River cruising is the original slow way to travel, as you cruise the calm waters of inland waterways just like Cleopatra did on the Nile. The best river cruise ships are floating hotels with views galore, such as the castles and vineyards of the Rhine or the rice paddies and villages on stilts along the Mekong.
River ships dock near key attractions and feature mostly-inclusive pricing; fares include such perks as basic daily walking tours and wine and beer at meals. But beyond that standard, there are differences in the products. One person’s idea of a great vacation may be extraordinary excursions such as an exclusive dinner in a chateau, while others may want spacious cabins or as much foie gras and French cheese as you can possibly eat. Want to relax in a swimming pool? That’s doable on some but not all ships. And some river cruises are much more active than others with, for instance, biking and hiking tours.
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Here’s a rundown of the best river cruise lines traversing inland waterways around the world.
In This Post
Katz Castle in Germany in the Middle Rhine River Valley with a Viking Longship in view. VIKING
The world’s largest river cruise line, Viking has a fleet that in Europe includes dozens of cutting-edge, 190-passenger “longships” with light-filled atriums, an appealing contemporary Scandinavian decor, and cabins with step-out balconies. An outdoor restaurant on the bow means you never miss a chance to take in unobstructed views.
The value-packed experience is geared toward adults and is consistently high quality. Destinations include all the popular rivers of Europe — such as the Danube, Rhine, Seine, Bordeaux, Rhone, Elbe and Douro — as well as the Nile in Egypt, the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the Mississippi.
For those seeking consistency and value, Viking is the best of the mainstream river companies.
AmaWaterways offers such popular upscale features as a top-deck swimming pool with swim-up bar and a big focus on cuisine; its multiple dining venues use high-quality ingredients and its Chef’s Table experience is focused on fine local food and wine. The 106- to 196-passenger ships in Europe also have a wellness focus with small spas and fitness rooms and a fleet of bikes for use either on your own or on organized excursions.
AmaWaterways’ partnership with Adventures by Disney means families are on board select chartered sailings on the Seine, Rhine and Danube. In addition to a big presence on all the main rivers of Europe, the line sails the Mekong and Nile, as well as the Chobe River of Botswana.
AmaWaterways hits a sweet spot for both foodies and active travelers (and families on the Disney sailings).
Related: Best river cruises in Europe
Sun deck of S.S. Sphinx. UNIWORLD
Uniworld positions itself as a high-end luxury line. Its ships are designed as floating palace hotels, employing marble, Murano glass and expensive fabrics in its over-the-top decor. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself lounging in a room decked out in animal prints. The 159-passenger S.S. Catherine on the Rhone and Saone, for instance, boasts a $1 million art collection.
For foodies, foie gras, fresh oysters, regional cheeses and other local delicacies appear on menus. Guests in suites on select ships have butlers on call. Bikes are available to borrow, and the ships have gyms and spas, and, on some ships, lavish indoor pools. Family departures add active excursions, arts and crafts, and visits to amusement parks.
In addition to the major rivers of Europe, Uniworld cruises the less-traversed Po River in Italy (from Venice) and has ships on the Nile and Mekong as well as the Ganges in India.
If you are looking for Old World-style luxury with dramatic flair, Uniworld is your line.
Sleek ships with marble lobbies, mid-century furnishings and impressive art collections mark the Australian-owned Scenic as all about luxurious, high-end river cruising. Butler service is part of the scene, and so are free-flowing cocktails, e-bikes and six dining options – all for a passenger contingent of fewer than 170.
Included shore excursions go beyond the standard tours that most lines offer, such as a visit to the Szechenyi baths in Budapest. If you prefer independent travel, Scenic provides a nifty GPS gadget about the size of a cellphone, loaded with maps and commentary that is automatically activated at points of interest. Most of the ships have a pool on the sun deck, along with a fitness center and spa.
Routes include the Rhine and Danube, the Seine, Saone, Rhone, Garonne and Dordogne in Bordeaux, and Portugal’s Douro, as well as the Mekong.
When it comes to an active, contemporary, luxury experience, Scenic is at the top.
Emerald Destiny. EMERALD CRUISES/FACEBOOK
A sister line to Scenic but priced for budget-conscious travelers, Emerald continues the cool decor on its 182-passenger “Star Ships.” The design highlight is an amazing infinity-style indoor/outdoor pool that converts (with a cover) into a movie theater at night.
Fares include most tours, even well-programmed full-day tours with lunch ashore. Destinations include the Danube, Rhine, Main, Rhone, and Douro, as well as the Mekong.
For those watching their pennies, Emerald is the best of the budget-priced ships.
Related: Are river cruises right for kids?
Leading luxury tour operator Tauck has its own fleet of award-winning 84- to 130-passenger river ships cruising the Danube, Douro, Rhine, Rhone and Seine. The big selling point here is that a Tauck tour director and three Tauck cruise directors are on board all departures, assuring that guests are catered to.
The ships deliver great food and wine and beyond-the-norm experiences on shore, such as the chance to sip local varietals in a wine cave. Special family departures — Tauck Bridges — cater to multigenerational families, adding such kid-friendly adventures as a scavenger hunt at the Louvre in Paris. Some staterooms on the newer ships are lofts with high ceilings and a raised seating area; some ships have a Jacuzzi and putting green on the sun deck. Local performers including dance troupes come on board to entertain.
The hand-held, everything-taken-care-of luxury experience that Tauck provides is hard to beat.
