River Cruise Vibes—What It’s Really Like on 8 River Cruise Lines!
By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert
I am amazed at how much the Europe river cruise industry has changed when I wrote this originally only a little less than 2 years ago. Since 2009, I have studied Europe River cruising to learn all I could about the river cruise industry. A few industry experts have tried to make comprehensive comparisons of the different lines. Each has a slightly different approach.
We have taken a unique approach by creating a PowerPoint presentation. Our 86 slide 2019 Comparison Guide is very good but even that lacks one factor—the vibe of the line and its ships.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines vibe as “the feeling that someone or something gives you.” Basically, for this blog, it is the atmosphere, the conditions, the emotional connection you can expect on each cruise line if you were to cruise on that line.
So, here goes—my evaluation of the vibe or feeling you will get on these 8 river cruise lines.
The Starting Point--Our 2019 River Cruise Company Comparisons
This is so complex a subject that only a complete comparisons like our 86 slide 2018-19 River Cruise Company Comparison Guide adequately address the many questions travelers often have about the differences between river cruise lines (there are 17 comparisons charts in the presentation).
Once you know about the offerings of each line, now it is time to learn about the vibe of each line.
We have sailed on 16 Europe River cruises. We have been on 3 different lines—AmaWaterways, Scenic and Emerald. We have sent guests on AmaWaterways (lots), Scenic, Emerald, Uniworld and Viking.
I hold specialty certifications from 5 river cruise lines, have attended over 30+ in person seminars or webinars and read everything I could on Europe River cruising.
There are a lot of facts behind these opinions, but some is just personal opinion. I challenge you to be the critical thinker and judge my opinions based on what is important to you for your vacations.
As always, let us know what you think—we love to hear from you!
River Cruise Overview
Usually the first question we are asked about river cruises is “What line is best?” Our answer: They all are good, but there are some big differences between companies—you need to match what is important to you to get the best river cruise experience.
Most folks have heard of Viking, since they advertise heavily and have 50% of all the river cruise vessels on Europe's rivers. The other lines may not be as well-known, but offer great vacations.
What are the 8 companies we are going to examine? They are (in alphabetical order): AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Crystal, Emerald, Scenic, Tauck River Cruises, Uniworld and Viking.
There are no industry wide standards to rate the river cruise lines and it is important to understand that some of these ratings are only our personal opinion. Every major river cruise line has won some sort of award from a travel industry group, or by reader poll, so that is not the best criteria to use to judge a river cruise line, in our opinion. Reader polls are also a little suspect, as past river cruise guests often prefer their first river cruise line and stay with that line—it is a testament that generally the river cruise experience is so good compared to other vacation options many are just happy to continue with that line and reader polls do not adequately address all available options.
In all my research and experiences, I have only found one complete comparison on the vibe of each line, so let’s look at this together to get our view point.
My Personal Best Europe River Cruise Line List by Category
Here is a brief summary of my thoughts about matching your personal priorities to a specific river cruise line:
Best Overall—AmaWaterways, Scenic
Best Food & Wine—AmaWaterways, Scenic, Crystal
Best Shore Excursions—Tauck, AmaWaterways
Best Resolution of Problems—Tauck, AmaWaterways
Best Minimalist Cruise—Avalon, Viking
Best Cabins Views—Avalon, AmaWaterways (dual balconies), Crystal
Best Unique Cabins—Uniworld
Best Low Cost Cruise—Emerald, Viking (although you may have to pay full fare earlier than others on Viking)
Best All Inclusive— Scenic, Crystal, Uniworld, Tauck (in that order but all are good—hard to really choose here but Scenic would be our single best choice—each has a distinctly different vibe).
Best Ship Design—AmaWaterways, Viking, Crystal, Scenic
The Vibes of 8 River Cruise Lines
AmaWaterways is by far our favorite river cruise line of these eight lines. To us, we feel like we belong—the vibe is you are part of the family and they want you back. For us, AmaWaterways is the Goldilocks of Europe River Cruising. It is just the right blend of great tour options, wonderful food and wine, comfortable staterooms and a staff only too willing to please.
