By Paul Brady
July 08, 2020
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Credit: Alan Jensen

This year’s World’s Best Awards survey closed on March 2, just before widespread stay-at-home orders were implemented as a result of COVID-19. The results reflect our readers’ experiences before the pandemic, but we hope that this year’s honorees will inspire your trips to come — whenever they may be.

What could be better than slowly seeing the countryside of Europe, enjoying long wine-soaked meals, seeing the most iconic historic sites without standing in a single line — or having to lift a finger to plan it all? The dream is possible on a river cruise, and many Travel + Leisure readers know it, judging by the extensive praise they had for these outstanding brands. What’s better, river cruises are now gaining steam outside of continental Europe, as ships in Southeast Asia, along the Amazon, on the Nile, and even in the U.S. start to catch on with in-the-know travelers.

Every year for our World’s Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top hotels, resorts, cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated individual cruise ships on their cabins/facilities, food, service, itineraries/destinations, excursions/activities, and value. Those assessments were combined to generate results for the cruise lines in five categories, including river cruising.

While the top 10 river cruise lines tend to stay similar every year, it’s interesting to see which attributes readers feel most drawn to for each operator. Take, for example, No. 3 Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, which slipped two spots this year but still has ardent fans among T+L readers. “I loved every minute of the cruise,” said one voter, who traveled on the River Countess, which has since been refurbished and rechristened as the S.S. La Venezia. “The staff and the food were amazing. I felt pampered and was very pleased with my room. The excursions were carefully selected so that we saw the best of everything. This was the second cruise I’d taken with Uniworld, and I plan on going again.” Other readers echoed those sentiments. “We’ve taken a couple of Uniworld cruises. They are uniformly excellent on service, food, and itineraries,” said a past guest of the River Queen. “The excursions are well-planned and done in small groups, despite the number of people on the ship.” Where minor quibbles did arise, readers pointed to the staterooms as needing a rethink. “The rooms were a bit dated but I do know that they are going to be refurbished,” said one reader, who traveled aboard the River Empress.

The line’s sister brand, the No. 2 U by Uniworld, also had rave reviews, jumping from ninth place in 2019. “I love this fun and exciting concept,” said one reader of the edgier vibe aboard U’s twin ships, the A and B. While they sail the same rivers as other lines — the Danube, the Rhine — Uniworld has added tons of programming to appeal to travelers who might not think of themselves as river cruisers: sip-and-paint classes, silent-disco sessions, mixology sessions, and even camping on the top deck of the ships are all on offer. “So cool — could not get enough of the ice bar and the nightly entertainment on ship and on shore,” said one voter, who sailed on the B.

One of the iconic river-ship companies, No. 6 Viking, remained in the middle of the pack this year. Often credited with popularizing river cruising globally, Viking has in recent years expanded dramatically; the company now has 63 ships sailing in Europe, with additional vessels in Asia and Egypt, and is coming soon to the United States. That growth means they’re also finding new fans, like one guest who traveled aboard the Viking Tor: “It was my Cinderella vacation,” said this reader. “We thoroughly enjoyed the excursions and found the guides to be personable and knowledgeable, and they truly provided a unique experience in each port. I enjoyed the no-smoking aspect, the minimum age restriction to ensure relaxation and adult activities. Every meal was a wonderful experience and the chefs were present — and personable — frequently.”

Meanwhile, No. 8 Delfin Amazon Cruises, with its fleet of three ships that meet the luxury benchmarks set by Relais & Châteaux, impressed those looking for adventure. “The excursions were memorable, from trekking through the jungle to swimming with pink dolphins,” said one traveler who sailed aboard the Delfin II. “The service, the crew, the dining experience, and the excursions — everything went beyond my expectations,” said another, who also sailed the Delfin II.

With all this competition, it takes something truly special to clinch the No. 1 spot, but Crystal Cruises wowed travelers at every turn. Below, the reasons why, plus the full list of the best river cruise lines as voted by T+L readers.

1. Crystal Cruises

Credit: Kårehed Photography/Courtesy of Crystal Cruises

Score: 97.14

More information: crystalcruises.com

Though Crystal is relatively new to river cruising, having launched its first ship in 2016, the brand is the bar-none favorite for this style of sailing. This year, T+L readers gave the brand one of the highest scores in any category — cruise or otherwise — for its top-of-class trips that are redefining luxury travel. “Crystal changed the way we thought about river cruising,” said one guest, who sailed on the Crystal Mahler. “Every detail was taken care of.” Another past guest on the ship loved it, too: “The suite was better than any five-star hotel we've stayed in, including a huge bathroom. The staff was superb and service was always outstanding.” In fact, most of the raves for Crystal’s river ships ultimately came back to the theme of service, which readers said was phenomenal. One Crystal Mozart guest summed it up: “This was the best overall customer experience I’ve ever had, including food, service, and over the top attention to detail, care, compassion. We’ve been on ocean and river cruises, from the very large to the sailboat cruises. This was the best by far. We’ll be traveling with them again soon.”

2. U by Uniworld

Credit: Courtesy of U by Uniworld

Score: 95.91

More information: ubyuniworld.com

3. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

Credit: Courtesy of Uniworld River Cruises

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 95.51

More information: uniworld.com

4. Tauck

Credit: Courtesy of Tauck

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 95.21

More information: tauck.com

5. Aqua Expeditions

Credit: Courtesy of Aqua Expeditions

Score: 94.29

More information: aquaexpeditions.com

6. Viking

Credit: Courtesy of Viking Cruises

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 94.04

More information: vikingrivercruises.com

7. Belmond

Credit: Courtesy of Belmond

Score: 91.07

More information: belmond.com

8. Delfin Amazon Cruises

Credit: Courtesy of Delfin Amazon Cruises

Score: 90.67

More information: delfinamazoncruises.com

9. Vantage Deluxe World Travel

Credit: Courtesy of Vantage Deluxe World Travel

Score: 89.87

More information: vantagetravel.com

10. AmaWaterways

Credit: Courtesy of AmaWaterways

Score: 88.86

More information: amawaterways.com

See all of our readers' favorite hotels, cities, airlines, cruise lines, and more in the World's Best Awards for 2020.