Travel Tips

Why Is River Cruising So Hot? The Experts Weigh In

Locations in this article:  Columbia, SC

riverA few decades ago, river cruising didn’t even register in the tourism industry. Today, it’s one of the fastest-growing segments of travel. Why? It’s all about the immersive, slower-paced experience—with smaller ships, gourmet food and wine, and access to intimate waterways and country villages.

Peter Greenberg recently sat down with Cruise Critic editor Carolyn Spencer Brown , on board Uniworld’s new S.S. Catherine, to talk about the booming river cruise industry. Check out her complete interview on Peter’s latest Travel Today podcast.

Cruises are big business today. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has 410 ships registered—29 of them are new and from 2013 and 2014—and another 20 will be added within the next three years. Twenty-one and a half million people ride on cruise ships annually.

Included in this number are river cruises, where growth is actually outpacing ocean cruises. River cruise lines are launching ships at a breakneck pace. Over a five-year span, river cruises have seen a 10 percent annual passenger increase, while the cruise industry as a whole increased by 7 percent.

Four decades ago, Uniworld was the first company to develop river cruises geared toward the North American market. In 2010, Uniworld had 42 ships; today, it’s about 87.

When Viking River Cruises was first founded in 1997, it had four river vessels in Russia. Today, the company has more than 53 boats cruising the rivers of Europe, Russia, Ukraine, China, Southeast Asia, and Egypt. Viking even broke its own Guinness World Record by christening 16 ships on one day this past March, and it has announced that 12 new river vessels will launch in 2015.

What’s special is that a river cruise incorporates several destinations. Instead of going out to sea and landing at a few choice ports, a river cruise stops at many smaller towns. Passengers are able to hop off the boat and adventure on their own for a bit; in a way it’s like a fancy road trip, paved with water. Carolyn Spencer Brown explained that “it’s a little bit of a slower pace.” For a sea cruise, the idea is for the fun to be on the boat, while a river cruise focuses on it being off the boat.

Viking CruisesFor example, Uniworld’s SS Catherine has cabin windows that actually roll down, allowing you to feel the breeze as you watch the countryside roll by. Always being able to watch the shore creates a very different atmosphere.

You do have to come to river cruises with some flexibility. Sometimes a river will be too low and you may be bused to your destination instead. “If you’re thinking about a river cruise…weather can get in the way, and I think it’s important to understand that,” Spencer Brown says.

Most river cruises have been based primarily in Europe, but American cruises are now popping up on the Mississippi and Columbia rivers. Cruise lines are trying to appeal to younger customers by conjuring hip events, like the American Queen Steamboat Company’s bourbon tasting and live bluegrass. Young workers like the idea, too.

Spencer Brown said “the same things that we love about the rivers here in Europe—the pace, the ability to relax, getting off the ship and riding a bike or kayaking, or doing something fun, having experiential stuff—if done properly, will fuel a boom in America.”

For more information about cruise travel, check out:

By Cody Brooks for