Best European River Cruises for Families

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Is taking a European river cruise on your bucket list? I love the idea of sailing from one grand European city to another, sipping local wines, and enjoying amazing local cuisine in France or Spain.

But would my kids enjoy a family river cruise in Europe? While I could sip wine and eat cheese all day, my kids would much rather visit medieval castles, explore a vibrant European city, take a cooking class, or bike through the countryside.

So, I went searching for the best European river cruises for families. Here’s what families can expect on the different European rivers and what programs and facilities each cruise line has to cater to families.

Before the invention of the automobile, the Danube, Rhine, Seine, Rhone, and Duoro rivers were the waterways that connected the great cities of Europe. After canals and locks were constructed, ships could literally sail from the Black Sea to the North Sea. Exploring Europe by these great rivers traces the flow of culture, food, music, commerce, religion, and conflict from the Roman Empire till today.

How is a European River Cruise Different from a Regular Cruise?

Family River Cruises
Family River Cruise on the Danube | Photo by Brennan Pang

If you consider yourself a regular cruiser, you’ll find the river cruise experience very different from what you’re used to. If you’re not a cruiser, I dare say you’ll be pleasantly surprised with this type of cruising. 

The ships that sail the Danube, Rhine, Seine, Rhone, and Duoro typically hold under 200 guests. The AmaMagna is currently the largest ship, and it sails on the Danube. With a length of 135 meters and a width of 22 meters, it is twice as wide as most river cruise ships.

Most river cruises have a 1:2-3 crew to guest ratio. There are no hoards of passengers waiting to get off the ship at each port. And you don’t need to make reservations for dinner on board. Personalized service is expected and delivered.

Regular large cruise ships focus heavily on their onboard facilities and entertainment. On a river cruise, the emphasis is on enjoying the towns and cities you’ll stop in. 

There aren’t long stretches at sea. And if you are concerned about motion sickness, we found the Danube to be very calm, thanks to its series of 16 locks. All these other European rivers also have lock systems.

What is it like taking a Family River Cruise with Kids?

European River Cruise with Kids
AmaViola on the Danube at Melk | Photo by LiLing Pang

If you’d like to take a deep dive into our experience, read my review of the Amawaterways Danube River Cruise.

Do not expect river cruises to have a kids club on board. Most do not offer childcare or special programming for kids on their regular sailings. Family-friendly cruise lines will have special sailings for those river cruising with kids. 

On regular sailings, there is always a chance that your children will be the only children on board, especially if you’re traveling during the shoulder season when school is in session. Keep reading for details on which cruise lines offer these special programs and what you can expect. 

The river cruise ships are long and narrow, so most have a large window or balconies in the rooms that all face out. Families may want to inquire as to whether the ship you’re looking to sail on has adjoining rooms, family suites, or if they have rooms that sleep three if you have an odd number of people in your family.

For our family of five, on our cruise on the AmaViola (AmaWaterways) we had a triple and a double with an interconnecting door. It was perfect!

Most of your meals on your river cruise will be onboard. The meals on our AmaWaterways cruise was the highlight of our cruise. Food is where river cruise lines really set themselves apart so pay special attention to food reviews. 

If you have picky eaters or allergies in your family, the personalized service on a river cruise means they can usually accommodate your preferences. Be sure to indicate any food requirements you have in your pre-departure forms.

On the AmaWaterways cruise that we were on, our teens were eager to try anything on the fine dining menu, but they loved being able to add a steak or burger to their meal. The chef also always offered up a kid-friendly option at dinner time in case our youngest was looking for something less fancy. It is little caring touches like this that aren’t easy to tease out from travel brochures or websites, but they go a long way towards making the youngest guests feel like a priority.

Be sure to indicate any food requirements you have in your pre-departure forms.

Are River Cruises good for a Multi-generational Family Trip or a Family Reunion?

Best European river cruises with excursions for kids
River cruise excursions – Walking Tour of Budapest | Photo by LiLing Pang

Yes and yes! When you’re planning a trip for a large group with different interests and activity levels, finding a trip that will please everyone can be challenging. An all-inclusive pricing model that is common with many river cruises makes it easy for families to know upfront how much each person will need to spend. It is also easy to say yes to any of the excursions anyone wants to do.

Along the Danube, those who enjoy old-world cities, culture, and, and scenic bike rides will find lots to satisfy. The Rhine River is similar but with more modern cities like Basel and Switzerland that offer the museums and art scene of a big city. The Seine River runs right through Paris and makes important stops for art lovers.  

Every morning or afternoon, there are several options for excursions you can participate in. Some in your group may be interested in one activity and others might choose to do something else. Then you get to regroup at mealtimes and exchange stories of what you enjoyed. 

On a small vessel, it’s easy to keep track of everyone. A river cruise also makes the logistics of moving from town to town very easy as you just have to unpack once even though you will be visiting different towns. 

Best European River Cruises for Families

There are many river cruise lines that sail the Danube but not all are suitable for families with kids. In fact, there are some that flat out do not even allow children under 18 on board. Not to worry, here are some of the best river cruise companies that are making families a priority. 

