What are the differences between Viking River Cruises & Uniworld River Cruises & AmaWaterways & Tauck & CroisiEurope & Riviera & Scenic?
With so many river cruise lines in operation along the waterways of Europe and elsewhere throughout the world, it’s never easy to answer one of the most basic questions travelers are likely to have: How are each of these river cruise companies different from one another?
Compare River Cruise Companies
When you’re planning a river cruise in Europe or Africa or Asia or South America or the United States, you have a dizzying number of choices. To better understand what your choices are, we’ve prepared the table below with some of the features our readers most commonly ask us about, coupled with a brief overview of what makes each line unique in its own right.
This makes it easy for you to compare river cruise companies at a glance and to find out which may work best for your tastes. If you prefer prepaid gratuities, you’ll want to select a river cruise company that includes those. If you like the idea of biking along the river or cycling in the cities where your ship docks, then choose river companies that offer complimentary use of their on-board bicycles. In fact, there are nearly as many variables as there are cruise companies. The chart helps you compare them to choose what’s best for you.
Ready? Let’s go river cruising!
Attributes Of The Top River Cruise Companies
|Beer/Wine Lunch & Dinner?|
|Drinks Included 24/7?|
|Two Room Suites|
|Own & Operate|
|Port Charges Included|
While I've tried to be as accurate as possible, sometimes the answer required more than a simple yes or no. For example, while all river cruise companies in the accompanying table offer complimentary shore excursions in ports of call, some charge for "optional" excursions. Also, airport transfers are Included when air tickets are purchased with the river cruise company, but may not be included otherwise. I've indicated companies that always include airport transfers, even for guests who have made independent air arrangements.
AmaWaterways **: Beer, wine and soft drinks included with lunch and dinner; sparkling wine with breakfast; and complimentary cocktails during Happy Hour, introduced in 2018. Complimentary shore excursions included in every port, along with complimentary Special Interest Tours. AmaWaterways features twin balconies, both a French and an outside balcony, in many staterooms. In addition to the main dining room, AmaWaterways features The Chef's Table restaurant, with its excellent multi-course, wine-paired dinners, at no additional charge. Light lunches and breakfast are served in the lounge, along with full lunches and breakfast served in the main dining room. Nice touches like gluten-free snacks, fruits, Gemstone detox water, 24/7 coffee stations and more. Airport transfers are included when purchasing air through AmaWaterways. Pre-paid gratuities are offered.
Avalon Waterways **: Beer and wine included with lunch and dinner; sparkling wine with breakfast. Coffee, tea and non-alcoholic beverages complimentary 24/7. In addition to the main dining room, Avalon offers small group (30 people) reservations to Panorama Bistro (light menu paired with wine). When weather permits, grilled lunches are available on the Sky Deck. Meals can also served in the Club Lounge and Panorama Lounge. Some optional tours require a fee. Airport transfers included when purchasing air from Avalon. Avalon's beds face floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors for gorgeous views while your head is propped on the pillow. Stocked in-room mini-bar incurs charges for each item selected.
CroisiEurope **: Extra charge only for high-end champagnes and wines. Wi-Fi internet access with complimentary use of Samsung tablet. Complimentary shore excursions included in every port.
Crystal River Cruises **: All of Crystal's new-builds feature Panoramic Balcony Windows, which function, in essence, like balconies. Crystal Mozart features balconies in about half of its staterooms.
Emerald Waterways **: Complimentary shore excursions in every port. Wine, beer & soda complimentary with lunch and dinner. All staterooms restocked daily with bottled water. Owner’s Suites comes with complimentary stocked mini-bars. Room service included for suites. Laundry concierge available for a fee; complimentary for suites.
Riviera **: Riviera’s beverage package, which includes wine and beer with lunch and dinner, goes for $129 a week ($159 in 2019).
Scenic **: Inclusions are for all guests, regardless of ship or suite.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection **: Uniworld charges for at least one optional excursion, the Vienna Evening Concert at 75 euros. Free laundry service in higher-end suites across its fleet. Additionally, most Uniworld ships have complimentary self-service laundry facilities for passengers to use; only River Royale, River Baroness, Douro Spirit, and River Victoria lack this feature in the European-based fleet. Room Service and Butler Service on Uniworld is at the suite level only.
