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Best river cruises
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Which river cruise is best? How to pick the river cruise line that’s right for you

Author: Jeannine Williamson

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River cruise holidays are booming, with more lines, ships and itineraries to choose from than ever before. It’s easy to see why - but how do you know which river cruise is best?

River cruises are a wonderful way to relax, watch the world drift by at a leisurely pace and explore the towns, cities and countryside of Europe as well as faraway destinations in North and South America and exotic Asia.

They're also a stress-free way to travel as all the arrangements are taken care of, vessels visit a new port each day and there’s always something to see along the way.

Within the space of a week you can visit up to four countries, with the added bonus of only having to pack and unpack once. As ships moor right in the heart of towns there are no lengthy coach excursions to reach the city centre and, in most instances, the main sights, shops and cafes are within easy walking distance if you want to explore independently.

The only thing left is to decide where you want to go - your first choice - and then which river cruise line is the best one for you.

- READ MORE: Best river cruise lines in the world for 2021 from Viking to Crystal -

It’s worth pointing out that unlike hotels there is no official star rating system for river ships even though some companies give themselves self-styled rankings.

Also, lines give different names to their vessels, such as Viking’s Longships, Scenic’s Space-Ships, Emerald Cruises’ Star-Ships and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s Super Ships.

While they differ in style on the inside they are essentially all the same size on the outside as their length and height is restricted by narrow locks and low bridges. They accommodate up to 190 passengers, fewer on more expensive lines.

Larger ships, carrying a higher number of guests and with more spacious facilities, can be found on the wide rivers of Russia and North America, while more intimate ships, some carrying fewer than 10 passengers, navigate the rivers of Asia.

To the uninitiated the choice of lines can be bewildering, so we’ve taken the hard work out it by putting together this easy reference guide so you can find out which line will suit you.

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Best river cruise for first-timers

There are few people that won’t have 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.

Geared for British tastes - with home touches such as kettles in every cabin - is Riviera Travel which is the UK’s largest provider of European river cruises and all onboard prices are in sterling.

For the ultimate peace of mind over-50s specialist Saga and Titan Travel provide a home pick-up service to take you to the airport and meet you on return.

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Viking Cruises takes care of its guests every step of the way. Credit: Viking Cruises

Best river cruise for 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, there is a set menu at lunch and dinner which is one of the reasons the line is so affordable. That said, a real bonus is the open bar, a perk usually associated with much more expensive lines.

Some readers might remember the River Cruise Line, a firm favourite with British travellers, which was taken over by Arena Travel to offer the same value-for-money sailings on friendly vessels including its new ship MS Arena.

A familiar name in the holiday world is Cosmos which offers low-cost river cruises. It has recently been joined by another well-known company TUI which has launched a fleet of three vessels and offers passengers a £120 credit towards shore excursions.

- READ MORE: TUI Maya review: What's it like onboard TUI River Cruises' first ship? -

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Arena Travel offers the same value-for-money sailings on friendly vessels including its new ship MS Arena. Credit: Arena Travel

Best river cruise for luxury

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. Ships also carry fewer passengers and have more dining options, including room service.

On Crystal Cruises there is butler service to every cabin. There are also butlers serving the suites on Uniworld Boutique River Collection which has a fleet of ships that are all individually decorated with artwork and antiques; some with four-poster beds.

- READ MORE: What to expect on luxury cruise ships -

Australian-owned line Scenic offers easy-going luxury in a contemporary onboard environment combined with butler service. Tauck also prides itself on seamless service where nothing is too much trouble.

APT features Signature Experiences on every cruise, such as private reception and music recital at a Viennese palace and trip on the Grand Empress steam train in Budapest.

If your idea of luxury is more space, AmaWaterways’ AmaMagna carries 196 passengers on a vessel that’s twice the width of other European river vessels and sails on a stretch of the Danube.

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Uniworld Boutique River Collection has a fleet of ships that are all individually decorated with artwork and antiques. Credit: Uniworld

Best river cruise for solos

With their small size and low passenger numbers, river ships are ideal for singles and it’s easy to make friends.

Riviera Travel has long embraced the needs of independent travellers and offers a range of sailings specifically for solos with no single supplements on any cabin.

