River cruise ships are smaller than ocean-going cruise ships, typically holding 90-240 passengers (though there are ships that take only 5 passengers, and others can carry 1,000 passengers). Due to their smaller size and low draft, river cruise ships can go where ocean cruise ships cannot, and sometimes to where no other transport is practical: rivers are an excellent way to reach some attractions, for example in Russia and China.
During river cruises the countryside is usually in view, so they are especially relaxing—and interesting—to those who prefer land nearby. River cruises usually last from 7 to 15 days, although some can last 3 weeks or longer.
Some river ships resemble 5-star hotels, with sun decks, dining rooms, lounges, fitness facilities, swimming pools, casinos and other entertainment. Accommodation, meals onboard, entertainment and special events (holidays, festivals, contests, concerts, etc.) are usually included in the cruise price, while bar expenses, sauna, massage, laundry and cleaning, and phone calls are not.
Most cruises have a variety of onboard and onshore activities. The latter include guided tours to historic and cultural sites, visiting local attractions, museums and galleries, and other points of interest. Guides give a running commentary while sailing.
A river cruise provides travelers a unique way to travel. According to Douglas Ward, "A river cruise represents life in the slow lane, sailing along at a gentle pace, soaking up the scenery, with plentiful opportunities to explore riverside towns and cities en route. It is a supremely calming experience, an antidote to the pressures of life in a fast-paced world, in surroundings that are comfortable without being fussy or pretentious, with good food and enjoyable company."
Mr. Ward continues: "A river cruise is very different from an ocean cruise. For a start, you are in almost constant sight of land and stops are far more frequent than they are at sea. The vessels are like small, friendly, floating inns, whereas ocean-going ships tend to be bigger, flashier, busier and livelier, the crew practised in the art of moving up to 4,000 people from one port to another and getting them on and off the ship. In contrast, when your river cruise vessel docks you simply walk up the gangway and into the town or city—in many cases the dock is located right at the heart of things. Despite these differences, however, most people who enjoy ocean cruising and the relaxing rhythm of life afloat are attracted to river cruises as well."
Popular river cruises include trips along the Nile, the Mississippi, the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Danube, the Rhine, the Seine, or the Volga. There are several dozen river cruise companies each with 1 to 21 ships.