Viking River Cruises ** A complimentary shore excursion is included in every port; there are also additional optional shore excursions available on every itinerary. Beer, wine and soft drinks included with lunch and dinner. Specialty coffee & teas available anytime. Optional Silver Spirit beverage packages are available for extra fee & makes drinks all-inclusive. Room service, stocked mini-bars and laundry are included for Explorer Suites. Bicycles and gyms are available ashore and arranged by Viking. Airport transfers included when booking air (or receiving free air) with Europe. Some promotions offered prepaid gratuities or shipboard credits.
Defining Feature: Modern, contemporary ships combining elegant style and service, and a focus on health and wellness.
Destinations: Europe, Portugal, Africa, Cambodia & Vietnam, Myanmar
I recommend AmaWaterways for anyone seeking a stylish and personable river cruise experience and also for those who appreciate wellness and activity. Notable is the company’s emphasis on walks, hikes and both guided and independent bicycling excursions along with theme cruises, such as those that focus on wine. Although the company emphasizes active excursions, it caters well to all levels of mobility, even featuring foldable wheelchairs and other assistive devices on its ships.
Founded in 2002 by Rudi Schreiner, Kristin Karst and the late Jimmy Murphy, AmaWaterways boasts a fleet of 21 modern ships that sail the waterways of Europe, plus the AmaDara operating in Vietnam and Cambodia; and the Zambezi Queen in Africa.
Personable service has been a hallmark of the line since Day One. It’s a theme that transcends each of AmaWaterways’ stylish river cruise ships and even applies to the company itself. Co-founder Kristin Karst even writes her own blog for the line. Expect to feel not like a number, but like an old friend, when you sail with AmaWaterways.
In recent years, the line has been taking its lauded brand of cruising to other parts of the world. In addition to Europe, AmaWaterways offers luxury voyages to South Africa, Cambodia and Vietnam with a focus on cultural immersion and authentic experiences both onboard and ashore. In 2015, the line introduced the new AmaDara to the Mekong. See AmaWaterways Adds AmaDara On The Mekong In 2015
I’ve enjoyed many wonderful cruises through Europe and abroad on AmaWaterways, and those voyages consistently rank as my favorites. See Cruising The Rhone On AmaWaterways: Lyon To Arles, A Cruise Along The Seine With AmaWaterways, and AmaWaterways’ Taste Of Bordeaux
One of my favorite restaurants resides on AmaWaterways’ vessels, The Chef’s Table. Situated aft, the complimentary, reservations-only dining experience pairs fine wines with multi-course dinners prepared in a show kitchen right in front of you. Ships also offer light lunches, late night snacks and complimentary tapas in the Lounges.
AmaWaterways’ core philosophy is to “under-promise” and “over-deliver.” Thus, you may be surprised by such events as German Fruehschoppen with Beer, German Sausages, Pretzels, Leberkaese and Potato Salad, as well as Austrian Spritzers, and Ice-cream Parties on the Sundeck.
Ships feature complimentary WiFi (probably the best I’ve experienced on the rivers), free movies and music in the staterooms, unlimited complimentary bottled water, complimentary postcards and postage (the only company I know of that does this), 24-hour complimentary specialty coffee & tea station and much more.
Also for an overview of what to expect on AmaWaterways, be sure to check out my Riverside Chat: Q&A AmaWaterways & Magnificent Europe
Read more about AmaWaterways.
Defining Feature: Some of the most uniquely-designed staterooms afloat.
Destinations: Europe, Asia, Amazon, Galapagos Islands
The first of Avalon’s “Suite Ships,” Avalon Panorama, debuted in May 2011 and pioneered the use of two full decks featuring Panorama Suites with floor-to-ceiling windows that open to create what the line calls Open Air Balconies. And while Avalon states that up to 100 cruisers could fit within the spacious, 200-square-foot Panorama Suite, we wouldn’t recommend it. But let’s not split hairs – these are still some of the most spacious river cruise ships out there.
On two full decks of every Suite Ship, beds face the views. The Open-Air Balcony turns your room into a balcony thanks to an 11-foot wide wall of windows that opens 7-feet wide. The design also functions to preserve room space.
Not all of Avalon’s ships in Europe are Suite Ships. In 2017, Avalon will operate four non-Suite Ships – Avalon Creativity, Avalon Felicity, Avalon Luminary and Avalon Affinity. On these four ships, all staterooms, except for the Royal Suites, measure 172 square feet.
In 2017, the company launched Avalon Fresh, a healthy dining option. Of course there regional wines served free of charge during lunch and dinner, and free Wi-Fi. There’s also an alternative dining venue called Panorama Bistro at the front of the lounge for intimate dinners.
