What is the Best Europe River Cruise Company?

What is the Best Europe River Cruise Company?

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert


Perhaps the most often asked question from our clients about Europe river cruising is “What is the best Europe River Cruise Line?  It is almost always followed by: Why is it the best?

So, I googled best Europe river cruise company and got some really interesting results.  The results were all over the place—incomplete lists, reader polls, cruise critic best list(s), and two good river cruise authorities who have some well-reasoned lists.

Why such varied results?  I just don’t think you can factor a best list without categories.  I also think you have to look for how objective these lists are—the source, their qualifications to review river cruise lines and their reasons to rank on line over another.

Another key factor, in my opinion, is that all river cruises are good vacations and how valid is a best company list?—Does it have any real meaning? 

Here is a key fact to support that argument—all of the 8 major lines I cover have good accommodations, free Wi-Fi, wine & beer with lunch and dinner, limited entertainment and tours included in their base fare. 

At the very least, all river cruise companies are on par with premium ocean cruise companies and with a few exceptions include more than the ocean cruise lines.  And, when you read my top 10 list below, you will see each of the 8 major lines I cover has at least one win somewhere on my list.

So, let’s examine my 10 best list and let me defend my selections.

The 10 Best Europe River Cruise Lines List by Category

Here is a brief summary of my thoughts about matching your personal priorities to a specific river cruise line:

1.     Best Overall—AmaWaterways, Scenic

2.     Best Food & Wine—AmaWaterways, Scenic, Crystal

3.     Best Shore Excursions—Tauck, AmaWaterways

4.     Best Resolution of Problems—Tauck, AmaWaterways

5.     Best Minimalist Cruise—Avalon, Viking

6.     Best Cabins Views—Avalon, AmaWaterways (dual balconies), Crystal

7.     Best Unique Cabins—Uniworld, Crystal

8.     Best Low Cost Cruise—Emerald, Viking (although you may have to pay full fare earlier than others on Viking)

9.     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).

10.  Best Ship Design—AmaWaterways, Viking, Crystal, Scenic

Best Overall

When you consider price, service, food and wine, coverage of Europe Rivers, the included tours, and its’ vibe, AmaWaterways keeps coming up # 1, in our opinion.  They just do it all well and often at a lesser price than others.  Of the over 300+ ships rated by Berlitz, AmaWaterways has 6 of the top 10 rated ships—pretty good results to say the least.  A lot of other top river cruise experts agree with our choice.

Scenic comes in # 2—great overall, but are second due to the higher price point and some guests are more important than others--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).  Scenic has good tours (they are called Freechoice) and all are included, but their Sundowner and Enrich deserve special mention.  An example of a Sundowners tour was the fun experience at a wine stubbe we got to enjoy in Durnstein—there was food, drinks and a small band.  Our Enrich tour was a concert in Vienna.  Both were great tours.

Best Food & Wine

The winner is AmaWaterways, who according to The Berlitz River Cruising in Europe & the USA, “spends considerably more on high-quality food ingredients and wine and on hotel service training than any other river cruise company and it shows.”  They are also the only river cruise line who are members of the La Chaine des Rotisseurs, a prestigious international society for the culinary elite.  The included (yes, no extra charge) Chef’s Table and its’ multi-course tasting menu is outstanding.

Main Course Chef’s Table on the AmaKristina

Main Course Chef’s Table on the AmaKristina

Scenic comes in # 2 with good overall meals in the main dining room, an off the walls great seafood buffet and very good Portobello’s specialty restaurant.  The wines are excellent and there is usually 6 to choose from.  The only big drawback is a lack of consistency—some of our meals were just average. 

Another drawback for me is the Table La Rive, their exclusive dining for Diamond Deck guests, that consists of a 6-course degustation menu paired with sommelier-paired wines for 10 during the evening meal, but the problem is that it happens in the main dining room and other guests can see the better meal being served—some guests are more important than others on Scenic.

Seafood Buffet on the Scenic Opal—awesome!

