Published On: Mon, Nov 27th, 2023

AmaWaterways vs. Viking: Which of these popular river cruise lines is right for you?

AmaWaterways vs. Viking: Which of these popular river cruise lines is right for you?
AmaWaterways vs. Viking: Which of these popular river cruise lines is right for you?


Among the cruise lines navigating the rivers of Europe, Southeast Asia and Egypt are two of the best-known names in the industry: AmaWaterways and Viking.

Each brand is distinguished by its hallmark attractions, such as AmaWaterways’ selection of always-complimentary excursions and Viking’s consistently sleek Scandinavian-inspired interior design. But is there really that much difference between these major river cruise brands that it matters which one you choose?

The answer is yes. Some of the variations may even surprise you, so read on for a head-to-head comparison of AmaWaterways versus Viking.

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AmaWaterways vs. Viking: Meet the river cruise lines

The Danube River on the Serbian and Romanian border. AMAWATERWAYS

River cruise lines AmaWaterways and Viking launched within five years of each other. Both are helmed by well-known cruise and travel industry executives and feature fleets of modern river ships. Yet each takes its own unique approach to itineraries, tours and onboard ambience.

AmaWaterways was founded in 2002 by Vienna-born Rudi Schreiner, Germany native Kristin Karst and the late Jimmy Murphy, an American. The line has a fleet of 26 ships, with three new vessels launching in 2024 and 2025.

The brand’s hallmark is offering multiple excursions, typically three or four per port, included in the cruise fare. These are usually a city walking tour, perhaps with a wine or culinary focus, or a bus tour to nearby sights. One “Gentle” group is dedicated to guests who need a little extra time getting around, and each port almost always includes a more challenging hike or bike ride for fitness-focused guests. AmaWaterways ships also carry bicycles on board, which are available for independent exploration.

The company is known for custom-designed ships with destination-inspired contemporary decor. Its public spaces feel like those you’d find in a locally owned boutique hotel. A key design innovation by AmaWaterways was the introduction of the “twin balcony,” which consists of a French balcony and a full-size step-out balcony. This adds exceptional views and a sense of spaciousness to the cabins that feature them.

The Viking story started a few years before AmaWaterways. Launched in 1997 by Norwegian-born cruise veteran Torstein Hagen and several partners, Viking River Cruises was designed to be destination-focused and culturally immersive. Viking currently has 69 river ships, with two more scheduled to launch in 2024 and 2025.

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Related: The 5 best destinations you can visit on a Viking cruise ship

Viking’s river cruise fares include one complimentary shore excursion in each port, typically a panoramic bus tour or guided walking tour. Guests may also choose from among a range of other extra-fee tour options, most with a cultural or culinary bent but some a bit more active.

The company grew its river cruise business by attracting mature travelers seeking a convenient way to explore multiple cities and countries in Europe. However, its brand recognition and growth greatly accelerated with the introduction of its first Viking Longship in 2012 and a successful marketing campaign around the launch of the Longships (including sponsorship of “Downton Abbey” on PBS Masterpiece).

Today, Viking’s 55 virtually identical Longships, named for Nordic gods and goddesses (from Viking Agir to Viking Vili), represent a certain standard of European river cruising, and all feature light and airy Scandinavian design.

Unlike AmaWaterways, which remains strictly a river cruise company, Viking has expanded into ocean cruising. In 2015, the company introduced the 930-passenger Viking Star and now operates a fleet of nine identical ocean ships. In 2022, it added a pair of 378-guest, Polar-6-Class expedition ships. That means Viking fans can vacation around the world without leaving the brand.

Ship size

Viking river cruise ship on the Rhine. VIKING

The ships in AmaWaterways and Viking’s river cruise fleets range from intimate (28 guests) to grand (386 guests), with the size differences most notable on rivers such as the Nile, Mekong and Mississippi.