Founded in 2003, Avalon has worked quickly to ensure that all of its new river cruise vessels are now Suite Ships, each offering some unique features like beds positioned to face the balcony windows, and some of the best-designed bathrooms we’ve seen on a river cruise ship. That the line offers itineraries throughout Europe and to farther-flung destinations like Asia, the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands (the latter of which is operated by a ship) is just the icing on the cake.
Avalon may not be building new vessels on the scale of some of the other lines, but the ones Avalon is bringing out are constantly moving their product forward in an increasingly elegant, modern fashion.
Read more about Avalon Waterways
Defining Feature: Family owned, shallow-draft cruises exploring nearly every corner of Europe.
Destinations: Europe, Asia
Strasbourg-based CroisiEurope has a lot of ships, more than 50. The company’s all-inclusive cruises impress me with their French flair, inventive itineraries and innovative ships, including paddlewheelers that can operate on the Elbe and Loire. CroisiEurope also serves up one of the best values in river cruising. But CroisiEurope is not for everyone. See my story: Is CroisiEurope Right For You?
Founded by Gérard Schmitter in 1976, CroisiEurope River Cruises is still a family run business, responsible for the construction, ownership and day-to-day operations of river cruise vessels that are capable of carrying between 100 and 200 passengers. CroisiEurope is one of the few lines to offer sailings on nearly every river in Europe.
One of CroisiEurope’s defining features is its shallow-draft river cruise vessels. By reducing the amount of the ship that exists below the waterline, CroisiEurope can sail into the heart of cities – like Strasbourg, where CroisiEurope is headquartered – while other river cruise operators are forced to dock on the other side of the Rhine, in the German town of Kehl, and bus guests in.
The line also offers pseudo river-ocean voyages through the Mediterranean that are wholly unique within the industry.
In 2013, CroisiEurope began actively marketing to North American travelers for the first time. Check out our Live Voyage Reports from onboard CroisiEurope’s sleek vessels:
- Loire Princesse through the Loire Valley
- Barging the South of France aboard Anne-Marie
- Botticelli along the Seine River in France
- Bordeaux On CroisiEurope’s Cyrano de Bergerac
- Elbe Princesse: Summing Up
For special offers, see CroisiEurope’s website: https://www.croisieuroperivercruises.com
You can reach CroisiEurope’s U.S. call centers through email ([email protected]) or by phone (toll free number) 1 800-768-7232.
Read more about CroisiEurope River Cruises
Crystal River Cruises
Defining Feature: Spacious staterooms; Crystal’s renowned service by Crystal hired, trained and manage crew; Michelin-star-inspired dining.
Crystal River Cruises aims to redefine river cruising. For starters, the company calls its ships “River Yachts.” Technically, they’re the same as most other river cruisers, with the exception of Crystal Mozart, which is double the width of the standard river cruiser. The others are all the same width and length as most river cruisers operating on the rivers in Europe. Where Crystal’s River Yachts differ is in delivering Crystal’s renowned luxury product. The company has had more than 25 years to perfect its luxury travel experience on the high seas, and so it was well-prepared to adapt is award-winning product to the rivers.
While Crystal is in the process of launching a fleet of European river yachts, it has only one ship operating as of the spring of 2017. I have been on Crystal Mozart twice now (and once when it operated for Peter Deilmann). Based on my experience, I can confidently say that Crystal is raising the bar for food, service and activities. See Crystal River Cruises: In A Class Apart
In July 2016, Crystal entered the market with the nearly 30-year-old Mozart. See my photo gallery from the christening in Vienna: Crystal Mozart Photo Gallery, I was impressed with the Crystal product, even though I was on board Crystal Mozart for only two nights. Still, I got an idea of what the company delivers. There is a great deal of continuity between Crystal’s ocean-going vessels and what I saw on Mozart.
Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler will all enter service in 2017. Crystal Ravel and Crystal Debussy will debut in 2018. Unlike Crystal Mozart, these four ships will boast an entirely new design and have been created from the ground-up to deliver Crystal’s award-winning brand of luxury. For now, Crystal Mozart is a beautiful vessel with unique attributes and activities, a good choice for those wanting the style and sophistication of Crystal Cruises, on the Blue Danube. And with per diems as low as $379 per person, Crystal Mozart serves up quite a good value.
Read more about Crystal River Cruises.
Defining Feature: Sister to Scenic, Emerald is a “four-star product operating on five-star ships.”
