Both AmaWaterways and Emerald Cruises fall within the mid-tier price range of river cruising. That can make it hard to make a decision, because at face value, they look pretty much the same.
Both lines are family-run, with their owners coming from solid backgrounds in the travel industry. AmaWaterways was founded in 2002 when Austrian-born President Rudi Schreiner, who grew up next to the Danube in Vienna, decided to launch river cruises. Emerald Cruises came along a little later in 2014. It is the sister company to the all-inclusive Scenic river brand, which is the offshoot of the Australian motorcoach tour company founded by Glen Moroney.
AmaWaterways and Emerald Cruises are very similarly priced across all cabin categories and are very similar in terms of inclusions and amenities. They sell their itineraries on a cruise-only or airfare included basis, offer airport transfers and include wine, beer and soda with lunch and dinner.
The most notable difference is that Emerald includes gratuities in its fares, and AmaWaterways does not. This is down to the line's Australian heritage, where the tipping culture is not nearly as entrenched as it is in North America and passengers from Down Under -- along with Brits, to whom the line is also marketed -- feel happier not having to worry about how much, or whom, to tip at the end of the cruise.
With the number of deals and promotions offered by both lines throughout the year, it is difficult to compare like-for-like prices, but they are pretty much the same. And fares also vary depending on the time cruises are booked and the date of sailing.
Both lines require payment of a nonrefundable deposit to secure a booking. Passengers with both lines lose the deposit for cancellations more than 90 days before sailing. AmaWaterways has a slightly more generous scale of penalties with passengers forfeiting 35 percent of the fare for cancellations 60 to 89 days before the sailing, 50 percent for canceling 30 to 59 days before, 80 percent for cancellations between seven and 29 days before sailing and the full fare for cancellations of a week or less before the departure date. Emerald imposes a forfeit of 35 percent of the fare for canceling between 60 to 90 days before departure, 50 percent for cancellations between 30 and 59 days and the total fare for cancellations less than 29 days before sailing.
AmaWaterways and Emerald offer no-fly cruise prices for passengers who want to make alternative travel arrangements. This is ideal for travelers who might be spending time in other countries before the cruise. In mainland Europe, there are extensive flights to embarkation points, and a very efficient rail network. And, for passengers joining from a tour of the U.K., options included traveling to mainland Europe via the Eurostar train from London, with onward rail travel to the ship.
In 2017, Emerald Cruises introduced a guarantee that provides a refund of up to $475 per day for up to seven days, or $3,325 per person, for issues that include the ship being unable to sail due to high or low water levels, mechanical breakdowns or industrial action affecting the sailing. The policy is free and applies to cruises sold in all markets.
The fares on both AmaWaterways and Emerald include a guided excursion at each port of call. The lines work in conjunction with knowledgeable local guides, and passengers use personal audio headsets to listen to the commentary. Most excursions are either a walking tour of towns and cities or a coach tour into the surrounding countryside, stopping off at historic castles and other notable sights.
Both lines offer special excursions -- at least one on every seven-night sailing -- at no extra cost. On AmaWaterways these are called "Limited Edition" tours and might include a bratwurst and beer tasting at the oldest brewery in Nuremberg, uncovering hidden gems on a tour of Vienna's secret sights or sampling Bavarian specialties such as chocolate pralines in Regensburg. On Emerald, these are "EmeraldPLUS" experiences, which are enhanced and more immersive cultural experiences.
It is notable that both lines cater to active cruisers, with a choice of optional guided hiking and biking excursions and a fleet of bikes available for passengers to explore independently.
This line grades shore excursions according to their difficulty level, such as the amount of walking that will required and any steps or steep gradients, to ensure nobody is excluded from seeing key sights. Passengers can opt for gentle, regular and active walking paces.
Intimate and authentic "EmeraldPLUS" experiences include visiting the home of a Slovakian family in Bratislava for afternoon tea. Guests get to meet locals, discover more about their life and sample home-cooked local delicacies.
As the older line, AmaWaterways is more than double the size of Emerald. It has a fleet of 16 ships in Europe, which will reach 17 in 2018 with the launch of the AmaLea. This will be followed by a sister ship, AmaMora, in 2019, along with the trailblazing AmaMagna which is set to become the largest ship on the Danube. Twice the width of regular river vessels, it will carry 194 passengers. Outside Europe, AmaWaterways has two other ships sailing on the Mekong and Chobe rivers and is expanding its Mekong itineraries in 2018.
Debuting with two vessels in 2014, the Emerald Cruises' fleet has continued to grow steadily and in 2017 rose to seven with Emerald Liberte in France, Emerald Radiance on the Douro and Emerald Destiny joining its 182-passenger "Star-Ships," the name given to its vessels sailing on the Danube, Rhine, Main and Moselle. Emerald entered the Asian market in 2016 with a chartered vessel sailing on the Mekong through Vietnam and Cambodia. Both lines offer Christmas market trips in Europe.
