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Updated: 7 Jan 2022

Best and worst river cruise lines

Hundreds of passengers rate their river cruise experience in our independent survey so that we can tell you which companies you should book with and which you should avoid
GH
Guy Hobbs
River cruise in Austria

Our river cruise ratings reveal a gulf in the quality of the cruise experience, and Covid flexibility between the best and worst companies. If you're thinking of booking one for later in 2022 or beyond, it's essential you do your research.

It’s important to know which river ships have cramped decks and which give you space away from other passengers. And it’s vital that you choose the company offering the best value for money, with no hidden costs.

To help you find the best one for your budget we ask hundreds of customers about their booking and on-board experiences in our annual survey. That way, we can be sure that Which? Recommended Providers (WRPs) are the very best on the water. Our survey doesn’t just uncover the companies offering great cuisine, varied facilities and good value for money, it also highlights the brands with lacklustre cabins, unimaginative excursions and overpriced packages. Based on real experiences, we can reveal what customers really think of each brand.

The pandemic has also shown us just how important it is to book with a cruise company with a fair refund policy, in case something should go wrong. WRPs aren't just those companies rated highly, they have also committed to refunding your money within 14 days if the cruise is cancelled. 

WRPs will also offer passengers alternatives if itineraries are changed due to travel restrictions, including UK lockdowns, destination quarantines and countries on the itinerary being added to the UK red list or Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) no-go list. Alternatives may include changing to a different date or destination, a future cruise voucher or a full refund if none of these is acceptable.

For more reviews, as well as exclusive investigations and expert advice, subscribe to Which? Travel.    

Best river cruise companies 

With the average price of a European cruise coming in just shy of £280 per night, river cruising might not look like a budget holiday. But factor in food, drinks and daily excursions, which are all typically included as standard, and the figures start to sound more reasonable.

Take Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours, top of our annual river cruise survey. It promises an all-inclusive experience, so you won’t face any on-board surprises. Plus, you’ll get free beer and wine with lunch and dinner, as you do with APT Luxury River Cruises, Emerald Cruises and Viking River Cruises, three of our other WRPs this year. 

Of course, you won’t find the range of on-board facilities of the vast ocean liners, but then you won’t be spending whole days at sea either. River cruises get you straight to city centres, so there’s more time for sightseeing and excursions. That said, with nearly all meals taken on board – and usually only one dining option – you’ll want to be sure the food and drink pass muster.

In the table below, we show the results from our latest survey. They were first published in January 2020 and represent pre-pandemic experiences. To determine WRPs for 2022, we applied extra scrutiny to our existing WRPs, ensuring that your money is safe if you book with them and travel regulations change. We've provided links for all the companies with a customer score of 75% or higher.

River cruise providerWRP*Customer servicePassenger-to-space ratioOn-board facilitiesFood and drinkPort excursionsValue for moneyCustomer score
Scenic Luxury Cruises & ToursY
87%
APT Luxury River CruisesY
86%
Emerald CruisesY
86%
Viking River CruisesY
83%
Riviera TravelY
82%
Avalon Waterways 
80%
AmaWaterways 
79%

River cruise line reviews

Of the 16 providers we've reviewed, just five are good enough to be a WRP: Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours, APT Luxury Cruises and Tours, Emerald Cruises, Viking River Cruises and Riviera Travel. 

Not only can you rely on them to organise a fantastic cruise, but you can also count on them to promptly return your money if things go wrong and your cruise can't go ahead. Unfortunately, that's more than can be said for many cruise companies.

Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours — Which? Recommended Provider

Scenic specialises in luxury river cruises in Europe and Asia. It's not cheap, but there are no nasty surprises because everything's included in the initial price, including gratuities, 24-hour room service, private butlers and a concierge laundry service. As a result, the company still earns four start out of five for value for money. 

As a WRP, Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours has committed to promptly refunding customers for cancelled cruises and offering alternatives, including a refund, if itineraries change due to travel restrictions.

You have a choice of at least two excursions at every stop. And while on board, you'll be treated to high-quality cabins, excellent food and friendly and helpful staff. Customers told us that 'being looked after from start to finish made the holiday care-free'.

Passengers also raved about the five-star passenger-to-space ratio, so you'll never feel cramped on board

Should I book with Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours? Yes. Fantastic staff, food and just about everything else add up to a brilliant cruise, if you're willing to pay.

Browse Scenic's range of river cruises.

APT Luxury River Cruises — Which? Recommended Provider

APT offers luxury river cruises in Europe and Asia. But in addition to these, APT also has an 'essential' cruising price tier for those wanting to see the sites for a little less expense. 

As a WRP, APT Luxury River Cruises has committed to promptly refunding customers for cancelled cruises and offering alternatives, including a refund, if itineraries change due to travel restrictions.

