When it comes to river cruising, Viking River Cruises and Avalon Waterways have quite a bit in common. Both lines operate first-rate cruises on most of Europe's major rivers, as well as in Asia. Both lines have just the right amount of inclusions to make the trip more enjoyable, such as shore excursions in every port and modern ships with a boutique feel. And both river lines charge about the same amount for their cruises.
So what makes these two lines, both considered moderately priced for river cruises, different? The answer lies in the details. Read on to see our look at Avalon vs. Viking.
Itineraries and Fleet
The largest cruise line, Viking has a fleet of nearly 70 vessels that includes 46 identical Longships that sail in Europe and carry 190 passengers. In contrast, Avalon has 18, including 11 "Suite Ships" in Europe that carry between 128 and 166 passengers, on vessels that are the same size as Viking's. Avalon's ships in Asia also carry fewer passengers than their similarly sized Viking counterparts do.
Both lines sail the Rhine, Main, Danube, Moselle, Seine and Rhone rivers, as well as China's Yangtze, Myanmar (Burma's) Irrawaddy, Egypt's Nile and Vietnam's Mekong. In addition, Viking sails in France's Bordeaux region, Germany's Elbe and Portugal's Douro, as well as in Russia, while Avalon charters ships on the Amazon and in the Galapagos Islands. Both lines run Christmas market cruises.
Because Avalon is owned by Globus, which also runs land tours, your river cruise has a host of options for pre- and post-tours. Viking also offers pre- and post- options, but their expertise is really on the rivers instead of with land tours.
Choose Avalon if you like special interest cruises.
Avalon has added a number of cruises geared toward people with specific interests. Chief among these: Active Discovery itineraries on the Danube, where you leave the coach behind and explore Austria through hiking, kayaking, biking, tasting and language lessons. Other theme cruises include culinary, art, beer, wine, golf, opera, jazz, wellness, Jewish history and World War II -- all complete with special lectures, excursions and activities.
Choose Viking if you want a choice of dates.
The sheer size of Viking's fleet means that it's easier to find the exact cruise on the exact river that you want, precisely when you want to go.
Price and Inclusions
Viking and Avalon are almost the same when it comes to inclusions and pricing, although the latter can vary depending on itinerary and promotions. Both lines offer a daily complimentary shore excursion, as well as options you can pay for; wine, beer and soda at dinner and lunch (Avalon previously only did this at dinner, but will add alcohol at lunch in 2017); enrichment onboard and free WiFi. Neither includes gratuities in the fare.
This category is where Viking and Avalon diverge paths. On its Suite Ships, Avalon rejiggered most of the cabins 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 length of the room, creating an extensive open "French balcony" effect. It really does make a difference.
Viking's cabins are no slouch either. All Longships have a choice of French balconies and veranda cabins, the latter having actual outdoor space. While both lines have nice-size bathrooms (and, happily, glass-enclosed showers), Viking's come with heated floors -- a bonus if you're traveling in the offseason or on a Christmas markets cruise.
Overall, the decor on both Viking and Avalon can be described as contemporary and modern, with a boutique hotel feel. In keeping with its Norwegian owner, Viking's ships have Scandinavian influences with lots of pale wood and clean lines. Avalon is similarly non-fussy.
Choose Avalon if you want more space in a standard cabin.
Because they have French balconies instead of outdoor space, the 200-square-foot Panorama cabins on Avalon's "Suite Ships" feel bigger than most river cruise cabins. Although Viking's Veranda staterooms are technically larger at 205 square feet, that figure includes the balcony. Avalon's bathrooms also seem larger, due to the cabin's configuration at a slight angle (to give cruisers that river view mentioned earlier). Avalon's Deluxe staterooms on lower decks are also larger than Viking's, with 172 square feet compared to 150 square feet.
Choose Viking if you want a true balcony or a two-room suite.
If you want to step outside your cabin and sit on a "proper" balcony, or want a suite that lives up to its name and is made up of two rooms rather than one large space, then go for Viking. While Avalon also has the 300-square-foot Royal Suite on its ships, the space is technically not true two rooms. Even at 275 square feet, Viking's Veranda Suites are two rooms -- and the 445-square-foot Explorers Suite is one of the largest in river cruising.
Enrichment and Entertainment
Both Avalon and Viking have enrichment activities and lectures 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.
While the quality of food is subjective, both Viking 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. 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. The meal is a four-course affair; five if it's a special captain's dinner. Both lines also have alternative light dining at breakfast and lunch. Wine, beer and soda are available at lunch and dinner on Viking (Australian passengers have the Silver Spirits beverage package included in their fares); while Avalon excluded free drinks during lunch in the past, the line is adding complimentary beverages in 2017.
Choose Viking if you like to eat (and drink) alfresco.
Viking's glass-enclosed Aquavit Lounge, where the line serves lighter lunches and dinners, can open to the elements in nice weather. While Avalon has a similar glass lounge, it only has snacks; the alternative dining is in the main lounge, which does not offer alfresco dining. (Avalon does have a barbecue on the top deck at least once per cruise, weather permitting.)
Choose Avalon if you're vegetarian/vegan or like tasting menus.
Avalon has signed a partnership with the Wrenkh brothers, noted Austrian chefs, who specialize in vegetarian and vegan dishes. The healthy meals will be added to all Avalon ship menus in 2017, as part of the line's "Avalon Fresh" initiative. Another feature of an Avalon sailing is a 15-course tasting menu with wine pairings, held several times per cruise. This special meal is available on a complimentary basis to each passenger once per voyage, and usually reflects regional specialties.
Cruises on both Avalon and Viking are designed to be destination intensive, which means you won't find a lot of extras such as casinos or pools. Neither ship is designed for families.
Avalon ships have a small fitness room with a treadmill, elliptical machines and free weights. Suite Ships also have a salon for hair services and manicures. New for the line: bikes onboard that passengers can use in port.
Viking Longships do not have spas or fitness facilities onboard, but concierges can arrange services while you're in port. Viking does not have bikes.
Both Avalon and Viking offer a comprehensive catalog of river cruises; the differences are really quite slight. The best way to decide is to look at the specific itinerary and compare ports and rates.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor