Best Family River Cruises

Mother and daughter in front of gondolas in Venice

Long the province of retirees and baby boomers, river cruising is opening up to families, with lines offering special sailings and ships designed to appeal to children and multigenerational families.

What makes a river cruise appealing to families? Many things! A river cruise is generally much more organized than an ocean cruise, with port stops every day and shore tours included in the fare. That means that families rack up fewer extraneous charges and there aren't unfilled sea days where you'll hear children complaining, "I'm bored."

European river cruising, in particular, is prime territory for older children, tweens and teens with a love of history. What better way to bring medieval history alive than with a visit to a castle in Germany? Or encourage a budding artist with a visit to Monet's Giverny? Because enrichment -- local performances and chances to try local food -- is usually a hallmark of river cruises, this will be one vacation on the water where your kids will actually learn something. On family itineraries, special language lessons, arts and crafts, and other activities are also added. Most lines also have bikes, which can be more fun than just walking around.

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Because river cruise ships are smaller, you'll likely spend more time together as a family than you might on a large ocean cruise where everyone is off doing their own thing. River cruises also have convenient pricing strategies, with gratuities and other extras often bundled into the fare. That makes budgeting for a family vacation slightly easier (and unlike a land tour, you'll only need to unpack once).

Finally, river cruises are more casual than their seafaring counterparts. No need for formal night finery here; few people dress for dinner on a river cruise. Most river cruises also have casual venues, in case a long meal isn't appealing. On family itineraries, most river cruises offer kid-friendly meals, although experiencing the local cuisine is often half the fun; the more adventurous palates in your household will love it. 

River cruising doesn't have too many drawbacks, but there are some caveats to keep in mind. For one, river cruise ships will not have the kids clubs, pools and water slides, alternative restaurants, arcades and other things that families might like on an ocean ship. Walking tours might work with older children, but younger ones could feel overscheduled. With the exception of two purpose-built ships on AmaWaterways, the cabins on river ships are not configured for more than double occupancy, meaning that a family of four will have to purchase two staterooms. And finally, river cruises cost significantly more than ocean voyages, although they also come with included excursions and other amenities.

Below are the river cruise lines that offer family-friendly sailings:

Family of three ambling along the cobblestone streets of Paris

AmaWaterways River Cruises

AmaWaterways is the first river cruise line to actually design a ship with groups and multigenerational travelers in mind. The two family-friendly ships, AmaStella and AmaViola, debuted in 2016. The accommodations include 12 staterooms that can house up to three family members each; six sets of adjoining cabins that can be connected via an internal doorway, accommodating families of up to five; and four suites with convertible sofa beds that can accommodate families of up to four.

In addition, AmaWaterways has entered into partnership with Adventures by Disney, a company that offers immersive adventures for families. In 2016, the line is holding five weeklong Adventures by Disney cruises on the Danube, where family-oriented activities will include watching a live falconry show at 900-year-old Hohenwerfen Castle in Passau; taking a carriage ride at Lazar Equestrian Park in Budapest; or attending a show of the Vienna Boys Choir during a holiday cruise.

A kids menu will be available on the Adventures by Disney voyages, as well as local fare. The minimum age for sailing is 4, but the recommended age is 8 and older. AmaStella and AmaViola will both have the line's customary twin balconies (an open one that you can sit on and a French balcony that opens for fresh air), a heated pool with swim-up bar, complimentary Internet, entertainment on demand and an onboard fitness center and spa. Complimentary bikes are also available to borrow.

Father and daughter in Croatia

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

Uniworld has increased the number of family-friendly itineraries from five to 16 in 2016, with sailings on the Rhine, Danube, Seine and Po Rivers. The minimum age is 4, and children up to age 18 pay half price.

The sailings on the luxury river line are designed to be fun and interactive. Sample onboard activities include dessert-making with the ship's pastry chef, tasting local soft drinks with the resident Soda Sommelier, craft workshops and local language classes. The Young Travellers Lounge, available on all multigenerational Uniworld ships, has a PlayStation, a wide selection of games, movies and candy jars. Every family-friendly cruise itinerary also features onboard visits from local children or teens.

