How to Choose a Relaxing River Cruise

Avalon Tranquility courtesy of Avalon Waterways

Many Americans, especially those who have not gone as far in their traveling, have heard mostly about Viking River Cruises, but there are really so many options out there! If you were to go looking, you would find so many choices it would be hard to figure out what to do.

So, HOW does one choose a relaxing (or adventurous) river cruise? Oh, let me count the ways!

What are the differences?

Guests on Amsterdam Bridge courtesy of Ama Waterways
  • In just Europe, there are 12+ river cruise lines operating (I recommend about half of them for my clients)
  • River cruising takes place in the US, many areas of Europe, Africa, Asia, Egypt, the Galapagos, the Ukraine & Russia’s waterways, and newest is Colombia’s Magdalena!
  • River Cruise ships range from a handful to several dozen per cruise line, so you have to look at cruise ships, as well as the various room types on board
  • Some lines include more than others, increasing value, and sometimes, you can get more by paying more upfront and less on your trip! Especially relevant when comparing ocean to river cruising.
  • Activities & some types of common areas onboard may differ
  • Special Interest cruise availability – some river cruise lines offer dozens of specialty river cruises from Tulip Time to Christmas Markets or even something ultra-special like Jewish Heritage, for example, and others offer just a few of these.

What is the same?

Aquavit Terrace courtesy of Viking River Cruises
  • Most ships for rivers are built generally the same, with a few exceptions, due to river width and depth limitations.
  • This means that many river cruise ships look alike, and may make it harder to differentiate.
  • Exceptions are the AmaMagna & Crystal Mozart, which are a bit different. (as of 2021)
  • Most river cruise ships offer fitness centers, sun decks, restaurants, lounges, similarly sized staterooms, and many but not all include mini-spas, salons, alternative dining venues, etc.

What is Important to you?

Watchau on Wheels, Austria courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises
  • Perhaps being active is very important. Biking, hiking, and fitness or wellness onboard being great is very important.
  • Maybe for you, 24/7 inclusive alcoholic beverages is something you’d like to enjoy, or perhaps you don’t drink much and this is rather not important to you.
  • Some people prefer more dining options, venues, and choices.
  • Other people like butler service included with their room
  • Maybe you’d prefer an open-air balcony room, or perhaps to have a separate outdoor balcony area.
  • Included tours or excursions might be a great value to you as well, which means a line offering more included tours on a given itinerary may interest you more than one that gives fewer, or a lower quality set of options.

Overwhelming much?

It can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to start, and that’s where your Travel Professional can help. Here are some basics to get you started on how to narrow the list to the 5 W questions + the How (much):


Zambezi Queen courtesy of Ama Waterways

Of course, where you want to go shapes the entire thing and should cut a lot of options out for you! There are so many rivers, but let’s start with the most popular – The Rhine and Danube rivers. Most any first time river cruiser will go on one of these, unless they have something else particular in mind. For Rhine River Cruises, as well as Danube River Cruises, almost every major River Cruise line travels here, so that makes it harder to choose. So the first question is: Where do you want to go? Here are most of the rivers that river cruises currently sail on:

  • Amazon River: Peru, Brazil, & Ecuador – also to be noted: ocean cruise lines can also sail the Amazon region
  • Danube River: Germany, Austria, the Republic of Moldova, Hungary, Ukraine, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, and Croatia
  • Douro River: Portugal & Spain
  • Elbe & Loire Rivers: These are shallow rivers and the Elbe’s basin spans 4 countries, but it is mostly in Germany and the Czech Republic but, this river stretches also to Austria and Poland just a tiny bit. The Elbe’s, the biggest cities are Berlin, Hamburg, Prague, Dresden and Leipzig. The Loire River is the longest river in France.
  • Galapagos Islands: Ecuador
  • Irrawaddy River: river that flows from north to south through Burma
  • Mekong River: Vietnam & Cambodia
  • Mississippi River: USA
  • Nile River: Egypt
  • Po River: Italy River, only a few river cruise lines sail this river.
  • Rhine River, crossing through Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands
  • Rhône/Saône Rivers: The Rhône is a major river in France and Switzerland, the Saône River is a river of eastern France.
  • Russia’s Waterways consists of the White Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Volga River, Moscow, the Caspian Sea and—via the Sea of Azov —the Black Sea.
  • Seine River France; typically begins and ends in Paris.
  • Yangtze River: China; longest river in Asia, 3rd-longest in the world
  • Zambezi River: Africa, east flowing into the Indian Ocean.


