If you’d like to take a cruise but aren’t interested in the hustle and bustle of a massive ocean liner, you may want to consider a river cruise. River cruises offer the chance to visit lesser-known ports around the world, thanks to the small size and maneuverability of the vessels. These sailings are known to provide exceptional, personalized service, as most welcome fewer than 200 guests at a time. On top of that, you’ll spend the majority of your trip exploring a different port each day, as most destinations along the waterways are fairly close together.
To help you determine the best river cruise line for you, U.S. News analyzed traveler and expert reviews and detailed the onboard amenities, shore excursion options, price points, diverse itineraries and overall experience to expect below. Read on to see which river cruise line ticks all the boxes for what you’re looking for on your next cruise vacation. Jump to the River Cruise Line FAQs for answers to common questions about river cruises.
(Note: Some sailings may be affected due to the coronavirus pandemic. Cruise lines may require travelers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding. For the latest information, please visit the CDC website and each individual river cruise line’s website.)
Top River Cruise Lines
(Courtesy of Viking River Cruises)
Price range: About $2,000 to $11,000 per person
Sails to: Europe, Asia, Africa, U.S.
Founded in 1997, Viking is one of the most well-known river cruise lines sailing today. Viking’s 60-plus ships − known as longships − carry roughly 75 to 250 people (depending on the vessel) and traverse major rivers across Europe, including the Danube, the Rhine, the Douro and more. Other popular routes sail to destinations in Asia, Egypt and the Mississippi River.
Travelers may be familiar with Viking Ocean Cruises, which operates larger ocean voyages with an emphasis on opulent accommodations and diverse enrichment activities. Viking’s river cruises follow a similar road map, with meals, daily walking tours and Wi-Fi access (where applicable) included in the base fare; other amenities and activities span guest lectures, cooking demonstrations, musical performances, libraries, outdoor decks and more. Select Viking riverboats are also equipped with swimming pools, while cabins feature minibars, premium toiletries, purified water and TVs.
On board, you can expect to find mostly English-speaking passengers. Viking’s price point generally attracts older crowds in the 55-plus age group, and travelers must be at least 18 years old to cruise on the line. Recent cruisers considered their river voyages on Viking to be bucket list experiences, praising the scenic shore excursions, top-notch service and comfortable rooms. However, a few were disappointed with the food quality and options on board, with some travelers noting that snacks were not offered between mealtimes.
Viking’s river cruises for 2022 and 2023 last between eight and 23 days, and prices range from around $2,000 to $11,000 per person. For more information, visit the Viking website.
(Courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises)
Price range: About $2,000 to $23,000 per person
Sails to: Europe, Asia, South America
Uniworld offers luxurious sailings in historic cities across central Europe, France, Italy, Portugal, India, Egypt and Peru. Its 19 ships aim to create the feel of a boutique hotel with stylish decor, antique artwork and specialty restaurants. The ships hold an average capacity of 120 cruisers, and the company boasts one of the highest staff-to-guest ratios in the industry: about one crew member for every two travelers.
Stateroom amenities vary by vessel but may include marble bathrooms, Egyptian cotton linens, French balconies, iPod docking stations, Nespresso coffee machines, rainfall showers and more. The line’s all-inclusive rates cover meals, alcoholic beverages, select excursions, gratuities, onboard fitness classes and Wi-Fi access, on top of entertainment and enrichment classes. Uniworld prides itself on its top-notch cuisine, which is made with local ingredients sourced from the ports on your itinerary.
Uniworld’s typical clientele tend to be in their 50s or 60s and reside in North America, the U.K. and Australia, though the river cruise line has select vessels aimed at a younger demographic. For example, two of its ships – The A and The B – were designed with travelers ages 21 to 45 in mind. The compact ships, known under the moniker “U by Uniworld,” have onboard bars and nightclubs featuring custom cocktails, yoga classes, rooftop lounges, paint and wine classes, and more; there are also plenty of phone charging ports scattered throughout the common areas. Unlike on most other river cruise lines, brunch is served until the early afternoon on U by Uniworld, which encourages a few late mornings (after some late nights).