AmaWaterways’ 29 ships aren’t entirely uniform, even the 20 in its popular European fleet. Those ships are either 360 or 443 feet in length and carry 140 to 196 passengers and 45 to 70 crew members, respectively. The majority (15 ships) carry between 152 and 162 passengers and 51 crew, while four smaller vessels accommodate either 140 or 144 passengers and 45 crew.

The outlier is 196-guest AmaMagna, which is the line’s flagship vessel on the Danube. At 443 feet long and 72 feet wide, it is almost double the width of the average river ship without significantly increasing the passenger count. This has created an abundance of space that AmaWaterways has used to enhance the cruise experience. Cabins and suites are larger than on its other ships at 205 to 710 square feet versus 160 to 350 square feet. AmaMagna also offers passengers a choice of four dining venues rather than two, as well as five onboard bars, unique for a river ship.

On Portugal’s Douro River, AmaWaterways has two ships, AmaDouro and AmaVida. Each accommodates 102 passengers and 38 crew. A third vessel, AmaSintra, will launch in early 2025.

In Egypt, AmaWaterways currently operates AmaDahlia, which carries 72 passengers and 62 crew. When a second ship, AmaLilia, launches in 2024, it will accommodate 82 passengers and 65 crew.

On the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, AmaDara is the cruise line’s sole vessel. This ship, featuring French colonial decor and beautifully carved wood furniture, accommodates 124 passengers and 52 crew.

AmaWaterways also operates one vessel on the Chobe River in Botswana, and like AmaMagna, it’s an outlier — but for the opposite reason. At just 150 feet in length, Zambezi Queen was designed in 2019 specifically for wildlife viewing and accommodates just 28 passengers and 22 crew.

In 2024, AmaWaterways will add South America to its portfolio when it begins cruising the Magdalena River in Colombia. AmaMagdalena will carry 60 passengers and 30 crew.

Related: Best river cruise lines around the world

As for Viking, the company’s fleet of 55 identical Longships is ubiquitous along Central Europe’s major rivers. At 443 feet in length, each accommodates 190 passengers and 53 crew members.

On Portugal’s Douro River, Viking operates four smaller ships. They carry 106 passengers and 33 crew members. On the Elbe River in Germany, the cruise line has two ships, Viking Astrild and Viking Beyla, each carrying 98 passengers and 33 crew.

On the Seine River in France, Viking’s four identical ships, all built in 2020, accommodate 168 passengers and 46 crew.

Viking’s fleet on the Nile River in Egypt currently numbers four ships, with two more in the pipeline. The two newest — Viking Osiris and Viking Aton — were launched in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Each accommodates 82 passengers and 48 crew members. The similarly sized Viking Hathor and Viking Sobek are set to join them in 2024 and 2025. Two smaller ships, Viking Ra (2017) and MS Antares (2007), carry just 52 and 62 passengers, respectively, with crew staffs of 55 and 75.

In Asia, Viking operates just one ship. Viking Saigon, which debuted in 2022 and accommodates 80 passengers.

Viking’s largest river ship is actually cruising stateside. Viking Mississippi, which debuted in 2022 and is 450 feet in length, accommodates 386 guests and 147 crew.

If you do the math, you’ll see that while both AmaWaterways and Viking’s main European river ships are 443 feet in length, Viking’s ships carry 30 additional guests. That means Viking ships will be a tad more crowded and cabins slightly smaller (135 to 205 square feet versus 160 to 235 square feet) to accommodate. (However, suites on Viking vessels are generally a bit roomier.)

AmaWaterways also has a slightly better crew-to-guest ratio on its core European river fleet: 51 crew members for 156-162 guests versus Viking’s 53 crew members for 190 guests. Both cruise lines offer excellent service, however, and any discrepancy will most likely be felt when a Viking ship is sailing at capacity, and the ship’s sole dining room is full at mealtimes.

Who is on board AmaWaterways and Viking?

VIKING

Several factors play a role in the passenger mix aboard these competing river cruise lines. For one, Viking’s ships are adults only (passengers must be at least 18), while AmaWaterways welcomes multigenerational families. That’s not to say that you’ll find kids running amok on the latter’s ships, but you might share your river cruise with parents and teens or grandparents and younger children (the minimum age is 6) during summer and spring break.

