Why First-Time Cruisers Should Choose a River Voyage, According to Travel Specialists

Plus what to know before setting sail.
Why a River Cruise Makes a Perfect FirstEver Voyage
Viking River Cruises

Booking your first cruise can feel like a big step: There are dress codes and other unspoken etiquette rules to consider, plus figuring out how to travel at a different pace. It can feel overwhelming for a newbie.

That's why the smaller, slower pace of a river cruise is a great option for embarking on your first-ever voyage. “It is more intimate, great for people prone to motion sickness, and they are all inclusive,” says Judith Wolf, a travel consultant and cruise expert at Frosch. “The profile of a river cruiser is usually an upscale, sophisticated traveler. They are interested in the countries they are visiting, and their history.”

Here’s what to know about booking your first river cruise, plus practical advice on finding the perfect itinerary, choosing the right stateroom, and what to pack.

River cruise ships are smaller 

The first thing cruisers will notice stepping onto a river ship is that the atmosphere is exclusive and boutique: There are few passengers, a sense of calm, and most public areas and decks are designed to showcase the scenery drifting by on the riverbanks.

“The one drawback is that the cabins are much smaller than an ocean ship,” says Wolf. “However, you will not be spending much time in your cabin because each day on a river cruise is a day in port and the ship sails in the evening.” The majority of the time on a river cruise is spent on guided tours and excursions or simply enjoying the charming town where you’re docked for the day. 

A large stateroom is often not top priority. “I advise my clients to secure the least expensive cabin they will be comfortable in and use the money saved to spend time on either end [on a land program] since river cruise itineraries start and end in some of the most interesting cities in the world,” says Linda Allen-Speer, who operates Cruises by Linda. 

Downsizing could be a smart idea—even if it means you end up with a stateroom that doesn’t have a balcony or outdoor space to enjoy the views. “Balconies aren’t a necessity because you can always relax on the upper deck and see the beautiful scenery,” says Wolf.

European river cruises bring travelers to the heart of the region's charming villages.


River cruise ports are in prime locations 

On ocean cruises, sometimes the ports are on the outskirts of a city in order to accommodate the larger ships, which means long walks or shuttle rides to get into the heart of town. That's usually not the case for river voyages. “Many of the ports are in the center of the city, and it is easy to get off and go for a stroll,” Wolf says. Think of stepping off the ship and being in the middle of quaint towns in rural Europe, bustling cities in Vietnam, or historic villages in Egypt.  

If you'd rather wander around a destination instead of joining a planned excursion, crew on river ships provide plenty of options. “If you like to bike most ships carry bicycles that are available for all the guests,” Wolf notes. Grab one and cycle past tulip fields in Holland, to a French café overlooking the Rhône, or to Buddhist temples in Phnom Penh. 

Itineraries are just the right length

While there are river cruises that can last for several weeks or even months—by connecting through several rivers in one particular region—most river voyages usually range from eight to 15 days. That's a good duration for first timers to have an in-depth experience without feeling overwhelmed.

Most voyages also have an option to add a couple days on land to leisurely explore the first port. “They have unique itineraries with a few days in a city—not accessible by a river—before you board the ship,” says Wolf. 

Even though these land extension packages are also available after the cruise, Allen-Speer says it's best to do them before embarking on the ship—just in case of air travel complications. Snags like crew strikes, cancellations, and delays “are not as stressful if you have some wiggle room in your itinerary,” she adds. 

It's also worth noting that many river cruise lines have specialty itineraries that cater to specific interests, like history, wine, or culture. AmaWaterways, for example, has new river cruises focusing on Black history and culture in France, while Uniworld offers European river cruises that center on Jewish heritage

What to pack for a river cruise

Some of what you pack will depend on your destination, but travelers should keep in mind that river cruise dress codes tend to be much more casual than some of the larger ocean-going ships. “You won’t need any formal or cocktail attire,” Wolf says. “Comfortable, casual clothes with maybe a nice packable dress, blouse, and skirt or shirt and slacks with one jacket, no tie.” 

Other essentials to pack for a warm-weather river cruise include comfortable walking shoes, a bathing suit, sun hat, sunglasses, and refillable water bottle

Outside of the key necessities, you might want to pare back what's in your suitcase. “First-time cruisers generally pack twice what they need,” says Allen-Speer. “Once you have what you think you need, pull out anything that will not go with the comfortable shoes you will wear.” To keep your luggage light, Allen-Speer advises travelers to opt for clothing they can mix and match—and to not forget a light waterproof jacket for chillier days or rain showers.