Many river ships now have a pool, where you can make a splash with your family. Credit: Shutterstock.

How to find your perfect river cruise

Author: Bella Dunning

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Baffled by so many similar-looking ships? All river cruise lines are definitely not equal, says Bella Dunning, and here’s how to find the one that floats your boat

River cruising is booming, with more lines, ships and itineraries to choose from than ever before.

And it’s easy to see why, because a river cruise is a wonderful way to relax, watch the world drift by and explore towns, cities and landscapes in Europe, or even further afield in America, Africa and Asia.

It’s also a stress-free way to see a new port (or even a new country) each day, with all your travel arrangements taken care of and no need to unpack more than once.

As river ships moor right in the heart of towns, there are no lengthy coach rides to reach the main attractions, and there’s lots to see within easy walking distance if you want to explore independently. All you have to do is decide where to go and which cruise line to sail with.

Viking Radgrid exemplified the Longship class of river cruise vessels. Credit: Viking

To the uninitiated, the choice of lines can seem bewildering.

There are options to suit all budgets and you do get what you pay for – but unlike hotels, river ships don’t have official star ratings to describe their facilities.

And just to muddy the waters a little more, some lines give themselves star ratings, while others have coined special terms to describe their fleets, such as Longships (Viking), Space-Ships (Scenic), Star-Ships (Emerald) and Super Ships (Uniworld).

This can be a little misleading because most river ships are physically very similar, with their dimensions and layout dictated by the narrow locks and low bridges they need pass through.

Most also accommodate between 150 and 250 guests (there tend to be more cabins on cheaper lines and fewer on their high-end counterparts).

That said, there are huge differences in terms of the accommodation, food and onshore experiences that different lines provide.

So we’ve taken the hard work out of choosing with this easy reference guide to finding the perfect river line for you.

Best for families

The past few years have seen a huge increase in the number of family-friendly river cruises.

Tauck pioneered the multigenerational concept with its Tauck Bridges programme of dedicated family sailings including fun onboard activities and shore excursions such as treasure hunts.

Fellow luxury line Uniworld offers a Generations Collection of itineraries, with hosts to look after junior cruisers and themed shore tours including cookery classes.

CroisiEurope also has a summer programme of family cruises, and look out for A-Rosa Cruises’ dedicated family ship, A-Rosa Sena, which features cabins that sleep up to five, a kids’ club and a separate children’s swimming pool.

The blue Danube is a great place to start for river cruising newcomers. Credit: Shutterstock.

Best for first-timers

Geared for British tastes, with homely touches such as kettles in every cabin and all onboard prices in sterling, Riviera Travel is the UK’s largest provider of European river cruises, with itineraries on all the most popular routes.

Equally UK-focused are Titan Travel and over-50s specialist Saga, both of which provide a chauffeured pick-up service from your home to the airport and vice versa on your return.

And there can be few people who haven’t heard of Viking, the world’s largest river cruise line. The size of the company’s global fleet means it’s easy to find a sailing in the destination of your choice, and the company takes care of its guests every step of the way.

TUI offers all-inclusive cruises at excellent value for money on its fleet of river ships. Credit: TUI.

Best for your budget

The largest European-based line, CroisiEurope offers English-speaking cruises on its fleet of river ships and cosy hotel barges.

Unlike the majority of lines, Croisi serves a set menu at lunch and dinner, which is one reason why fares are so affordable.

That said, a real bonus is the open bar, a perk usually associated with much more expensive lines. Look out also for TUI, which offers good-value all-inclusive cruising on its three ships.

Elegant, contemporary interiors define the APT experience. Credit: APT

Best for luxury lovers

If you want to push the boat out, take a look at all-inclusive lines where everything is covered in the fare, including drinks, shore excursions and tips.

High-end ships also carry fewer passengers and have more dining options, including room service.

If you like opulent interiors, Uniworld Boutique River Collection’s ships are individually decorated with artwork and antiques (some staterooms even have four-poster beds), while Australian-owned Scenic offers an easygoing, contemporary take on luxury, combined with butler service.

