European River Cruise Showdown

by Rickee Richardson and Chris Dikmen

When it comes to selecting a European river cruise, which one is the best? The popularity of river cruising is outpacing that of the overall cruise industry, which is growing quite nicely in its own right. Just look at how many new river boats have been launched in the past two years; the number is staggering! But, which company is the best? How do these different river cruise lines compare to one another? In 2014, we sailed with three top river cruise brands: Viking River Cruises, Tauck, and AMA Waterways.

The ships we sailed on for comparison were Tauck's MS Inpsire, AmaWaterways' AmaReina, and Viking River Cruises' Viking Longship Hlin. All three boats were less than one year old (at the time of our sailing). All three cruise lines include complimentary excursions at each port. The Viking Longship is the largest of the three with a guest capacity of 190 while Tauck's MS Inpsire caters to only 130. Size-wise, the AmaReina falls in between with a maximum of 164 guests. Tauck and AmaWaterways both offer guests complimentary use of bicycles while the ship is docked, making these good choices for those who like to explore European cities on two wheels. All three cruise lines provide guests with complimentary use of audio VOX listening devices for use when on tour.

Of the three, only Tauck is "all-inclusve" with cruise fares that include all gratuities, airport transfers, special events and all beverages, including cocktails. All three ships offered complimentary Wi-Fi and, on all three, the Internet access was hit-or-miss. All three offer complimentary wine with lunch and dinner. Viking River Cruises pours the same red and white each day, while AmaWaterways and Tauck change their selections each day. All three cruise lines/ships were recognized in our 2014 Editors' Choice Awards. Tauck grabbed six "Best" awards, Viking River Cruises took five and AmaWaterways only one. However, it should be noted that AmaWaterways was very, very close to taking top honors in at least three other categories.

••• Food and Dining (1st Place: AmaReina , 2nd Place: Tauck MS Inspire, 3rd Place: Viking Hlin)
In actuality, all three of these ships had good food. Viking River Cruises has improved greatly in this area since our first cruise on Viking Danube back in 2003. Tauck has always had very good dining. But, the pastries and soups on AmaReina got high enough marks to edge out Tauck in this area. Even though the service in the dining room on AmaReina was a bit slow at times, the food preparation and presentation were very good. And, had it not been for a slight slip-up on the menu in Arthur's steakhouse, MS Inspire might have walked away with this category. The good news is, you will get good food on any of these cruise lines.

••• Alternate Dining Venue (1st Place: Tauck MS Inspire, 2nd Place: AmaReina, 3rd Place: Viking Hlin)
Arthur's Steakhouse on MS Inspire is the best alternate dining venue of the bunch. Even though the "Prime Rib" we ordered actually turned out to be a Rib Eye steak (same cut of meat, but different cooking method), the food and service were exceptional. After we pointed out the discrepancy between the menu and the food delivered, the menus were corrected for the remainder of the cruise.

The Chef's Table restaurant on AmaReina is more like an upscale, 5-star dining experience. Unfortunately, our meal was interrupted with a large group sailing together that sort of took over the dining room with their announcements, killing the otherwise romantic mood of this intimate space. The dishes served were very ambitious, and some were hits while others were not. Nevertheless, anyone sailing on AmaReina should definitely dine here at least one evening.

We loved the concept of the Aquavit Lounge on Viking Hlin, but could never find a dinner menu posted. This is a much more casual dining option than what is offered on Tauck or Ama. We enjoyed a buffet lunch in Aquavit several times but never had dinner there because we could not find a dinner menu.

••• Ship Interior Decor (1st Place: Viking Hlin, 2nd Place: Tauck MS Inspire, 3rd Place: AmaReina)
While MS Inspire's interior is elegant and ornate, Viking Hlin is very "Norwegian", which translates into "contemporary". And, while contemporary is not typically our style, it is done so well on the Viking Longship that it propels this class of ship to another level. The interior spaces are bright, spacious and open. More importantly, the entire ship is extremely comfortable. Rich leather furnishings in muted beige tones give the staterooms and public areas a feeling of an upscale, hip, 5-star hotel.