Captain’s Welcome courtesy of Ama Waterways

Who’s going on this trip? If just you alone, there might be a single supplement, but some lines do waive that. Otherwise, a single supplement nearly doubles your fare. Some river cruise companies may, at times, reduce or waive single supplements. A well versed Travel Agent can help you avoid this problem.

Just 2-4 people? Easy peasy. Most rooms are built for 2-4 to a room. 5+ or a group? You might actually be in luck! For groups with 5+ rooms expected to travel, are often many great perks for groups! This is another place where having a Travel Agent or Professional assist you can take a lot of weight off your shoulders, from coordination of payments, rooms, insurance, flights, and more.

What are the interests and ages of those going? This is also important, because many river cruise lines restrict most passenger ages.


What do you want to see and do? What’s important to you? If you are not sure, a Travel Agent or Professional can help you sort through options!

What inclusions do you want to have already a part of your trip cost versus paying extra during travel? There are so many variables here to consider. Let me outline the basics:

  • Gratuities and tips
  • Excursions/Tours/Activities
  • Alcohol – Basic such as wine and beer at dinner or full open bar or none needed?
  • Soft drink inclusions


Why are you going on this trip? Relaxation, Fun, Bucket list, Adventure, see the world?

If you’re looking for active adventure, your river cruise can be pre-planned to include biking, hiking, and more active exploring, such as Avalon Waterways’ Active & Discovery itinerary on the Rhône River, which would allow you to kayak, taste wine, take a culinary walking tour, or a cooking class, all while staying active.

Perhaps you might be more bucket list oriented, in which case, let’s say you were doing the ! If so might like to see the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation, and that would mean you’d want an itinerary that includes all the best highlights that you want to see, including this one. Working with a travel agent or professional can help you accomplish this much easier!

Maybe you just want to relax and see the best of the Rhône River. In this case, a trip with less active adventure and more guided, light sightseeing might be your preference. If this is the case, you can work with a great cruise line like Uniworld Boutique River Cruises to enjoy a relaxing itinerary that takes you to see the sites in luxury.

All of these are different variations of a Rhône River cruise that vary depending on the type of experience you are looking for.


When you’ll be able to go can and likely will affect trip options and best choices for your river cruise. The season of the year you travel may greatly affect your trip for various reasons.

If you have work/vacation time/travel companion limitations, you obviously have to put those first. For example, let’s say you want to see tulips in bloom.

“Tulip Time” is a very popular phenomenon in River Cruises in Holland and Belgium. Viking River Cruises offers 2 itineraries of 10 days each. During spring tulip season, you can go on a river cruise that normally doesn’t offer some great tulip time specialties, such as 7 million + flowers in bloom at Keukenhof Gardens!

Cottage Garden & Tulips, courtesy of Keukenhof Gardens, Holland

The Holland & Belgium by Viking Tulip time river cruise is 10 days, with 3 countries, which gives you a chance to see the city of Amsterdam, and seeing many cities that help you observe the Flemish, German, and Dutch culture, also called “low countries”. See windmills and learn about Dutch engineering as well as visiting Europe’s diamond capital, Antwerp. You can add pre and/or post cruise extensions in Amosterdam, Brussels, and others.

The Tulips & Windmills by Viking Tulip time river cruise is also 10 days but with 2 countries. During this itinerary, you’ll learn about Belgium beers, chocolates, Hoorn’s seafaring history, Arnhem’s WWII legacy, and the renaissance of Antwerp. Not to mention, the Dutch tulips across the farmland on the way, and of course Keukenhof Gardens!

