The World's Best River Cruises—Which One Should You Choose?
River cruises are a hot vacation choice for good reason. You ride along calm waters to discover the interior of countries in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere, often docking right in town (or in world-class cities). Views from your ship might include castles and chateaux and hilltops covered in vineyards, or, on Asian itineraries, such sights as water buffalo, rice paddies, and houses built on stilts.
It’s slow, casual travel, with intriguing shore excursions and plenty of languid afternoons on deck as you drift along with the current. But not all ships and itineraries are created equal. We’ve compiled our favorites in several categories to help you pick the best one for you.
For a fuller rundown, check out Frommer's EasyGuide to River Cruising, available—along with all of our other travel guides—in our online store.
Best European Itinerary
For first-time river cruisers we heartily recommend the Danube. You really can't go wrong with an Upper Danube cruise featuring the blockbuster cities of Vienna and Budapest (pictured)—and Prague if you do the optional add-on. The Upper Danube itinerary offers something for everyone, including castles, beer and wine, and opera. If you have the time, do both the Upper Danube and Lower Danube, from Germany to Romania, and explore highlights of both Western and Eastern Europe, including Romania's Dracula haunts.
Best Stateside Itinerary
When it comes to the U.S. there are two main destinations for river ships: the Mississippi River in the middle of the country and the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Of the options, we've got to go with the Lower Mississippi because you hit the fun-times city of New Orleans, and, in some cases, also Memphis, the "Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll."
Best Asian Itinerary
A cruise on the Mekong through Vietnam and Cambodia is both thrilling and educational, an opportunity to observe the fascinating culture and explore the often tumultuous history of a river that is an important lifeline to many. The ships are as comfortable as anything in Europe, and your itinerary includes time to explore bucket-list attractions such as the mysterious ruins of Angkor Wat and rapidly developing Ho Chi Minh City.
Best Mainstream Ships
The reference to historic Viking ships notwithstanding, Viking River Cruises, with its cutting edge, 190-passenger "longships," immerses guests in a wonderful contemporary Scandinavian environment. Light fills the two-deck atrium, you can dine with views whether indoors or out, there are cabins and suites with real balconies, and these ships even have green features including solar panels (helping fuel the hybrid engines) and an onboard herb garden. They are both pretty and wicked smart.
Best Budget Ships
Value-focused Australian line Emerald Waterways brings a surprising "cool" factor to river cruising with its 182-passenger "Star Ships." No, there's no Star Trek tie-in but there is a bit more nightlife than you'll find on most river ships, thanks to fun loving Australians onboard—when the DJ puts on Olivia Newton-John the crowd goes wild. And we can't say enough about the wonderfulness of the infinity-style indoor pool.
Best Luxury Ships
Uniworld's SS Maria Theresa (pictured) and SS Catherine are the beauty queens of the river cruise industry—spectacular floating palaces with over-the-top décor. You'll find marble, lush upholstery, Murano chandeliers, baroque antiques—heck, even the window treatments are fab.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention Scenic’s latest crop of vessels—the Scenic Jasper, Opal, and Amber. Upscale cruisers with a more modern aesthetic will greatly appreciate these crafts’ sleek, clean lines and midcentury modern furnishings.
We’re giving Tauck a shout-out, too, for the overall experience, focusing as much on wowing guests off the ships (how do they find all those cool castles and chateaux for exclusive events?) as onboard.
Best for Families
AmaWaterways is testing the market for family cruises in a name-brand way, partnering with Adventures by Disney for select cruises on the Danube featuring kids' activities and Disney guides. Even more established in the family market is luxury line Tauck, which introduced multigenerational river cruising with its brand Tauck Bridges in 2008. Kid-friendly activities include scavenger hunts in the Louvre in Paris, nature hikes where you might spot creatures like the three-toed sloth (a resident of the Amazon region) pictured above, guided cycling in Austria, and interactive cooking demonstrations.
Best for Cuisine
The food on AmaWaterways ships puts emphasis on high-quality ingredients and is above standard river cruise fare—so much so that the line has been recognized as a member of La Chaine des Roisseurs, the prestigious culinary organization. Foodies will also be pleased with what they are served on Uniworld ships, especially if your tastes include such extravagances as foie gras, fresh oysters, and hard-to-find regional cheeses.
Best for Onboard Activities
Avalon Waterways does a particularly good job in historical and cultural immersion, with lectures by experts—for instance, a World War II historian comes onboard cruises to Normandy. The line also has a large calendar of special interest sailings with experts onboard focusing on such topics as Jewish heritage, Impressionist art, European history, opera, jazz, wellness, and even craft beer.
Best for Entertainment
Every line brings on visiting local acts, mostly singers or musicians or folk dance troupes, but Tauck offers live shows and concerts both onboard and on shore. Deserving props, too, is American Queen Steamboat Company on the Mississippi, with its Dixieland jazz, old-timey music hall performances (pictured), and occasional Elvis impersonators. You won’t find that on the Danube.
Best for Included Shore Excursions
Australian luxury line Scenic goes a step further than the standard, escorted tour, giving passengers the option of a GPS gizmo that lets you head off on foot or bike to hear commentary that’s automatically activated when you reach a point of interest. Avid bicyclists, meanwhile, will applaud all of AmaWaterways’ biking excursions, a program it is constantly growing and enhancing.
Best for Pre- and Post-Tour Extensions
Tauck and Avalon Waterways are both owned by established tour operators—and it shows. They make it easy to extend your trip before or after you hit the water by letting you combine a land tour, special excursions (such as a hot air balloon ride in Myanmar, pictured), or even a small ship ocean cruise (head from your Rhine cruise to the Baltic, for instance).