Planning your first European river cruise?

Picking a waterway, dates, and budget seem easy enough. Then you find there's an overwhelming choice of boats out there, and with seemingly similar appearances, routes, amenities—even cost. What to do? Read on for our river cruising guide, which will help you learn the distinct personalities and perks of the major river cruise lines, to find the right one for you.

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Vibe: With 144-to-196 passengers, these European ships resemble well-decorated homes-away-from home. Cruises emphasize health and wellness, balanced by fine food and wine. The new AmaMagna, a double-wide boat with a Danube debut in May, offers more amenities and space—including a novel watersports platform (for riverboats).

Fellow Passengers: Energetic social Americans, often wine buffs, ranging from 40-plus to Baby Boomers and beyond. Younger cruisers often book themed wine sails.

Average Eight-Day Fare: $2,699 per person.

Notable Inclusions: All meals, beer, and wine with onboard lunch and dinner; shore excursions; guided hiking and biking tours; bicycles; one-hour daily happy hour with beer, wine, and spirits pre-dinner; and Wi-Fi.

Rivers: Danube, Rhine, Moselle, Main, Rhone, Seine, Garonne, Dordogne, Douro; and Dutch and Belgian waterways and canals.

Cabins: Residential-ish staterooms typically run between 155 to 502 square feet. Most cabins sport Ama’s signature twin balconies, featuring both a French and outside veranda. Flat-screen TVs double as computers, and baths sport multi-jet showerheads.

Eat and Drink: Count on seasonal, destination-driven menus with healthful bents, fine regional wines—even recipes on pillows at turndown. All cruisers enjoy one complimentary, six-course dinner with wine pairings at the haute Chef’s Table, prepared before passengers.

Staying Fit: Devotees like the well-equipped gym, walking track, heated pool, and hydration station with infused detox and gemstone waters. A Wellness Host provides complimentary daily classes, like core strengthening and circuit training, as well as personal training for a fee.

Shore Excursions: An Ama specialty: The line partners with Backroads, bringing biking, walking, and hiking tours to more than 120 sails this year and in 2020.


Crystal River Cruises

Vibe: Expect plush, all-suite accommodations serviced by attentive butlers, stellar cuisine, and abundant perks. Riverboats beautifully duplicate Crystal Ocean’s modern luxury style.

Fellow Passengers: Consider the mostly American over-50 crowd friendly, well-heeled, travel-savvy, and stylish.

Average Eight-Day Fare: $6,333 per person.

Notable Inclusions:: All meals, alcohol, and shore excursions (other than über-exclusive); electric bikes (e-bikes); 24-hour room service; self-service laundry (rare to riverboats); Wi-Fi; gratuities onboard and ashore; airport transfers.

Rivers: Rhine, Main, Danube, and Moselle. (Note: Crystal riverboats don’t sail in France.)

Cabins: Even the smallest suites (188 square feet on the quadruplets; 219 square feet on Mozart), feel swanky. Revel in king—not the typical riverboat queen—beds. Most feature walk-in closets and dual-vanity bathrooms. Modern tech accents include a bedside iPad with room controls. ETRO Italian toiletries, especially the body lotion, are swipe-worthy.

Eat and Drink: Think Michelin star-style cuisine, particularly at on-site restaurant Waterside. The Bistro showcases morning specialty coffees and house-baked pastries, midday charcuterie, and later, wine and tapas. A Vintage Room extravaganza (a rare extra cost), paired with legendary wines, is extraordinary.

Staying Fit: At the well-outfitted fitness center, personal training’s available. Take comp morning classes like yoga, plunge into the heated indoor pool. Off ship, go kayaking and canoeing, ride an e-bike. Later, unwind in the full-service spa.

Shore Excursions: Outings are designed to avoid tourist hordes. Tour groups are limited to an unusually intimate 15 guests, and Crystal’s plush customized coaches deliver leg room, power outlets at every seat, and complimentary Wi-Fi.


Emerald Waterways

Vibe: Emerald’s 112-to-182 passenger European riverboats resemble attractive mid-priced modern hotels, awash in glass, chrome, and contemporary art, with buzzy lounges. Most boats have spas and salons. The pool converts to a movie theater on all ships except Emerald Radiance.

Fellow Passengers: A fun-loving, energetic group, mostly 45 years old and up, although the line increasingly skews younger. Cruisers are from the U.K., Australia, and North America, and like independent exploration, such as bicycling ashore.

Average Eight-Day Fare: $2,600 per person.

Notable Inclusions: All meals, beer, and wine with onboard lunch and dinner; most excursions; wifi; gratuities onboard and ashore; and airport transfers.

Rivers: Danube, Maine, Rhine, Moselle, Douro, Rhône, Saône.

Cabins: Solo cabins—great for friends traveling together—run 117 square feet. Most guests book 180-square-foot Balcony Suites. The fanciest, at 315 square feet, include an iPad, Nespresso machine, and some laundry service.

Eat and Drink: Reflections Restaurant provides daytime buffets, and four-course contemporary European evening dining with regional wines. Passengers keep the poolside bar lively. Weather permitting, Emerald hosts a popular once-a-week sundeck lunch barbecue.

Staying Fit: The large indoor heated pool has a retractable roof, top deck walking/running track, and wellness center with a small gym.

Shore Excursions: Many diversified options, including the popular EmeraldACTIVE, featuring guided bike tours and vigorous hikes.