The decor on MS Inspire is more "continental", but stops just short of becoming stuffy. The interior on MS Inpsire benefits greatly from a higher space-to-guest ratio, making this a very roomy and comfortable ship. We never quite understood the direction AmaReina was trying to go with its interior decor.

••• Public Lounge (1st Place: Viking Hlin , 2nd Place: Tauck MS Inspire, 3rd Place: AmaReina)
Glass, glass and more glass! The huge, near-seamless floor-to-ceiling glass panels on Viking Hlin give guests unobstructed views of the river and shoreline. Combined with very comfortable seating and great lighting, the new Viking Longship Hlin has everything you could want in a river cruise ship lounge. Access to the Aquavit Terrace for photo taking is also a big plus.

The lounge on MS Inspire is also extremely comfortable, but the view is somewhat obstructed with posts framing the windows. Access to the bow of the ship for photo taking is very good, however. Also, we like the forward placement of the bar. The lounge on AmaReina was our least favorite. The furniture layout was clunky, at best. And, the furnishings themselves were "eclectic". I felt like I was in my grandmother's living room! To get to the front of the ship to take photos required weaving in and out of furniture groupings.

••• Sun Deck (1st Place: Viking Hlin, 2nd Place tie: Tauck MS Inspire and AmaReina)
Viking River Cruises has wisely done away with the ubiquitous, and seldom-used, "chess set" on the Sun Deck of the Viking Longship Hlin. We can only assume they have done so on other longships as well. Instead, guests can enjoy a more usable mini-golf putting green. Interestingly, there is no pool or hot tub which may disappoint some guests, but there is a lot of open deck space, great seating and shaded areas. On our cruise, it was too cold to spend much time on the Sun Deck, but I imagine this is a popular place in warmer climates.

MS Inspire also has a small mini-golf putting green and DOES have a small hot tub. As on Viking Hlin, there are lots of covered areas and seating open to the elements. The hot tub on AmaReina is actually a heated swimming pool, and there is a bar. Even in the cold evenings of December in Europe, we saw brave die-hards enjoying a warm soak in the massive (by river ship standards) pool.

••• Luxury (1st Place: Tauck MS Inspire, 2nd Place tie: Viking Hlin, AmaReina)
It is almost unfair to compare the other two cruise lines to Tauck when it comes to the luxury category. Tauck offers a true 5-star experience, primarily because of the all-inclusive nature of the product. On Tauck, all gratuities are included in the cruise fare as are all beverages and cocktails consumed during the trip. Tauck takes care of you from the time you arrive at the airport until you are escorted back to the airport for the trip home.

••• Stateroom (1st Place: Tauck MS Inspire, 2nd Place: Viking Hlin, 3rd Place: AmaReina)
The new Loft Cabin on Tauck's MS Inspire was one of the most unique and comfortable staterooms we have occupied on any ship, river or ocean. In spite of some annoying sounds coming from neighboring cabins, this is still the best stateroom design we have seen so far. The bathroom in the Loft Cabin was large and very nice.

The stateroom on Viking Hlin was also very comfortable and had the best television system of the three ships. The Hlin stateroom had lots of electrical outlets, a comfortable bed, nice-sized bathroom and was reasonably quiet. The stateroom on AmaReina should have scored a win in this category. It had the best use of space of the three ships and even had two balconies! The devil was in the details, however. A lack of electrical outlets, a clunky television system, a squeaky bathroom door mechanism and a window between the bathroom and bedroom (which allows unwanted light to come into the bedroom) were issues that took away from the overall comfort of the stateroom.

••• Excursions (1st Place: Tauck MS Inspire, 2nd Place: Viking Hlin, 3rd Place: AmaReina)
All three ships/cruise lines offer excursions that are included in the cruise fare. The local guides used by the three ships were all excellent and all spoke very good English. All three cruise lines also provide audio Vox units to make hearing the local guides much easier. Tauck pulls away from the other cruise lines by providing three Tour Directors in addition to a Cruise Director on all of its river cruises. By partnering with Scylla to handle the cruise ship operations piece of the puzzle, Tauck is able to focus its energy on what it does best: destinations. After all, Tauck has been guiding tours for more than 90 years, and that experience is instantly obvious. Even though Tauck does use local guides on its tours, a Tauck Tour Director is never far away just in case you need a replacement Vox unit, or some other situation arises.

