River cruises in India – what are the boats like and why should you join?

24 February 2020

There are many ways to see and experience a country. For a vast destination like India the way you move around the country is often part of the journey. Some of the ways you can explore India include luxury rail journeys of India, with a private vehicle and driver, and on a river boat on a river cruise in India. In recent weeks we have joined many of the river cruises in east India as part of a detailed reconnaissance and exploration of the vessels, the service on board, the destinations and journeys the vessels follow and the excursions they offer. We do this to ensure that we recommend the river cruise that suits you best and to ensure the standards of the boats, the activities and the service.

The following India travel blog provides a general outline of what you can see and expect to experience during a river cruise in India, based on our own very recent, up-to-date and first-hand experience onboard the vessels. We began our trip in Kolkata, with a few days of sightseeing and experiencing the best things to see and do in Kolkata before we boarded our India river cruises. Our notes provide you some travel tips on what the meals are like, what to pack for an India river cruise, what your cabin will be like, what staff are on board and what you can expect to do during the day. What we discovered was a beautiful, gentle way to explore and see India. A way to travel comfortably and see places that are lesser-known, though no-less fascinating.

India’s river cruises travel the Brahmaptura, the Ganges and the Hugli Rivers and can take you to destinations such as Assam and Kaziranga National Park, to Varanasi along the Ganges and now on a journey from India into Bengal on a river cruise. 

Here’s some of what you can expect from booking a river cruise in India. 

What is one of the benefits of joining a river cruise in India?

A river cruise in India will take you to places only accessible by river, revealing parts of this incredible country few get to see. These journeys are largely off the main tourist routes, revealing parts of India that are still authentic, untouched and where the local people will welcome you warmly. For amateur photographers, there are endless photo opportunities both onboard and off as the river scenery and rural communities reveal themselves. 

What can you expect from a river cruise in India?  

Passengers on board an Indian river cruises will enjoy a safe and comfortable introduction to India with the support of the ship’s crew. With a gentle daily rhythm, on shore excursions, on board chefs and guides, expect all of your needs to be taken care off, a relaxed-pace holiday and to discover this country with like-minded travellers. 

What is the difference between a river cruise in India and a private land-based tour of India?
With a private tour you will explore India by road and private vehicle with an English-speaking accompanying driver and in some cases an accompanying guide. In this case, all the arrangements are pre-planned by our expert traveller planners according to your particular interest and time frame: the schedule, places you visit and things you do are all determined by you. There is the anticipation of the next destination and the accommodation to come. At the same time, it means driving from destination to destination and frequently moving. When you book a river cruise in India once you board – you only have to unpack once. So you can settle into your cabin, put your suitcase away and not have to unpack or move again until the end of your cruise. There’s also the benefit of not driving for those travellers who prefer less time on the road. A cruise is an unpack once and let the Captain take care of the boat and your Guide take care of the sightseeing – it is a very relaxed holiday.   An ideal option is to combine the two – with some land arrangements and sightseeing before and after your cruise, guaranteeing you an in depth India holiday. 

Here are some of our highlights from our recent river cruises in India:

One of the best things about our river cruise in India was one of the shore visits to a farming community in Assam, seeing the local farms and villages and meeting the community who live there. During a river cruise in India, the vessels don’t always make the same stops and shore excursions every time. The land excursions are dictated by water levels and where the vessels can stop, plus the knowledge of the local crew and captain – who are experts in the riverways and locations along the river. There are some key sights and attractions to visit, but there are also the smaller villages and destinations to explore. Our recent river cruise took us to a farming community in Assam – where the local people rarely have visitors. They were welcoming and curious about us and their excitement at meeting us was overwhelming. It was one of our most authentic village visit we have experience in our travels in India. 

What are the meals like onboard a river cruise in India?

The meals are well-presented with a good choice of Western and local dishes plus healthy options. We found the Assamese food to be quite mild. There are vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, and special requests can be catered for with advance notice. Breakfast and lunch are both buffets, while a daily a la carte menu is offered in the evening. The  local “Sula” Wine is served and the Red in particular is popular with the guests. 

What can people expect to eat?

