Why European River Cruises May Be the Best Way for You to Explore Europe
Picture a vacation cruise and you’ll probably conjure up images of voyaging across the world’s oceans, sailing through the sun-soaked Caribbean or weaving through the emerald isles of Hawaii. There’s no doubt a great ocean cruise is an unforgettable experience, but you owe it to yourself to consider another option as well: European river cruises. River cruises have grown massively in popularity in recent years, and Europe offers some of the best destinations on the planet.
While ocean cruises are known to serve as floating resorts unto themselves, river cruises offer an entirely different experience. Typical ocean cruises feature just a few stops at popular ports, with most of your time being spent on board the ship with its many amenities and entertainment features. By contrast, river cruises typically stop at a new port each day, allowing you to explore a wide range of local cities and cultures. There are still plenty of amenities onboard, but the stars of the show are the destinations themselves.
With river cruises, most of the sailing is done overnight, ensuring that you’re able to pack a bunch of destinations into a short period of time. Whereas ocean cruises tend to be laid-back, slow-paced affairs for those who simply want to relax and unwind, river cruises are great for those seeking new experiences and adventures. So, if that sounds like you, where should you start? To help you decide, here’s a look at what you need to know about the most popular European river cruise lines.
Viking River Cruises
One of the most popular river cruise lines in the business Viking River Cruises offers a dizzying array of options on all of the major European rivers. This includes the Rhine, the Main, the Danube and the Seine, with options for exploring Germany, France, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and much more. Viking was named Condé Nast Traveler’s best river cruise line in 2017, and it’s not hard to see why.
Viking is particularly known for its focus on learning and enrichment, offering a comprehensive “Culture Curriculum” program that gives travelers a chance to learn about and experience the unique history and culture of each new destination. This program includes music and dance showcases, cooking classes, food and wine tastings, artistic demonstrations and other activities that capture the essence of each destination.
Drawing clear influence from its Scandinavian heritage, Viking River Cruises also boasts some of the most attractive ships available among river cruise lines. Their so-called longships feature beautiful Scandinavian aesthetics, open and airy designs and plenty of glass that provides stellar views along the course of your cruise. However, Viking also offers a pared-down selection of amenities compared with some other cruises, sacrificing a few bells and whistles in order to keep prices more affordable.
- Rich focus on cultural immersion and educational opportunities
- Beautiful ship designs
- Excellent value
- Broad selection of cruise itineraries
- Fewer amenities and services than all-inclusive cruises
- Passengers are typically older, which may be a positive or negative depending on your preferences
A relative newcomer to the world of river cruises, Emerald Waterways was formed in 2014 and has quickly established itself as a thoroughly modern cruise line aimed primarily at younger travelers on more reasonable budgets. Emerald’s fleet of ships was custom-built for their river cruise excursions, and the ships are surprisingly well-appointed. The decor is upscale and attractive, and each ship features cabins of various sizes to suit your needs.
Emerald Waterways cruises are all-inclusive, including gratuities and airport transfers, which makes them an excellent choice for bargain-hunters. Each cruise includes access to an onboard gym, as well as complimentary bicycles during onshore excursions. Emerald is also known for its unique itineraries, which often venture off the beaten path and away from typical tourist areas.
Unfortunately, the cabin layouts are not to everyone’s liking, and many travelers find the bathrooms to be small and cramped compared to other cruise lines. Food and other amenities are slightly less upscale than more expensive cruises, and the more affordable pricing comes at the cost of fewer onboard activities. Nonetheless, Emerald provides an excellent opportunity to experience a memorable European river cruise at an accessible price.
- Sleek, modern design that caters to younger travelers
- Affordable, inclusive pricing structure
- Broad selection of cabins, including generously large room sizes
- Few activities beyond gym accommodations
- Bathrooms are slightly cramped
If you’re looking for a luxury experience, look no further than Uniworld River Cruises. Originally founded in 1976, the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection features a variety of European river cruises designed to pamper travelers with opulence and luxury. Uniworld’s 18 unique ships have been described as “floating boutique hotels,” and for good reason. The decor is unmistakably upscale. The service is top-notch, thanks to one of the highest staff-to-guest ratios in the industry, and each cruise features in-suite personal butlers.
As the only river cruise line that can claim Zagat-rated restaurants, Uniworld also boasts outstanding cuisine. Unlimited drinks are available around the clock, including premium liquors, along with a bevy of non-alcoholic drinks. The ships are also relatively small, allowing for a more intimate and personalized experience.
Of course, all that luxury does come at a cost. Uniworld’s river cruises are among the most expensive in Europe, though the expense is partially offset by the number of things included in the price. The cruise line’s smaller ships feature cabins that are also slightly smaller than can be found on some other lines. If you’re willing to shell out the money, however, you’re unlikely to find a more upscale river cruise experience than those offered by Uniworld.
