The Best River Cruise Lines: How Do the 6 Top Operators Compare?


The river cruise’s intimate, pared-down luxury is an incredible experience, but with so many lines and itineraries out there, how do you know which cruise is the one with the most to offer you as a holidaymaker? Perhaps the flavour of local life is what you’re looking for, or the promise of incredible cuisine often proves impossible to resist on your travels. Maybe it’s getting to know like-minded individuals in stunning settings that attracts you to the river cruise experience.

Whatever the reasons, these far-flung locales have something for everyone. If you’re feeling a bit spoiled for choice, we’ve lined up our fleet of river cruise lines to see how they compare against each other. Your next European river cruise adventure could be waiting below…

APT River Cruises

Founded in Melbourne in 1927, the family-owned cruise line has been pioneering river travel ever since. Touted as the grandest ships on Europe’s rivers, their Concerto River Ships have comfort and luxury down to a tee, designed with a wealth of features that guests continue to flock to. Furnished with huge suites complete with mini-bars, butler service in select suites, a heated swimming pool on its Sun Deck, and a whole host of amazing dining locations, their ships provide a superb experience to all.

With no more than 164 passengers per sailing, served by up to 49 crew members, the atmosphere is intimate and close-knit. Other passengers tend to be well-travelled and somewhat affluent, usually from Australia, New Zealand and England; the vibe is relaxed and there tends to be a fair bit of socialising too.

With a raft of awards to their name including the Cruise Passenger award for Best Overall River Cruise Line in 2015 and 2017, APT’s credentials are undeniable. Fully inclusive to boot, their calling card is perhaps the Signature Experiences offering, a selection of hand-picked sightseeing opportunities that include everything from private concerts in Viennese Palaces to banquets in German castles. Whatever you go for, these are truly moments to be savoured.

Fred Olsen

Still owned and operated by the family who originally founded it in the 19th century, Fred Olsen prides itself on tradition, offering what it calls “British-style river cruising”, refining its services, atmosphere and experience in a way that caters specifically to British tastes.

Onboard Brabant, the line’s sole river cruise ship, the ample space allows its 156 guests to relax and unwind with ease, as 40 crew members work tirelessly to make your time as blissful as possible. With 79 rooms onboard, all of which are superbly furnished, serenity is never far away from you here.

Thoroughly British onboard, Fred Olsen’s experiences in port are anything but. Explore the Netherlands’ iconic Keukenhof Gardens, one of the world’s largest botanical gardens, amidst 800 different varieties of tulip, or wander through the city of Strasbourg, an expansive mix of literary influence, winding canals and fairytale charm that’s all its own. From the Danube to the Rhine, guests onboard Brabant will get to experience the best parts of Europe in ways like never before.

Emerald Waterways

If you’re looking to really put your feet up while everything gets taken care of, Emerald Waterways is the line for you. As part of their all-inclusive promise, return flights, transfers, onboard meals, complimentary drinks, tips and more are all included in the price! Onboard and in port, a knowledgeable and highly-skilled team are on hand to cater to your every need, while its list of itineraries reads like a traveller’s checklist dream.

Their fleet of ships radiate with modern flourishes, comfortably hosting 182 passengers (Emerald Liberté holds 138) along some of Europe’s greatest waterways. Complete with its own innovative heated pool and on-deck cinema, relax and unwind as you pass through the Douro’s storied vineyards or watch history unfold before you on the Rhône’s serene waters.

Emerald Waterways love to get to the heart of local life as part of their EmeraldPLUS excursion programme, perfect for those looking to dip their toes into more provincial experiences. Why not try dining with a family at their home in Bratislava or learn how to make cocktails like a local while in Portugal? It’s hidden gems like this that make Emerald a superb choice for true explorers.


Boasting an array of Space-Ships, vessels with a higher-than-usual space ratio, Scenic’s river cruises are tailormade for people looking to truly get away from the day-to-day’s hustle and bustle. And because everything is included in the price, the wallet is rarely troubled when you’re onboard. An approach that’s earned them many an award, Scenic river cruises are for those who like the simple life.

As well as their all-inclusive promise, a team of Journey Designers do their utmost to ensure your cultural journey is as enriching and stimulating as possible. Wherever you go, your time at sea will be gilded by a selection of unbelievable activities, once-in-a-lifetime events that range from classical music performance in iconic European palaces to medieval feasts in ancient Viking castles and much, much more.

river boat cruise

Numbering from as few as 44 to 169 passengers, Scenic’s Space-Ships are spacious yet intimate, furnished with exceptional cabins packed with every amenity you could want. Incredible international cuisine, both refined and relaxed, awaits foodies of all stripes, while the Vitality Pools make for a superb way to unwind at the end of the day. Like a 5-star hotel at sea, Scenic’s dedication to both luxury and leisure is as impressive as it is inviting.

Riviera Travel

On a Riviera Travel river cruise, your time in port is all about the joys of discovery. Their team of travel experts have fine-tuned every aspect of its itineraries, providing guests with plenty of time to explore both iconic sights and hidden gems once they’re onshore. Engaging and insightful, Riviera handpicks the finest local guides and tour managers for their excursions, opening guests’ eyes to all manner of new experiences and knowledge along the way.

Their fleet of ships numbers no more than 169 guests, providing ample space and intimacy wherever you’re travelling. A testament to their quality, many passengers onboard are returning guests too.

Riviera pride themselves on their dedication to customers, racking up numerous awards over the years. To this end, the crew onboard take great care to know their guests’ names and preferences, tailoring things to the way you like them. From itineraries to favourite foods, they leave no stone unturned in their quest to bring you the best.

Viking Cruises

For those who appreciate a touch of culture with their cruise, Viking River Cruises appeals to the traveller who loves to immerse themselves in tradition, heritage and information. Onshore and onboard, your time with Viking is designed to feed your curiosity and intrigue.

Viking offer a peek behind the curtain of cultures across Europe, revealing all manner of hidden gems, from a culinary tour of Budapest and legendary opera performances to insights into the art of truffle hunting and historic Dutch windmills. With Viking, you’ll gain exclusive access to a selection of seldom-seen wonders.

Back onboard, a cultural enrichment programme enhances your experience further, with guest lecturers speaking about your destination’s art, architecture, music and more, while a multimedia presentation sheds light on your next day’s port of call, touching on its history, culture and must-see highlights.

Cooking & craft demonstrations, wine tasting and musical performances abound too, allowing cultural connoisseurs an incredible amount to gorge on wherever in Europe you’re heading.


If any of these intros to the world’s finest river cruise lines has sparked your wanderlust, head over to our dedicated river cruise page.


About Author

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Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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