How to Choose a River Cruise

germany river cruise
Jess Moss, AOL
River cruising and ocean cruising are two very different beasts. Industry insiders will go so far as to claim the only thing they share is that both activities take place on water.

The differences are in the scale and facilities of the ships, the pace of life, the proximity of towns to mooring places and what's included in your cruise fare. The size of river cruise ships in Europe, the world's most popular river-cruising location, is particularly constrained by the narrow waterways and locks they navigate and the low-slung bridges under which they squeeze. The glitzy casinos, spas, cinemas, shops and multiple restaurants found on today's ocean-faring giants simply don't fit.

Experienced ocean cruisers are often pleasantly surprised by how much comes with a river cruise ticket. Whereas all-inclusive fares are the exclusive domain of the ultra-luxury ocean cruise lines, most river cruises include shore excursions, select beverages with dinner and bottled water in their fares, with an increasing number upping the ante and including unlimited beverages in fares from 2014.

Finally, as with ocean cruising, a river cruise offers a taste of each destination you visit, rather than genuine immersion, but spending a week on the same river, even if it passes through different countries, does make you feel like you really know a region better.

The choice of river cruise lines, itineraries and destinations has never been as wide as it is today. With similar offerings across many brands, it can be tricky to figure out which cruise is the best fit for you.
passau germany
SLIDESHOW: Danube River Cruise Through Germany, Austria and Hungary

Each cruise line has strengths -- some focus on immersive shore excursions while others attach greater importance to luxury on-board; some lines navigate less-explored rivers and ports while others focus on big-name cities and sights.

We've picked out the key pros and cons of seven major river cruise companies to help you select your next voyage.

See chart below for an at-a-glance look at which rivers each line cruises.

AmaWaterways: All the Modern-Comforts

Since its launch in 2002, AmaWaterways has carved out a name for itself as one of the world's most luxurious river cruise lines. With a fleet of 15 custom-designed ships operating in Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa, AmaWaterways covers an impressive geographical range. It also has some of the most personalized service in the industry -- the family-operated company's owners regularly join cruises and make changes based on their experiences. Read full review>>

American Queen Steamboat Company: Stars and Stripes Glory

Perhaps more than any other river and ship, the Mississippi and the American Queen steamboat evoke the grandeur and history of a bygone age. The world's largest paddlewheel steamboat, the American Queen is resplendent in her white wedding cake design with gingerbread trim, iron railings and bright red paddlewheel. Read full review>>

Avalon Waterways: The Classy Newcomer

With some of the newest, quietest and most spacious ships on Europe's rivers and an extremely loyal following, Avalon Waterways has made big waves in the river cruise industry since its launch in 2004. Read full review>>

Grand Circle: Comfort and Enrichment

Ever since its acquisition in 1985 by passionate travelers and dedicated philanthropists Alan and Harriet Lewis, Grand Circle has placed great emphasis on immersive travel as a form of enrichment. As such, the company insists on using resident English-speaking hosts, guides and lecturers throughout the world, carefully selected for their credentials in history, geography and local culture and their ability to mesh well with American travelers. Thanks to these long-established relationships with locals, Grand Circle offers distinctive shore excursions, such as a coffee morning in the home of a German family or a visit to a local school. Read full review>>

Tauck: Attention to Details

Tauck has won "World's Best River Cruise Line" from the readers of Travel + Leisure two out of the past three years for good reason: the river cruise arm of the family-owned, all-inclusive Tauck invariably delivers good value and immersive travel experiences. Read full review>>

Uniworld: Opulent Luxury

Uniworld offers boutique, "six-star" luxury with its plush ships, discreet and personalized service (thanks to an exceptionally high staff-to-passenger ratio of 1:3) and Zagat-rated cuisine. Read full review>>

Viking River Cruises: Big and Beautiful

As the world's biggest river cruise line, Viking River Cruises lays claim to the largest fleet, most extensive network of rivers and a wealth of experience navigating the world's waterways. In a nod to the company's Norwegian heritage, Viking River Cruise ships feature sleek, fairly minimalist Scandinavian-style interiors as well as pioneering hybrid diesel-electric engines, which reduce environmental impact as well as noise and vibration. Read full review>>

What Rivers Do They Cruise?

More River Cruise Information
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