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River Boat Cruising: The Slowest Ride You'll Ever Love

The un-cruise of cruising has an allure all it's own. Here's what you need to know before you decide if a river boat trip is right for you.

I just took my first real river cruise and I'm a convert to the slow rhythm and the close-up exploring. Sometimes you're just a few feet away from the life along the river banks. I spent a week slowly gliding down the Mekong River and its tributaries between Prek Dom (just south of Siem Reap), Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, aboard the one-year-old 60-passenger Orient Pandaw ( Before boarding, we spent a day and night in Siem Reap to explore the stunning Hindu and Buddhist temples at Angkor Wat and a night on the other end walking around Ho Chi Minh City (no small feat, the traffic is relentless). In between, our week on the river was spent exploring small villages, floating markets and temples nestled in the jungles of the two countries, as well as the city of Phnom Penh, where our day of touring included fascinating, but heart-wrenching sites associated with the Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the Pol Pot in the late 1970s. In both countries an expert guide sailed along with us and led all of the shore tours as well as answered questions on board. Pandaw also offers river cruises along Burma's Irrawaddy River, Rajang River of Borneo, and India's holy Ganges. The other major region for river cruises in Asia is China's Yangtze River system.

Though there are river trips in North America -- namely on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest, the Mississippi River system in the southern and central parts of America, and the rivers and of the eastern US -- Europe offers the most options. The vessels sail along the Seine and Rhone rivers in France, and along the mighty Rhine, Moselle, Neckar, Main, Elbe, and Danube rivers which flow mostly in Germany, but also into Austria, Switzerland, and Hungary.

River boats carry anywhere from about 50 to 250 passengers and itineraries are typically in the neighborhood of one to two weeks long. Before you decide if a river boat trip is for you, consider the following.

You won't cover much ground.

But this isn't a bad thing. With the average river boat traveling about half as fast as a typical cruise liner, coupled with the two or three different stops per day to explore different towns and villages, you'll cover less distance than you would on a big cruise ship (say a few hundred miles versus thousands in a typical week). The plus side: you'll see something new every single day. A river boat cruise offers an in-depth exploration of a region, in my recent case, of the Mekong River system in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Like-minded others.

While mega cruise ship tend to attract a broader cross section of travelers (smart and silly, sophisticated and red-neck, rich and not-rich, young and old), river boats tend to attract a more homogenous crowd of intellectually curious folks in their 50s, 60s on up who want to really see something (the wine regions of France, for instance, or the ghats along India's Ganges river). You'll find lots of Europeans on river cruises and they'll be mostly couples. River boats aren't geared to kids under 12, and even teens would have to be able to entertain themselves in a relatively small area.

Inclusive pricing.

Unlike the average mega ship, fares typically include spirits, expert guides that sail along with you, and daily shore excursions. On Pandaw, for example, all beers and local booze (perfectly acceptable vodka, gin and whiskey) are included, and so are all shore excursions and tips (though most people chucked another US$20 or so into the tip jar at the end of the cruise).

Limited entertainment.

There are no casinos or Vegas-y show lounges to distract from the destination or keep you up late (tours often start first thing in the morning). Sometimes the boats and barges stay in port over night so you can check out the entertainment on shore (our Pandaw boat stayed late in Phnom Phen so we enjoyed dinner and an $8 massage in town before heading back to the ship around 10 or 11pm). Otherwise, on board there maybe be a local folk dancing or singing performance, movies relevant to the region (Indochine, the Quiet American and The Killing Fields on our Pandaw cruise) and drinks and conversation with fellow passengers.

Few organized activities.

Considering you're typically on shore every day, sometimes in two or three different ports, there's not all that much down time for typical cruise ship pursuits ala Bingo and belly-flop contests. Still, during the afternoons when the Orient Pandaw was on the move, I took the opportunity to book a massage on board (who can complain about a US$30 deep tissue!) and catch up on some reading, while my friend who accompanied me hopped on the (lone) stationery bike up on deck for her daily work-out. The larger European-based river boats may have a small pool, and sometimes a sauna, hot tub and cozy work-out room.

Small cabins.

Generally, a river cruise vessel will have smaller cabins than your average cruise ship. That said, the standard cabins on the Pandaw Orient were 170 square feet and very comfortable with attractive wood paneling, super comfy beds, roomy bathrooms, bathrobes and slippers, and plenty of storage; there were no televisions (thank god, I didn't go to Cambodia and Vietnam to watch the tube) or telephones. That said, some of the larger Europe-based river cruise boats, and the small super luxury river barges, have cabin amenities like TVs and mini-bars.

Smooth sailing.

For anyone prone to or worried about sea sickness, remember, on a river there aren't swells, waves and rocky seas. The rivers plied by cruise boats are calm; it's easy to forget you're moving on water at all.


While river cruises in general offer good value considering what's included, typically the bigger river boat ships offer lower rates than the smaller ones under 100 passengers. Though typical fares are in the $200 plus per person a day range, there are promotions offering rates closer to $100 a day per person.

Regions and Lines


North American Rivers

Europe & the Middle East

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