Shopping for river cruises can be confusing, particularly within the mid-tier price range (which encompasses Avalon, AmaWaterways, Viking and Emerald Waterways). The overall high standards and similar inclusions in this category make the differences negligible, but we've split the hairs for you so you can decide whether AmaWaterways or Avalon Waterways is your best choice.
Avalon has lower prices than Ama across all categories, although rates can vary based on dates and sales. On a June 2019 seven-night Rhine sailing, the entry price on AmaWaterways for the lowest category cabin is nearly $1,000 higher than Avalon's, ($3,349 versus $2,399) and the suites have even more of a discrepancy ($6,648 on Ama versus $4,598 on Avalon).
The inclusions on the two lines are similar. Avalon and AmaWaterways both include beer, wine and soft drinks at lunch and dinner (with a slight edge to Ama, which gives out free drinks during happy hour); all meals, including alternative dining; Wi-Fi; cultural enrichment; a shore excursion in every port, including some active options; and bikes for use in port. Avalon has added Adventure Hosts in 2019, while AmaWaterways offers its own Wellness Hosts. On both lines, you'll pay for gratuities separate from your fare and will have some optional for-fee excursions that you can buy.
Both Avalon and AmaWaterways have modern fleets that sail on most of river cruising's major waterways. Avalon will have 14 "Suite Ships" in Europe by 2020 that carry between 128 and 166 passengers, as well as two of its own ships on the Mekong, plus charters in India, the Amazon and the Galapagos. AmaWaterways has its own ships in Europe, each accommodating 102 to 196 passengers, as well as charters in Asia and Africa; by 2019, it will have a European fleet of 21, including its two vessels in Portugal.l.
In 2019, AmaWaterways addied the ground-breaking AmaMagna to its fleet, a ship that is twice as wide as its other riverboats. The cabins on AmaMagna start at 205 square feet, with more than half falling in the 355- to 710-square-foot range. The ship also has four restaurants, an expanded wellness facility and a water sports platform. Due to its size, it can only sail on the Danube; itineraries in 2019 will focus on the Upper Danube, with the Lower Danube added in 2020.
Both lines sail the Rhine, Main, Danube, Moselle, Seine and Rhone rivers in Europe, as well as the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia.
In addition, AmaWaterways offers cruises on the Douro in Portugal, on the Garonne and Dordogne in Bordeaux and tulip time cruises on the Dutch and Belgium waterways. (While Avalon has offered the latter in the past, none are listed on the website for 2019.) AmaWaterways also has several Africa trips that include a short cruise on the Chobe River.
Avalon offers chartered cruises on China's Yangtze, Egypt's Nile and India's Ganges, as well as the Amazon and in the Galapagos Islands (though the latter two are not operated on a riverboat).
Both lines run seasonal Christmas market cruises.
Through Globus, as well as other arms of the company (Cosmos and Monograms), Avalon has the ability to set up seamless pre- and post-cruise tours connected with your river voyage. (While Avalon isn't the only river cruise line that's affiliated with a larger tour operator, the other ones that are -- Scenic, Tauck and Uniworld -- have a more upscale focus, with more inclusions and higher price tags.)
Or if you want consistency in Asian destinations. On the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, the company has smaller versions of its Suite Ships instead of charters, which means the experience is more akin to what you'd find in Europe than with a company that doesn't have its own ships.
Both lines have themed cruises. Avalon's special sailings include beer, wine, World War II, classical music, culinary, opera and Jewish heritage. But Ama's dedication to oenophiles has extended to over 6 themed sailings each year The line also has a partnership with Backroads, an active touring company, offering cruises on the Rhine and Danube that are centered on biking, hiking and other active pursuits. Avalon offers its Active Discovery sailings on the Danube and Rhine and a few active excursions on its other ships, but it's not nearly as much of a focus as the hard-charging Backroads excursions on Ama.
