Just like big-ship cruise lines, each river cruise line has a different style and personality. And confusingly (and also similar to the big ship lines), comfort and ambiance can vary widely between lines' own fleets; new trends in riverboat design mean that vessels debuting after about 2008 offer a lot more extras and lot more space than the older boats.
Wherever you go, river cruising and canal cruising share some similarities. Mealtimes are a major focal point of the day. Itineraries are port-intensive. (On some trips, you may visit more than one port per day, and an actual full day “at sea” is uncommon.) On board, the experience is more laid-back than it is on oceangoing voyages. (Entertainment is not sophisticated, and meals can be fairly regimented.) Ships are smaller, usually not more than 200 passengers.
Entertainment onboard may be limited to shuffleboard or book-reading. There are no casinos and usually just a piano player or local act for evening entertainment.
Itineraries incorporate major cities as cornerstones, but also focus on smaller towns and villages along the way. One big difference between river cruising and ocean cruising is that river cruises include the shore excursions in the overall price. Some lines charge for specially planned tours such as cooking classes and trips to more offbeat adventures. A ship may also carry bicycles onboard for complimentary passenger use in port.
River and canal cruising are not limited to Europe. In the United States, the Mississippi River (and its connecting tributaries) is experiencing a renaissance with the launch of American Queen Steamboat Company's refurbished American Queen in spring 2012 and American Cruise Lines' newly built Queen of the Mississippi.
The River Queen has some very good specials. One of them is along the Columbia & Snake Rivers, 8 days with American Queen Steamboat Company. Travels between Clarkston and Portland with visits to Sacajawea State Park, Stevenson and Astoria. Companion cruises for free, plus enjoy free shore excursions and more. Starting at $3,795. Departures from April 6 through June 1, 2014.
In Asia, China's Yangtze has long been a river cruising staple, and the newly ascending Mekong Delta, which travels through Vietnam and Cambodia, is gaining steam.
A typical Baltic route includes the capitals — Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn and Russia’s masterpiece, St Petersburg, where a two-day stop is almost standard.
In each of these cities see many historic buildings and monuments that can be explored on foot, although guided excursions are recommended in Russia because it eliminates visa issues.
Cruising leisurely between these destinations on a 10-to 14-night cruise makes logistics easy, and plenty of competition among cruise lines keeps prices at a reasonable level. A number of ships make additional port calls at Oslo (Norway), Gothenburg (Sweden) or Warnemünde.
Let me know what you think about river cruising.