The line carries 164 passengers on its European ships, which is less than Emerald and considerably less than other lines that cater for up to 190 on same-size vessels.
In 2016, AmaWaterways partnered with the active travel company Backroads to debut cruise and bike trips on the Rhine, Seine and Douro, providing travelers with the opportunity to cycle along stretches of the rivers. For 2017, it expanded the number of active river cruise departures, which also feature walking and hiking tours. The line also partners with Adventures by Disney to offer family cruises.
The sister company to Scenic, but with lower fares, Emerald has set out to appeal to younger, active passengers. For 2018 the company is expanding its EmeraldACTIVE shore tours with more guided hikes and bike trips. Many passengers are in their 40s and 50s, which is younger than the average river cruise demographic.
The cabins on both lines are around the same size. However, the AmaWaterways' ships that are the same size as Emerald's "Star-Ships" have fewer staterooms, around 82 cabins compared with Emerald's 92, and therefore fewer passengers. Both lines offer single cabins, which is still a relative rarity on riverboats.
Cabins on both lines are very comfortable and thoughtfully planned, providing plenty of home comforts and ample storage space. The final choice comes down to personal preference about interior style and whether or not you want specific amenities. AmaWaterways' standard staterooms generally measure 210 to 235 square feet. Suites measure 300 square feet and the Owner's Suite is 350 square feet. A standout feature on AmaWaterways' newest ships is the "Twin Balcony Suite" concept, with both a French balcony and full walkout veranda. This makes staterooms very light and airy.
The majority of cabins on Emerald vessels are Panorama Balcony Suites that measure 180 square feet. Grand Balcony Suites, comprising one room, are 210 square feet and two-room Owner's Suites are 315 square feet. Emerald does not have walkout verandas and the ships feature what is described as an "indoor balcony" where the upper part of the floor-to-ceiling window drops down halfway to create the feeling of being on a balcony.
Cabins on AmaWaterways have a more traditional, elegant feel, while the cabins on Emerald are very modern, with extensive use of mirrored surfaces. Emerald additionally provides some concierge services for suite passengers.
The latest ships have some connecting cabins and staterooms that can accommodate more than two people, which is ideal for families and groups of friends traveling together.
Emerald has proper two-room suites with a separate bedroom and living area.
On the food front, both lines have a similar setup with a main restaurant used for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with early-bird breakfasts and lighter lunches served in the lounge. Both have sun decks set up with tables and chairs where passengers can eat on fine days.
Menus on both lines feature regional specialities and "always available" classic dishes. Both lines have self-serve complimentary tea and coffee stations available 24/7. Complimentary wine, beer and sodas are available with lunch and dinner on both lines, and from 2018 AmaWaterways is introducing a new complimentary "sip and sail" cocktail hour.
AmaWaterways is the only river line to belong to the prestigious culinary organization La Chaine des Rotisseurs, representing world-class standards of food and drink. At least once per cruise passengers get to dine at the Chef's Table specialty restaurant, which serves a tasting menu accompanied by fine wines that is included in the fare.
The Terrace is a deck area with tables and chairs at the front of the ship which is a lovely spot for breakfast, lunch or a cocktail while soaking up the passing scenery. In keeping with its Australian heritage, Emerald organizes barbecues, usually one per week, on the sun deck, weather permitting.
AmaWaterways and Emerald Cruises offer enrichment programs, such as talks, language lessons, cooking demonstrations and shows by local singers, dancers and entertainers, linked to the destinations on the itinerary. On Emerald, staff sometimes put on a light-hearted crew talent show.
Both AmaWaterways and Emerald boast above average onboard facilities with a gym, massage room and hair salon -- the latter a rarity on riverboats.
Emerald really stands out from the crowd with the "wow factor" swimming pool on its "Star-Ships." During the day the area at the back of the ship is a 258-square-foot mosaic tiled pool that is big enough to swim around. When passengers are at dinner, the area turns into a cinema, with the base of the pool rising to create a floor and the pool loungers rearranged in front of a large pull-down screen. It was a new-to-river feature when debuted by Emerald and remains a unique amenity. That said, AmaWaterways also gets high marks for the heated pools on the sun decks of its newest ships, which include a swim-up bar.
Positioned in the middle tier of the river cruise market, AmaWaterways and Emerald Cruises both offer good value for money, with plenty of inclusions. With comparable rates and itineraries on European cruises, the final decision comes down to the ships, onboard environment and personal preferences.
AmaWaterways offers more conventional surroundings and a traditional atmosphere. As one of the newest river cruise lines, Emerald Cruises offers a fresh, modern take on river cruising that will particularly appeal to first-time, younger cruisers.
Updated December 06, 2017