Or if you have kids. AmaWaterways has teamed up with Adventures by Disney to offer family-friendly river cruises with excursions, meals and activities that are planned for multigenerational travelers. The partnership extends to the ship itself; Adventures by Disney helped designed Ama's newest ships, so there are connecting cabins and staterooms with extra beds -- both rarities in the world of river cruising.
Both Avalon and AmaWaterways include at least one shore excursion in every port you visit. Excursions are typically guided by local experts who know the port's culture and history well and speak English almost perfectly. Both lines also offer premium excursions, which come at an additional cost. These excursions generally are limited to small groups and take you into smaller venues or provide immersive experiences that expose passengers to a port's culture and tradition on a deeper, often hands-on, level.
Both cruise lines use a QuietVox system during excursions, where the tour guide speaks into a headset while passengers listen on receivers. This allows passengers to go at their own pace while still hearing the guide.
Your local guide on a river cruise can be a bit of a gamble; the quality can vary, depending on whom the line hires. Because Globus employs guides for its tour business as well as its river cruises, the company is often able to get the best in an area because they can offer them the most consistent employment.
Although Avalon has added Active Discoveries sailings on several rivers and now has Adventure Hosts on its ships, AmaWaterways makes a point of having three activity levels -- active, general and gentle -- on tours in all of its ports. Most passengers go with the general offering, which usually combines tour buses, some walking and guided exploration of the top sites. Gentle tours are designed for those who need a slower pace or have mobility issues. These tours involve little walking, and destinations are mostly seen by bus or other vehicles. Active tours will go faster and might include stairs, a hike or a guided bike ride. These tours can be challenging, with bike rides ranging from 14 to 21 miles.
Both Avalon and AmaWaterways have enrichment activities and port talks that focus on the destinations visited. On either cruise, you might spend an afternoon sampling Austrian wine while your vessel sails on the Danube. Or, you might hear a folk music ensemble one evening while docked. Both lines have small dance floors in their lounges, although whether or not they'll be used depends on the passengers. Avalon has the addition of karaoke and a movie night once per cruise.
Both Avalon and AmaWaterways have well-designed cabins, particularly on the upper decks.
On its Suite Ships that make up the bulk of its European fleet, Avalon rejiggered most of the cabins (called Panorama Suites) to give them something unique within river cruising: beds that face the water, not the wall. To complement the view, the line decided to go with sliding-glass doors that open the full width of the room, creating an extensive open French balcony. It makes a difference in the size of the room, and is particularly perfect during the shoulder seasons when you won't be on your balcony as much.
The cabins on AmaWaterways' European ships also have a unique approach to outdoor space. The line's "twin balcony" concept available aboard its newest vessels offers both a French and full step-out balcony with a small seating area for two. It's a good compromise for people who absolutely feel that they want a place to sit outside in their own room.
On the lower "aquarium class" level (the lowest level right at the water line), Avalon's cabins are slightly bigger than Ama's, at 172 square feet compared to 160 square feet. Twin balcony cabins on AmaWaterways range from 210 to 235 square feet; four suites on each ship measure 300 square feet and balcony cabins aboard the new AmaMagna start at 252 square feet. That's pretty close to Avalon's European river ships where Panorama Suites are 200 square feet and Royal Suites (two per ship) are 300 square feet. Neither line offers true suites, defined as offering entirely separate living and sleeping areas – though the new 710-square foot Owner’s Suite aboard AmaMagna comes close.
Several of AmaWaterways' ships feature cabins for single travelers. Each of these 140-square-foot cabins features a twin bed and space for one, perfect for solo cruisers. Six Ama ships -- AmaViola, AmaStella, AmaKristina, AmaLea , AmaMora and AmaMagna -- also include several cabins that can accommodate three people (with a king-sized bed along with a chair that converts into a twin bed). These six ships also feature a number of connecting cabins, designed with families in mind. AmaMagna also offers quad capacity in select cabins.