Almost every serious travel industry writer about river cruising rates AmaWaterways very high—they often agree with our assessment that it is the best value for the price. While not all inclusive, it is almost so—and started in 2018 you can get a free happy hour drink before diner—a nice plus.
They have awesome cuisine--for a foodie or wine lover, this is a great choice, especially the wine cruises. While others tout their included gratuities, we think it makes the staff just a little bit more attentive.
The other thing is that all are equal on AmaWaterways, regardless of what you pay for the cruise—that is not true on several other all-inclusive river cruise lines. A couple of great examples of this is the Chef’s Table Specialty Restaurant—it’s included, as are the Limited Addition Tours.
Almost all raters of Europe river cruising companies, cite AmaWaterways for their active and wellness program. For 2019, all riverships will have a wellness host—leading exercise classes, bike tours and hikes—we have seen this program in action and it is excellent.
We just can’t say enough about the staff—on our last two trips, we have bought pizza for the crew in appreciation of how hard they work and how well they take care of us (the second time, our traveling companions, the Thomas, split the pizza party cost—we are not the only ones who appreciate the care we received!). The other factor is the consistency—it will be great vacation or they will fix it—we have seen a unbelievable response to a high water situation on the Rhone that doubled the trip, changed all tours and they pulled it off like it was no big deal.
Their partnership with Adventures with Disney and Backroads bicycles is another plus.
And, last but not least, they are willing to go head to head with Crystal with a new wide ship in 2019. The AmaMagna, will be the widest ship on the Danube, but offer similar space and facilities as the Crystal Mozart.
The best thing about Ama just may be they are constantly improving but have not lost any of the features that make them best in our opinion.
Avalon’s vibe, to me, is summed up in its slogan—“a different point of view.”
First, Avalon tries to define itself by the staterooms. They emphasize the bed placement facing towards the balcony on the top two floors of their “Space Ships.” The floor to ceiling window of the stateroom is known as an “open air balcony.”
Second, Avalon also emphasizes what they call the “luxury of choice.” This means many extras cost more but it allows the traveler to select what is important to them. Avalon was the last cruise line of these 8 to add free beer and wine at lunch and dinner—they seem slower to adapt to the changing river cruise world to me. But, at least they are making some changes.
A new feature is “Avalon Fresh.” Avalon Fresh is locally sourced vegetarian cuisine. The additional dishes are the creation of Austrian chefs and brothers Karl and Leo Wrenkh. These chefs are emphasizing fun and tasty food that is both fresh and healthy. These new dishes will be added to the regular entrees for the evening meal and will be featured on the menu with a special Avalon Fresh logo.
Avalon has also rolled out a new program called Avalon Active. It includes active activities such as biking and hiking and active learning experiences such as painting or cooking.
Avalon still is 8 out of 8 in our 2019 comparisons, but has made solid improvements and is a good product.
Crystal’s vibe, to me, is that they are trying to bring their famous luxury ocean cruise brand to river cruising. Crystal Cruises’ affluent, multi-generational guests appreciate the renowned Crystal Experience distinguished by classic service, abundant space, fine quality, and extensive choices. Crystal is the only ultra-luxury ocean cruise line that has entered the river cruise market, having only started river cruising since 2016.
They started with one big ship, redesigned the entire ship, so that the guests could experience the Crystal lifestyle on the Crystal Mozart. Every stateroom has a butler. It carries 154 guests.
For about a year, on each sailing with Crystal, every guest used to get to go to a Michelin Stared restaurant on land, now only suite and 2 bedroom guests get this perk.
They have added 4 more ships, smaller in size but all balcony cabins, which can go through the locks and canals of Europe. They carry only 106 guests. Larger suites have walk-in closets and king sized beds.
Crystal touts its’ farm to table, Michelin-inspired cuisine.
For a luxury all-inclusive line, there are a lot of extras on Crystal, to spend your money on, such as helicopter rides, speed launches, private tours, and even a quite steep extra charge for exclusive dining in the Vintage Room (I read that it was as high as 680 Euros per person—wow!)