Even on its cheapest cruises, all meals, drinks with meals, tips and most excursions are included in the price. As one passenger said: 'There are no unforeseen extra charges, so once you have paid for your holiday you can forget about money.'

All ships feature sun decks with either hot tub or pool - some with swim-up bars - plus a wellness centre. And many customers raved about the well-organised tours with 'expert and enthusiastic guides'.

Should I book with APT Luxury River Cruises? Yes. It's a WRP, highly rated for its customer service and food and drink. Plus, its 'essential' range of cruises delivers quality at a more affordable price.

Browse APT's range of river cruises.

Emerald Cruises review — Which? Recommended Provider

If you like the sound of Scenic's river cruises but are put-off by the cost, you'll want to consider it's more cost-conscious sister, Emerald Cruises. All its ships have been built within the last 10 years, so it's no wonder they were highly rated for spaciousness and facilities. 

As a WRP, Emerald Cruises has committed to promptly refunding customers for cancelled cruises and offering alternatives, including a refund, if itineraries change due to travel restrictions.

Customers were particularly impressed by the food on drink. Formal dinner is served in up to four on-board restaurants and includes local delicacies from each port. And passengers praised the 'very high-quality food'.

Its on board-facilities also come highly rated, with novelties such as a heated pool that converts into a cosy cinema at night. 

Should I book with Emerald Cruises? Yes. If you like modern, state-of-the-art ships, Emerald is a good choice. It's the sister brand to top-rated Scenic, but more than £100 cheaper per night in our price comparison. 

Browse Emerald's range of river cruises.

Viking River Cruises review — Which? Recommended Provider

Viking River Cruises may be the largest river cruise line in the world, but don't assume that means large ships packed full of people. In fact, the opposite is true, with the self-styled 'small-ship experts' earning full marks for its on-board passenger-to-space ratio. 

As a WRP, it has committed to promptly refunding customers for cancelled cruises and offering alternatives, including a refund, if itineraries change due to travel restrictions.

Viking scores well for its cabins. Its Longships have the largest suites on European rivers, each with two full rooms. Even the smaller staterooms feature river views and verandas. And many of its ships are new or recently refurbished.

Viking received a four-star value for money rating. That may be because there are no hidden fees. Excursions, port changes, wi-fi and drinks with meals are included. 

Should I book with Viking River Cruises? Yes. It's an excellent brand, which consistently offers great service.

Browse Viking's range of river cruises.

Riviera Travel review — Which? Recommended Provider

Riviera Travel is not only one of the best river cruise lines around, it's also one of the cheaper brands in our survey. You can expect the return flights, daily excursions and meals you would find with pricier all-inclusive rivals, although drinks and tips do cost extra.

As a WRP, it has committed to promptly refunding customers for cancelled cruises and offering alternatives, including a refund, if itineraries change due to travel restrictions.

The on-board facilities aren't quite in the same league as some pricier rivals, so you'll have to trade the heated pool for a small 'splash pool' or the cinema for a giant chessboard. 

But it did receive five stars for its passenger-to-space ratio and customer service. So it should live up to its tagline of 'affordable luxury'.

Should I book with Riviera Travel? Yes. It's a dependable and wallet-friendly brand. Customers are impressed by the service they receive and book to travel again and again.

Browse Riviera's range of river cruises.

What makes a Which? Recommended Provider?

WRPs are the cream of the crop and the accolade is only given to river cruise lines with the highest customer scores. 

That’s not all. We know that pricing transparency is important, so we only offer it to the companies that provide clear information about gratuities, excursions and drinks at the booking stage. After all, it's hard for customers to compare prices if they can't find these details before parting with their cash. If the companies fall down in more than one area, they’re not eligible to be WRPs, whatever score they receive in the survey. 

Similarly, a company can only be considered for a WRP if it has committed to promptly refunding customers for any cruises it is forced to cancel. All of our WRPs have also committed to offering alternatives, including a refund, if itineraries are changed due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. 

And because Which? is independent, you can be sure that our recommendations are influenced only by our survey results. We're not influenced by third parties and we don't accept freebies from product manufacturers, retailers or providers. 

River cruise refunds and cancellations

All river cruises booked in the UK and lasting more than 24 hours are protected by the Package Travel Regulations. So, if your provider cancels your cruise, whether that's due to coronavirus or for any other reason, you're entitled to a full cash refund within 14 days.

However, not all river cruise operators have been meeting their legal obligations on refunds, so if you're thinking of booking a river cruise, it pays to do your research. Thankfully, all our WRP river cruise providers are refunding promptly and also put on exceptional cruises, so that's where you should start.

But the Package Travel Regulations don't protect you if you decide to cancel the cruise, so only book if you're sure you'll want to travel when the time comes. And always take out travel insurance as soon as making any travel booking.