Best European River Cruises
Walking Tour with Ama Waterways | Photo by: LiLing Pang

1. Ama Waterways

Ama Waterways welcomes children ages four and up. Their regular sailings cater particularly well to a multi-generational trip because the shore excursions always accommodate slow, moderate, and fast pace walking. The AmaMagna, AmaViola, and AmaLea offer adjoining rooms and triple occupancy rooms that allow families to stay connected while onboard. All their ships have swimming pools.

Ama Waterways is a luxury river cruise line that prides itself on its warm service and family-friendliness. I can personally attest to the fact that your child will be treated like royalty.  

On special “Adventures by Disney” voyages on the Danube, Disney counselors join these sailings to lead onboard and ashore activities, especially for kids and teens. Adventures by Disney excursions include more active options like tree-top walks. Currently, these special family sailings are only offered on the Upper Danube. 

Teens can also enjoy special teen experiences onboard like a welcome party, a Chef’s table dinner and teen-only dinner events. And in some stops, special teen tours are offered.

2. A-ROSA River Cruises

A-ROSA River Cruises welcome children ages two and up. It is the only river cruise line with a kids club on board.

A-ROSA’s ships have triples, family suites, and adjoining staterooms to cater to the family market. A-ROSA is the most affordably priced river cruise line, but in addition to that, children ages 2 to 15 sail free with an adult. 

A special “Children´s Entertainer” organizes onboard activities for children ages 4 to 15, such as ship treasure hunts, a pirate day, or a creative studio.

3. Avalon Waterways

Avalon Waterways welcomes children 8-years-old and up. 

Avalon’s Choice Program groups excursions into three buckets – Active, Discovery, and Classic. Each stop will offer elements of the three types of activities to choose from. Multi-generational family groups will find something to satisfy everyone in the family.  

Active activities might include biking, hiking, and paddling to enjoy the outdoors. The Discovery program offers hands-on activities like cooking classes and craft workshops. Classic excursions offer a guided tour with a local expert.

4. UniWorld River Cruises

Uniworld River Cruises welcomes children 4-years-old. Their “Generations Voyages” are specially geared towards multi-generational travel. Dedicated family hosts organize special hand-on activities, meals, and tours for children and teens. 

Additionally, kids can hang out with other kids at the Young Traveler’s Table and the Young Travelers’ Lounge & Game Room. Each night with turndown, children receive a special gift reflective of the destination. Children 4-17 also get 25% discount when traveling with an adult on “Generations Voyages”

5. Tauck Bridges River Cruises

Tauck River Cruises welcomes children ages four and up. They also offer family-dedicated “Bridges” departures where kids can enjoy additional onboard activities like cooking classes and storytelling, and hands-on shore excursions like marzipan making, and geocaching.

6. Emerald River Cruises

Emerald River Cruises welcomes children 12 and up, on their Upper Danube itineraries. In particular, teens will enjoy their EmeraldACTIVE shore excursions with a focus on offering more guided biking and hiking options to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. 

7. CroisiEurope River Cruises 

CroisiEurope River Cruises is the only river cruise line with no minimum age requirements on their river cruises. They are also affordably priced making river cruising accessible to more families. 

Their “Family Club” themed cruises offer special kids excursions, but this is not currently not offered on any of the Danube itineraries.

8. Crystal Cruises

Crystal Cruises welcomes children as young as six months on their all-suite luxury river cruises. Crystal Cruises has some great accommodation options for families that can sleep up to 5 or 6 guests. From time to time, they do have special offers where kids sail free. Crystal Cruises is the most luxurious of them all the river cruise lines.

Note: Viking River Cruises and Riviera River Cruises do not permit children under 18.

Picking the Best European River Cruise Itinerary For You

Most Europe river cruises sail the Danube, Rhine, Seine, and Rhone. More are starting to sail the Duoro as well. If thinking of European geography in terms of rivers has left you feeling lost, don’t worry, you’re not alone.  Here’s each of the rivers in a snapshot to help you figure out which itinerary fits your family’s interest most. 

Danube River Cruises – Old World Cities, Castles, and Scenic Wine Country

Danube River Cruise - Budapest
Danube River Cruise – Budapest | Photo by: Brennan Pang

Why cruise the Danube: An Upper Danube cruise is the most popular section for river cruising. Take a Danube cruise for old world charm, medieval towns, scenic wine country greenery, and classical music performances in Vienna. 

Countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary on the Upper Danube  | Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine on the Lower Danube. 

Typical Bookends: Passau or Vilshofen (Germany) and Budapest (Hungary)

Popular cities and attractions:

  • The medieval city of Regensburg (UNESCO)
  • Pilsner beer culture in Vilshofen
  • Sound of Music in Salzburg
  • 1000-year-old Melk Abbey
  • Scenic sailing and bike paths through the Wachau Valley – castles and wine country
  • Classical music and architecture in Vienna
  • Thermal baths and old world architecture in Budapest
  • Iconic Christmas markets with handcrafted ornaments and festive foods

Wine: Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for it’s crisp Gruner Veltliner.

