Three Modes Of River Cruising: River Cruisers, Barges and Paddlewheelers. Which Should You Choose?
While there are invariably differences between vessels—some boast indoor pools, spas, multiple restaurants and whatnot—these are the basic categories to help you wade through what’s out there.
What Are River Cruisers?
These are the biggies, carrying between 100 and 200 guests. These elongated, flat and sleek vessels make up the majority within the leisure river cruising industry, appearing somewhat like squashed ocean liners. The low profiles, no more than four decks high, allows for the cruisers to maneuver under bridges and maintain a shallower draft. Some are shorter in length—such as the 103-foot Juno, cruising Sweden’s canals—but most hover somewhere around 400 feet in length and 40 feet in width.
One exception to this last dimension is Crystal Mozart, Crystal Cruises very first river cruiser, which entered the scene in July of 2016. This ship is 75 feet wide; nearly twice the width of most river cruisers, making even more room for public spaces like the four dining venues and staterooms with king-sized beds. This no doubt gives Crystal Cruises boasting rights, but Crystal will soon have a competitor. AmaWaterways has announced a similar-sized vessel to launch in 2019, the AmaMagna, carrying 194 guests in staterooms that will measure more than 300 square feet.
You may be wondering, if that’s a river cruiser, than what exactly is a “longship?” This is simply the term that Viking River Cruises coined (well, and the original Vikings, of course) to be inline with its moniker, but it’s simply a “river cruiser.” The same goes for Crystal River Cruises’ “river yachts,” Emerald Waterways “Star Ships,” Scenic’s “Space Ships,” and Avalon’s “Suite Ships.”
River cruisers don’t quite match the luxury standards of ocean-going vessels, but river cruisers do come close. As for what’s included and what’s not on a river cruise, refer to our chart for a company-by-company comparison.
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.
What Are Barges?
The differences between river cruisers and barges are vast but essentially boils down to this: Barges are much smaller, are able to navigate canals as well as rivers, and host no more than two dozen people. Typically, you’ll travel with friends and family, or like-minded individuals, on quiet waterways through bucolic countryside. Your means of conveyance, referred to as “luxury hotel barges,” feature all-inclusive menus that include tours, bikes, beverages and gourmand-worthy cuisine.
Because of the size of the vessels, canal cruises represent more intimate experiences than those found on river cruises, and you’ll often pay handsomely for this autonomy. Luxury barge cruises along the picturesque canals of France are not inexpensive vacation experiences. Rates ranges from $300 per person per day up to more than $1,000 per person per day, plus suggested gratuities from 5 percent to 10 percent of the total cost of the cruise depending on how generous you’re feeling.
On a per-diem basis, barge cruises are certainly among the most expensive travel experiences offered, but as is often said, you get what you pay for. At these prices, you better. What I learned in talking with guests is that for some of them, six days on a barge through a small slice of France was a lifetime aspiration that they had spent years saving for.
There are aspects of barging that seem disparate with the price tag: Staterooms, for example, are typically small but well-configured on the hotel barges. And, while it’s not true across the board, they tend have much more casual and understated decor.
Often these vessels once carried cargo and were gutted to house a “hotel” structure. It’s best to refer to them as “luxury hotel barges” to counter the common association of cargo barges. Unless you’ve been swindled, you won’t be traveling with coal or cattle. A few examples of companies offering barge sailings in Europe include CroisiEurope, European Waterways and French Country Waterways.
Due to their size and accompanying engine power, barges move at slower pace than river cruisers, allowing for you to step off at locks to walk, run or ride bikes. My typical day aboard barges go something like this: Wake up, have breakfast. Go out on the sun deck and watch the landscape pass by. Step off at a lock to bicycle for a couple of hours. Return to the barge for lunch. Join an afternoon guided tour, and return to the barge for fine dining and comfortable accommodations.
I created a short video that takes you aboard a barge cruise, and while it was filmed in 2012, it will give you a sense of what a barge vacation is all about.
Barging is one of my favorite forms of travel. I like it so much that I charter barges annually for me and 20 others.
What Are Paddlewheelers?
This type of vessel is pretty much self explanatory; attached to the stern it bears telltale paddlewheels driving the ship. Paddlewheel propulsion, shallow hull draft, low air draft and a ballasting system allows the vessel to navigate notoriously shallow rivers such as the Elbe and Loire—where you’ll find paddlewheelers operating in Europe. Powered only by paddlewheels, its cruising speed will reach up to nearly 10 mph. This technology also makes it feasible to sail year-round out of places like Berlin, even during low-water season. Since this is such an exclusive collection, I’m adding a few more details about each paddlewheel vessel’s features.
Paddlewheelers in Europe pale in comparison to the size of some of those churning along the Mississippi and are certainly less plentiful. In fact, there are only two leisure tour paddlewheelers plying European waterways, both by CroisiEurope: one (soon to be two) cruising the Elbe River and one cruising the Loire River.
Loire Princesse, as the name suggests, was designed specifically to sail its namesake river. Dotted with spectacular scenery, beautiful chateaux and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Loire is a veritable wealth of cities and regions that, until April of 2015 when this vessel set sail, had never been accessible by a river cruisers with staterooms designed for overnight stays. Dubbed a “Green Ship” thanks to environmentally-friendly technologies, Loire Princesse is 295 feet long with a beam of 49 feet, capable of accommodating up to 96 guests in a total of 48 staterooms, many with balconies. Onboard amenities include a full-service restaurant, inviting Lounge with a dedicated dance floor and a sun deck that is perfectly suited to outdoor viewing.
In the spring of 2016, CroisiEurope’s MS Elbe Princesse, a 321-foot-long river cruise ship followed suit, offering river cruise voyages year-round from Berlin to the heart of Prague. Elbe Princesse features 40 staterooms, all of which feature river views, spread across two decks. Able to accommodate up to 80 guests, Elbe Princesse has similar amenities as her sister on the Loire and is furnished with fabrics from MissoniHome, an Italian fabrics company headquartered in Rome.
CroisiEurope has started construction on a third paddle-wheel riverboat to additionally operate between Berlin and Prague on the Elbe and the Vltava Rivers—slated for delivery in February 2018. The MS Elbe Princesse II will measure 331 feet long and 34 feet wide. The ship’s sleek, contemporary design will be much like the MS Elbe Princesse as well as feature 45 outward-facing cabins of more than 150 square feet each with French balconies on the upper deck. The ship will feature a restaurant, a panoramic lounge, a patio and a large sun deck.
Read more details about life aboard a paddlewheeler in my voyage recaps: