The 7 most exciting new river cruise ships of 2020

Jan 28, 2020

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The multiyear boom in river cruising shows no signs of slowing down — at least not this year.

With demand continuing to grow, the big river lines that cater to North Americans will launch more than a dozen new vessels across the United States, Europe and Asia in 2020.

As is typically the case, Europe will be at the center of the growth. River cruise giant Viking alone is adding six new ships in the region. AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Uniworld and Tauck have new Europe river ships coming, too.

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The newcomers in other parts of the world include everything from a notable new paddlewheeler for the Mississippi River to a first-of-its-kind new build for the Nile in Egypt.

River lines aren’t alone in adding a profusion of new vessels to the market this year. This also will be a big year for new ocean-going ships (see our picks for the most notable newcomers).

Read on for a list of the seven new river ships that we’re most excited to book.

American Countess (American Queen Steamboat Company)

Maiden voyage: April 5

American Countess will have a classic Mississippi riverboat look. Image courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company.
American Countess will have a classic Mississippi riverboat look. Image courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company.

Toot the whistle horn! Gather ’round the calliope! A new Mississippi paddlewheeler is on the way. Currently under construction in Louisiana, the 245-passenger American Countess will begin sailing between New Orleans and Memphis in early April. Eventually, it will operate as far north as Red Wing, Minnesota.

Like the two American Queen vessels currently on the Mississippi — American Queen and American Duchess — American Countess will be a whitewashed, wedding cake-like confection with red trim powered by a great, big paddle wheel on its back. Four decks high and 361 feet long, it’ll also have such American Queen riverboat signatures as a soaring Grand Lobby, an elegant dining room with river views, a theater and a forward-facing Chart Room where “riverlorians” will regale passengers with river stories.

That said, American Countess won’t be a carbon copy of the earlier vessels. In one notable twist, it will have sleeker, more modern cabins than its predecessors. There will be four categories of cabins in all, two of which come with balconies.

The details: American Countess will sail a mix of six- to 15-night trips on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Fares start at $1,699 per person, not including taxes and fees. For information, call 877-786-5077 or visit americanqueensteamboatcompany.com.

Avalon View (Avalon Waterways)

Maiden voyage: April 9

Panorama Suites on Avalon Waterways ships have wall-to-wall windows that slide open to create a balcony-like feel. Photo courtesy of Avalon Waterways.

Avalon Waterways’ latest ship in Europe won’t have a radically different look than other recent additions to the Avalon fleet. In fact, the design of the 166-passenger Avalon View will be almost identical to the design of the last dozen or so Avalon ships to debut.

But the design is so good, Avalon View is a necessity in any discussion of the best new river ships.

Scheduled to sail on the Danube, Avalon View is the latest of Avalon’s “suite ships,” which began arriving in 2011. The vessels feature particularly spacious (and brilliantly laid out) cabins known as Panorama Suites on two of three cabin decks. The highlight of the rooms are sweeping, floor-to-ceiling window walls. Offering stunning views, these walls slide open seven feet to create a balcony-like effect (don’t worry: “French balcony” railings are there so you don’t fall out).

In a twist from what’s been typical on Europe-based river ships, the beds in Panorama Suites face the water and not an interior wall.

Avalon View’s public spaces will include a restaurant, lounge with bar, secondary lounge, fitness room and spacious sun deck. With its addition, Avalon will have 14 of the suite ships in Europe.

The details: Avalon View will operate seven-night Danube voyages between Deggendorf, Germany, and Budapest, Hungary, with stops in Passau, Germany; Linz, Melk, Durnstein and Vienna in Austria; and Bratislava, Slovakia. Fares start at $2,898 per person, not including taxes and fees. Call 877-797-8791 or visit avalonwaterways.com for more information.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises

S.S. São Gabriel (Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection)

Maiden voyage: April 12

Nearly the entire top deck of the SS Sao Gabriel will be suites. Image courtesy of Uniworld.
Nearly the entire top deck of the SS Sao Gabriel will be suites. Image courtesy of Uniworld.

No doubt about it, river cruising on the Douro River in Portugal is hot these days — so hot the relatively minor European waterway is drawing two major new vessels this year.