The most obvious difference to the casual observer, however, will be the age and fitness level of each line’s core clientele.

Viking is highly popular with Americans — especially older Americans age 65 and above who like the cruise line’s consistency and emphasis on easy sightseeing by bus. More active passengers might find themselves frustrated by the pace of guided walking tours, but they can always book excursions coded as “moderate” or “demanding” rather than “easy” to lessen the odds of being slowed by fellow passengers who aren’t as speedy.

AmaWaterways is also popular with U.S. travelers but attracts a slightly more international demographic that’s also perhaps a bit younger — and fitter. Why? Not only does the cruise line offer active hiking or biking excursions in most ports, but its ships also have a Wellness Host on board leading morning and afternoon yoga, meditation and fitness classes. Guests who book AmaMagna can even play pickleball on a full-size court.

AmaWaterways also partners with bike touring company Backroads to host groups of cyclists on board, typically 30 to 40 at a time, for lengthier and more challenging bike rides than on its normal itineraries.

Wine lovers are another core group for AmaWaterways, which in 2024 will host more than 70 wine-themed cruises highlighting different wineries (mostly U.S.-based but also some European wineries on Rhone itineraries) that have been invited to bring their wine club members on board for tastings, lectures and special excursions. Some groups buy out the entire ship, but the average is 70 to 80 passengers, or about half the ship’s capacity. That means you could be sailing with a large group that’s keenly focused on wine.

Cabins and suites

Veranda Suite on Viking Hlin on the Rhine River. M. WOLLSDORF/VIKING

Because 19 of AmaWaterways’ core European ships fall into two size categories, accommodating 144 to 162 passengers, cabin and suite design is consistent across most of the fleet. Each of the generously sized rooms features a flat-screen TV and a bathroom with a roomy shower.

Fixed window cabins on the lowest deck are 160 square feet, French balcony cabins are 155 to 170 square feet, twin balcony cabins (with both a French balcony and step-out veranda) are 210 to 235 square feet, and suites are 300 to 350 square feet. The company’s two Douro River ships, AmaDouro and AmaVida, feature similarly sized cabins and suites.

While the general theme uniting the accommodations across AmaWaterways’ European fleet is contemporary design with destination-inspired touches, suite decor is unique from ship to ship. In general, cabin decor has become lighter and brighter with each new (or newly refurbished) ship, with interesting textures and patterns replacing more traditional fabrics.

In 2017, AmaWaterways also launched the first river ship (AmaKristina) with connecting rooms, designed for multigenerational families or groups of friends traveling together. Six additional ships (AmaLea, AmaMagna, AmaMora, AmaLucia, AmaSiena and AmaDahlia) now also have this feature.

Related: Best river cruises in Europe

Viking Longships are each a carbon copy of the others, so passengers know exactly what they are getting when they book. Cabins are more compact than those on AmaWaterways’ ships but have an airy ambience featuring light woods, neutral fabrics and a well-designed bathroom with a heated floor.

Standard cabins are 150 square feet and have a small window just above the water line. French Balcony cabins are a snug 135 square feet, but feature wall-to-wall sliding glass doors. Veranda cabins are 205 square feet, while veranda suites are 275 square feet. The two Explorer Suites are 445 square feet, including a 270-degree wrap-around veranda.

For slightly larger accommodations, river cruisers should look to AmaMagna, as its double-width design allows for roomier accommodations. Its two top balcony categories offer a generous 474 and 710 square feet of space, similar to the square footage of suites on many ocean ships.

Dining options on AmaWaterways vs. Viking

Breakfast on AmaPrima’s top deck. AMAWATERWAYS

There’s no question that you will eat well on a river cruise. Both AmaWaterways and Viking have culinary programs designed to appeal to a wide variety of food preferences, including vegetarian. You can expect to enjoy classic preparations as well as destination-focused dining highlighting regional cuisines.