- Opulent luxury and highly personalized service
- Several family-oriented cruises
- Zagat-rated fine dining restaurants
- Cabins are slightly smaller than those on some other cruise lines
- Among the most expensive cruise lines
Though they don’t quite match Uniworld’s dedication to ultra-luxury, Tauck’s European river cruises nonetheless offer the opportunity to travel in upscale style and comfort. Tauck provides luxurious, well-appointed cabins that are larger than average, most of which feature floor-to-ceiling windows with French balconies. Each ship also features a relatively low capacity, ensuring a more intimate experience.
One of Tauck’s most attractive features is the “Tauck Bridges” series of cruises, which are designed to cater to multi-generational travel. Each itinerary is packed with activities that appeal to travelers of all ages, and the sheer variety of activities and excursions is among the best in the industry. From visiting the historic Normandy beaches of D-Day to embarking on a scavenger hunt in the world-famous Louvre, you’ll never be lacking for things to do.
These attractions and luxury touches are reflected in the prices you can expect to pay — Tauck, like Uniworld, ranks among the most costly river cruise lines — but each cruise is all-inclusive. Gratuities, travel costs, drinks and more are all included in the price, and Tauck will even cover the cost of lunch meals while in port. Although they offer fewer itinerary choices than some competitors, Tauck is worth consideration for family travelers in search of a luxury experience.
- Tremendous variety of family-friendly activities offered
- Smaller capacities mean cruises are less crowded than some competitors
- Truly all-inclusive pricing, including free lunch fare during excursions
- More costly than many competitors
- Itinerary choices are somewhat limited
Beginning as an Australian tour line, Scenic has offered European river cruises since 2008 with the launch of its line of “Space Ships.” The designs and decor are distinctly modern and off-beat, and most cabins feature full step-out balconies in place of the French balconies found on most cruise lines. High-tech gadgets abound, from digitally controlled showers to complimentary electrically assisted bicycles that are made available during excursions.
Scenic includes all gratuities, drinks, excursions and other amenities in its fares, and it’s also the first river cruise line to offer refunds in the event that your ship is unable to sail for any period of time. You’ll get full butler service during your time aboard, and if the main restaurant doesn’t suit your tastes, you’ll find numerous other dining areas scattered throughout each ship. If you like to go at your own pace, you’ll also enjoy the variety of guided tour options that feature prerecorded tours and GPS navigation.
Though Scenic’s river cruises are varied and all-inclusive, there are relatively few itineraries from which to choose. Passengers on many cruises hail largely from Australia and New Zealand, which may be a plus or a minus, depending on your preferences, although there are also plenty of North American and British travelers. Finally, despite the variety of cuisine options, Scenic probably isn’t the cruise line for you if you’re seeking an upscale fine-dining experience.
- Packed with high-tech gadgets and amenities
- Full butler service for each cabin
- Ships feature a variety of dining options
- Itinerary choices are limited
- Many food choices, but little in the way of fine dining
Founded in 2002, AmaWaterways offers a wide variety of both standard and limited edition European river cruises. With a large and ever-growing fleet, there are many different itineraries to choose from, covering all of Europe’s most popular river destinations. You’ll find several classes of cabins, all of which are plush and roomy. Fares are in line with other luxury cruise lines, though this is slightly misleading, considering gratuities and certain other costs are not included. With recommended gratuities totaling 15 euros or more per passenger, these extra costs can add up quickly.
One thing that separates AmaWaterways from the crowd is its membership to the prestigious La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an international gastronomic society that accepts only the finest culinary establishments. It should come as no surprise, then, that AmaWaterways offers some of the best food you’ll find on Europe’s rivers. Though there’s less variety than you can find on some other cruises, the quality of the food is more than enough to compensate.
There’s a great deal to like about AmaWaterways, but the biggest drawback is the lack of all-inclusive pricing. If you’re looking for an all-in-one price structure, AmaWaterways isn’t for you. The lack of round-the-clock drinks and in-cabin room service may also turn some travelers away. However, if you don’t mind shelling out some extra cash for gratuities and foregoing the convenience of personalized room service, you’ll find a flexible and varied experience that’s suited to first-time cruise passengers and experienced travelers alike.
- Spacious, upscale cabin accommodations
- Heated pool with swim-up bar service
- Member of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, offering outstanding cuisine
- Cruises can be rather costly
- No room service or in-room mini bar
- Drinks are not available 24/7
A Final Word
A European river cruise is a fun and rewarding experience, and we think it’s hard to go wrong with any of the cruise lines detailed above. Which line is best for you depends on your needs and preferences, as well as your budget. Regardless of your choice, one final consideration is the time of year. Summer typically poses the lowest risk of delays related to high water levels, but it’s also the busiest time of year. Fall is a great time for value-seekers and often features beautiful foliage, but not everyone enjoys the cooler temperatures. Finally, if you’re brave enough to withstand the cold and snow, many river cruise lines offer Christmas cruises that allow you to experience some of Europe’s most beautiful cities all dressed up for the holidays.