Two Experts Reveal Their Top River Cruise Choices

River cruisers in Mainz, Germany // Photo by Susan J. Young
River cruisers in Mainz, Germany // Photo by Susan J. Young

Close to one million travelers took a river cruise in 2013, according to Douglas Ward, a cruise expert who spends nine months a year sailing on ocean and river vessels. He also emphasizes that river cruise bookings have increased 10 percent annually since 2008.

Global rivers are so hot, in fact, that Ward, well-known author of the Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships guidebook, now in its 30th year of publication, just published a new 256-page guide book, “Berlitz River Cruising in Europe” (, which debuted in July.

The book evaluates 280 river ships with detailed information on destinations, routes and the quality of the food, services, accommodations and general condition of the vessels themselves. Ward says that while American consumers know more about the major oceangoing lines, they’re not as familiar with what’s sailing on European rivers.

“Once poor cousins to the ‘floating hotels’ that are ocean liners, river ships have their own unique selling points,” according to Ward, who now says the major river lines are delivering “state of the art chic.”

AmaCerto in Durnstein, Austria // Photo by Susan J. Young
AmaCerto in Durnstein, Austria // Photo by Susan J. Young

Top Three Choices

Travel Agent asked Ward for his top three river cruise ship and itinerary choices -- not just in Europe but across the globe. Here are his picks.

The Danube on AmaWaterways’ AmaCerto or AmaPrima: Why? Ward says the food is outstanding, and features an abundance of local ingredients and fresh fish. This river ship also has a heated outdoor pool with swim-up bar.

In addition, he likes these vessels’14-night Grand Danube cruise itinerary, which takes guests from the Bavarian town of Vilshofen down the river to the Black Sea port of Rousse, with stops that include Vienna, Austria, Bratislava, Slovakia, and Budapest, Hungard. Ward says these voyages are good for foodies, culture, architecture buffs and history enthusiasts.

The “River Cruises” China program with Viking Emerald: Ward likes this option because he believes “it’s the most comprehensive cruise and tour package out there, from the most experienced operator.” The itinerary travels between Beijing and Shanghai including several days spent cruising on the Yangtze, a visit to the Three Gorges Dam and a trip to Xian to see the famous Terracotta Warriors.

He calls the dam’s visitor center “a treat” and “very worthwhile to view…complete with excellent displays about the whole project.” This program is good for inquisitive travelers, says Ward.

Photo by American Queen Steamboat Company

U.S. Heartland Rivers on American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Queen: “American Queen – built in 1995 - has become an icon – a steamboat in the traditional sense, and the largest stern paddlewheeler ever built,” notes Ward. “This is American heartland at its Dixieland best.”

He says the paddlewheeler even carried the Olympic torch for 42 miles along the river from Paducah, Kentucky, to Mound City, Illinois in 1996, by a state trooper. He likes the Mississippi voyage, in particular, just as Mark Twain did, saying these voyages are appealing to lovers of Americana.

RELATED: American Queen Receives Refurbishment Ahead of Third Season 

Lyon, France // Photo by Susan J. Young
Lyon, France // Photo by Susan J. Young

A River Seller's Perspective

Everyone’s opinions differ, of course, and we wanted to talk to one experienced river cruise seller. Patty Moss, a CruiseOne franchise owner from Chicago, IL, also provided her insight. She picked different vessels and itineraries, calling these "all beautiful but in different ways." Her top three are:

Tulip Time Voyages on Ama Waterways’ AmaDante:  Moss admires this ship for its lovely design with beautiful soft blues and golds. In addition, “AmaWaterways feels very personal and was full of extra small touches for the guests such as a rose when we boarded or a keepsake napkin ring at dinner one night,” she said.

She particularly likes the seven-night voyages through the Netherlands and Belgium, as they give guests the chance to tour Amsterdam pre-cruise and see the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House, as well as the flower market along the canal.  During the weeklong cruise, a highlight is the Het Loo Palace tour in Arnhem with “gorgeous furniture, flowers and lots of history,” according to Moss.