Founded by travel company, Scenic formerly known as Scenic Tours, Emerald Waterways made its debut in April 2014. Much like its parent company, Emerald Waterways serves travelers who are seeking a luxury river cruise experience. However, river cruise packages are offered at a more budget-friendly price compared to Scenic.
I liked what I saw when I cruised on Emerald Sky in April of 2016. The vessel was modern and sleek, with staterooms and public rooms that were bright, contemporary and inviting. Gratuities are included, and bicycles are on board for those who want to pedal ashore. I also enjoyed the aft pool, which transforms into a cinema at night. And yes, there’s popcorn for those who like movies with salty snacks.
While Scenic’s luxury brand caters to travelers who were seeking upscale river cruise experiences, the company also saw a need to serve the less-affluent (and possibly younger) travelers. Thus, the concept of Emerald Waterways was born. Like the Scenic brand, Emerald Waterways has its own custom-crafted vessels referred to as “Star Ships” that began sailing on a few of the waterways in Europe on April 15, 2014.
Glen Moroney, the owner of Scenic, told us that Emerald is a “four-star product operating on five-star hardware.” That’s a pretty good description in our minds.
Check out My Take On Emerald Sky: Five Favorite Things and my voyage through Eastern Europe with Emerald Waterways: An Incredible Journey: Enchantment Of Eastern Europe On Emerald Sky
Read more about Emerald Waterways.
Riviera River Cruises
Defining Feature: Premium river cruise experiences for a fraction of the cost
Founded over thirty years ago in the UK as Riviera Travel, Riviera River Cruises has recently started targeting English-speaking guests from the United States and Canada for its value-priced river cruise offerings in Europe.
The company has a fleet of 11 vessels on the rivers of Europe, with more on the way. Unlike other river cruise lines, Riviera offers a price-point that is substantially lower than most of its competitors. It does this by “unbundling” some features, like inclusive drinks. You’ll pay extra for things like bottled water and beer, wine and spirits, but Riviera believes the overall cost savings justify the add-on charges by making river cruising accessible to a wider swath of people who might be put off by the multi-thousand-dollar-fares charged by other lines.
What Riviera has going for it is its three decades worth of experience as a tour operator, and the rave accolades its UK-based guests have given its river cruise product. Ships carry between 126 and 169 guests apiece, and are elegantly decorated, with plenty of fine woodworking, brass fixtures, and modern décor.
Read more about Riviera River Cruises.
Defining Feature: With its new ships, Scenic strives to be the most inclusive of all river cruise lines.
Destinations: Europe, Asia
I last cruised on Scenic in 2015 and enjoyed the product quite a bit. The ships are modern and inviting, but it is all of the luxury trappings that make Scenic stand apart. Scenic strives to be the most inclusive of all river cruise companies. So naturally gratuities and 24/7 bar is included, but also laundry service and nearly everything else you can think of. The ships are beautiful with gorgeous staterooms. There are also multiple dining venues. I wrote extensively about Scenic in this post: Scenic Jasper, End Of Cruise, Summing Up
In 1987, Australian entrepreneur Glen Moroney founded Scenic Tours, a company that got its start offering coach trips to the Australian coast. Initially, Scenic Tours marketed its product to residents of Melbourne but soon realized that its guests would travel further with them.
During the next two decades, Scenic Tours continued to grow and expand, earning accolades from travelers around the world for quality and service, not to mention Scenic’s rapidly diversifying array of tour packages.
In 2008, Scenic Tours expanded once again, this time jumping into the river cruise market with the launch of the trademark Scenic “Space Ships.” On April 13, 2015, Scenic Tours officially changed its name to Scenic.
Read more about Scenic.
Defining Feature: All-inclusive river cruise tours that include overland journeys chocked full of exclusive experiences.
Founded in 1925 by Arthur Tauck Sr., the long-standing American tour company has been slowly but surely expanding into the European river cruise market, offering up its unique brand of inclusive luxury river cruises coupled with full-guided overland journeys.
One of Tauck’s defining features is what the company offers ashore. The line offers exclusive events like private lunches, dinners and concerts, and in some cases, even private after-hours tours of museums like the In Flanders Fields museum in Ieper, Belgium, and the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague.
The line is also starting to innovate on the waterways of Europe, introducing new Loft-style staterooms aboard their two newest vessels, ms Inspire and ms Savor that are quickly becoming some of the most talked-about staterooms. The line is also noteworthy for its restraint: instead of carrying 190 guests, these new vessels take just 130.
