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24 June 2021

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
Naomi Leach
River cruise in Austria

Our river cruise ratings reveal a gulf in quality between the best and worst companies, so if you're thinking of booking a river cruise for later in 2021 or beyond, it's essential you do your research.

Offering a smaller, more intimate proposition than best and worst cruise lines, it’s important to know which river ships have cramped decks and which give you space to enjoy the view. And it’s vital that you choose the river cruise company offering the best value for money, with no hidden costs.

To help you find the best river cruise line 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 are the very best river cruise lines on 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 river cruise brand.

Best river cruise companies overview

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 and 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 Emerald Waterways, APT Luxury River Cruises and Viking River Cruises, three of our other Which? Recommended Providers 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 annual river cruise survey. Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours remained top of our table for the second year running with impressive customer service scores. Its sister company Emerald Waterways came joint second with APT Luxury River Cruises, Viking River Cruises was rated fourth, while Riviera Travel came fifth. All five brands received our Which? Recommended Provider Rating.

Customer service
Passenger-to-space ratio
On-board facilities
Food and drink
Port excursions
Value for money
Customer score

Using the table: *WRP stands for Which? Recommended Provider. Results based on a September/October 2019 survey of 1,234 Which? members. The more stars the better. On-board facilities Quality of communal facilities, e.g. swimming pool(s), shops, cinema, gym, etc. Port excursions Quality of excursions, e.g. organisation, availability and price. Value for money Price in relation to experience. Customer score Combination of overall satisfaction and likelihood of recommending, if asked.

River cruise line reviews

Of the 16 providers we've reviewed, just five are good enough to earn Which? Recommended Provider (WRP) status: Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours, APT Luxury Cruises and Tours, Emerald Waterways, 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 and Tours review — 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, so the company still earns four start out of five for value for money. You have a choice of at least two excursions at every stop, while on-board, you'll be treated to high-quality cabins, lots of space, excellent food and friendly and helpful staff.

Browse Scenic's range of river cruises, or read our full Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours review for more information.

APT Luxury River Cruises review — Which? Recommended Provider

Like Scenic, APT is another Australian river cruise company offering luxury river cruises in Europe and Asia. But in addition to the luxury cruises, APT also has an essential cruising tier for those wanting to see the sites for a little less expense. It didn't rate poorly in a single part of our survey, but customer service and the quality of food on offer are really where it really stands out.

Browse APT's range of river cruises, or read our full APT Luxury River Cruises review for more information.

Emerald Waterways 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 Waterways. All its ships have been built within the last 10 years, so it's no wonder they were highly rated for spaciousness and facilities. The food is top-quality, too, making Emerald Waterways a great option for a slightly more wallet-friendly European river cruise.

Browse Emerald's range of river cruises, or read our full Emerald Waterways review for more information.

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 complete opposite is true, with the self-styled 'small ship experts' earning full marks for its on-board passenger to space ratio. Customer service, food and drink and port excursions are also rated highly by guests, making this a great way of visiting Europe, Egypt or Asia.

Browse Viking's range of river cruises, or read our full Viking review for more information.

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 cheapest. The on-board facilities aren't quite in the same league as some pricier rivals, but Riviera is second-to-none when it comes to customer service, spaciousness and food and drink.

Browse Riviera's range of river cruises, or read our full Riviera Travel review for more information.

What makes a Which? Recommended Provider?

Which? Recommended Providers 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 Which? Recommended Providers, whatever score they receive in the survey. 

Similarly, a company can only be considered for WRP status if it has committed to promptly refunding customers for any cruises it is forced to cancel, such as if coronavirus travel restrictions prevent the cruise from going ahead.

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 another reason altogether, you are 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.