My take on the vibe of Crystal is that the ship and Crystal experience is more important than the sights, but many influential industry writers have selected Crystal as the best Europe river cruise line—some claim it is the only 5 star river cruise line.
If Crystal Ocean cruises are your favorite, Crystal seems to be able to replicate most of their luxury features on Europe’s Rivers and they are the right line for you—they have achieved their desired vibe.
We liked Emerald a lot—they compete very favorably with Viking and come out ahead, in our opinion (they are # 3 on our list due to their value). The vibe is contemporary but a solid value—the owner likes to call it a four star experience on a five star ship. It does have that vibe, not first class, but fun, well thought out, and a solid value—who could not like a glass enclosed swimming pool for daytime use that converts to a movie theater at night (it even has the popcorn!)?
The Emerald Waterways line includes complimentary beverages at lunch and dinner; all on board meals (we had a lunch meal—it was very good); balcony cabins on the upper 2 decks; bikes (without electronic assisted feature); and complimentary Wi-Fi.
As with most river cruise lines, there are included tours in every sailing. They also have an EmeraldPLUS no addition cost tours to enhance the standard offerings. There are also Discover More tour options that cost extra and require a minimum number of passengers. Gratuities are included in the basic cruise fare. Their long ships (135 meters or 443 feet) carry 182 passengers.
For me, they have achieved their desired vibe-the line calls it Exceptional Emerald Value—it has inviting, contemporary ships and it is a great value!
The vibe at Scenic is an emphasis on all-inclusive, no extra costs, in a first class, modern rivership with an Aussie flair. Scenic is an Australian tour company (founded in 1986 by Glen Moroney) that started Europe River cruising in 2008. They have 2 brands—Scenic (an all-inclusive luxury line) and Emerald Waterways (their deluxe river cruise line).
The Scenic line features your own butler (services vary by stateroom category); complimentary beverages all day, every day; six dining options; the Tailormade GPS device for individual exploration; balcony suites on the 2 upper decks; electronically assisted bikes; complimentary Wi-Fi; laundry and airport transfers. There are no extra charges for tours or gratuities but massages and the hairdresser are extra charges. Their long ships (135 meters or 443 feet) carry 167 passengers.
Scenic has a lot to offer—it is all-inclusive—and really delivers. On Scenic, the butler service increases in relation with cabin category selected. For example, the Diamond category guests on Deck 3 have better butler services, and a unique dining experience (unfortunately in the same main dining room as the other guests).
During our cruise, sometimes the offerings were just exceptional—the seafood buffet for lunch one day, the Portobellos restaurant experience, the Sundowner party (an off ship party) and the concert at a palace were outstanding. Yet on other days, it was just so-so. I have also read that there have been some other problems on a cruise during a high water situation.
Unique among river cruise lines, Scenic has recently added a cooking school to their French river cruises—it is called Scenic Culinaire, and is free to guests. Initial feedback is that this is a really good program, well designed and executed.
It now has partnered with National Geographic to provide in-depth lectures and photographic advice to guest—a great addition.
I think they achieve their vibe--it is exclusive, and contemporary with an Aussie flair, but some people are more exclusive than others. It still is our number 2 best line, and our favorite in the all-inclusive category.
This all-inclusive line strives for a relaxed elegance vibe. Many praise the Tauck tours—there are 3 US full time guides on board—and they offer many exclusive tour experiences. They are 90 year old tour company (founded in 1925) that added river cruising to their offerings in 2006 and correctly claim they have Uncommon Access to exclusive venues, events and experiences, due to their past connections as a tour company.
Another thing we really like—it is totally inclusive—no options are ever sold but you will have to pay extra for a massage or to use the hair salon.
They use older, leased riverships from a Swiss company Scylla, some of which are being upgraded to larger cabins. Tauck generally carries fewer passengers than other lines, has a great reputation among all inclusive river cruise lines, but others have been disappointed in this line.
Some rate it as the second best river cruise line, tout their conflict resolution and tours but it only gets average ratings on food and wine by some (good food, but no wow factor) yet others say the food is great.
