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River cruising has grown exponentially in recent years, and the demand shows no signs of letting up.1 For travelers, this is good news: Luxury river cruise lines are actively competing to offer better ships, bigger staterooms and more memorable excursions. The only challenge is choosing the best.

We’ll go over everything you should consider when selecting a European river cruise, from dining to décor. For destination suggestions, read 6 of the Best River Cruises Around the World. And don’t forget to protect your river cruise with travel insurance!

Get a travel insurance quote for your next cruise.

The Cruise Ship

There’s a staggering number of river cruise ships to choose from, all with varying levels of luxury. Some things to consider:

  • The number of guests: “The sweet spot in capacity for many European river cruises is 142 passengers plus crew, with some hovering around 200 guests,” USA Today says.2 Larger ships have more amenities, but small vessels provide a more intimate and serene experience. Luxury hotel barge cruises, like those operated by European Waterways, carry no more than 20 passengers.
  • The age of the ship: Newer ships typically have the best amenities and bigger cabins. But don’t discount older ships that have recently been overhauled.
  • The décor: Uniworld is famed for its richly patterned interiors — like an “English country house on steroids,” as Town & Country aptly states.3 Some people love it; others may feel more at home in the streamlined Scandinavian interiors of a Viking ship.

The Staterooms

On a river cruise, more so than an ocean-going vessel, the stateroom serves as your retreat. That means it’s important to choose carefully. One word of advice: on a river cruise, a balcony stateroom may not be ideal. Because of the ship’s width restrictions, balcony rooms are often smaller than others. It’s better to opt for a “French balcony,” which is a glass door that opens to give your whole cabin an open-air feel, travel writer Wendy Perrin suggests.4

Uniworld is known for its luxe Savoir of England beds and L’Occitane en Provence bath and body products. The Presidential Suite on its newest ship, the S.S. Joie de Vivre, boasts a separate living room and a marble bathroom with a rain shower and tub. (Other “suites” on the ship are actually single rooms.)

On several ships, Avalon offers suites that are larger than average — 200 square feet — with panoramic windows that fully retract. Furnishings are elegant and contemporary.5 Viking River Cruises promises some of the largest suites of any European river cruise line on its Viking Longships. The Explorer Suites on the new Viking Hild, for instance, measure 445 square feet, with a wraparound veranda and a French balcony in the bedroom.6 Scenic goes even bigger on its newest ships with the 475-square-foot Royal Panorama Suites, featuring queen-sized beds and lounges with room to stretch out.

The Service

At the end of your river cruise, you may not remember the décor or the dinners — but you definitely will remember the crewmembers who made you feel special. “Distinguishing itself from other cruise lines, Uniworld’s crew are employed rather than contracted and it shows in the pride displayed in their work,” says Cruise Critic, which named Uniworld as the best river cruise line for service in 2017.7 Uniworld offers free laundry service and in-suite butlers.

Every guest on Scenic luxury river cruises enjoys butler service, and each butler is trained at the International Butler Academy by the cruise line’s Head Butler Peter Wyss.8 Room service is available 24/7.

The Amenities

Because ships are small, and because most passengers spend their days exploring towns, European river cruise ships don’t have the same amenities as ocean vessels. Swimming pools are rare, and gyms tend to be tiny.

AmaWaterways is an exception. Its ships offer onboard massages, a hair salon, a spacious workout room and a sundeck pool with a swim-up bar. It was the first luxury river cruise line to offer complimentary bicycles on board.9

Uniworld’s S.S. Joie de Vivre offers a comprehensive spa and wellness center with yoga, a spa, a resistance pool and a smoothie bar at Club L’Esprit — which at night, transforms into a supper club as the floor rises to cover the pool.

The Dining

Meals on luxury river cruise ships are generally served at a single seating, at the main restaurant, so don’t be late! Dress is casual (but not too relaxed). Menus and wines reflect the region the ship is traveling through, whether that’s goulash in Hungary or osso buco in Italy.

A few cruise lines are changing the game with specialty restaurants and unique dining experiences. Scenic’s Table La Rive invites just 10 Diamond Deck and Junior Balcony Suite Sapphire Deck guests to enjoy a six-course degustation menu with sommelier paired wines. AmaWaterways features the Chef’s Table, where guests can watch the chef prepare a multi-course meal right in front of them.

The Excursions

Excursions are the best part of a European luxury river cruise, and the best cruise lines offer options for every type of traveler.

  • Immersion: Scenic’s Enrich encounters involve more than just sightseeing. Guests get to intimately experience an aspect of local life. In Switzerland, passengers can visit a local farm and taste cheese and wine; in Croatia, they’ll have a traditional meal in the home of a local family.
  • Culinary: Tauck’s “Savoring France” food-themed cruise lets you sip and snack through Paris, Lyon and Provence. Dine at Fouquet’s, a hotspot on the Champs Élysées, take a pastry class at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, and taste Beaujolais in Beaujolais.10
  • Active travel: AmaWaterways has collaborated with outfitter Backroads to offer fully supported cycling excursions, in which passengers cycle all day and then catch up with the ship in the evenings.11

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