River cruises are all the rage these days, with dozens of new ships hitting the market each spring in time for the season. While most people know the major players like Viking (or have at least seen the commercials while watching Downton Abbey), the concept of barge cruising is less familiar to most. Sure, they both run on rivers and are a fraction of the size of ocean liners, but they offer a world of difference when it comes to size and style. Here, we break it down so that you can decide what floats your, well, boat.100 vs. 10 of Your Best Friends
The appeal of river cruises is the boutique ship size, with Viking River Cruise's longships holding up to 246 passengers on China's rivers and Scenic's spaceships accommodating up to 169 people on European waters, for example. They're generally considered very amenable for socializing and making new friends -- but they're not so small that you'd feel trapped with fellow guests who you might not get along well with. Barge cruises, meanwhile, are on a much smaller scale, with some like European Waterways' Enchanté in France holding just eight guests and others like French Country Waterways' Esprit holding up to 18. Similar to what you’d find on the canals in Paris and Amsterdam, these small barges are more like houseboats with much closer quarters and living spaces, making them perfect for a family or group of friends to charter the entire vessel.
Given the slow pace of barge cruises, guests have more flexibility when it comes to itineraries. On river cruises, even if guests don't participate in an excursion, they still have to adhere to boarding calls. On barges, the cruises roll so slowly down the river that passengers have the option of hopping off and walking or biking along the shore and catching up with the boat at one of the next locks. Most barge cruises have bikes on board, too, so you don't have to worry about bringing your own wheels or tracking down a rental.
Gourmet Fare On Board
River cruises are stepping up their game when it comes to cuisine, offering some gourmet dining and wine menus that are often locally inspired and sourced. Think: Hungarian goulash with paprika from Budapest on a Viking cruise, Greek baklava at a Grand Circle table, or local wine pairings on a Uniworld sail. But barge cruises are able to hone in a bit more, since they're catering to a smaller group. In France, the crew on European Waterways will hop off early in the morning to bring fresh pastries on board from the local patisserie and set up candlelit dinners at night featuring market fresh cuisine with fine wines. French Country Waterways also highlights over two dozen wines on the journey, most of which are from Grand Cru or Premier Cru vineyards.
On Board Amenities
River cruises are making the most of space on board, adding everything from hair salons and gyms to sundecks sporting running tracks and pools. Both barge and river cruises are designed for guests to watch the scenery pass by and enjoy the slow pace of cruising, but river cruises definitely up the entertainment factor thanks to the boats' larger sizes. If you're looking for a lively bar scene or on board attractions, river cruises may be more your speed. It may still be worth researching barges, though -- some, like Enchanté, still boast a saloon, sun deck, and spa pool, despite only being 100 feet long.