Read more about river cruising on my River Cruise Specialty page
See a list of river cruise companies here on iCruise.com
River cruises are a great way to see a lot of the world that normally you would visit with a land tour- but your hotel goes with you instead of you taking a bus from city to city. This is a great way to see the major cities of Europe at a leisurely pace. Ideal for people interested in history and culture. River cruises offer specialty sailings aimed at food and wine lovers all year. Cruise through France in summer and see the lavendar in Provence. Cruise Paris to Normandy in the spring and see Monet’s gardens at Giverny. Sail into Budapest on the Danube and be awed by one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Visit the Black Forest of Germany and enjoy the wonders of Bavaria. See more fairytale castles than you can imagine. All of these experiences and so much more are available when you take a river cruise.
There are four general categories of river cruise service levels to choose from and a couple of specialty niche options.
1- Discount : this includes locally run and operated tour companies usually servicing people in the same language as the region they operate. You will find discounted options with companies like this provided by bulk tour providers who will offer cheap rates for charter dates usually off season- March, early April and late fall for Europe for example. These are pretty basic,meals are included but you pay extra for anything other than really basic walking tours. CroisiEurope, Gate1Travel, Vanguard are names that come up here. Expect to pay in full at time of booking. Usually these are much older vessels with modest decor built more for function than any kind of luxury experience.
2- Standard: this includes the big name mass market ships you see heavily advertised on television. Viking is the top one here, Emerald Waterways also falls into this category. Plus side- plenty of included tours, wine and beer included with meals. Generous air programs. Gratuities and premium alcohol are extra. Usually the standard vessel will have 180 + passengers at a time. Viking usually has their best rates if you pay in full a year in advance. Emerald allows you to make a deposit then pay final closer to sailing.
3- Premium: this includes Avalon and their panorama rooms as seen on tv, Ama Waterways, and ARosa. Ama Waterways and Avalon are my favorites. Not quite as many people per sailing- usually 160 or less on the same size vessel the standard ships offer. Plenty of tours, really good food, nice wine and beer options. Reasonable rates to upgrade to all inclusive liquor and you can pre-pay gratuities. Pay a deposit and final is due closer to cruising. Usually you pay air as a separate charge- contract flat rates for air are available or you can book your own. AmaWaterways is GREAT for Asia. The AmaDara is a gorgeous vessel calling on Vietnam and Cambodia. I love their itineraries that call on Halong Bay. These premium lines do not overstuff their boats- expect 150- 180 guests on board.
Check my AmaWaterways page for the best deals with AmaWaterways
Also look for AmaWaterways sailings chartered by Disney for family friendly adventures in Europe.
Avalon often has availability when other lines are full – they have a lot of new ships they are filling and offer aggressive promotions. Plus – they are part of the Globus family of companies and have some of the easist transfer services in the business. This means you can easily fit an Avalon cruise into the middle of a longer European itinerary. Explore Avalon River Cruises
4- Luxury: All inclusive deluxe river cruise options are some of the most popular. Top four names include long time tour provider Tauck , ocean cruisings top luxury name Crystal is now part of the river cruise market, and finally Uniworld and Scenic which have been the top names in river cruising for decades. All inclusive lines include tours with fewer people per tour, all liquor is included not just beer and wine at dinner and tips are included as well. Air can be added on or you can do it on your own— the luxury providers know that their all inclusive guests often combine a river cruise with additional travel options.
Tipping is all taken care of along with your drinks and tours- so nothing to worry about. Book with a deposit and pay closer to sailing. These book EARLY – a year in advance is normal. Uniworld averages 120 guests on the same size vessels Viking has 180 or more people on.
5- Specialty River cruises:
North America is a special case. There are several companies offering all inclusive river cruises on the big rivers and lakes of Norrth America. This includes paddle boats along the Mississipi and adventurous journeys in the steps of Lewis and Clark on the Columbia river in Oregon. Ranging from 4 to 10 nights these are usually booked early- the less expensive rooms book a year in advance.
Another new entry into river cruising is the new U by Uniworld . This line is aimed at younger more active cruisers- less amenities but with the quality Uniworld name. You will find these options in Europe in the summer. Lots of biking and evening activities. Not quite all inclusive to keep costs down.
Some things to keep in mind when booking river cruises:
All river cruises in Egypt and Africa are chartered vessels- none of the big companies own them- they put together packages and charter space on locally flagged and operated vessels. This does not mean you won’t get a great trip just know that sometimes there will be hiccups in service as the cruise line does not have complete control over your ship. Same thing in China. Look for companies that own their own ships like the AmaDara in southeast Asia.
Russia is another destination where this is the situation. ARosa sailings are all chartered from another company as are many of Taucks. Ask your travel agent if your sailing is chartered space or a vessel owned by your cruise and tour provider.
Many of the trips mentioned here are with smaller companies and most river cruises are big ticket travel items. Do not skip travel insurance when you book your trip. You want to make sure you are covered in case of financial issues where your tour provider may declare bankruptcy. Read up on Cruise West and Renaissance Cruise lines for who can happen when a cruise line goes out of business in the middle of sailings.
By nature of the port intensive, tour intensive itineraries these are not tours designed for people who have a lot of accessibility issues. None of the European or Asian boats offer any ADA rooms. Only some have elevators on them. Most will offer some slow walker tours so folks who need to take it easy can do so. Be sure to mention any physical disabilities with your travel agent so you can get the best tour and river cruise for you!