She also says the itinerary gives guests an option for touring medieval Bruges including a boat ride on its canals. On this itinerary, she also liked seeing the operations and learning the history of the windmills at Kinderdijk and being part of the short season for blooming tulips and other colorful flowers at Keukenhof Gardens.

Photo by Susan J. Young
Photo by Susan J. Young

French Rhone/Saone Voyages on A-ROSA Stella: A-Rosa is modern in its interior décor and furnishings. “A-Rosa has much brighter colors [than the other two vessels mentioned] with red and yellow predominant in their palette while are filled with wonderful wine, food, fields of lavender, sunflowers and history, Moss emphasizes. The specific cruise she sailed on was food- and-wine focused and Gale Gand, a famed pastry chef from Chicago, sailed and did cooking demonstrations.

Lyon, France, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where you embark and disembark, is a beautiful city on its own, and I'm glad I spent a couple of days there before the cruise. It is a great food and wine city and I really enjoyed the textile museum there "la Musee des Tissus.”

 “A highlight of the cruise for me was an included fabulous nouvelle cuisine lunch at a Paul Bocuse restaurant in Lyon with great wine pairings.” She also enjoyed visiting quaint Beaune with its historic hospital, wine tasting at Chateauneuf-du-Pape, walking around the small medieval village of Uzes and the Popes Palace tour in Avignon.

RELATED: Slide Show of the Christening of Uniworld's S.S. Catherine by Catherine Deneuve in Lyon, France 

River Royale in Blaye, France // Photo by Uniworld
River Royale in Blaye, France // Photo by Uniworld

Bordeaux Regional Voyages on Uniworld’s River Royale: Week-long voyages to Bordeaux, Vineyards and Chateaux” itinerary in France deliver all inclusive value and a European boutique hotel atmosphere with more traditional furnishings and draperies.

“Again, I liked the food and wine focus of this itinerary,” Moss says, noting that fun things included learning your "wine personality" during a tasting and answering a questionnaire in Medoc, a night-time open air bus tour of Bordeaux, a day walking tour there to taste cheese, chocolate, cannoles and cream puffs along the way.”

She also loved the included Sauterne wine lunch at Chateau d'Arsac as well as many other wine tastings, the hillside town of Saint-Emilion, another UNESCO World Heritage site with an underground monolithic church, and seeing the preparation in Bergerac for the arrival of La Tour de France.

RELATED: How to Sell a Voyage from Bordeaux, France 

“In terms of staterooms, AmaDante has larger staterooms (170 square feet) than either A-Rosa Stella (156 square feet) or River Royale (140-150 square feet)," says Moss, but notes that choosing the right ship is a matter of personal taste and style. For example, A-Rosa has a fabulous swimming pool and a large spa, she adds.

In addition, “Uniworld had a beautiful private wine room for 12 persons max where tastings and wine-paired dinners could be reserved in advance at no additional charge.” She also likes the "fabulous" Uniworld-owned coaches.

Who’s best for the three cruises Moss suggested.  “I would say that river cruises, in general, are best suited to able bodied adults, as many of the places visited are hilly and cobblestoned.  You sometimes have to be able to go up and down stairs and long ramps to get off the boat when we are "rafted" together with other boats in some of the towns.”

History lovers should enjoy all the cruises she picked, while “the two in France are particularly wine and food focused, so they are not as suitable for children.” She says families would probably enjoy the Tulip Time cruise more than the other two.  Because the river cruise companies are now trying to attract younger people, “they have more active type tours and bicycles play an active part in those,” Moss notes.

Next up for Moss? She hopes to head for the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. Ward’s and Moss’ views are obviously personal, but good feedback from experts is helpful in talking with clients. So is experiencing the products personally.

What ships have you sailed on for river cruising? Which three do you like the best and why? Comment here or email [email protected] and we’ll include some of your feedback in future river cruise articles.    

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