Budapest, Hungary // © 2014 Viking River Cruises
Rivers are the flowing veins of the earth, from the mighty Amazon and Nile to the Rhine and Danube, with human, animal and plant life lining their banks. When modern travelers follow these waterways, they are looking for an intimate connection with the destination and a floating home to return to after a day of exploration.
Matching clients to a particular river involves knowing their previous travel experiences and understanding their special interests and aspirations when traveling. The length of time passengers can devote to their sailings, the gateway cities for their trip and the kind of ports along the way all give clues to putting clients on the appropriate river.
Directing the Client
Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises in Los Angeles, said that about 80 percent of those who book river cruises with his company have been on ocean cruises, and that at least half do not know where they want to go on specific rivers.
“We are proactive, and our questions center on the customer’s lifestyle,” Kaplan added. “Before we talk about a destination or a cruise line, we ask them when they want to go and for how long.”
According to Kaplan, about 90 percent of his river cruise clients are interested in sailing Europe first and sailing the Mississippi and Pacific Northwest later, typically when they are no longer able or willing to travel so far. That holds true for most travel agents. He added that Asian rivers attract a very sophisticated, veteran cruiser or a traveler who wants to experience the Ganges or Angkor Wat and finds a river cruise appealing for the comfort it provides. Kaplan’s agents ask new clients interested in a river cruise how much they have traveled, what they liked and didn’t like and why. They find out whether the client is a foodie, a wine lover, a history or culture buff, or if the person has ties through family or sentiment to certain ports.
“We’re building expertise with the client and also trust,” Kaplan said. “What the agent is looking for is hot buttons — for what really fires up the client. If they are passionate about wine, the agent may suggest a Rhine cruise with a pre-cruise stay in Amsterdam and post-cruise time in practically any European city. If foodies haven’t been to France, they might suggest a cruise with a pre-cruise stay in Lyon or Arles.”
There is one question Kaplan doesn’t ask about directly: budget.
“My feeling is that you don’t have to bring budget into it,” he said. “You should never have to ask what they want to spend. They’ll tell you by their previous travel choices. They’ll qualify themselves if you listen.”
Like other river cruise specialists, Kaplan stresses pre- and post-cruise stays, purchased from the cruise lines or custom designed for the client, so gateway cities are very important. He follows through, giving booked clients enrichment materials and insider information, including restaurant choices in the ports of call.
Beth Levich, owner of Cruise Holidays of Portland and All About River Cruises in Lake Oswego, Ore., said pre- and post-cruise stays are integral to her river cruise bookings. Approximately 90 percent of her clients travel for two weeks, especially people living in the Western U.S.
“They take a seven-night cruise with pre- and post-stays,” Levich said. “Some book longer cruises and, occasionally, there’s someone who books a week on a river, a week on land and then another river cruise. Western companies, such as Nike, offer long holidays, which makes it possible for people to plan multi-week vacations.”
Levich said she also recommends that clients interested in a food-and-wine cruise first look at itineraries in France that work with their time frame. If they have fewer than 14 days, she suggests new Bordeaux or Seine itineraries. If the clients are art lovers, she offers cruises through Provence with ports associated with Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin and van Gogh.
Levich and other agents said that Viking River Cruises deserves credit as the leader in creating widespread visibility for river cruising in Europe.
“Viking has done so much for Europe,” Levich said. “There’s a lot of demand, and they make it clear what guests will see and experience. To that end, I have 30 people with a strong interest in wine going to the south of France.”
In contrast, Levich said, the lack of advertising of the Pacific Northwest means that there is little if any visibility for cruising in the area, and client demand is weaker than for Europe.
Here are insights on what type of travelers are best suited to sailing on some of the world’s most popular European rivers for cruising.
First-time clients who have heard about river cruising and are undecided about where to go will often be guided to the Danube, according to several veteran river cruise agents. The river flows from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, touching on Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Moldova and the Ukraine.