Read more about Tauck.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
Defining Feature: All-inclusive, boutique river cruises accented with classic “old world” European design.
Destinations: Europe (including Italy), Russia, Portugal, Egypt, China, India, Cambodia & Vietnam
Uniworld’s full name might be a mouthful, but the company has been providing river cruises in its own inimitable style longer than any company on this list, save for CroisiEurope. And during the past three decades, Uniworld has learned a thing or two about how to run a successful river cruise line.
One of Uniworld’s defining features is its intrinsic style. The interiors of each of Uniworld’s European-based ships are entirely unique, reflecting a style that could best be described as Versailles-meets-Ritz Carlton. It’s this style, coupled with the line’s varied itineraries that include less-visited waterways like Italy’s Po River, that keep guests coming back time and time again.
Uniworld is all-inclusive and is one of only a handful of lines to offer a truly inclusive experience along the waterways of Europe.
Also see our Live Voyage Reports from sailing on S.S. Maria Theresa: Day 1, Boarding Maria Theresa | Day 2, Biking Bamberg, Making The Case For River Cruising As An Active Experience | Day 3, Step Into Stateroom 425, Crossing Europe’s Continental Divide | Day 4, Open-Air Balconies Make All The Difference | Day 5, This Is River Cruising? Fine Dining On Uniworld | Day 6, Cruising & Cycling The Wachau Valley
Read more about Uniworld Boutique River Cruises.
Viking River Cruises
Defining Feature: Scandinavian design, Nordic sensibility and the most river cruise ships on the waterways of Europe – by far.
Destinations: Europe, Russia, Portugal, Egypt, China, Cambodia & Vietnam, Myanmar, Ukraine
It’s hard to not know about Viking River Cruises. Chances are that you’ve seen the company’s ads during Downton Abbey and other programs, or you’ve simply heard about Viking because of the prodigious expansion of the new Viking Longship fleet. Everywhere you look, from print advertising to docking spaces in Europe, Viking is there.
Founded in 1997 by cruise industry veteran Torstein Hagen, one of Viking’s defining features has always been providing guests with a good river cruise at a reasonable price. When the first of its new Viking Longships set sail in March of 2012, the company became a driving force for innovation within the industry, pioneering firsts like the indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace and the introduction of the first true suites on the waterways of Europe.
Viking doesn’t feature gyms, or hot tubs, or bicycles aboard its ships for the simple reason that, as Hagen puts it, all of Europe is a natural gym. In many of the towns and cities Viking stops in, walking tours are offered and bicycle rentals from private vendors are plentiful. Those are amenities that Hagen believes are under-used on other vessels, and space that could be better put toward the line’s wide array of staterooms and suites.
As active travelers who enjoy cycling and some time in the gym, we don’t always agree with Hagen but we do love his ships. Viking’s big, bright ships are the company’s defining feature, along with crews that are increasingly polished as some of the best and brightest stars are coming to work for Viking from other lines. By the time the line took delivery of another 12 Viking Longships in March of 2015, Viking had launched a total of 42 new vessels since 2012 – more than any other river cruise line afloat. The line will launch additional Longships next year, along with a new vessel on the Douro, Viking Osfrid.
In 2015, Viking also took delivery of their first oceangoing cruise ship – Viking Star. She will be joined in 2016 by a sister-ship, Viking Sea, and in 2017 by two additional vessels: Viking Sky and Viking Sun.
For the Viking Longships, see Ralph’s Six Points Of Differentiation: Viking Odin Review
We’ve each sailed Viking several times now, and have Live Voyage Reports from all three Danube Christmas Markets runs, all four Viking Longsships christening ceremonies, and France’s Bordeaux region. Read about our past and upcoming sailings on our Live Voyage Reports page.
Read more about Viking River Cruises
Meantime, In America
American Queen Steamboat Company River Cruise Reviews
Review from our sister site, The Avid Cruiser.
Even if you’re an avid cruiser like us, you’ll find there’s little to compare to the American Queen. It can’t be compared to a river cruise vessel in Europe. The largest paddlewheeler ever built, the six-deck American Queen is nearly 2.5 times wider than those river cruisers. Spanning 90 feet across, she offers multiple restaurants, including a gorgeous two-story main restaurant, lots of public rooms, a variety of staterooms and suites, a small pool, gym and, of course, a giant paddlewheel to propel the riverboat.
Click play to check out the Avid Cruiser’s video review featuring The American Queen.