So many companies are jostling for position, claiming to be the best, that it's hard as a consumer to make a judgement on which to choose. First of all, a quick rule of thumb - you get what you pay for! If something looks cheap, that's either going to be because it is out of season (March/April or late October/November), or because it is of an inferior quality.
Whilst in the ocean going cruise market it is quite easy to differentiate from brand to brand, when choosing a European river cruise, you will be more likely to find many similarities. If you are paying top dollar, you should expect as standard included shore excursions, included drinks with meals, included gratuities, local entertainment, a lecture programme, whisper headsets and bicycles for passenger use. In our opinion, the following companies are the very best luxury river cruise lines:
Tauck River Cruises
A family owned company, Tauck has been organising exclusive and stimulating group tours for discerning travellers for over 90 years, accumulating many old friends resulting in uncommon access to locations other companies are simply unable to visit. Given that a slick and stimulating shoreside experience is paramount on a river cruise, this really does make a difference to the guest on board.
With a cruise director and three Tauck tour directors on each vessel offering exceptional service, you know that should the slightest thing go wrong, you will be in safe hands. 2016 sees the launch of two new river ships, ms Joy operating on the Danube and ms Grace on the Rhine, as well as new itineraries including exploration of the Swiss Alps and exclusive evenings at historic French châteaux and castles overlooking the Rhine.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
The award-winning Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is a sister company to the Red Carnation Hotel group, and the distinctive English country house style décor introduced by Red Carnation founder Beatrice Tollman is both charming and inviting, giving each vessel a boutique style which is a work of art in itself.
The newest additions to the fleet, superships Antoinette, Catherine and Maria Theresa, are particularly striking. With a high crew to guest ratio the service is excellent, and there is a strong emphasis on world class dining with a number of special Epicurean Adventurer departures and an excellent wine programme.
Privately owned, with a trio of passionate industry pioneers at the helm, AmaWaterways is something of a trailblazer in river cruising, whilst retaining a family owned and operated style of management which is engaging and reassuring. As well as operating an extensive European river cruise programme, AmaWaterways is known for opening up and developing new areas with excellent itineraries far off the beaten track.
The modern and innovative vessels, each a member of the prestigious Chaîne des Rotisseurs, have won numerous awards. In 2016 AmaWaterways welcomes the 158-guest sister ships AmaViola and AmaStella, a brand new Taste of Bordeaux itinerary and more themed departures focusing on fine art and special wine sailings.
Crystal River Cruises
The multi-award winning 'World's Best' cruise line, Crystal Cruises, makes its debut on the river cruise scene in summer 2016, with the launch of Crystal Mozart in July, and a further four ships to come in 2017. Mozart will focus on the Danube and Austria's picturesque Wachau Valley, Crystal Mahler and Crystal Bach will operate on the Rhine, Main and Danube, and Crystal Debussy and Crystal Ravel will cruise the rivers of France.
The launch of Crystal River Cruises promises to shake up the market, with the largest suites of any river vessel, the highest staff-to-guest ratio of any European river cruise line, and innovative itineraries involving more overnights than is typical for a river cruise, allowing more in-depth exploration. All this plus the famous Crystal service, and all of your meals, drinks and gratuities included in the fare.
Viking River Cruises
Leading the global river cruise market, Viking River Cruises is an established and well-respected operator offering a reliable product and impressive range of vessels and itineraries. The company was established in 1997 by a Scandinavian and Dutch consortium led by Torstein Hagen, former CEO of respected luxury cruise line Royal Viking Line.
Operating in Europe and North America, with vessels catering to different nationalities, Viking has grown to be the world's largest river cruise operator. In 2016 the river fleet welcomes another six vessels, bringing the number to 70, and there are further expansion plans for 2017.