Or if you want a larger suite. AmaMagna offers some of the largest suites on the rivers, including six 474-square-foot Grand Suites and one massive 710 square foot Owner’s Suite.
Because they have French balconies instead of outdoor space, the 200-square-foot Panorama cabins on Avalon's Suite Ships feel bigger and roomier than most river cruise cabins. Avalon's bathrooms also seem larger, due to the cabin's configuration at a slight angle (to give cruisers that river view mentioned earlier). Overall, stateroom space seems better used on Avalon than Ama.
While the quality of food is subjective, both AmaWaterways and Avalon make sure that cruise passengers have a wide variety of dishes, both familiar and local to the region, at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Both cruise lines serve buffets at breakfast and lunch, as well as a selection of made-to-order items. Waiter-served dinners are usually at 7 p.m., and you can sit wherever you want, although tables for two are hard to come by on both ships in a subtle nod to encourage guests to mingle. Meals are a four-course affair; five if it's a special captain's dinner.
Both lines also have alternative light dining at breakfast and lunch, typically offered in the ship’s main lounge. Complimentary wine, beer and soda are available at lunch and dinner on both lines; on Ama, you'll also find sparkling wine in the morning if you're craving a mimosa and a happy hour with included drinks.
Both Ama and Avalon pay scrupulous attention to passengers' dietary needs. Both lines mark allergens on their menus and both offer gluten-free pastas, breads and entrees. Avalon has teamed up with the Wrenkh brothers, noted Austrian chefs, who specialize in vegetarian and vegan dishes, to add special dishes to the menus. Meanwhile, Ama added a wellness component, with a focus on healthy eating, in time for the start of the 2019 season.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two lines is that on some of its ships, AmaWaterways has a space set aside for an alternative restaurant on the top deck, aft. (On Avalon, this space is an enclosed glass lounge.) The Chef's Table on Ama has a set multicourse menu with wine pairings that you're allowed to book for free once per cruise.
Avalon also has a tasting menu with wine pairings, held several times per cruise. The meal has 15 courses (they are small) and is held in the ship's main lounge. It almost always reflects regional dishes and offers a menu that changes seasonally.
Both lines have several Captain's Dinners during the cruise that add extra courses and usually free hors d'oeuvres during that night's cocktail hour. In addition, Ama is a member of the French gastronomic society, Chaine des Rotisseurs; there's a French dinner with wines from that country served for everyone in the main dining room once per cruise.
Cruises on both Avalon and AmaWaterways are designed to be destination intensive, which means you won't find a lot of extras such as casinos. Both ships have small fitness rooms equipped with treadmills, recumbent bikes or elliptical machines and free weights – but let’s be honest: most of the exercise you need can be garnered with a hearty walk ashore.
On Avalon, Suite Ships also have a salon for hair services and manicures. AmaWaterways boats feature small (one-room) spas, where moderately priced massages are offered, and a small salon.
Ships from both lines also have complimentary bikes onboard for passengers to use while in port.
On the top deck on some of its ships, AmaWaterways has heated swimming pools with swim-up bars that are surprisingly large for a river line. Pools feature underwater stools so passengers can sit at the bar and watch the scenery go by. Some of its older ships lack pools but still manage to offer a jacuzzi tub on the Sun Deck.
Because Avalon doesn't have a separate space set aside for its alternative restaurant, there's a lovely glass-enclosed spot aft, known as the Club Lounge, where you can read, check the internet on your device or simply grab a coffee and cookie and watch the world go by.
Both Avalon and AmaWaterways offer quality river cruises for the price; it's hard to go wrong with either one. The best way to decide is to look at the specific itinerary and compare ports and rates. However, if we had to be picky:
Choose AmaWaterways if you enjoy biking and hiking, and really want to get active in every port. It's also a good choice for families as the vehicle for Adventures by Disney cruises. Choose Avalon if you want access to some of the top guides in a region, and enjoy having a bed that faces the river in a room with more space overall.
Updated October 22, 2019