The Viking Modi, which travels from Budapest to Amsterdam. Credit: Michael Benson

Travelers are consistently opting to vacation by riverboat cruises, drawn to the ability to highly customize their trip, the quality service and food and wide range of destinations available. Explore the snaking Mekong Delta from Cambodia to Vietnam, cruise the ancient sites of the Nile, sip wine along the Rhone, or take in the Pacific Northwest from the unique vantage of the Columbia River Gorge

Smaller groups

While traditional cruise ships often have the capacity for upwards of 3,000 passengers —Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas can hold up to 7,600 — riverboats typically have just about 150 to 200 passengers.

Scenes from riverboating along the Rhine River. Credit: Mary Curry / Adventure Life

Like-minded travelers

Riverboat cruises tend to attract travelers that skew slightly older and generally have an interest in education and cultural immersion. Michael Benson, 68, and his wife Cathy, have taken two Viking Cruises, one along the Bordeaux River, along with the 15-day Grand European Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest. “At every level, at every step, experience was genuinely five stars,” he says. “Part of it was enjoying the clientele, they were interested in history and more on the intellectual side, so every conversation we had was interesting and we met some kindred spirits. On a big ship it’s just a cattle call.” 

Monika Sundem, CEO of travel company Adventure Life, also noted that some companies are beginning to brand for a younger demographic. “If you look at the size of the Viking fleets or AmaWaterways, which are a few of the big, well known American brands, they’re just exploding in terms of how many new ships they’re building and creating.”

Several companies, including Viking, don’t allow passengers under the age of 18.

An AmaWaterways cruise along the Danube River. Credit: Mary Curry / Adventure Life

The experience is highly customizable

“I’m noticing a trend  in our culture at large — the idea of customizing things to your preference, and I think the rise of riverboating popularity kind of revolves around that,” says Sundem. “When you’re on a 3,000-person ocean liner, you’re just wandering with the herd. You know what they offer and there’s no real help or customizing beyond that. Whereas these river cruises really try to customize and tailor the experience to very small groups. They’ll even customize the pace of the walk, or let you borrow one of the bikes on board and you can choose to bike from port to port.”

Activities, some of which are included in the cost, others optional, vary greatly. There are lectures, live music, walking tours, dance and cooking classes, and visits to historical sites, museums, markets and vineyards, among others. Additionally, there is no “day at sea” when traveling by riverboat. Boats often dock at ports overnight, allowing passengers the opportunity to explore at their leisure or sample the local nightlife. And unlike large ocean liners, you don’t run the risk of being left behind — you can always catch up to your boat. 

A meal served about an AmaWaterways cruise from Bucharest to Budapest. Credit: Mary Curry / Adventure Life

Gourmet food

One of the draws of riverboat cruises is the high quality of the food, often prepared using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients, served with local wine and beer. Some cruises incorporate culinary-themed excursions, like visits to local markets or cooking demonstrations. “The companies are obviously not competing about the destination, they’re competing on the variety of excursions as well as the dining experience,” Sundem says. “So the quality of food is a huge step above what you’re going to get on an ocean liner.

Who shouldn’t riverboat?

Both Benson and Sundem share the sentiment that for travelers who are looking for flashy shows, casino vibes, a party atmosphere, or a sedentary leisure-oriented trip, riverboat cruises might not be the best option

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