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Millions of travelers have boarded ocean-going cruise ships since the cruise industry blossomed back in the 1970s. The Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii, the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, South America, and the polar regions are among the popular destinations where so-called blue water ships sail, often with thousands of passengers aboard.

River cruising, however, is a different kettle of fish. Today's river cruise ships evolved from Europe's waterway network of barges after trains and delivery trucks became a cheaper and more logical way to transport cargo across Europe. With the loss of business, innovative barge owners in the 1960s began renovating their vessels to accommodate holiday-makers instead of goods, and a new industry began to take shape. It wasn't until the early 1990s that this vacation option started to flourish.


Now, multiple river cruise companies, many of them based in the U.S., have established themselves on European waterways and offer a wide range of itineraries across multiple countries.

Related: The Best River Cruises In The World

Choose Your Seasons Wisely When Selecting A River Cruise

It can be daunting to choose from the huge variety of river cruise itineraries available in Europe. There are tulip cruises, wine cruises, history cruises, foodie cruises, and plenty more. But the cruise dates are as important as the themes.

For instance, tulip-themed cruises promise eye-popping visits to the vast tulip gardens of the Netherlands; however, booking one of these itineraries early in the spring season can lead to disappointment if Northern Europe had a colder-than-usual winter and the tulips haven't bloomed exactly on time. For tulip-themed cruises, it's often best to look beyond the first or second cruise of the season, even though these might be cheaper, and book that cruise for a few weeks later. It could be worth the few dollars extra.

The same concept goes for wine cruises. Why book your Burgundy or Bordeaux region cruise in the spring when the vineyards are still brown? On an early autumn itinerary, you'll be able to see the lush vineyards just before they are harvested.

Nature also can wreak havoc on Europe river cruising. The rivers can flood in early spring, as the snow melts across Europe's higher elevations, and sometimes in August, a persistent summer drought will upend river itineraries because the water levels are too low for the ships to operate.

Prepare For Smaller Spaces On River Cruise Ships

Vacationers who are accustomed to large ocean ships that carry thousands of guests will find a completely different atmosphere on river cruise ships, which typically accommodate about 200 people.

River cruise ships are likely to have just one dining room versus the multitude of restaurants on blue-water ships. All three meals of the day are eaten in the dining room, and tables shared with other parties are the norm. In-suite dining is always an option, however.

Related: A Travel Guide To Amsterdam: 10 Things To Know While Planning Your Trip

River cruisers also can expect their ship to have just one main lounge/cocktail bar, although these areas will be well-designed and spacious enough to seat everyone. Lectures and entertainment are held in the main lounge. A concierge desk is usually located in the center of the ship and serves as the meeting point for excursions. River ships have libraries, but they are small and, as a result, have limited reading options.

The outdoor space on a river ship is limited to the top deck, which often has a small pool, a game area, and lounge chairs.

Cabin sizes vary by cruise line, but they generally will be smaller than ocean-going ships. River cruise ship cabins typically are between 150 and 220 square feet. Several upscale cruise lines offer cabins with large windows or floor-to-ceiling windows that can be opened and can help to make the space feel bigger. Balconies are available on some ships as well, and most luxury cruise lines have suites with separate living and sleeping areas.

Most River Cruise Itineraries Span Several Countries

One of the best aspects of river cruising is the ships' ability to dock at the small villages hugging the coastlines of Europe's mighty waterways. Guests step off the ship, often right into the downtown, or old town, of these quaint villages.

One such village that is a port call on almost all Rhine cruises is Rüdesheim, Germany. Its old-world ambiance, timber-frame architecture, and cobblestone streets delight visitors, who stroll along its central pedestrian walkway to shop or have a bite to eat in one of its many eateries, including the 1,000-year-old Rüdesheim Castle, now a hotel and restaurant.

Shore excursions are offered, but most of the river cruise lines provide a free guided walking tour at each port call.

One of the most popular river cruise itineraries is a route from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland, along the Rhine River. The route takes guests through the countrysides of the Netherlands, Germany, and France before concluding in Basel. Parts of this route will be quiet and bucolic, with grand fortresses and castle ruins viewed along the coast, while other parts of the river still reflect the busy commercial shipping industry that continues to exist along the Rhine.

Commercially quieter than the Rhine, Moselle River cruises typically travel between Vienna and Budapest, visiting Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria. One port call on this 58-mile itinerary is Melk, Austria, home to the Benedictine Abbey, which is one of Europe's largest monasteries.

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Vacationers looking for a more cosmopolitan river cruise can check out an itinerary that travels roundtrip from Amsterdam, visiting the cities of Rotterdam, The Hague, and Delft, along with small villages.