Recent cruisers offered abundant praise for Uniworld’s voyages, complimenting the stylish accommodations, attentive staff and fascinating excursions. Though complaints were few and far between, a handful of past travelers felt the experience was not worth the high price point. Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ 2022 and 2023 sailings range from eight to 25 days and cost between $2,000 and roughly $23,000 per person, depending on the itinerary. Learn more on Uniworld’s website.
Price range: About $2,300 to $14,000 per person
Sails to: U.S.
As the name suggests, American Cruise Lines sails exclusively on the rivers and coastlines of the United States. Popular cruises visit destinations along the Mississippi River, on the Hudson River, throughout New England, and lining the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest. The line also tours Alaska, the Southeast coast including Florida, and the Puget Sound between Washington state and the Canadian border. New for 2023, American Cruise Lines will offer California-intensive cruises departing from San Francisco.
American Cruise Lines operates 15 relatively new small ships and river vessels (the average ship is about 4 years old), ranging from modern riverboats to small coastal ships to authentic paddlewheelers. The vessels can carry between 100 and 190 passengers. Comfortable cabins can accommodate up to three people per room, and all ships offer single staterooms designed exclusively for solo travelers. Each room boasts picture windows, a spacious bathroom and – in some cases – a private balcony. In the ships’ public spaces, cruisers can enjoy daily onboard entertainment like jazz and blues performances, as well as presentations by historians and area experts.
The line promises an all-American experience: As such, you can expect to find American staff aboard the American-built ships and food that pays homage to the destinations you will visit, from New Orleans-style andouille sausage gumbo to New England-inspired seafood boils. Complimentary cocktails and hors d’oeuvres are served every night prior to dinner; all meals, snacks, and wine and beer are included in the base fare. Sailing on this small-ship line also encompasses select shore excursions and shoreside transportation, as well as complimentary pre-cruise hotel stays and a flat-rate domestic airfare for all cruises.
Passengers on American Cruise Lines tend to lean North American and are typically mature retired travelers. Recent cruisers enjoyed the modern decor and tasty food on board, though a few said the housekeeping services and disorganized activities could use some improvement. Voyages in 2022 and 2023 last between five and 22 days, with plenty of weeklong and round-trip itineraries. Prices range from about $2,300 to $14,000 per person. For more information, visit the cruise line’s website.
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(Courtesy of AmaWaterways)
Price range: About $1,400 to $26,000 per person
Sails to: Europe, Asia, Africa, South America (starting 2024)
Whether you’re looking to sail through the heart of Europe or seeking a once-in-a-lifetime adventure touring destinations like Vietnam, Egypt, South Africa or, beginning in 2024, Colombia, consider a river cruise with AmaWaterways. A family-owned business founded in 2002, AmaWaterways operates 26 river cruise boats (the line’s newest vessel, AmaMagdalena, begins sailing in 2023) that welcome around 150 passengers on average. The cruise line aims to provide excursion-rich experiences and offers unique themed sailings for passengers with certain interests. Wine-themed voyages are perfect for oenophiles wishing to explore some of Europe’s most popular wine regions, while a concierge golf program will transport passengers from one famous golf course to the next. Or, opt for a holiday river cruise to visit magical Christmas markets around Europe.
On board, guests can expect cabins suitable for couples or single travelers, as well as a set amount of connectible rooms designed for multigenerational families. Staterooms are spacious, with perks like bathrobes, slippers, plush bedding and luxury toiletries. Cabins can feature up to two balconies with AmaWaterways’ twin balcony design, which allows for a full, step-out balcony alongside a French balcony with sliding glass doors. In-room Wi-Fi is complimentary, and guests will have access to movies and music on demand.
Outside of their cabins, passengers can enjoy amenities spanning small pools and sun decks, fitness equipment, a hair salon, massage services and more. Recent travelers had high praise for their experiences, noting the beautiful ports and fun excursions, as well as the great onboard service and comfortable accommodations. Still, some felt that certain destinations were less impressive than they were made to seem in the online marketing materials, so be sure to do your own itinerary research before booking so you know what to expect.