Local cuisine: Expect heavier dishes — goulash and Wiener schnitzel, Viennese pastries, and black forest cake

Cruise Extensions: Upper + Lower Danube, Main-Danube Canal to include Nuremberg, Rhine + Danube Rivers

Rhine River Cruises – Vibrant Cities, Castles, and Wine Country

Rhine River Cruise
Rhine River Cruise | Photo by: Pixabay/NBNB-NZ

Why cruise the Rhine: The Rhine River is the most popular river for cruising. Jump on board if you enjoy beautiful wine country scenery and vibrant art museums. The cities of the Rhine are a little more energetic, industrial, and modern than the Danube. You’ll see lots of castles in wine country, windmills, and historic World War II sites. This is a busy river.

Countries: Germany, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands

Typical Bookends: Basel (Switzerland) and Amsterdam (Netherlands) 

Popular cities and attractions:  

  • Scenic Rhine Gorge
  • A thriving art scene in Amsterdam and Basel
  • Windmills of Kinderdijk
  • Strasbourg is one of the centers of the European Union.
  • Iconic Christmas markets with handcrafted ornaments and festive foods

Wine: The Rhine flows through prime Riesling territory; many itineraries split time between the Rhine and the Mosel River, where vineyards hug both sides of the banks. 

Local cuisine: German and Austrian cuisine featuring Wiener schnitzel, sauerbraten, and other various sausages and meats. 

Cruise Extensions: Rhine + Moselle Rivers  or Rhine and Danube Rivers

Seine River Cruise – Art, WWII History, and French Wines and Cuisine

Seine River Cruise - Paris
Seine River Cruise – Paris | Photo by Flickr/Artur Staszewski
 

Why cruise the Seine: Art and wine lovers are drawn to the River Seine as it flows right through the heart of Paris. You’ll also stop at romantic small french towns that inspired the impressionist painters of Money and Sisley.

Countries: France

Typical Bookends: Paris (France) round-trip 

Popular cities and attractions: 

  • World-class art museums in Paris – Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Picasso
  • Day trip to Versaille Palace
  • Giverny in Normandy, home of Monet
  • The fishing village of Honfleur that inspired French impressionist painters
  • WWII history at the Beach of Normandy
  • Auvers-sur-Oise home of Vincent Van Gogh

Wine: French wines

Local Cuisine: The best of French cuisine, and seafood and oysters from the coast of Normandy

Rhone River Cruises – Wine, Food, and Quaint Towns

Rhone River Cruise - Avignon
Rhone River Cruise – Avignon | Photo by Pixabay/gillag

Why cruise the Rhone: A Rhone River Cruise is for the discerning gourmet and wine lover. You’ll be cruising through lots and lots of wine-producing regions with many varietals of wine to choose from. Explore the quaint towns of Provence and check out Roman ruins.

Countries: France

Typical Bookends: Lyon (France) and Arles (France)

Popular cities and attractions:

  • Wine tasting in the Beaujolais wine region
  • Roman ruins in Vienne
  • A steam train ride through Gorge du Doux
  • Biking through the french countryside to Tain-l’Hermitage
  •  (UNESCO)
  • Pont du Guard Roman aqueduct
  • Saint Paul de Mausole Asylum, where Vincent Van Gogh lived and painted.
  • Camargue National Park

Wine: Rhone cruises take you through the Burgundy and Beaujolais wine regions. You’ll enjoy pinot noir, chardonnay, gamay, and syrah blends.

Local Cuisine: Provence is known for its wine and cheese. Typical dishes of the area are bouillabaisse, ratatouille, foie gras, frog legs, and escargot. Savory or sweet crepes.

Duoro River – Food, Port wine, and Rural villages

Duoro River Cruise - Porto
Duoro River Cruise – Porto | Photo by Flickr/mattk1979

Why cruise the Duoro: The coastal city of Porto boasts old-world architecture and port wine while the seaside town of Sintra is a lovely mountain village. Lots of scenic sailing along the Duoro between visit charming little rural villages until you arrive in Salamanca, one of the most architecturally beautiful towns in Spain.

Countries: Portugal and Spain

Typical Bookends: Selamanca (Spain) and Porto (Portugal) round trip

Popular cities and attractions:

  • Charming Salamanca with it’s old and new world cathedrals
  • Castelo Rodrigo, known as the “White Village” because of its almond trees
  • Ride the iconic scenic Pinhão Railway
  • Nossa Senhora dos Remédios (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies) pilgrimage site
  • Hike Lamego Steps, also known as the Holy Staircase
  • Mateus Palace and Gardens
  • Scenic sail from Régua to Entre-Os-Rios
  • Porto’s historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home of Port wine

Wine: Port wine and the reds and whites of the Alto Duoro region

Local Cuisine: Home-cooked Portuguese meals in private Quintas

About the author

LiLing Pang is Co-founder and CEO of Trekaroo . She is a mom to two boys and a girl and recently traveled through Central America. Together with her husband, Brennan Pang, they hatched the idea of Trekaroo one summer day along the California coast while searching for the best kid-friendly tide pool near La Jolla with their curious 2 and a half year old.

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