Farah sun deck. AVALON WATERWAYS CRUISES
Avalon is owned by the Globus Family of Brands, a tour operator company, and that experience comes into play on shore, with such VIP experiences as skipping the line at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Pricing on this line is middle of the road, with everything comfortable, reliable and not overly fussy. That said, on the company’s sleek, 166-passenger Suite Ships, you can splurge on a Panorama Suite with sitting areas and glass doors that open to bring the fresh air in.
The company lets you personalize your experience down to the kind of pillows you prefer. All ships have a fitness room and fleet of bikes for tours in places such as Amsterdam and Cochem, Germany. There are also hiking excursions. The ships traverse waterways that include the Seine, Rhine, Danube, Douro, Main, Moselle, Rhone, Saone and Mekong.
Avalon is your best choice in the affordable, active category.
French line CroisiEurope caters to travelers on a tight budget and does river cruising in a friendly European style. Among the differences here is you won’t just be cruising with fellow Americans. The passenger contingent is mostly bargain-seekers from France and Germany, and you’ll hear onboard announcements in multiple languages. Everything from the food and service to the entertainment caters to that crowd. Some will love the idea of cruising like a European, while others may miss, for instance, a wide breadth of entree choices at dinner.
The family-run line has several dozen mostly older ships that operate on rivers that include the Danube, Rhine, Rhone and Saone but also such less-traversed waterways as the Elbe between Berlin and Prague, France’s Loire, Spain’s Guadalquivir and the Markermeer in the Netherlands. CroiseEurope also has ships on the Nile, Mekong, and Chobe River in Africa.
Try CroisiEurope if you want to grab super-low bargain fares and see Europe with a local crowd.
Grand Circle Line
Part of tour company Grand Circle Travel, this line is a popular affordable choice for travelers age 55-plus in Europe. The fleet of 46- to 140-passenger ships cruises waterways that include the Seine, Rhine, Mosel, Main, Danube and Rhone. Always onboard are Grand Circle program directors supplementing the onboard team and assuring a certain amount of handholding on ship and shore; your American tastes and expectations will be catered to. The line focuses attention on onboard enrichment, such as lectures, dance performances and cooking demonstrations. On shore, Grand Circle’s signature experiences are a home visit with a local family and a school visit.
Grand Circle is a top choice company for solo travelers because the ships feature a good number of small cabins designed and priced for one, plus reduced single-supplement pricing for solos who want larger rooms.
American Queen Voyages
American Queen Voyages’ American Queen docked in Augusta, Kentucky. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY
American Queen plies the Mississippi and its tributaries — such as the Illinois, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers — as well as the Columbia & Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Its fleet includes authentic paddlewheelers – such as the 436-passenger American Queen, the largest steamship ever built. The focus of the experience and programming is authentic Americana, highlighted on the Mississippi by history lectures, local cuisine such as gumbo and jambalaya, and real Memphis blues and jazz performed on board by local musicians. Well-crafted shore excursions explore plantations and Civil War sites and include such mind-blowing experiences as the opportunity to mingle with inmates at the infamous Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. Out West, you’ll eat wild salmon, learn about Lewis and Clark and explore local viticulture (sipping included).
Go back in time to learn on these classy and classic river cruises.
American Cruise Lines
Attracting mostly older travelers, this line — with a fleet of U.S.-flagged 100- to 190-passenger river ships that includes authentic paddlewheelers — plays up the American theming on cruises on the Mississippi and Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest. The crew is all-American, and Civil War theme cruises are particularly popular.
The cruises command big prices — from about $575 per person, per night for an ambiance that is comfortably upscale. Particularly on the newer ships, guests stay in big, hotel-like staterooms with indoor sitting areas and balconies (on the 175-passenger American Symphony, for instance, cabins range from 250 to 650 square feet). Local entertainment comes on board, the food is often locally sourced, and cocktail parties are included in the cruise fare.
There are no bars, but that’s a bonus in terms of socializing. Everyone goes to the cocktail parties and getting to know your fellow passengers is a big part of the experience.
Aqua Nera Suite. STEVIE MANN/AQUA EXPEDITIONS
Crowd-free and high-end luxury cruises are this line’s calling card both on the Peruvian Amazon and the Mekong. On the 24- to 40-passenger ships, you are embraced in designer decor and expanses of glass, so you don’t miss any views. Exquisite gourmet cuisine in both destinations is overseen by top chefs known for their award-winning land-based restaurants, with local ingredients a focus. Tours ashore (sometimes two a day) are often via private, 10-passenger skiffs.
For the privilege of sailing with this line, you may have to pay $1000 per person, per night. The shortest sailings are three nights on the Amazon. Families with kids ages 7 and up are welcome.
Aqua Expeditions is hands down the best luxury product on the Amazon and Mekong; intimate cruising at its finest.
Vantage Deluxe World Travel
Aggressive on pricing — with two-for-one sales or free air for repeat guests — Vantage focuses on Central Europe (the Danube, Rhine and Moselle), the Douro River and the Nile, with a fleet of both older and more modern ships. This middle-of-the-road line, like Grand Circle, caters to both older and solo travelers (with specific reduced-supplement pricing for one traveler that’s not double what others pay). Most staterooms come with French balconies (doors that open, even if you can’t step out). The ships have some fun theming; for example, suites on the 176-passenger River Navigator are named for members of the Rat Pack.
Onboard enrichment may include an art history lesson on the Seine prior to visiting Monet’s studio in Giverny, France, or a Portuguese lesson on the Douro.
Vantage’s newer ships are a good choice in terms of value (especially if you snag that two-for-one fare and free airfare).
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