Seafood Buffet on the Scenic Opal—awesome!

Crystal comes in #3—their Michelin inspired food rates very highly among reviewers of Europe river cruise companies.  They emphasize the farm to table experience and food is never prepared ahead—it is prepared after being ordered. 

Their 3rd place ranking for me, comes in large part, from the nagging extras on Crystal for better food experiences.  Their Vintage room dining experience comes with an extra charge of at least 280 Euros per person or more—one publication listed a 680 Euros price per person—quite steep to say the least.

They do have a Dining Ashore program that currently is free to penthouse guests.  It includes a visit to a Michelin-star restaurant or a Highly Acclaimed restaurant.  If you are not in a penthouse suite, the Michelin-star or Highly Acclaimed restaurant costs 249 Euros per person.  They also have an “Eat Like a Local” program for 99 Euros per person.

Best Shore Excursions

Tauck is the winner here.  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 US 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 in Europe as a tour company.

AmaWaterways comes in second on my list.  They divide the passengers into smaller groups, so the tours are more personalized.  They often also group by walker ability level (fast, normal and gentle) to facilitate a better guest experience.  They even offer a late riser’s tour (we took it once—only 4 people on it —it was almost a private tour experience). The guided bike tours and hiking options are cited by industry observers as the best available today for active river cruisers.

Our Late Riser’s Tour Guide—only 4 folks on the tour—almost a private tour

Our Late Riser’s Tour Guide—only 4 folks on the tour—almost a private tour

Best Resolution of Problems

The winner, Tauck is based completely on reviews by others on the internet—the feedback is overwhelmingly positive.

AmaWaterways is #2—we have seen them in action for several problems during our numerous cruises and the results have been very good—often above and beyond expectations.  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. 

Best Minimalist Cruise

Avalon is the winner here.  The line 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.  They have recently added Avalon Fresh (locally sourced vegetarian cuisine) and Avalon Active, which includes active activities such as biking and hiking and active learning experiences such as painting or cooking.

Avalon Bikes ready for use.

Avalon Bikes ready for use.

Viking comes in at #2.  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.  With 69 longships in service, by far the most in Europe, it is pretty easy to find the cruise on this line you might desire. Sometimes great 2-1 deals with air and last minute sales.

Best Cabin Views

The winner is Avalon.  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.”  By making the whole room a balcony, they have redefined the balcony concept on river cruise ships.

AmaWaterways are #2 with their dual balconies.  In 2010, they introduced the concept of twin balconies—½French balcony inside and ½ balcony outside.  Twin balconies really are the best of both worlds—outside when the weather is good or inside with the sliding glass doors of the French balcony at other times.

Outside Twin Balcony on an AmaWaterways rivership

Outside Twin Balcony on an AmaWaterways rivership

Crystal, #3, also places the bed facing the windows like Avalon.  The cabins have floor to ceiling electric windows that even have a screen to eliminate any pesky insects.  The king bed seems to make the room feel cramped, according to some reviews.

Best Unique Cabins

Uniworld is the winner here—their boutique, one of a kind cabins are either spectacular or over-the-top, depending on your point of view.  Every ship is original and unique—one of a kind ship experience from stem to stern.

Crystal comes in #2, with its’ king size beds and walk in closets.  There is even a coffee maker in each stateroom.

Best Low Cost Cruises

Emerald Sun

Emerald is #1, because it adds great value to already good prices.  Viking comes in #2.  Both are good choices but here is an interesting comparison between the two lines I wrote in an email a while back to a couple of clients and it clearly cites the reasons I picked Emerald over Viking.

Some quick comparisons:  Emerald has 182 guests; Viking 190.  Emerald has bikes; none on Viking.  Viking has one tour per day; Emerald at least one tour per port.  It also has included tours called Emerald Plus and EmeraldActive; no such option on Viking included, but they are happy to provide extra cost tours and suggestions.  

Viking has same wine for all days of cruise; Emerald changes wines.  