Both Viking River and Tauck have new, branded motor coaches that are roomy, spotlessly clean and comfortable. AmaWaterways relies on motor coaches provided by the local tour companies. And, while in most cities, these are fine, they are not as consistently nice as the ones Viking River and Tauck offer. Tauck and Viking River also make bottled water available on the gangway to guests as they disembark the ship for tours. Bottled water is complimentary on AmaWaterways, but you have to remember to bring it from your stateroom. We were instructed not to bring our audio VOX units on a walking tour of Amsterdam, but as it turned out, it would have been a much better tour if the device had been utilized.

••• Special Event (1st Place: Tauck MS Inspire, 2nd Place: Viking Hlin)
Tauck includes at least one special event on every river cruise. We benefited from two on our MS Inspire cruise. An amazing luncheon held in a cave was like nothing we had ever experienced, and a 5-star dinner in a WWI museum blew everyone away! These events would have easily cost $100 per person each on any other cruise line, but were included in the Tauck fare.

A concert in Vienna was offered to guests on Viking Hlin for an additional fee, and was very well executed. Even though not included in the cruise fare, the concert was well worth the price charged for the event. We did not take part in any special events on AmaReina, so did not include it in this comparison.

••• Service (1st Place:Tauck MS Inspire, 2nd Place: Viking Hlin, 3rd Place: AmaReina)
The service on all three ships was excellent, and again, the narrowest of margins separate the three. Tauck (actually Scylla) shined brightest when a call to the front desk to ask if they had any cufflinks for sale in the gift shop (I had left mine at home) resulted in a knock on the door from Corina, the Assistant Hotel Manager with a set of loaner cuff links in hand. Also, when we mentioned to the front desk about a small leak under our sink in the bathroom, it was repaired within an hour!

Viking Hlin service was also notable. We found the Reception staff to be extremely helpful and pleasant. On AmaReina, when Rickee could not get her international phone to work, the cruise director was kind enough to call British Airways for us to confirm our flight arrangements.

••• Best Ship (1st Place: Viking Hlin, 2nd Place: Tauck MS Inspire, 3rd Place: AmaReina)
Our favorite ship, from a purely hardware standpoint, would have to be the new Viking Longship. Viking River Cruises has really hit this one out of the park in terms of form and function. A close second would be Tauck MS Inspire, primarily because of the high space-to-guest ratio.

••• Summary
The good news is that no matter which of the three cruise lines you choose, you are going to have an excellent experience. There is no bad choice among the three. Remember, as cruise journalists, it is our job to be extremely nit-picky. Most of the "misses" that we mention would never even be noticed by most travelers.

Viking River Cruises is certainly the most improved product of the three. This was our fourth Viking River Cruise in Europe since 2003, and the cruise line just seems to get better with each one. The new Viking Longship design is a big winner in our opinion. Even though the Viking ships are larger and hold more guests than either of the other two lines, the Longship is so well designed that it never felt overcrowded.

This was our third Tauck river cruise and each one has been excellent. This is as close as you can get to 5-star luxury on a river cruise, based on our experience. Tauck is also a surprisingly good value. When comparing prices, remember that on a 7-night cruise you could easily spend an additional $300 to $500 (for two people) in gratuities and cocktails, items which are included in your Tauck fare. In the spirit of full-disclosure, Tauck is also a sponsor of CruiseReport and has been a staunch supporter of our website.

Our Christmas Markets cruise aboard AmaReina was our first on AmaWaterways. We immediately noticed that this line has a fiercely loyal following. Many guests we spoke with had been on multiple AmaWaterways' cruises and had future cruises booked on the line. They are obviously doing something right. And, we loved the dual balconies in the stateroom which are perfect for photo/video taking.

And, before someone asks the obvious question, "What about the other river cruise lines?", we have reached out to Uniworld, Avalon Waterways and Emerald Waterways. We are hopeful that we will soon be able to review these products and include them in an updated comparison.

For now, we can highly recommend any of the three river cruise lines talked about here. The only decision you really need to make is which one is best for you?

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