Golden Hollywood story, here were the five best things I discovered about river cruising:

It’s surprisingly intimate

The small size of the S.S. Catherine provides a much more intimate experience. (Photo: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection)

Unlike their ocean counterparts, riverboats are tiny affairs. Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine on which I was sailing, holds a mere 159 passengers. Among other things this means every room has a view of the water (there are only two decks), there are never any crowds to deal with, and by the end of the trip, while you might not know all your fellow passengers, you will likely recognize them. The limited numbers also create a casual sense of camaraderie, or friendly anonymity, if you prefer to think of it that way. By the end of the seven-day trip I had made friends with a variety of couples with whom I routinely shared anecdotes of my day, and often meals, though eating alone was always an option.

The food is fresh

Docking every evening means fresh bread, cheese, and produce for every meal. (Photo: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection)

Speaking of eating. Perhaps the greatest advantage to a riverboat is the accessibility of fresh food. By necessity, the large cruise ships stock up on huge quantities, which they store and then serve through the duration of the trip, most often in all-day buffets. The rivers boats, because they dock every evening are able to onboard fresh food daily, and boy can you tell. Every meal felt as though we were dining at a top French restaurant; excellent wine, fresh vegetables, fresh eggs, and did I mention the cheese?  All the cheese, all the time.  It didn’t hurt that every meal, and dinner was was served by an army of waiters. (Well, sometimes it hurt a little bit the next day…I mentioned the wine, yes?) Which brings me to the thing most people who have river cruised will tell you…

Service! (Service! Service! Service!)

The author’s cruise quarters (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)

If anything is going to hook you on a river cruise, this is the thing. There once was a time, or so television, film, and vintage magazines would have you believe, when good service was the norm when it came to travel. These days, most travelers leave their house with the assumption that everything that lies between them and their destination is something to be endured or survived and that even when you get where you’re going the most you can count on is clean sheets. Leave that fear at the door (or on your extremely small airplane seat). On the S.S. Catherine every meal was either served (or in the case of breakfast, overseen with large pots of coffee) by an phalanx of attentive waiters. The rooms, which were quite roomy by ship standards, were cleaned and made-up twice a day and equipped with a print-out of the following day’s schedule. Dietary restrictions were inquired after and catered to. A bottle of wine and fruit and chocolate were left in my room on the first night, a large bottle of filtered water was continually replenished. All the staff new my name and inquired after my well-being frequently. In short a person could get used to living like this very easily.

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It’s all-inclusive

A small town in the South of France was one excursion. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)

Most of what is offered on a river cruise is included in the price. River cruising can be more expensive than an ocean cruise, but there is something very enjoyable and, dare I say, classier about not having to worry about paying for individual drinks and excursions, especially while on board; all meals and wine were included in the cost. No need to dread the end of trip bill slipped under your door because you lost track of the amount of cokes you’d consumed, uncertain of whether you’d exceeded your package limit. Additionally, on the SS Catherine there were an average of two excursions and/or tours planned a day, which you could choose to participate in or not; these included tours of famous vineyards, castles, wine and chocolate tastings, and in one case, a visit to a centuries-old home of a local. There were, of course, exceptions to this: special extra trips you could reserve or special extra wine you could order, but in general what you paid for up front covered nearly everything you might want while sailing.

It’s perfect for multigenerational travel

The author cruising (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)

You may not be there yet, or even at the point where you are able to imagine it, but there will likely come a time when you want to travel with your parents. During my week on the SS Catherine, I met many families who were doing just this. One of the reasons it is so appealing, I discovered, is that in addition to the ship be small and navigable, Uniworld offers different levels of activities depending on your level of fitness and mobility (though let me tell you, more than once on this trip I was double-timed up a hill by an individual over the age of 65). There were more vigorous activities for those who wanted to be on the move, and slower ones, often involving transportation for those whom mobility was an issue.

Related: How I Turned a Romantic Honeymoon Cruise Into a ‘Familymoon’

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