AmaWaterways, which is the only river cruise line that’s a member of the prestigious culinary organization La Chaine des Rotisseurs, offers a la carte dining from menus that change daily for both lunch and dinner, as well as full-service breakfast from menus rather than a buffet. Options range from eggs Benedict or omelets to smoked trout or avocado toast.

Guests who prefer a lighter, more informal breakfast or lunch can skip the Main Restaurant and opt to enjoy a small selection of options served in a central buffet in the Lounge.

Sit-down lunch menus in the Main Restaurant feature a selection of appetizers served family-style and main course options that include at least one local preparation, such as goulash in Budapest or wiener schnitzel in Vienna. Dinner menus are more extensive and include three or four appetizers/soups and three or four mains (with well-conceived meat or fish options and delicious vegetarian dishes). There are two hard-to-resist dessert choices, along with seasonal fruits and a selection of cheeses.

All AmaWaterways ships also feature the Chef’s Table, an intimate space (it seats 28) located at the back of the ship and offering panoramic views. Passengers can reserve a shared table here to enjoy a beautifully prepared multicourse meal at no additional cost.

In addition, AmaMagna offers two more restaurant options: Jimmy’s for casual, family-style dining and Al Fresco for vegetable-forward menu options served in an outdoor setting.

AmaWaterways serves an excellent selection of complimentary wines (most from local vineyards along your river cruise route) and beers with both lunch and dinner, as well as a selection of complimentary mixed drinks, wines and beers during the nightly predinner Sip & Sail cocktail hour. Sparkling wine is also available during breakfast.

Viking’s dining experience is also designed to offer plenty of options. At breakfast and lunch in the Main Restaurant, passengers can select items from the buffet — which typically includes freshly made pastries, cheeses, smoked salmon, oatmeal, fruit and eggs — and/or order off of the day’s menu (buttermilk pancakes, eggs Benedict and more).

Lunch is similar, with buffet selections available as well as a menu with daily selections (soup, salad and two main options) plus always-available dishes (such as salad Nicoise and burgers). The lunch menu does not always have a locally inspired dish, but Viking guests can enjoy their midday meal while surveying local surroundings by opting to dine alfresco on the Aquavit Terrace. This aft space is popular on days when the weather is good and offers much of the same menu as the Main Restaurant.

It’s at dinner that Viking’s chefs inject more local flavors into the menu, with a suggested three-course Regional Specialties Tasting Menu (chicken paprikash as the main in Hungary, for instance). These offerings are complemented by a daily selection of two starters, two mains (always with a vegetarian selection) and one dessert. In addition, guests can choose from a Classics menu with always-available favorites.

Viking also serves unlimited complimentary wine and beer with both lunch and dinner, but the selection is a bit limited. Passengers wanting more options can purchase a Silver Spirits drinks package to enjoy a wider choice, including the sommelier’s selection of wines, which are often excellent local varietals. The package also includes cocktails and other beverages, which can be enjoyed at any time.

Viking does not host a complimentary evening cocktail hour, but on certain days it does offer free wine tastings on the Aquavit Terrace.

What’s on board

Pool on AmaPrima. AMAWATERWAYS

Most of the real estate aboard river cruise ships is taken up by guest accommodations, the main restaurant and the lounge, leaving little room for any fancy attractions beyond a small gift shop.

But AmaWaterways has managed to add a perk: a heated pool or hot tub on the Sun Deck of most of its ships. However, passengers who require an elevator can only access the two main decks, not the Sun Deck or the lowest deck.

In addition to their cache of bicycles, AmaWaterways ships also offer a wellness program, led by an onboard Wellness Host. Classes on the Sun Deck or in the Lounge consist of morning yoga, meditation or core strengthening and afternoon stretching or active walks. Every ship also has a small fitness center and a massage room. AmaMagna also has a full-size pickleball court.

Entertainment-wise, guests can expect nightly music by a piano player/DJ as well as guest performances by locals that range from folkloric song and dance to contemporary music.