AmaWaterways primarily attracts North American travelers in their 50s who enjoy taking part in active shore excursions that involve walking or cycling. Still, passengers from the U.K. and Australia sail on this river cruise line as well. You can expect to find a mix of couples, families and solo cruisers on your vessel, thanks to AmaWaterways’ diverse cabin offerings. Adventures by Disney charters AmaWaterways ships for select sailings each year. AmaWaterways’ trips in 2022 and 2023 range from five to 16 nights and cost around $1,400 to $17,000 per person, depending on the itinerary. In summer 2023, AmaWaterways will sail the longest river cruise ever: a 46-night voyage across seven waterways in Europe. Prices for that voyage start around $26,000 per person. Learn more about AmaWaterways on its website.
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(Courtesy of Avalon Waterways)
Price range: About $1,100 to $11,000 per person
Sails to: Europe, Asia, Africa, South America
Serving Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, Avalon Waterways sails 20 riverboats along popular thoroughfares like the Danube, the Rhone, the Seine, the Nile, the Rhine, the Moselle, the Mekong, the Ganges and more. Launched in 2004, Avalon stands out for its spacious vessels – known as Suite Ships – which feature some of the largest rooms in the river cruise industry and beds that face wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows, providing panoramic views. Additional stateroom perks include complimentary breakfast in bed; L’Occitane toiletries; height-adjustable sitting areas; ample storage space; and your choice of a soft, medium or firm mattress.
Across the ship, passengers can enjoy amenities like a sun deck with lounge chairs, whirlpools and a game area, as well as numerous restaurants and bars and a 24-hour self-serve coffee station. You will also have your pick of Classic, Active or Discovery shore excursions – ranging from standard tours with a local guide to hiking outings along a hilltop castle – depending on your interests and physical abilities. Most recent travelers reported having a great experience on their Avalon river cruises, highlighting the friendly, knowledgeable staff and tasty food. Still, some were disappointed in their itineraries, stating they felt they overpaid for the sights they saw on the trip.
Avalon Waterways attracts English-speaking cruisers from a variety of countries, typically in their 50s and 60s. However, children ages 8 and older are welcome on board (though there are no designated kids clubs), and some voyages draw younger or older passengers. River cruises on this line typically last between four and 15 days in 2022 and 2023, and prices range from around $1,100 to $11,000 per person. Fare inclusions vary by itinerary. For more information, visit the Avalon Waterways website.
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(Courtesy of American Queen Voyages)
Price range: About $1,300 to $6,000 per person
Sails to: U.S., Canada (by 2023)
In fall 2021, American Queen Steamboat Company merged with Victory Cruise Lines to form American Queen Voyages. Based in North America, American Queen Voyages sails a few routes in the U.S., including the Mississippi River; the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers; and the Columbia and Snake rivers. It is set to expand its sailings in 2023 to expeditions in Canada and other regions in the U.S., such as Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, aboard new small ship Ocean Victory.
This river cruise line operates four authentic paddlewheelers that hold between 150 and 400 passengers. All-inclusive sailings encompass unlimited onboard Wi-Fi, unlimited beverages (and an open bar), unlimited guided tours, dining throughout your cruise and more. On board, travelers will find a main dining room, an entertainment hall, a sun deck, card rooms and lounges. Each cruise serves up tasty local cuisine that varies by itinerary. Staterooms feature plush linens, coffee makers, minifridges, TVs, private balconies (in select accommodations) and more.
Recent cruisers were impressed with American Queen Voyages’ offerings, noting the line’s well-kept vessels, pleasant staff and delicious food. On the other hand, some travelers experienced internet connectivity issues throughout their trips, and others were unimpressed with the customer service agents they spoke with over the phone.
American Queen Voyages’ 2022 and 2023 cruises last from five to 20-plus days and cost between $1,300 and $6,000 per person. The line mainly caters to travelers in their 50s, though you may find the occasional grandparent and college-aged grandchild. The line is especially suitable for passengers who use wheelchairs, thanks to its abundance of accessibility options. History buffs also tend to like the itineraries and enrichment programs on board. Learn more on the American Queen Voyages website.
(Courtesy of Tauck)
Price range: About $3,000 to $13,000 per person
Sails to: Europe
Travel company Tauck wears multiple hats: It operates small-ship voyages around the world, land tours across seven continents, small group journeys for an average of 24 travelers at a time, family tours and – finally – European river cruises. Take your pick from nine river vessels to explore popular waterways like the Douro, the Moselle, the Rhine, the Danube and the Rhone. All-inclusive fares cover shore excursions, onboard activities and entertainment, gratuities, beverages and more. Plus, Tauck offers exclusive access to unforgettable experiences like wine tastings at private vineyards and gala dinners in historic castles.
