River cruises can be a fabulous way to see an array of destinations in a really relaxed environment – or a manic blur in which everything and everyone morphs into one vague haze.
Unlike ocean cruising, you tend not to get much downtime between stops to relax, revive and get ready for the next one, especially as your ship will often travel at night to arrive in the next port by morning.
In addition, the highlights tend to be the places you're visiting, rather than the splashy Broadway-style entertainment, elaborate facilities and special events onboard the vessel.
So, to get the most out of a river cruise, take heed of our 12 guidelines, which are based on a wealth of experience.
1. Do your research
Research some of the places you're particularly interested in – and their major attractions – before you leave home. That way, your trips ashore will be much more meaningful and enjoyable. It's also the only sure-fire antidote to NABC syndrome in Europe (Not Another Bloody Church!) and its Asian cousin, NABT, thanks to the profusion of temples.
2. Be selective
Check out the excursions well ahead of time, while you're still at home. Work out the ones more to your taste and don't be afraid of deciding not to go on every single one, so you can enjoy some quiet, relaxing time on board. You see some people becoming pale, red-eyed and exhausted with the effort of seeing absolutely everything at each stop, terrified they might miss out on something. But remember: this is a holiday.
3. Pack less
Many river cruises offer a free – or very reasonably priced – laundry service. If your ship does have one, embrace it. It means you can travel with far fewer clothes and less luggage, making it much easier if you plan to stay somewhere before the cruise departs or add a tour on to the end.
4. Choose good shoes
Bring good walking shoes that are suitable for cobblestones in Europe, temple steps in Asia and scrambling around ruins in Egypt, as well as for the walking track on the top deck – so you can work off that good food. Also bring activewear as many ships now carry bikes you can ride when you disembark. You'll often also get the chance to climb a hill, fortress or to the top of a lookout point.
5. Forewarn about food
Let your cruise company know in advance of any special dietary requirements to make sure they can accommodate you for meals on the ship and at any restaurants during onshore excursions. Unlike ocean cruising, river ships don't typically offer a whole world of food to choose from and graze on all day long; the range tends to be more limited and only served at mealtimes, plus morning coffee and afternoon tea.
6. Browse wisely
You might not want to buy anything in the ship gift shop, but take a look at its wares earlyin the cruise. It will give you a good idea of the type, and range, of souvenirs that will be on sale where you're going, as well as indicative prices. This will be helpful if bargaining is encouraged at markets or in stores.
7. Learn some lingo
Write out a few words in the language of each country you'll be visiting, learn them, and use them. They might only be "hello", "please", "thank you" and "where is the toilet?" but it's amazing how receptive people are when you make the effort to speak their language.
8. Dine with new friends
River cruises are always very sociable and, with far fewer passengers than on most ocean cruises – usually 100 to 190 rather than more than 6000 on the biggest ocean liners – you'll bump into the same people over and over again. On ocean cruises, I've sometimes met people I really like and spent the next two weeks looking for them – in vain – again. But when you find people you click with on a river cruise, make sure you organise a few meals with them at the same table, rather than leaving it to chance and risking sitting with whoever's next in line.
9. Keep your info
If your ship provides daily fact sheets about where you're going and what you'll be doing, make sure to keep them and take them home with you. They'll be a valuable aide-memoire when you get home and are trying to remember where you've been and what you saw and did, and work out what all your photos are of.
10. Bring a map
Take good old-fashioned maps with you so you can chart your progress and know exactly where you are each day. It can be enormously frustrating if you don't know how far you've travelled and how far you have left to go, and what's beyond that next hill ahead.
11. Prep your tech
Adjust the settings on your smartphone or tablet: you're going to see some stunning sights you may never see again, and you want to make sure the photos you take do them justice. If your camera setting is too low-resolution (to get more pictures in the same memory space), they'll look fuzzy back home on your computer or if you try to print hard copies , and you'll be limited in what you can do with them.
12. Chat to the crew
Take the time to chat with the staff on the ship. Many will be locals from the regions you're visiting and will be delighted at the chance to practise their English. And, since the river ships are smaller, you'll see the same faces regularly, get to know them quite quickly and be treated to a valuable insight into their cultures, the way they think and, often, their wonderful senses of humour.
Five must-do river cruises
THE RHINE, MAIN AND DANUBE
From Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Hungary's Budapest, passing through Germany, Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia – such as APT's 15-day cruise with special events including a private classical concert in Vienna. Phone 1300 336 932. See aptouring.com.au
From the Egyptian capital, Cairo, to Aswan – such as Evergreen's 10-day Cairo & Ancient Egypt River Cruise, touring Cairo and then cruising via Luxor's Valley of the Kings, and the Colossi of Memnon, Dendera and Edfu with a flight from Aswan to Abu Simbel. Phone 1300 907 571. See evergreentours.com.au
From Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City to Cambodia's Siem Reap – such as Scenic's 11-day trip, exploring Phnom Penh, floating markets and the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat. Phone 1300 408 964. See scenic.com.au
From China's Wuhan to Chongqing – such as Wendy Wu's 14-day Majestic Yangtze trip with a four-night cruise, including the Three Gorges Dam and the Shennong Stream, Wu and Qutang gorges and the 18th-century Shibaozhai Temple, as well as tours of Shanghai, Chengdu, Xian and Beijing. Phone 1800 316 564. See wendywutours.com.au
THE VOLGA AND SVIR
From Moscow to St Petersburg – such as Viking's 13-day cruise exploring both cities, across the Onega and Ladoga lakes, and stopping to see the domed churches of Uglich and Yaroslavl in between, plus a ballet performance in St Petersburg. Phone 138 747. See vikingrivercruises.com.au