Parents can also go onshore and leave their children in the care of Family Hosts for Junior Cruisers (ages 4 to 11) and Young Cruisers (ages 12 to 18), who will supervise and coordinate onboard activities. Each night the child receives a special pillow gift from the destinations visited.

Father and son in Budapest

Tauck River Cruising

Luxury line Tauck is a pioneer in family river cruising, offering itineraries since 2010. In 2017, the company increased the number of "Tauck Bridges" (family-specific) sailings from 10 to 20, including a new itinerary on France's Seine River. Other voyages take place on the Danube, Rhone and Rhine. Thus far, the line only offers summer sailings (July and August), but watch this space: the line is looking at the possibility of Christmas market and Easter sailings, as some other lines do.

Tauck is a fully inclusive river cruise line, with gratuities, hotels, luggage service, airport transfers, beverages and shore excursions included in the fares. Even meals in cafes off the ship are covered, as are treats such as ice cream on excursions and spending money on day trips or to the Prater Amusement Park in Vienna.

Tauck Bridges is all about bringing families together (creating bridges), so don't choose Tauck if you want time away from your kids. In fact, you're likely to see way more of them than you would at home.  The recommended minimum age for Tauck's family river cruises is 8 years old, but you should be fine with a 7-year-old.

There are six ships offering Bridges cruises -- ms Sapphire and ms Emerald, both of which sail French rivers, and newer vessels ms Joy, ms Savor, ms Grace and ms Inspire -- all of which ply the Danube and the Rhine.

Standard accommodations aren't suitable for families, and there are no interconnected cabins, but there are a few small doubles where the single supplement is waived -- ideal for a grandparent or teenager who wants his or her own space. Otherwise, suites are the way to go. Sapphire and Emerald have 14 suites apiece; each cabin boasts a sofa bed big enough for two children. The newer vessels have 22 suites each, also with sofa beds. Suites on all the ships come in at 300 square feet.

On every ship, there is a main dining room, Compass Rose A small cafe, Arthur's, offers all-day dining, and lots of kids' favorites like burgers and hot dogs. There is no specific kids' menu in the MDR, but there is kids-friendly food available at all meals at the buffet.

The ships do not turn any room into a kids club, but on the newer ships, there are two dedicated spaces where children can play board games and the like. In the main Panorama Lounge, there is a spot reserved for youngsters. In Arthur's, you'll find puzzles and games; on the last day, it's turned into a shop where kids can spend their "Tauck bucks," earned for completing quizzes and participating in games throughout the cruise.

On the top deck, each ship has a hot tub and a small putting green.

Activities on a Tauck river cruise are designed to be interactive and fun for both adults and kids. They can include sword fighting lessons, shooting arrows from a Middle Age cross bow, hiking tall mountains to visit castle ruins, biking through villages, riding the antique Ferris Wheel at the Prater Amusement Park in Vienna, navigating a hedge maze at a royal palace, dancing in an ornate ballroom, geo-caching and learning how to mold marzipan from a chef in Germany. It's worth noting that, in keeping with the Tauck ethos, there are no dedicated children's excursions; all are designed for the whole family.

Family of three in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris

Vantage Deluxe World Travel

The newest entry into family river cruising, Vantage will start offering family river cruises in 2017, open to children ages 8 and up. The trips will be planned during summer and holidays and feature a family welcome reception; arts and crafts workshops, and singing sessions for kids ages 8 to 12; activities for tweens, teens and 20-somethings; a dedicated host to oversee family activities in the evenings; special ship tours; kid-friendly menus; complimentary travel journals and language lessons; and visits to schools if the cruise takes place when class is in session.

The current Family Journey offering for 2017 centers on Paris, Normandy and the Seine River. The itinerary, available July 2017, will take place on River Venture and visit Giverny, Honfleur, Rouen and the D-Day beaches. Activities on the ship will be adjusted to the age of the children who go.

For some categories, children between ages 8 and 21 can cruise for free; however, they must be in the same cabin as a parent and are valid only for double occupancy rooms. Regular cabins on River Venture do not have room for a third berth; the Owners Suite does have a sofa that converts to a bed and there are also single staterooms.

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