River cruising has quickly become one of the fastest growing trends in the cruise industry. With smaller ships that are able to navigate through inland waterways, river cruises often dock in the heart of cities and villages, allowing for seamless exploration of places that large ocean carriers could never reach.
To support this growing trend, companies such as Viking River Cruises, Avalon Waterways, AmaWaterways and Uniworld have expanded their fleets, introducing a combined 20 new ships to waterways across the globe in 2014.
So what exactly is river cruising all about?
Rather than traversing the coast, river cruises offer rich itineraries that highlight riverside cities such as Vienna, Paris, Cairo and Beijing. With ports in the center of town, secondary travel time on buses or trains is minimal, leaving travelers more time to tour. This is a major perk, as many large-ship itineraries claim desirable ports such as Rome and Florence when they actually visit Civitavecchia and Livorno -- two port cities about 90 minutes outside of town.
Contrary to popular belief, the boundaries of river cruising extend far beyond Europe. Plan to explore ports along narrow waterways such as China's Yangtze River, the Nile River in Egypt or even the Amazon River in Brazil and Peru. Here in the U.S., companies such as American Queen Steamboat Company and American Cruise Lines slip in and out of ports along the Mississippi River, Chesapeake Bay, Erie Canal and beyond.
Most river cruise lines offer at least one free shore excursion in each city. Led by local guides, walking tours and visits to Christmas markets or museums offer an authentic sampling of what each city has to offer from an insider's perspective. Additionally, all onboard meals are included, along with wine, beer and soft drinks.
Because river cruises have fewer passengers, the vessels are able to procure a treasure trove of local produce, seafood and meat for onboard meals -- food is often fresher and more regionally inspired than on large-ship cruises. Entertainment is also locally cultivated; classical pianists, folk dancers and small bands may be brought on board for a show. You won't find multiple lounges, casinos, sprawling spa areas or fancy gyms, and activities such as trivia and making animal-shapes out of towels are replaced with cultural seminars and cooking demonstrations.
As river cruising continues to evolve, opportunities for themed experiences are more prevalent. New itineraries highlight Holland in tulip season, Europe's famous Christmas markets and France's majestic wine region, in addition to safari and wildlife cruises through Africa. Activity-focused cruises hone in on golf, history and biking.
River cruising might not be for everyone. Smaller ships mean limited outlets, and there won't be a bevy of onboard restaurants and nightlife, if that's your cup of tea. Cruising in general affords the opportunity to explore many countries in just a few days, and river cruises zoom in just a bit further to bring guests to cities that aren't in the same boat as deep-water ports.
Travelzoo Tip: Looking for a river cruise deal? Find an itinerary to your liking in Travelzoo's cruise deals section.
-- Allison Friendly is a deal expert at Travelzoo and based in Miami. Travelzoo has 250 deal experts from around the world who rigorously research, evaluate and test thousands of deals to find those with true value.