“I think the Danube is the best for a first-time river cruiser,” Kaplan said. “It’s a very easy pace with rich, intense sightseeing. The cruise is bookended with Budapest and Prague, and you have Vienna midway through, then all the small medieval towns. There is food and wine appeal as well as history. And we always push Prague. It’s one of the 10 best cities in the world.”
Levich said her clients are intrigued by the history of the Iron Curtain and the different development between Eastern and Western Europe. Guests also make a beeline for sachertorte (Austrian chocolate cake) in one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses and make sure to see a performance by the white Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School. Budapest’s two faces are dramatic and beautiful; a river cruise in the evening with illuminated buildings along the shore of the Danube is beyond breathtaking.
Susan Reder, managing partner of Frosch Classic Cruise & Travel in Woodland Hills, Calif., can attest to the popularity of the Danube; she sold 33 cabins on a two-week cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest. Reder sells pre- and post-cruise stays to nearly all her clients on this itinerary.
“Seven days is too short when you schlep to Europe,” Reder said. “We tell clients to add pre- or post-cruise land stays. We particularly urge our clients to at least have a couple of days before the cruise — one day at a bare minimum — to avoid air delays and to adjust the body.”
Travel agents characterize the Rhine River, with its vineyards and dramatic scenery, as the most picturesque and romantic in Europe. The 40-mile Rhine Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is pure romance with castle ruins silhouetted on cliffs and views of the Lorelei rock formation and the Black Forest, which is often seen by passengers through a slight haze brought on by enjoying excellent local wines onboard. The Rhine flows from Switzerland to Amsterdam, which is an extremely popular pre- or post-cruise destination.
Weeklong itineraries usually include Cologne, one of Europe’s most charming cities, with its magnificent cathedral and famous chocolate museum. Strasbourg, too, is a delightful port of call, with its Gothic cathedral and great shopping.
Sophisticated travelers with more time can expand their cruise to two weeks or more on the Rhine, Main and Danube, or sail three-weeks from Amsterdam to the Black Sea.
“If they are more experienced, we might suggest a mix of East and West on a Black Sea itinerary from Vienna to Istanbul,” Kaplan said. “We tell them about the intrigue of Bucharest and Budapest. And it’s wonderful for history buffs and art lovers.”
Rhone and Saone Rivers
Flowing from Switzerland to France and winding through Burgundy and Provence, the Saone becomes the Rhone in Lyon. Lyon is France’s culinary capital and heaven on earth for visiting foodies. Many cruises start, end or provide overnight stays there. Seven-night cruises tend to sail between Lyon and Arles or Avignon, sandwiching in Van Gogh and tacking on a trip to Paris before or after. Cruises typically call at Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy, and Tournon, which is famous for its wine and chocolate.
Originating in France, the Seine River flows through Paris into Normandy and ends in the English Channel. Most Seine cruises travel roundtrip from Paris, sailing to Rouen or Caudebec and including at least one day in Paris. They call at Giverny to see Monet’s house and garden. Many travelers are drawn to this itinerary because it is the gateway to World War II beaches that attract multi-generational family groups.
Out of Les Andelys, travelers head for Richard the Lionheart’s Chateau-Gaillard and then to Rouen’s main square where Joan of Arc, the patron saint of France and an enduring symbol of French unity and nationalism, was burned at the stake.
The Douro, flowing from Spain into the Atlantic Ocean in Porto, specializes in dramatic scenery, Port wine in its various guises and friendly locals. Many agents urge their clients to have a pre-cruise stay in Lisbon; most cruise lines either build these in or offer them as options. Some agents provide their clients with pre- or post-cruise train tickets to nearby coastal villages, where women in black offer barbecued sardines.
Matching clients to the right river is an ongoing dance for travel consultants. As travelers explore one waterway, they develop a taste for another river cruise experience. Savvy agents can stay one step ahead, anticipating what might inspire clients to cruise again and suggesting it as soon as they return home. After all, an unending bucket list is the hallmark of the passionate traveler.