Gratuities extra on Viking; included on Emerald.  Viking recommends 14 Euros per day per person for gratuities or 196 Euros total (about $230 or so on a 7 day cruise).  Emerald has pool that converts to Movie Theater at night, no pool on Viking. 

The Pool convert to a movie theater at night—it even has popcorn!

The Pool convert to a movie theater at night—it even has popcorn!

Emerald has high water/low water/mechanical problem refund policy--about $475 per day; no such offer on Viking.

Viking veranda suites are about 205 square feet and have a real walk out balcony.  Emerald suites are slightly smaller at 180 square feet and veranda is a half window that lowers.  We used a similar one on our Scenic cruise and thought it was very good.  There is a gym on Emerald; none on Viking.

Best All Inclusive

Of all the categories, this is the hardest for me and the truth is it really depends on your preference in this category.  My ranking order is—Scenic, Crystal, Uniworld and then Tauck.  But this is, in my mind, the closest category of all my rankings.  Scenic gets the nod for a great overall experience.  Crystal at #2 gets lower placement for only 5 riverships available to book and the extra costs.  Uniworld #3 just seems a little over the top to me—you either love or hate their staterooms.  #4 Tauck leases it ships, and lets other run all ship functions while they concentrate on the tours.

This topic probably deserves a separate blog to adequately cover the all-inclusive category.

Best Ship Design

AmaWaterways is # 1.  Inspired by luxury yachts, these well designed and intelligently thought out vessels are my top choice for best ship design.  The décor is elegant but not over the top, the public areas spacious and inviting and the complete array of facilities are top notch on these riverships.

Lounge on the AmaCerto

Lounge on the AmaCerto

Viking is # 2.  Viking, on its longships, uses a patented off center deck on their upper two decks.  This allows for one side of the ship to have verandas (outside balconies) and the opposite side has French balconies.  They also are the greenest ships, with energy-efficient hybrid engines and solar panels.  Many also like the Aquavit outdoor seating area at the bow of the ship.

Aquavit Terrace on the Viking Jarl

Aquavit Terrace on the Viking Jarl

Crystal comes in at # 3.  They make the list for the small number of cabins compared to other lines and their desire to replicate the Crystal Ocean ships facilities.  It is amazing that some small details are overlooked such as no tablecloths (they use placemats) with their premium-quality china and the lovely Palm Court Lounge has 4 large pillars that obstruct some sight lines.

Scenic is # 4.  Their space ships are modern, sleek and well designed.  We liked their staterooms, the push button balconies and the stocked minibar. 

The Scenic Opal

This is also a very close category on my best list.

My Final Thoughts

It is really about matching your priorities—what is important to you—and that line will become the best line for you.  The top ten list is great overall information but just may not reflect what level of service and experience you desire on your river cruise vacation. 

But, never fear, we will match you with the available options.  We first learn who you are, ask a lot of questions and then find the best options.  We have developed a great Europe River cruise questionnaire that will help us learn what you really want on your river cruise.  We spend our time doing the research for you, so you can spend your time dreaming about the memories you are going to make.

We are travel experts, ocean and river cruise experts, and Europe destination experts.  We have first-hand knowledge of almost anywhere you want to visit in Europe.  We know our products and the vendors who sell them to you.  We have designed special tours for dozens of clients, led several and will continue to find just the right vacation that will exceed your expectations.

When you are spending your hard-earned money for a vacation, you want an advisor who can match you with the right trip.  You want someone who will understand your expectations and fuel your anticipation (or excitement) to get you the best possible trip experience.  And, you want someone who can help you with the decision making process.  We think we have all these qualities.

Whatever your Dream Destinations are, we are here to help you get the best possible vacation based on what is important to you!  We will provide you high quality, expertly planned travel.  Please give me a call 713-397-0188 (Hank) or email me at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com.  We want to help you:  Savor life…make memories…Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

Hank Schrader of Dream Destinations

Hank Schrader of Dream Destinations

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

  • Brit Agent