Tauck’s riverboats carry between 84 and 130 passengers. More than 80% of the staterooms feature French balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing for excellent views. Other in-room amenities may include adjustable climate controls, satin linens, pillow-top mattresses, terry cloth robes and more. Outside of your cabin, you’ll find perks such as a sun deck, a putting green, enrichment programs like cooking demonstrations, a fitness center and complimentary bikes for onshore exploring.
Tauck caters to affluent, English-speaking cruisers – primarily Americans in the 55-and-older age group – though you may also find families with adult children on board. The line appeals most to travelers who prefer all the details of their trip to be taken care of for them, versus those who like to plan activities independent of the cruise line. Recent passengers speak highly of their Tauck river cruise experiences, pointing to the exceptional level of organization and spacious, luxurious accommodations. However, some were left desiring more out of the food quality on board.
River voyages with Tauck range from eight to 25 days in 2022 and 2023, and prices run between $3,000 and almost $13,000 per person. Visit Tauck’s website for more information.
Price range: About $1,200 to $10,400 per person
Sails to: Europe, Asia
Previously known as Emerald Waterways, Emerald Cruises transports travelers across some of the most popular rivers in Europe and Asia, including the Danube, the Rhine, the Douro and the Mekong. The cruise fare covers all meals, beverages with lunch and dinner, daily shore excursions − which include more physically rigorous options called EmeraldACTIVE – Wi-Fi access and gratuities in the base rate.
Emerald operates nine vessels holding between 84 and 180 passengers; all boats boast luxurious public spaces and accommodations with en suite bathrooms and flat-screen TVs. Common-area amenities span heated indoor pools, sun decks, spa and wellness facilities, and a variety of eateries. Onboard fitness classes are available, as are other forms of entertainment. On shore, cruisers can borrow bicycles to explore historic city centers.
Cruisers on recent sailings – especially first-time sailors – enjoyed their experiences on Emerald Cruises. High points included the attentive crew members and the stress-free booking and planning process. However, some noted that the ship could be noisy at night and that the food was mediocre.
Typical clientele aboard Emerald Cruises’ voyages include American and British passengers around retirement age, though some younger travelers may make an appearance as well. Children 12 and older are permitted on board, but there are no kids clubs or designated activities for younger cruisers. Special rooms and dinner reservations are available for solo travelers. In 2022 and 2023, Emerald Cruises’ sailings typically last between five and 26 days, and prices range from around $1,200 to $10,400 per person. Visit Emerald Cruises’ website to learn more.
(Gillies Zaiser/Courtesy of Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours)
Price range: Less than $2,000 to about $23,000 per person
Sails to: Europe, Asia
From the Danube to the Mekong, Australian travel company Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours offers lavish, all-inclusive river sailings with an emphasis on customization. The more upscale sister brand of Emerald Cruises, Scenic affords travelers the opportunity to do as much or as little as they want while on board and ashore.
Enrichment activities are hand-picked by the line’s “Journey Designers,” and vessels provide a top-notch level of service thanks to their high crew-to-passenger ratios. In fact, each passenger receives a designated butler who can complete nightly turndowns and make laundry arrangements, among other tasks. Spacious suites on board are larger than those on most other riverboats (ranging from 160 to 510 square feet); high-tech balcony controls allow lodgers to let in as much air as you’d like with the touch of a button. Cruisers will also enjoy special in-room touches like pillow menus.
When it comes to dining, Scenic sources local ingredients from the ports visited on the itinerary to provide an authentic experience. All meals are included in the base cruise fare, along with beverages, gratuities, Wi-Fi access, shore excursions and electric bicycle usage in select destinations.
Recent cruisers were pleased with their experiences aboard Scenic’s vessels, praising the spacious cabins, pampering butler service, and knowledgeable crew members and tour guides. However, some travelers recommended skipping the special Christmas market cruise, as they found it to be less festive than expected.
Scenic’s river cruises attract a large Australian demographic, followed by American, British and Canadian passengers. Most passengers are well-heeled adults aged 55 and older. In 2022 and 2023, Scenic’s river cruises span five to 36 days, and fares vary from less than $2,000 to almost $23,000 per person. Visit Scenic’s website for more information.