Maybe you want to visit the Christmas Markets. Riviera River Cruises is a line that doesn’t offer a lot of specialty cruises, but one that most lines offer is the Christmas or Holiday sailings. They offer, as an example of how many options you have, several Holiday sailings:

Cologne Market and Cathedral at Night courtesy of Riviera River Cruises
  • Enchanting Rhine & Yuletide 5 day river cruise featuring 4 visits and tours including guided tours of Bonn and Koblenz; visits to Rüdesheim and Cologne.
  • Christmas on the Rhine 8 day river cruise featuring 6 visits and tours including guided tours of Koblenz, Rüdesheim, Speyer, Strasbourg, Boppard and Cologne, & including a Live Christmas Day musical performance on board, live classical music concert on board, & Christmas Day Gala Dinner!
  • New Year on the Rhine 6 day river cruise featuring 4 visits and tours including guided tours of Rüdesheim, Frankfurt, Koblenz, and Cologne, a live folklore show as well as a classical music concert on board, & New Year’s Eve drinks, and canapés and a New Year’s Day brunch.
  • Danube River’s Imperial Cities & Yuletide Markets 6 day river cruise featuring 3 guided tours of Budapest, Vienna and Bratislava, welcome cocktails, and the Captain’s Dinner.
  • Christmas on the Blue Danube 8 day river cruise featuring 7 visits and tours including guided tours in Vienna, Salzburg or Linz, Budapest and Bratislava; and visits to Esztergom, Melk Abbey and Schönbrunn Palace, a live Christmas classical quartet recital on board, a Hungarian Christmas folklore show on board, and a Christmas Day Gala dinner.
  • New Year on the Blue Danube 6 day river cruise featuring 4 visits and tours including guided tours in Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Schönbrunn Palace, a live classical music recital on board, a live Hungarian folklore show on board, New Year’s Eve drinks and canapés and a New Year’s Day brunch.

So as you can see, with Riviera River Cruises as just one of 9 recommended river cruise lines, you’d have an overwhelming number of just Christmas or Holiday cruises alone!

How long you go might make a big difference as well, depending on your travel agenda. Whether you want to go in spring, summer or autumn depends which sailing would work for you, but this is a very special cruise designed to give you a whole new river cruise experience for 45 nights through 14 countries on 7 rivers! Pretty amazing if you have enough time to do it!

Are you a food or wine connoisseur (meaning you love exploring tastes and flavors of food and/or wine)? Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours offers some absolutely delicious Culinary River Cruises! Whether you want to combine history, architecture, and art with world class gastronomy, you’ll find Scenic is not only going to offer some amazing itineraries but also a truly all-inclusive approach to river cruising. Some of their options are:

  • France Culinary Cruises which offer the art of French winemaking, cooking classes, sampling fresh & regional produce, and you’ll learn about complementary condiments!
  • Highlights of Tastes of Southern France Cruises offer you trufflue hunting, sample the very best Beaujolais wines, enjoy an on board dinner prepared by Michelin star chef Didier Goiffon, a visit to an organic goat cheese farm with tasting, an after-hours access to Cité Du Chocolate, explore Beaune, visit a local mustard producer, lunch at a Bouchon restaurant in Lyon, & even learning the art of barrel making at a cooperage!
  • Flavors of Bordeaux Cruises offer the art of barrel making at a cooperage, enjoy exclusive after-hours access to Les Bassins de Lumières, a visit to a Lillet producer, Mmster the art of food photography during an on board class, and explore the Pomerol wine region.

Once again, so many choices, so it’s best to select the right river cruise line to meet all of what you need to maximize your experience!

Perhaps you want to avoid, crowds, heat, or low water levels. This takes some time to sort through the options. Regarding water levels, every year can be different, but since rerouting (by bus) might be strongly non-preferred for most river cruisers, it’s important to plan with low level water season in mind at various rivers.


