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River cruising is the fastest-growing sector of the worldwide cruise market, and it’s hardly surprising. It’s a wonderful way to relax, watch the world drift by and explore the towns, cities and countryside of Europe and exotic destinations around the globe. And there’s never been a better time for first-timers to get onboard.

What you can expect

While river cruising shares similarities with ocean cruising, river ships are much smaller than ocean vessels, and unlike the ocean cruise vessels, visit a new port each day. It’s not uncommon for cruisers to visit up to four countries in a week!

All meals are included, with many lines offering complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, plus unlimited tea and coffee. Some lines are all-inclusive and cover gratuities, too.

For those who hate dressing up to go to dinner, there is no formal dress code for onboard dining.

The most important packing tips are to take layers to cope with unpredictable weather and comfortable shoes for the times you may have to negotiate rough terrain or uneven roads on shore excursions.

As far as entertainment is concerned, it’s pretty low-key.

Accommodation-wise, staterooms are smaller than oceangoing vessels but not short on home comforts and amenities.

Where to go

Europe is the world’s top river cruising destination, and it’s the best place to start if you’ve never tried a river cruise.

The largest number of cruises can be found on the Rhine, which flows through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands, and the Danube, which flows from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, passing through or between Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria on the way.

Most of the major river cruise lines sail in Europe, including AmaWaterways, APT, Avalon Waterways and CroisiEurope.

Other destinations to consider include: Myanmar in Asia. Most cruises are on the Irrawaddy, ranging from four-night mini-cruises from Mandalay to Bagan to two-week itineraries from Yangon and Mandalay, or Bagan.

An up-and-coming destination is India. Most cruises are seven-night sailings along the Ganges from Kolkata coupled with a land-based itinerary and visit to the Taj Mahal.

The Mekong River runs through Cambodia and Vietnam, with the most popular seven-night cruises wending their way from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, passing rural villages, exotic temples and floating markets. New cruises take in the Upper Mekong, from Laos to China.

Elsewhere in Asia, there is China’s Yangtze River, and river cruises typically start and finish with a land-based stay in Shanghai and Beijing. Cruises range from three days to one week and will include a transit through the Three Gorges Dam.

Asia River Cruise Lines include APT, Abercrombie & Kent, AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, CroisiEurope and Viking River Cruises.

Cruising the Nile through Egypt is an impressive and authentic way of tracing the course of Egyptian history. Abercrombie & Kent, Oberoi, Uniworld and Viking are among the river cruise operators offering Nile itineraries.

South America, the US and Canada are also great destinations to visit on a river cruise. North American river cruise lines include American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Company, Blount Small Ship Adventures and French America Line.