For exceptional shore excursions, try APT, which offers Signature Experiences on every itinerary, including a private reception and music recital at a Viennese palace and a trip on the Grand Empress steam train in Budapest.

If your idea of luxury is more to do with elbow room, Riverside Luxury Cruises and AmaWaterways each offer ships that are twice the width of other European river vessels.

Cabins aboard Tauck river ships offer reduced to nonexistent surcharges for solo travellers. Credit: Tauck.

Best for solos

With their small size and low passenger numbers, river ships make it easy to strike up new friendships, so they’re ideal for single travellers.

Riviera has long embraced the needs of solo cruisers and offers a range of dedicated sailings with no single supplements on any cabin.

Tauck waives single supplement charges on all Category 1 lower-deck cabins on every ship in its European fleet, and there are reduced surcharges for higher grade cabins on a large number of sailings.

Other solo- friendly lines with single cabins and waived or reduced single supplements on selected sailings include Arena Travel, AmaWaterways, CroisiEurope, Emerald Cruises, Scenic and Uniworld.

Sail aboard Joie de Vivre for a superb selection of wines & desserts. Credit: Uniworld

Best for cuisine

You’re never going to go hungry (or thirsty) on a river cruise, and the standard of cuisine across all lines is high.

However, some lines have earned a reputation for the exceptional quality of their culinary offerings. Wine buffs will adore La Cave des Vins on Uniworld’s Joie de Vivre, while Riverside Luxury Cruises also offers a wine pairing menu in its exclusive Vintage Room.

On Scenic, all passengers have the opportunity to eat at speciality restaurant Portobellos, while suite guests are also invited to dine at the intimate Table La Rive.

For veggies, vegans and lovers of healthy food, Avalon Waterways is notable for its wide menu of plant-based dishes.

AmaWaterways, along with many other river lines, offers active shore excursions such as hikes or cycle tours. Credit: AmaWaterways.

Best for active types

After all that delicious dining you might welcome the chance to work off some calories.

AmaWaterways offers wellness programmes on all vessels, with wellness hosts who
teach daily onboard classes (such as yoga and resistance band workouts) and lead active walking tours ashore.

Emerald Cruises has activity managers and also offers the EmeraldACTIVE programme of hiking, cycling and canoeing excursions.

Avalon Waterways offers Active & Discovery sailings on the Rhine, Danube and Rhone, with excursions include hiking, cycling, kayaking, and jogging sightseeing tours.

CroisiEurope has walking and cycling-themed cruises, and lines including AmaWaterways, APT, A-Rosa, Scenic and Uniworld carry onboard bikes that you can borrow for free.

Far Horizon cruises to the misty tea plantations of Assam in northeastern India. Credit: Far Horizon.

Best for exotic cruises

The most iconic of all river cruises has to be sailing the mighty Mississippi aboard a traditional paddlewheel steamboat.

American Queen Voyages or American Cruise Lines can help you there, as well as introducing you to the lesser-known Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

Alternatively you can cruise in the wake of Cleopatra on one of Viking’s four luxurious Nile ships, explore the tea country of northern India with Far Horizon Tours or penetrate the heart of the Amazon jungle with G Adventures.

MS Loire Princesse is purpose-built for shallow water cruising. Credit: CroisiEurope

Best for bragging rights

Looking for a route that none of your cruising buddies has done yet?

CroisiEurope is the only line to offer Spain’s Guadalquivir, operating a dual purpose river/ocean ship that also sails along the Atlantic coastline to reach the Guadiana River in Portugal. Croisi also has the Loire to itself, with a modern paddlewheeler that’s purpose-built for those shallow waters.

Best for pampering

While several lines have small massage rooms and pools, Amadeus and Scenic Cruises also have hair salons on board.

But A-Rosa stands out from the crowd with its supersized spas with sauna and relaxation room.

Which is a great selling point, because relaxation is really what river cruising is all about.

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