Upscale river line Uniworld’s S.S. São Gabriel will be the first of the two ships to debut, and it’s promising to be a charmer. Built for just 100 passengers, the three-deck-high vessel will boast elegant decor with local touches like handmade glazed Portuguese tiles. It’ll also have menus infused with regional specialties such as chorizo and octopus carpaccio.

Known for its ultra-attentive service, California-based Uniworld has operated voyages on the Douro before. But S.S. São Gabriel will be an upgrade from the line’s former ship on the river, Queen Isabel. Nearly the entire top deck of the vessel will be devoted to lavish suites, four of which will measure more than 300 square feet. All come with butler service.

Other features will include a restaurant, lounge with a bar, spa, fitness room and a sun deck with a pool — a relative rarity on river ships.

The details: S.S. São Gabriel will operate seven-night sailings out of Porto, Portugal, with stops in such river towns as Regua and Pinhão. Fares start at $3,499 per person, not including taxes and fees. For information, call 800-349-7397 or visit uniworld.com.

Andorinha (Tauck)

Maiden voyage: April 24

Andorinha will be upscale tour operator Tauck
Andorinha will be upscale tour operator Tauck’s first vessel on the Douro River. Image courtesy of Tauck.

The second of the two new ships coming to Portugal’s Douro River this year is Andorinha, which is — notably —the first Tauck vessel ever on the river. Designed for just 84 passengers, it’ll bring Tauck’s signature highly-inclusive, also incredibly high-touch type of cruising to the Douro for the first time.

Like other Tauck river ships, Andorinha will have spacious, elegantly appointed cabins (some measuring 300 square feet) and multiple restaurants. It’ll also sail with three Tauck Director guides who accompany every tour outing along with local guides, one of the line’s key differentiators.

As is typical for Douro vessels, Andorinha will be just two decks high and relatively short for a river ship at 263 feet long. Bridge heights and lock sizes on the Douro limit how big river ships can be.

Andorinha will operate three itineraries on the Douro, including what’s being billed as the first family-focused routing on the river. Tauck was an early pioneer of family-focused river cruise departures and continues to be a leader in the niche.

The details: Andorinha’s main seven-night Douro River itinerary, out of Porto, Portugal, will include an overnight in Porto and stops at several river towns including Peso da Régua and Pinhão. Activities will include walking tours of the towns, tours of vineyards and wine estates, visits to historic sites and scenic cycling. Fares start at $4,190 per person, not including taxes and fees. For information visit tauck.com or call 800-468-2825.

Viking Radgrid (Viking) 

Maiden voyage: May 1

Viking Radgrid and three sister vessels will be small enough to travel into the heart of Paris. Image courtesy of Viking.
Viking Radgrid will be small enough to travel into the heart of Paris. Image courtesy of Viking.

River cruise giant Viking is known for operating a fleet of almost identical vessels in Europe. If you’ve seen one Viking river ship in Europe, you’ve seem them all. But the line is tinkering with the formula a tad with Viking Radgrid, which will debut on the River Seine in May.

Along with three more sister ships that will begin service on the French waterway later in the year, Viking Radgrid will be just 410 feet long, about 33 feet shorter than the typical Viking river ship. The smaller size will allow it to travel all the way into the heart of Paris. In the small world of Seine cruises, that’s a big deal (bigger ships on the Seine have to dock as far as 11 miles away).

Viking Radgrid also will have fewer cabins than the typical Viking ship — just 84 instead of 95. But it’ll still have the wide range of cabin types (including multiroom suites) that’s a Viking signature. Cruisers will also recognize the same streamlined Scandinavian design that’s a hallmark of the brand. Public spaces will include an expansive sun deck, a restaurant, a lounge with a bar, a boutique and a library.

The details: Viking Radgrid and its sisters will operate seven-night Seine cruises out of Paris that include day stops in La Roche Guyon (for an excursion to Claude Monet’s home in Giverny), Les Andelys and Mantes-la-Jolie. There’s also an overnight stay in Rouen, allowing for a day trip to the Normandy beaches. The trip begins and ends with overnight stays in Paris. Fares start at $1,999 per person, not including taxes and fees. Call 800-304-9616 or visit vikingcruises.com for more information.

AmaSiena (AmaWaterways)

Maiden voyage: July 1

The 156-passenger AmaSiena will sail on the Rhine and Main. Image courtesy of AmaWaterways.