(Helwin Goetzinger/Courtesy of CroisiEurope)
Price range: About $600 to $7,000 per person
Sails to: Europe, Asia, Africa
CroisiEurope is a French, family-run cruise line in business since 1976. This line has 55 ships and barges that sail to 40 countries around the world including Egypt, Cambodia and Spain. Its 33 European river ships accommodate between 100 and 180 passengers each. Unusual in river cruising, the line operates two custom-built ships that sail on Lake Kariba in southern Africa. Additionally, CroisiEurope has a division that sells barge cruises throughout France on six different canals, such as Burgundy or Provence.
CroisiEurope is known for its wide range of destinations and is one of the only river cruise lines that operates custom-built ships on Germany‘s Elbe river, Spain’s Guadalquivir and Guadiana rivers, and Venice‘s Canal Bianco. Onboard accommodations are relatively basic, which keeps the cruise fare to a budget-friendly minimum. The cruise line aims to provide the best value for money in the cruise industry. Cuisine is focused on French food with some local flair in the main dining room, which is included in the cruise fare.
The passenger mix on a CroisiEurope cruise is relatively international, featuring large contingencies from France, Germany, the U.K. and North America. Announcements are typically given in both French and English. The cruise line sees a mix of older couples and groups as well as younger families, depending on the itinerary and time of year.
Recent passengers found a four-night Seine River cruise to be an exercise in affordable luxury for a first visit to Europe. But a few cruisers echoed that some of CroisiEurope’s river ships are due for a refurbishment and that internet connectivity leaves a lot to be desired. The line’s 2022 and 2023 sailings last between three and 19 days; prices range from about $600 to $7,000 per person. For more information, visit the CroisiEurope website.
What is a river cruise?
A river cruise is an opportunity for curious travelers to explore the ports and destinations of the world by river. These sailings take place on riverboats that range in capacity from several guests to a few hundred people, depending on the size of the vessel. River ship dimensions vary depending on where they are sailing. Most boats are custom-built based on the river they are navigating; some waterways require the captain to sail through many locks, while others need to clear low bridges or narrow portions of the river.
On board, the atmosphere is usually relaxed, with one lounge and one main dining room being a typical setup. Most of your time on a river cruise is spent out exploring the destinations, which can sometimes be two stops in a single day. Passengers can choose from a variety of activities in port – including biking, kayaking and hiking – or explore the destination at a leisurely pace. Cuisine tends to be focused on local specialties but prepared to accommodate predominantly American tastes. Not every river cruise line offers unlimited drinks, but the majority include beer and wine at lunch and dinner, often showcasing regional varieties.
A key difference between ocean and river cruising is onboard entertainment, which varies by line but is limited in its offerings. River cruising is notoriously sleepy at night, with a focus instead on local enrichment like cooking demonstrations or liqueur tastings. Due to the busy schedule of port calls and excursions, most passengers are tired after a long day of sightseeing and don’t mind a lack of nightlife.
Which river cruises are all-inclusive?
River cruising tends to be more inclusive than ocean cruising, but inclusions vary by cruise line. For example, Viking includes beer and wine at meals and one tour per day, but gratuities and other drink packages are left to the discretion of the guest and not bundled into the price. Meanwhile, Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours bills itself as “all-inclusive luxury,” and the price you pay includes top-shelf liquor, gratuities, Wi-Fi, transfers, meals and even butler service.
A good recommendation is to look at what amenities come included in the price of your river cruise and decide if these inclusions are a good value for you – if you don’t drink alcohol, for example, a free open bar isn’t to your advantage. Tours tend to be a big differentiator in cruising of any kind; look carefully at what types of shore tours are included, as well as which can be purchased and for how much. Avalon Waterways offers a number of included tours in every port on select itineraries that range from cultural or culinary-focused to active.
What are the best luxury river cruise lines?
Luxury can be subjective. Not having to wash the dishes or make your bed for a week is the pinnacle of luxury to some, while others need to feel like they’re not lifting a single finger on vacation. In terms of inclusions and service ratios (the number of crew on board to guests), Tauck, Scenic and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises are considered luxury cruise lines.