Tauck has an interesting arrangement for their riverships—they handle all the tours and another company, handles all on board operations, such as food and beverage, hotel and sailing the rivership.
It certainly is less fussy than the other all-inclusive lines, and has a relaxed feel and outstanding tours—I think it has achieved its’ goal vibe of relaxed elegance.
The vibe of Uniworld, for me, is change. The opulent, individual staterooms of Uniworld, along with unique ship décor, have long been their defining feature—the ships are modeled after their sister company the 5 star Red Carnation Hotels.
Butlers wear tux and tails, there is an afternoon tea and you can expect dinner service with a flair. Luxury, comfort and service are their hallmarks. The all-inclusive nature of Uniworld has also been a good draw in the US market.
Excursions include Let’ Go (active), Village Day, Do As the Locals Do, and Exclusive Experiences.
There does seem to be a movement away from the more structured aspects of river cruising for the company. For example, on their newest ship, the S.S. Joie de Vivre (it sails the Seine River in France), there is a more relaxed evening dining schedule and more flexibility on start times in the tours.
But, the biggest change to Uniworld, is their 2018 addition of U by Uniworld--they have converted 2 riverships to their newest brand (the ships are named the A and the B). Uniworld is using words like “social, relaxed, fun, connected, scenic, and enriching” to describe the new brand. Gone will be the opulent interiors on some of their redesigned riverships, there will be DJ’s, more emphasis on night life—even bean bag chairs and hammocks on the top deck.
To keep a lower price point, the ship will offer only 2 meals each day. The idea is to appeal to the younger generation (21-40). The travel community is split on this concept—some praise it, others predict it will be a bust. They did quickly remove the upper age restriction—now older adults can cruise this hip new cruise line.
For me, the vibe is change—is the more structured, refined cruise line of the past morphing into a more upbeat and contemporary line, or is it a dual line with two distinct products? I’m not sure, but one thing is certain—change is in the wind for Uniworld.
The vibe of Viking is a solid value but no frills—the destination is the important thing and they will offer you a comfortable way to see Europe and upgrades will cost you extra. It is another line with a change in emphasis. At one time a few years ago, they were placing as many as 12 new longships on Europe’s Rivers a year. The pace has slowed to just 2 in 2017 but now they are adding 6 new riverships in 2019.
But, maybe the biggest change, is the wildly successful ocean cruise launch—it really is just all the wonderful features and inclusions of river cruising on their 3 ocean going ships. Viking Ocean Cruises has a real winner in that market.
By far, they are the most prolific Europe River Cruise line-- Viking, has about 50% of all the riverships on Europe’s Rivers. It is a Nordic brand—Scandinavian design features on their signature longships that hold 190 passengers—the most of any river cruise line in Europe.
No frills here—no bikes, no hot tubs, no pools, same two wines all week on the cruise and only one tour per day included. Still, they offer a good product at a reasonable price, but sometimes it requires complete payment for the cruise as much as one year in advance to get the best deals.
Some writers have stated perhaps Viking River Cruises has grown too fast, and perhaps, the emphasis on ocean cruising has taken some of the luster of their river cruise operations. I’m not sure if the company has grown too fast, or now it is emphasizing their ocean division more, but Viking will keep operating the most riverships in Europe for quite some time in the future and many will sail with them and enjoy their trip.
Comfort, no frills, value, special 2-1 fares with early payment are constants for Viking and will continue in the future—they have achieved their desired vibe.
My Final Thoughts
As you can see, there is much more than these brief thoughts to select the right cruise line for your vacation. For me, the most important criteria to determine which cruise line to use is that the river route and what you want to see is available on the cruises lines you are considering.
Once the right route is selected, then it is time to choose which cruise lines matches your priorities. But never worry—we are here to help you get the best possible river cruises based on what is important to you! Please give me a call 713-397-0188 (Hank) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to help you: Savor life…make memories…Visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!
HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 45 years. He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years. He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees. His other Certifications:
AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
Viking River Cruise Specialist
Scenic River Cruise Specialist
Emerald Waterways Specialist
Avalon Waterways Specialist