Which cruise line? There are dozens, but there are a few that I tend to prefer recommending for my clients. My top 5 recommended lines are Ama Waterways, Avalon Waterways, Scenic, Uniworld, and Viking, but I also recommend a few others as well. Here they are and why I like each of them:

  • Ama Waterways: Ama means love, but not only that, Ama Waterways includes a moderate amount of beverages, and some of the best amenities, such as regionally inspired cuisine, Chef’s table included, Your choice in excursions, wellness areas as well as a spa onboard usually.
  • Avalon Waterways: Offering the most amazing views and best use of space in their Suite Ships, with beds facing the water and a sliding glass open air balcony which transforms your entire room to a balcony lounge area! Not to mention, they can pair nicely with other Globus brands vacations before or after your cruise!
  • Crystal: Crystal features all-inclusive amenities/services onboard, including 24 hour butler service with every suite, tremendous service, the highest staff to guest ratio of 1 to 3.5 down to 1 for every 1.46 guests!
  • Emerald: Emerald River Cruises offers extremely spacious staterooms, action packed itineraries, and most ships feature a heated pool, nightly cinema, beer, wine, and fine dining. Emerald is a lovely option!
  • Riviera: Great if you’re not much of a drinker, as they do not include any alcohol and their drink program is for meal time only and limited bar; offer tours and more basic amenities as well.
  • Scenic: Scenic offers quite a bit, including 2012 and newer ships or refurbished ships, 24/7 drinks except just a few extra premium, unique exclusive multi-sensory experiences, Scenic’s Tailormade App allowing you to explore on your own, either by foot or on two wheels with e-bikes, some of the largest suites on rivers, a high staff-to-guest ratio, balcony suites transform to a Sun Lounge, their Freechoice provides a large range of tours for you to choose from including history to culture, gastronomy to nature. Butlers provide nightly turndown & laundry service included for all guests, dining is casual or fine dining, fresh and in season, and you can expect to experience true regional cuisine. Not only this but an airport greeting, transfers to/from cruise, local guides, tips included for tours are all included.
  • Tauck: Tauck brings locals aboard to share their talents, traditions, and stories & invite guests to dine in private palaces w/nobles who live there, share wine with the winemakers who made them, cook regional recipes with chefs, and enjoy performances in exclusive venues. They also offer a lot of themed cruises such as music & Oktoberfest, includes All shore excursions, accommodations, all gratuities, entertainment, admissions, tastings, on-tour transportation, transfers upon arrival and departure & complimentary beverages – including specialty coffee, tea, soft drinks, house wine, beer & premium spirits 24/7.
  • Uniworld: Their ships are all unique, luxe, lush, and posh. I absolutely adore the regionally decorated cruise ships, but Uniworld also provides many specialty river cruises, from culinary to wellness, but also provide a very inclusive experience! They also are known for outstanding accommodations of just about any request!
  • Viking: Viking River Cruises are well known due to their partnership with PBS, and they strike a nice balance between value and service, but their ships pack a lot more guests than many others – however, they won #1 River Cruise Line in the Condé Nast Traveler 2021 Readers’ Choice Awards (as well in 2017 & 2018 too), include transfers when buying air with Viking, and offer an adults only environment.

Which room type? Once you decide the cruise line, you’ll want to choose the best room type on that cruise line for you.

Prima Suite courtesy of Ama Waterways
  • Suite with extra space, luxury, and sometimes a personal butler!
  • Balcony / Balcony type – outdoor balcony, room that transforms to open air balcony, or both?
  • Lower rooms save money but are often below the water line and have high up windows only

How Much?

The ever important budget. If you have a price range you’re comfortable with, it’s good to make sure you keep that in mind when finding a good River Cruise that fits both your travel desires as well as your wallet!

So step 1 here is to determine your budget. Keep in mind it’s a bit of a moving target since prices adjust continuously; however, here’s a general guide:

  • $600+ per person, per day: You may encounter pricing in this range when looking at specialty, or less frequent sailings with the higher end river cruise companies, such as Ama Waterways on the Nile as one example. They have a brand new ship, the AmaDahlia, sailing the Nile and it is amazing!
  • $400-600 per person, per day: You can afford the most inclusive and exclusive river cruise lines, such as Uniworld, Crystal, & Scenic. They usually include prepaid gratuities at this level.
  • $200-400 per person, per day: Some great options at this price point would be AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Emerald Waterways, Riviera River Cruises, and Viking River Cruises. They don’t typically include 24 hour a day alcoholic beverages or prepaid gratuities but are great choices and include much.

Hopefully, these questions along with the help of a travel agent or professional will help you narrow the list to ultimately line you up with the perfect destination on a ship that suits your taste, budget, time, travel goals, and activity level.

Stay tuned, more details on various aspects from this article should be appearing in future editions!

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