Shipwide Wi-Fi is complimentary, but there is no internet center.

Viking’s Longships don’t feature pools or any wellness/fitness activities beyond a walking track and small putting green, but they do have a library with a good selection of books and an internet corner with laptops guests can use (shipwide Wi-Fi is free as well) and a small gift shop.

Related: Booking your first river cruise? Here’s what you need to know.

The Sun Deck features a shaded sitting area, as well as solar panels and an herb garden that allows chefs anytime access to fresh ingredients. Elevators on Viking ships also offer access to the middle decks but not the Sun Deck.

Viking’s entertainment is similar to most river cruise lineups and features a musician or DJ as well as local performers with a folkloric, classical or contemporary style.

AmaWaterways and Viking itineraries

Viking Hlin in Koblenz, Germany. M. WOLLSDORF/VIKING

River cruise itineraries, especially in Europe, don’t vary that much from line to line. The cruise season is mainly from late March to mid-December. Certain rivers are more popular — namely the Danube, Rhine and Rhone — and most cruise lines, including AmaWaterways and Viking, visit the same key ports.

AmaWaterways offers 33 different itineraries in Europe on the Danube, Rhine, Rhone, Seine, Garonne and Dordogne, Douro, Main and Moselle rivers, as well as the waterways of Belgium and Holland. Cruises last five to 14 nights.

As of 2024, the company is offering February and March sailings aboard AmaMagna (“Magna on the Danube”) on the Danube and AmaLucia (“Captivating Rhine”) on the Rhine. Yes, the weather will be a bit nippy, but there will be fewer crowds, and the cruise fares will be hundreds of dollars lower than in warmer months.

The river cruise line does not only sail in Europe. In Egypt, the company features one Nile River cruise itinerary, “Secrets of Egypt & the Nile.” It includes a three-night hotel stay in Cairo and a seven-night cruise.

It also offers two seven-night itineraries on the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia.

AmaWaterway’s seven itinerary options in Africa all combine a three- or four-night cruise on the Chobe River in Botswana with land stays in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe or Tanzania for a total of 10 to 17 nights.

In late 2024, AmaWaterways will become the first upscale river cruise company to sail the Magdalena River in Colombia. Its two new seven-night itineraries include the “Magic of Colombia” itinerary from Barranquilla to Cartagena and the “Wonders of Colombia” cruise from Cartagena to Barranquilla.

Related: River cruise packing list: What to pack when traveling by riverboat

Viking offers 29 different itineraries in Europe on the Danube, Rhine, Rhone, Seine, Garonne & Dordogne, Douro and Elbe rivers, as well as the waterways of Belgium and Holland. While most sailings, lasting seven to 16 nights, are from early March to mid-December, Viking has added a 10-night “Treasures of the Rhine” itinerary between Amsterdam and Basel for 2024, with dates in January and February.

Viking also offers river cruises beyond Europe. In Egypt, Viking offers one itinerary, the 10-night “Pharaohs & Pyramids,” featuring four nights in Cairo and a seven-night Nile cruise. Its itinerary through Vietnam and Cambodia is the 14-night “Magnificent Mekong” from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, which includes an eight-day river cruise and hotel stays in Hanoi, Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City.

Finally, the new Viking Mississippi cruises five itineraries in America’s Heartland. These range from seven-night roundtrips from New Orleans to 21-night journeys that cover the mighty Mississippi’s entire 2,350-mile length from New Orleans to St. Paul, Minnesota.

Bottom line

While both AmaWaterways and Viking do have a lot in common — similar itineraries and pricing, excellent cuisine and a generally casual dress code — their differences will matter to certain travelers, especially those who prioritize active wellness or multiple included tour options … or perhaps even both.

Choose AmaWaterways if you want a slightly more inclusive cruise fare, a good selection of regional wines and a passenger mix that’s a bit younger and more international. Choose Viking if you appreciate airy, modern design and enjoy traditional guided tours focused on history, culture and cuisine.

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