Why a River Cruise Makes a Perfect First-Ever Voyage

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.

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