River Cruising Comes of Age

Ana Figueroa The Danube usually looks greenish-brown, not blue. But apart from that, European river cruises rarely disappoint. Europe’s most fabled river inspired Johann Strauss in a different era, of course, but the fairy-tale castles, baroque church spires, storybook villages and ancient fortresses a

By: Ana Figueroa

The Danube usually looks greenish-brown, not blue. But apart from that, European river cruises rarely disappoint.

Europe’s most fabled river inspired Johann Strauss in a different era, of course, but the fairy-tale castles, baroque church spires, storybook villages and ancient fortresses along its banks seem to have scarcely changed. Europe’s great cities grew up around its rivers, which is why river cruising is an ideal way to see the best of Europe.

“River cruising is a great niche, and savvy agents recognize that,” said Jeffrey Dash, Viking River Cruises president. “Agents who take the lead in recommending this product are guaranteed lots of repeat business. Ninety-four percent of our customers rate their river cruise their best trip ever, and they keep coming back.”

High customer-satisfaction ratings are hardly surprising. River cruising is one of the most comfortable ways to see Europe. Today’s amenity-filled vessels are floating first-class hotels, depositing passengers in the heart of a different city each day. There’s something quite satisfying, almost decadent, about pulling up to the riverbank, and walking off for a 10-minute stroll to the Cologne Cathedral, or the loveliest Christmas market in Europe. There’s no wait for a tender with 3,000 of your closest friends, so you’ll be snacking on strudel from a cozy storefront bakery in no time.

River cruises have no sea days, which is a nice change for frequent cruisers. Instead, every day is a “see day” whether you’re outside, on the observation deck, inside the observation lounge or looking out your “French balcony,” a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door that opens enough for you to poke your head out (and wave to barge operators floating by). The heart of Europe unfolds on a river cruise, with as much to see along the way as in your ultimate destination.

For agents, there’s another advantage to the river cruise business.

“Unlike ocean cruising, where you have a lot of discounting, travel agents are protected with this product. They don’t have to worry about giving out pricing information only to have the customer find another offer on the net,” said John McGlade, director of Euro River Cruises, a cruise wholesaler.

Of course, another big selling point is that river cruises are an all-inclusive product and an extremely good value with the dollar so weak against the euro.

Choosing Who’s Cruising
So how do you find a river cruise that’s right for your clients? First of all, who is cruising? Are they clients who prefer a vacation tailored for the U.S. market, or do they want to travel with Europeans? Good arguments exist for both. On one hand, many clients, especially seniors, are more comfortable in an all-English environment, with other Americans. On the other hand, who goes to Europe to meet other Americans? Keep in mind that Europeans these days are eager to discuss world events (and America’s role in them), so it might not be best to book clients on European lines if they’re likely to set the cause of diplomacy back.

What are the distinctions between the lines that cater to Americans and the European lines? Language is the primary difference. You’ll hear announcements only in English, or in multiple languages. Smoking policies are also different, although many European lines are non-smoking, except in parts of the lounge. Another distinction is that the lines catering to the American market include guided city tours as part of the river cruise price, while the European lines do not. That’s not a big deal. After the first few days of guided tours, most river cruisers (the spry ones at least) take off on their own, in search of that souvenir they meant to buy in the last town.

Viking River Cruises, Uniworld River Cruises and two recent entries on the rivers, Amadeus Waterways and Avalon Waterways, are geared for the American market.

Viking River Cruises, based in Woodland Hills, Calif., is the U.S. division of the world’s largest river cruise company, headquartered in Switzerland. Uniworld, newly acquired by The Travel Corporation, is based in Encino, Calif. Both companies have large, modern fleets that provide the biggest selection for the U.S. market.

Amadeus, based in Chatsworth, Calif., was launched in 2002, by Rudi Schreiner, Kristin Karst and Brendan Tours owner Jimmy Murphy. Schreiner was already something of a pioneer in the river cruise industry, having played crucial roles in launching both Uniworld and Viking River Cruises. Amadeus began operations with the new MS Symphony in 2003. That same year, the giant Littleton Colo.-based Globus bought into the Symphony before deciding to take the river plunge itself. With Schreiner as a consultant, Globus launched Avalon Waterways, and introduced the splashy MS Artistry in 2004.

“We realized that this was clearly a vacation experience that was going to grow, and we wanted to be part of it, but in a more modern, upscale fashion,” said Patrick Clark, Avalon Waterways managing director.