There’s always both Western and local options at all meals. Here’s a little more detail about what passengers may be served on board:

Breakfast: Healthy options of juices, cereal, fresh fruit, yogurt, dried fruits and nuts, hot breakfast with an egg station, grilled tomatoes, bacon and local foods 

Lunch: Soup, salads, vegetables and local dishes and a good choice of breads

Dinner: Three-course a la carte menu

The restaurants are free seating so passengers can be seated where they like. Tea, coffee and biscuits are available throughout the day on the vessels and drinks are served from the bar. 

What activities are arranged or offered during the day on an India river cruise?

There is at least one on-shore activity each day, sometimes two depending on the location and water levels.  On some days you may be out the majority of the time whilst others just a half-day with time on board to relax and enjoy the facilities. Each vessel has a dedicated guide who joins passengers for all shore excursions. Every night the guide provides a briefing with information about the following day’s activities. Activities vary from visiting temples to local villages and local attractions of interest. 

What are the cabins like on an India river cruise?

Are the cabins on board comfortable?
The cabins are comfortable, well-equipped with air conditioning and en-suites. Consideration has been given to the layout of the cabins. Some vessels have ceiling to floor glass sliding doors on cabins with views of the river stretching beyond. As these doors opened straight onto the river (as in there was no verandah where people could walk past) you are able to have your curtains open continuously to enjoy the view, the sunrise and sunset and the scenery of the river floating by. 

Was there anything unexpected about your river cruise?

Yes, the river itself was unexpected and amazing! The Brahmaptura River is very wide, very flat and there’s very little other traffic on the river. As we cruised the river during the day it felt like our own private river. We marvelled at the many sandbanks of grey, soft sand. The colours of the river and the landscapes were almost monochromatic, rather beautiful and peaceful. We hadn’t expected such a wide, beautiful river. 

What are the other passengers like – is there much interaction between passengers on an Indian river cruise? Can you find some quiet down time away from everyone? 
Our fellow guests were from all over the world and well-travelled. There are certainly areas on board where you can have your own time, on the Sundeck, in the Saloon on a comfy sofa with a cup of tea and good book or in your own cabin if you wish.  All passengers joined the excursions and chose to sit together for meals. We all enjoyed each other’s company and there’s plenty of opportunity to talk and socialise if you wish. 

Would an Indian river cruise suit a solo traveller?
Yes we believe so. We found the other passengers to be very inclusive, so solo travellers wishing to socialise should be able to enjoy the company and conversation of other passengers. In this regard, the social side of cruising is good for solo travellers. The crews are kind and attentive and will take care of all passengers, solo travellers and those with company. Some cruises don’t levy a single supplement on travellers. 

What are the staff like – who is on board? 

On some cruises we found the hospitality staff were from all over India and generally had previous experience. On others, many of the staff on board are from rural communities who have been trained by the cruise operator in English language skills and hospitality. They are quietly present with their genuinely smiling faces and eager to please. 

Each vessel has a local guide and that guide is key to the guest’s experience. With their knowledge of the river, the sights and all things local they are integral to the overall experience.

There’s also the chefs, the captain of course!

What are the essentials to pack for a river cruise in India?
The most important item to take with you is comfortable, non-slip, water-proof walking shoes which will support you as you embark and disembark the vessel and tender and can be easily slipped on and off for temple visits. With very little infrastructure along the rivers, the riverbanks can be damp and dusty and the terrain uneven. The crew are very attentive and ensure passengers get on and off safely, but good waterproof shoes with grip are essential. Passengers remove these shoes when they reboard the vessel after a shore visit and the crew will clean them for you in some cases.  We recommend rubber-soled shoes to wear around the boat.  

In terms of clothing, packing layers is key to remaining comfortable as you cruise the rivers and waterways of India. During the winter months from November to February you may find the movement of the boat can generate a cold wind, so having some warm clothing on hand is important. A light windproof jacket that can be peeled off as the day warms up and for dawn and dusk jeep safaris in subdued colours can be handy. Scarves and wraps double for warmth as well as protection from the sun. Onboard, passengers dress in smart casual attire that is comfortable and practical. A laundry service is available onboard. 
It’s also handy to carry a light day pack, to keep the hands free for embarking-disembarking, to carry a water bottle, sunscreen etc.

To find out more about the different river cruise of India and departure dates contact our Melbourne, Australia office toll free on 1300 889 513 or mail@indiaunbound.com.au

You may also like to read our other India travel blogs

Top ten things to see and do in Kolkata   

Top five places to visit in India in 2020