River cruising may be smaller than its ocean cruising in every respect but, as Brian Johnston writes, what it lacks in size it makes up for in luxury, style and innovation with 2015 no exception.
All-inclusive packages, enhanced ship design that has produced larger cabins and better on-board facilities, and more inventive and flexible shore excursions are attracting increasingly younger and more independent travellers to river cruising, as well.
Here are the companies you need to know about, and forthcoming ship launches and new itineraries to tempt you on a river-cruise journey.
This Australian-owned company, established in the 1920s, now offers all manner of land, rail and river journeys worldwide. Its offshoot Botanica Tours has lovely European river cruises themed on gardens. Some APT-exclusive river cruises are marketed to Australians, New Zealanders and Britons. Others are operated with US-based AmaWaterways and use its ships, so host many North American passengers.
Highlights: Concerto class ships, which feature a heated swimming pool with swim-up bar, sun deck, massage and beauty salon and fitness centre. A choice dining venues includes a fine-dining restaurant.
Don't miss: hitting the wheels. New APT European ships carry bicycles that allow passengers to work off meals by pedalling along the riverside.
New ships: In 2015, the 164-passenger Concerto-class AmaVista and AmaSerena ply the classic Rhine-Main-Danube route. Ganges Voyager launches in India, and AmaDara becomes APT's second Mekong ship.
Phone 1300 196 420 or see aptouring.com.au
US-based Avalon, owned by giant Swiss tour operator Globus, launched in 2004 and offers budget-oriented itineraries with a Swiss eye for detail and hospitality. Its European ships are notable for innovative design; elsewhere chartered ships are used. Avalon has interesting themed cruises on beer, art, golf and music.
Highlights: Suite Ships feature cabins with panoramic windows that slide back to create open-air balconies. Other amenities include rooftop deck, club lounge and bar, restaurant, hair salon and library.
Don't miss: Avalon's new Golden Myanmar itinerary, a 10-night journey on the Irrawaddy River with visits to temples, an elephant camp and village schools.
New ships: In 2015, Avalon Siem Reap sails the Mekong, Avalon Myanmar the Irrawaddy. Suite Ships sail France for the first time when Avalon Poetry II and Avalon Tapestry II launch on the Rhone and Seine.
Phone 1300 230 234 or see avalonwaterways.com.au
Scenic was founded on Australian coach touring in the 1980s and now operates in 66 countries. On its river cruises next year, cruise passengers can enjoy Sundowner cocktail receptions at scenic spots, and can "Shop with the Chef" at food markets. Alternative (more budget) subsidiary Evergreen Tours launched in 2013 and adds two ships next year on the Rhine-Main-Danube.
Highlights: Space-Ships feature luxury suites, private butler service and balcony cabins, as well as the casual River Cafe and degustation restaurant Table La Rive.
Don't miss: enjoying the good life in France on Scenic's new 11-day Bordeaux cruise launching in July, featuring some of the world's most famous vineyards.
New ships: In 2015, Scenic Opal and Scenic Jasper arrive on the Rhine-Main-Danube. Both are Space-Ships, among the largest river-cruise ships afloat.
Phone 1300 723 642 or see scenictours.com.au
UNIWORLD BOUTIQUE RIVER CRUISE COLLECTION
Uniworld is owned by mega-company The Travel Corporation but maintains its boutique feel. Luxurious cabins, top-notch dining and opulent decor are hallmarks. Next year, Uniworld adds 45 departures and two itineraries to the Rhine-Main-Danube, a second itinerary on Portugal's Douro River and a new 22-day itinerary in France.
Highlights: The Rhone's SS Catherine features classically furnished public areas hung with Uniworld's signature artworks. Staterooms have luxury details such as handcrafted beds and marble bathrooms.
Don't miss: sailing the Yangtze River, with Uniworld adding new shore excursions in 2015, including a kung-fu show and visit to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, and a canal tour outside Suzhou.
New ships: SS Maria Theresa launches on Rhine-Main-Danube routes. Uniworld charters all-suite ship Ganges Voyager II from January 2016 on cruise-tour itineraries that include Rajasthan.
Phone 1300 780 231 or see uniworldcruises.com.au.
VIKING RIVER CRUISES
US-based but Norwegian-owned Viking started with four Russian ships in 1997. Today it's the world's largest river-cruise company, and breaks records by rolling out more than a dozen new ships each year. Its exponential growth is founded on an excellently-organised, predictable experience that sticks to quality, mainstream expectations.
Highlights: eco-friendly, low vibration longship category ships feature panoramic lounges for uninterrupted views. A vast sundeck, observation lounge and restaurant with floor-to-ceiling glass also feature.
Don't miss: two new itineraries for 2015, "Legends of the Rhine" between Amsterdam and Frankfurt, and the cruise-tour "Rhine Rhapsody" that starts in Paris before cruising the Rhine, Main and Moselle rivers to Basel.
New ships: Viking launches 10 longships in 2015, as well as two custom-designed vessels (Viking Astrild and Viking Beyla) for the Elbe River in the Czech Republic and Germany.
Phone 1800 131 744 or see vikingrivercruises.com.au
BEST OF THE REST
ABERCROMBIE & KENT
New ships: Aqua Mekong has just launched on the Mekong, and Sanctuary Ananda arrives on the Irrawaddy this November. In early 2015, Volga Dream II sets sail between Moscow and St Petersburg. See abercrombiekent.com.au
New ships: Kha Byoo, under construction in Myanmar, launches late this year or early next year. The 10-cabin ship's shallow draft enables it to sail the Chindwin River year-round. See activetravel.com.au
AMERICAN CRUISE LINES
New ships: New paddlewheeler American Eagle offers various week-long itineraries on the Mississippi River in 2015. A new ship on the Columbia may follow. See americancruiselines.com
New ships: Amadeus Silver II arrives in 2015 on the Amsterdam-Budapest route. The new vessel features sundeck with bar, putting green and walking track. See beyondtravel.com.au
New ships: Gil Eanes on Portugal's Douro River, Rhone Princesse and (in a first for any company on the Loire River) Loire Princesse. See croisieurope.travel
New ships: MS Esprit joins the fleet on the Amsterdam-Budapest route. There's also a new family cruise on the Rhine, and a new 23-day trip linking cruises on the Rhône and Seine with London and Monte-Carlo. See tauck.com.au
New ships: RV Rajmahal starts on the Ganges. MS Sapphire begins full service on Amsterdam-Budapest cruises and the refurbished MS Excellence Queen sails the Rhine. See travelmarvel.com.au.