Amadeus and Avalon now operate under a code-share agreement whereby each company (and its Globus-Brendan parent) books passengers on a fleet that consists of the Symphony and the Artistry, with the new MS Poetry set to debut in April 2005. That ship, like the elegant Artistry, will offer French balconies, some of the largest cabins on the rivers (172 square feet), as well as four impressively roomy (258 square feet) junior suites.

Another well-respected participant in the American market is St. Louis-based deluxe tour operator, INTRAV. The company exclusively charters or secures four vessels, ranging from the 48-passenger Douro Prince to the 242-passenger Novikov Priboy, for itineraries on Europe’s major waterways. This summer, INTRAV offers its first cruises on the brand-new 142-passenger Amadeus Royal (no relation to Amadeus Waterways). In addition to French balconies, the ship will feature a small pool.

For clients who want to mingle with Europeans, the German-based Peter Deilmann, with U.S. offices in Arlington, Va., is a river cruising institution. Deilmann was the first to design ships that included the amenities of ocean-going vessels. (Prior to that, accommodations were a tad spartan, to say the least.) Today, the company offers more than 240 European river cruises on nine deluxe ships.

The French company, CroisiEurope, isn’t as well known in the U.S. as Deilmann, but it is certainly an attractive option. Its fleet of 24 “four-star” ships are on average no more than four or five years old, providing comfortable amenities and value for the price. The line, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2006, is known for its cuisine. (Hello, it’s French). And, CroisiEurope offers some unusual itineraries, including cruises as short as three days.

Finally, for your clients interested in an intimate, ultra-luxurious experience, consider Sea Cloud Cruises. Based in Germany with offices in Englewood, N.J., the company operates two river ships in Europe: the 90-passenger River Cloud and 88-passenger River Cloud II. The vessels, with their teak decks, marble sinks, putting greens and Steinway grand pianos in the lounge, attract a select, international clientele.

Which River to Cruise
With any European river cruise, choosing an itinerary is another major decision. River cruise itineraries range from three days to three weeks, operating from “tulip time” in late March to “Christmas market time,” in November and December.

Often, clients already have a picture in their mind’s eye of what they’d like to see. For iconic imagery, the Danube wins, hands down. The modern era of river cruising began on the Danube in 1992, with the opening of the Main-Danube Canal linking the North Sea to the Black Sea. Grand River Cruises lasting longer than seven days soon became popular, and that spurred a flurry of shipbuilding activity directed at the North American market. But just because the Danube has a song or two written about her doesn’t mean she’s the only game in town.

The Rhine offers bucolic scenery and architectural gems, from Basel to Strasbourg, to Mainz, Cologne, Arnheim and Amsterdam. The canals of Holland and Belgium are extremely popular for springtime garden tours, beginning in Amsterdam, with visits to Antwerp, Rotterdam, Delft and Bruges. The Rhone through France provides a taste of Provence, along with some of France’s most renowned wine-growing regions. Hillside vineyards and mountain-top castles are an almost constant spectacle on the Moselle River in Germany.

If you have veteran river cruisers looking for something exotic, the Elbe, in Eastern Germany, is generating a lot of buzz these days. Peter Deilmann sails the Elbe and Vitava rivers between Prague and Berlin, as well as the Oder River between Germany and Poland, with optional cruise tours to Gdansk and Warsaw in Poland. Viking and CroisiEurope also offer Elbe cruises.

The Po River in Italy has suffered some water-level problems recently, forcing a few lines to change itineraries this season. The River Cloud II, which features a shallow draft, hasn’t experienced any problems. The vessel’s Venice to Cremona cruise calls in Verona, Mantua and Padua, and features an onboard operatic performance.

CroisiEurope offers a tour through Italy on the Po that includes a stay in Venice. They also offer four- and five-day Venetian Lagoon cruises.

“In some cases, especially in shoulder season, booking a river cruise ship might be less expensive than a hotel stay in a place like Venice,” observed McGlade from Euro River Cruises (the official booking agent for CroisiEurope in the U.S.).

River cruises in Portugal and Spain are hot this year, as well. One of the most popular itineraries is the breathtaking Douro River Valley, home of the city of Porto, and its famous port wine. CroisiEurope offers Iberian Peninsula cruises on the Guadalquivir and Guadiana rivers in Spain and Portugal. In May, it will introduce a new hybrid ship, the Queen of Cadiz, that will cruise roundtrip from Seville on both rivers, as well as the Atlantic coast of Portugal. The line also cruises from Budapest on the Tisza River through Serbia and Hungary.