- READ MORE: Solo travel: Which cruise ships have solo cabins? -

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

Other solo-friendly lines which have single cabins and/or offer no or reduced single supplements on selected sailings include Arena Travel, AmaWaterways, American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Company, CroisiEurope, Emerald Cruises, Scenic, and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.

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Riviera Travel has long embraced the needs of independent travellers. Credit: Riviera Travel

Best river cruise for families

The past few years have seen a huge increase in the number of family-friendly river cruises, which are perfect for multigenerational groups. Tauck pioneered the family cruise concept with its Tauck Bridges programme; dedicated family sailings which include fun onboard activities and shore excursions such as treasure hunts.

Fellow luxury line Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has a Generations Collection of itineraries with special hosts to look after junior cruisers and themed shore tours including cookery classes.

CroisiEurope has a summer programme of family cruises and A-Rosa Cruises has a long association with multigenerational cruising. This will be enhanced further in 2022 when the line launches a dedicated family ship, a first for river cruising.

A-Rosa Sena, which will sail on the Rhine, will have family cabins sleeping up to five, a children’s club and separate kids’ swimming pool. Also consider hotel barges, available through CroisiEurope and European Waterways which can be exclusively chartered by family groups.

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Tauck pioneered the family cruise concept with its Tauck Bridges programme. Credit: Tauck

Best river cruise for food

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 exceptional features such as La Cave des Vins on Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s French ship Joie de Vivre.

The show kitchen can be booked by guests for a cookery class to help prepare a seven-course meal which is then savoured with wine pairings to accompany each course.

Crystal Cruises also offers a food and wine pairing menu in the exclusive Vintage Room. All of AmaWaterways’ European ships are members of La Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, a prestigious international gastronomic society dedicated to fine cuisine.

Additionally, ships have the Chef’s Table restaurant with an open kitchen where the chefs can be seen at work. All guests dine here once on every cruise.

On Scenic Cruises passengers in suites are invited to dine at the intimate Table La Rive and all guests have the opportunity to eat at the speciality restaurant Portobellos. For vegetarians and lovers of healthy food Avalon Waterways has partnered with Viennese chef brothers Leo and Karl Wrenkh to create Avalon Fresh dishes which are available at every meal.

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On Scenic Cruises passengers in suites are invited to dine at the intimate Table La Rive. Credit: Scenic

Best river cruise for active travellers

After all that good food you might welcome the chance to get active and offset some of the calories. AmaWaterways has dedicated 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 where excursions include hiking, cycling, kayaking and jogging sightseeing tours.

CroisiEurope has walking and cycling-themed cruises and lines that carry free onboard bikes for passengers to use include AmaWaterways, APT, A-Rosa Cruises, Scenic Cruises, Tauck and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.

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

Best river cruise for exotic cruises

America’s most famous river is the mighty Mississippi and you can explore it in style on classic paddlewheelers run by the American Queen Steamboat Company, which operates the world’s largest steamboat American Queen, and American Cruise Lines.

Both lines also sail in other parts of America, including the lesser-known Columbia and Snake rivers and, for those who want a break with tradition, American Cruise Lines also has a fleet of modern ships.

- READ MORE: What to see and do on Mississippi and Columbia river cruises -

Viking Cruises is launching its first vessel on the Mississippi in 2022. Far Horizon Tours has pioneered journeys in India including the Brahmaputra in the shadow of the Himalayas and other itineraries include the tranquil backwaters of Kerala.

G Adventures’ has expedition sailings including an itinerary that goes deep in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon and Pandaw Cruises explores Asian countries including Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia with a fleet of small vessels that provide a really authentic experience of the destinations visited.

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Far Horizon Tours has pioneered journeys in India. Credit: Far Horizon

Best river cruise for unique itineraries

Enterprising CroisiEurope has cruises on the Loire in France, the Elbe in Germany, Guadalquivir in Spain and the Sava and Tisza through Hungary, Serbia and Croatia.

It is the only line operating on the Loire, with a modern paddlewheel boat specially designed to cope with the river’s shallow waters, and the Guadalquivir, where its dual-purpose boat also sails along the Atlantic coastline to reach the Guadiana river in Portugal.

- READ MORE: Best Christmas-themed river cruises for 2021 -

Best river cruise for pampering

While several lines have small massage rooms and pools A-Rosa Cruises stands out with its larger spas with a reception area, sauna and relaxation room. Amadeus River Cruises and Scenic Cruises have hair salons.

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