This year's World's Best Awards survey was open for voting January 11 through May 10, 2021, as destinations around the world were lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Survey rules have always allowed readers to reflect on their travel experiences over a three-year period. We hope that this year's honorees will inspire your own travels as you get back out into the world.
The past year put the entire travel industry through the wringer, perhaps no segment more so than cruising. Though the pandemic forced ships around the world to remain in port, readers nevertheless looked back fondly on their times at sea while ranking the world's top 10 river cruise lines for Travel + Leisure's World's Best Awards.
Every year for our World's Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top hotels, resorts, cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated individual cruise ships on their cabins and facilities, food, service, itineraries and destinations, excursions and activities, and value. Those assessments were combined to generate results for the cruise lines in five categories, including river cruising.
Though many European countries have been off-limits for travelers, memories of recent trips to one of the world's iconic river cruising destinations helped inform voters' choices this year. Tauck moved up two places in T+L's 2021 rankings to grab the No. 2 spot with an eye-popping score above 96. The iconic river ships of No. 3 Viking Cruises also fared well this year, with readers giving the stalwart high marks, moving it up three places. Viking has river ships across Europe, of course, but also sails the Mekong and the Nile. In 2022, the company plans to launch trips on the Mississippi.
Rainer Witzgall/Courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises
Other high-ranking lines won praise for their journeys outside the traditional rivers of Europe. No. 4 Aqua Expeditions, for example, sails to such destinations as Indonesia, Peru, and Vietnam. (The company's newest ship, the Aqua Nera, debuted this summer on the Amazon.) And No. 5 American Queen Steamboat Company, which didn't make T+L's top 10 last year, keeps its focus strictly domestic, with trips on the Columbia, the Mississippi, the Ohio, and other U.S. waterways.
But this year's highest-ranked line goes just about everywhere. No. 1 Uniworld Boutique River Cruises earned one of the highest scores of any cruise line — river or ocean — this year, impressing readers with flawless service, imaginative itineraries, top-flight design, and wonderful food. "We were treated like royalty," gushed one traveler who sailed on the Maria Theresa. "Our experience was an 11 out of 10." Can't do much better than that.
Find the rest of the list — and what other qualities set Uniworld apart — below.
1. Uniworld Boutique River Cruises
Trung Nguyen/Courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises
This global operator of 19 ships sails rivers across Europe, plus waterways in Cambodia, Egypt, India, Peru, and Vietnam. Among the newest in the fleet are the Bon Voyage, based in France, and the La Venezia, recently relaunched in Italy. And while readers certainly raved about the line's ships, they saved their highest praise for the ask-and-you-shall-receive mentality of the Uniworld crews. "My experience exceeded all expectations," said one traveler, who toured Europe on the Antoinette. "Staff consistently went above and beyond to ensure a pampered vacation. When one of our party asked if there was a guitar on board so we could sing in the parlor one evening, a staffer said he would arrange it — and proceeded to purchase a guitar at our stop the next day!" Other respondents made note of Uniworld's overall attention to detail, with excursions, meals, entertainment, and logistics expertly handled in just the right way. "It was among our most favorite vacations ever — everything was perfect," said one voter, who traveled on the Beatrice. "The best experience I have ever had on any ship," said another. A third reader summed it up like this: "This was my first experience with Uniworld, and I cried when I had to leave. Everything wowed me."
Courtesy of Tauck
3. Viking Cruises
Courtesy of Viking Cruises
4. Aqua Expeditions
Courtesy of Aqua Expeditions
More information: aquaexpeditions.com
5. American Queen Steamboat Company
Courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company
More information: americanqueensteamboatcompany.com
Richard James Taylor/Courtesy of Belmond
More information: belmond.com
7. Avalon Waterways
Courtesy of Avalon Waterways
More information: avalonwaterways.com
8. Scenic Cruises
Courtesy of Scenic Cruises
More information: scenicusa.com
Courtesy of AmaWaterways
More information: amawaterways.com
10. Crystal Cruises
Courtesy of Crystal Cruises
More information: crystalcruises.com
See all of our readers' favorite hotels, cities, airlines, cruise lines, and more in the World's Best Awards for 2021.