The newest ship from California-based AmaWaterways will be similar to three other AmaWaterways vessels that have debuted since 2017. If you’re looking for a radical new ship design from the line, you’ll be disappointed. But the look of the 156-passenger AmaSiena isn’t the reason we’re excited about this vessel.

The big allure is the itinerary.

With demand for shorter voyages on Europe’s Rhine and Main rivers growing, AmaWaterways has assigned AmaSiena to a new-for-the-line, one-way routing between Nuremberg, Germany, and  Amsterdam that will hit the highlights of both rivers in just seven days. Dubbed Treasures of the Main & Rhine, the itinerary will include stops at such classic Main destinations as Würzburg (home to the UNESCO-designated Residenz Palace) and Bamberg. Rhine stops will include vineyard-surrounded Rudesheim and Cologne, home to one of Europe’s most spectacular cathedrals.

Like its three sisters (AmaMora, AmaLea and AmaKristina), AmaSiena will offer cabins and suites with the line’s signature twin balcony concept (both a walk-out balcony and a French balcony along the outer-facing wall). Expect multiple dining venues and a heated pool with a swim-up bar — both AmaWaterways signatures — and, as is typical for the line, there’ll be a heavy focus on wellness. A designated Wellness Host will lead daily exercise classes and a lineup of active biking and hiking excursions.

The details: Seven-night Treasures of the Main & Rhine sailings start at $2,949 per person, not including taxes and fees. For an additional $870, passengers can add a three-night Prague visit. For information, call 800-626-0126 or visit amawaterways.com.

Viking Osiris (Viking)

Maiden voyage: Dec. 30

Viking Osiris will be Viking
Viking Osiris will be Viking’s second ship in Egypt. Image courtesy of Viking.

The Seine isn’t the only river where Viking is expanding in 2020. It’s also building a new ship for the Nile in Egypt — and it’s quite the notable development.

Viking Osiris is being built from the ground up specifically to Viking’s specifications. It’ll also be owned and operated by Viking. That’s unusual in a market where most Western lines charter local vessels for their trips.

Indeed, when it debuts later this year, Viking Osiris will be the only ship on the Nile built, owned and operated by one of the big Western river cruise companies. In Viking’s eyes (and ours, too), that means Viking will be able to offer the most consistent product on the river. Unlike some other Western companies operating in Egypt, Viking will have complete control of the experience.

Viking Osiris will be smaller than the typical Viking ship, with just 41 cabins. But it’ll be a classic Viking vessel in other respects (the aforementioned Scandinavian design and distinct Viking-style included touring). If you’ve been on any of Viking’s 60-plus river ships in Europe, you’ll feel right at home.

Viking Osiris is joining Viking’s two-year-old, 52-passenger Viking Ra on the Nile. Viking Ra, too, is owned and operated by Viking. But it technically wasn’t built by the line. Viking gutted and reconfigured an existing Nile ship to create it.

The details: Viking’s Egypt trips pair a three-night hotel stay in Cairo with a seven-night Nile cruise with visits to such iconic Egypt sites as the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings. Fares start at $5,349 per person, not including taxes and fees. For information, call 800-304-9616 or visit vikingcruises.com.

Related: How to plan a cruise with points and miles

Other newcomers

In addition to the above, newcomers for 2020 include a new Mississippi River ship from American Cruise Lines. To be called American Jazz, the 195-passenger vessel is the third ship in a five-ship “modern riverboats” series the line has been rolling out since 2018. With its addition, American Cruise Lines will have 13 vessels operating across America’s rivers and coastal areas.

Cruisers can also look forward to other new ships from both Uniworld and Viking. In addition to a new ship in Portugal, Uniworld is adding new vessels on the Nile and Asia’s Mekong River. Viking is adding two additional vessels on the Rhine, Main and Danube river complex. Both of the latter ships will be traditional Viking “longships” that can carry up to 190 passengers.

Uniworld also is relaunching its Italy-based River Countess, which was struck and damaged last year by an MSC Cruises ship while docked in Venice. River Countess is undergoing a complete redesign and will be renamed S.S. La Venezia.

Planning a cruise for 2020? Our planning guide starts here:

Featured image courtesy of Avalon Waterways

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