Peter Deilmann has just introduced a new trip on the Seine from Paris, calling at Le Havre, Rouen and Vernon, where passengers can tour Claude Monet’s enchanting home and garden, Giverny. Excursions include a visit to the W.W. II beaches, and Mont St. Michel.

Russian river cruises on the Volga have also flourished in recent years. Itineraries bear grand names, such as Waterways of the Czars, and call at St. Petersburg, Moscow and other cities on the way to the Black Sea. Both Uniworld and Viking offer a selection of Russian Waterways itineraries.

INTRAV has made a name for itself with its Russian cruises in recent years. In addition to Moscow and St. Petersburg, the line ventures into rural Russia, giving passengers a view of lakes, churches and country dachas. INTRAV has also arranged for passengers to get an “early opening” tour of the Hermitage Museum, which is a fantastic perk if you’ve ever braved the crowds at the venerable institution.

Coming Attractions
Looking downstream, so to speak, what lies ahead for river cruising in Europe?

The boats themselves have pretty much maxed-out in size, unless they invent a way to squeeze themselves under centuries-old bridges. The emphasis now is on launching new ships with amenities that compete with cruise liners. Viking will soon debut its new state-of-the-art Viking Sun, a 198-passenger vessel that will sail 11-night Rhine itineraries. And Uniworld will re-launch a refurbished River Empress. According to Scott Franey, vice president of marketing and sales at Uniworld, the company will also enhance onboard amenities on all its ships to include flat-screen televisions, luxurious linens and healthy/spa cuisine choices.

Specialty cruises are a bigger deal than ever, with fall foliage, wine country, art appreciation, classical music and even golf-themed river cruises, in addition to the traditional tulip blooms and Christmas markets. Cruise lines are also offering more elaborate cruisetours and extensions, to cities such as Vienna, Amsterdam, Paris, Munich, Prague and Budapest. Viking offers an extension to the Chateau Du Fey in Burgundy, with dinner at a Michelin three-star restaurant. Peter Deilmann offers cruise tours that include deluxe rail travel on TGV and Orient Express trains.

The bottom line is that if you haven’t been on a river cruise in Europe lately, you simply haven’t been. From the looks of things, river cruising is poised for the same kind of industry-changing growth that traditional cruising experienced in the past decade.

“Reservations and bookings are better than expected. From my perspective, the prospects for expansion in Europe are plentiful,” said Avalon’s Clark.

“Remember, that in a normal year, about 10 million Americans go to Europe. Only about 1.5 percent of them go on a river cruise. So, there’s a tremendous potential for growth,” said Viking’s Dash. “Think about the 78 million Baby Boomers who are about to turn 55. They’re looking for new experiences. They’ve already done the coach tours, and they don’t want to rent a car and drive through Europe.”

“River cruising can really sell itself, if you ask me,” said Clark. “So many of us are in this business because it’s such a fun way to travel. What could be better than sitting on the deck with a glass of wine, looking at castles as you float by?”

Now, if only they could make that Danube just a little bit bluer.











1. Plan Ahead. You’ve got to get your clients booked early if they want a full range of choices. Inventory on the rivers is increasing, but it’s nothing like ocean cruises. This year promises to be boom time on Europe’s waterways. So, if you don’t book by the spring, your clients may be out of luck until 2006.

2. Recommend river travel as a great group product, for special occasions, weddings, reunions and corporate incentive programs. Some lines, such as Sea Cloud, primarily operate on a charter basis. Other lines, such as Amadeus, provide a separate tour bus and guide for groups of 30 or more.

3. Don’t push the product as a good family vacation. River cruising has lots to commend it, but “kid friendliness” isn’t one of them. There are no children’s programs or cabins suitable for third-person occupancy. River cruise passengers in Europe tend to be in the 50-plus range. So unless junior is a history buff or comfortable socializing with adults, recommend another vacation. Also keep in mind that very few ships have elevators, so be careful if booking for someone with disabilities.

4. Try out the product firsthand. It’s hard to describe a river cruise to your clients if you haven’t experienced it yourself.

RIVER VS. OCEAN CRUISING: Some Key Differences

- Every day is a “see day,” as scenery passes by on both sides of the vessel. Outdoor observation decks afford great panoramic views.

- Don’t expect casinos, Broadway shows or specialty restaurants. River cruising is an intimate experience, with the bar/lounge serving as the primary gathering spot.

- With few exceptions, there’s usually one restaurant on a river vessel. Cuisine is comparable to that on luxury ocean cruise lines, and mealtime is refreshingly hassle-free. Avalon, Amadeus and Sea Cloud serve complimentary wine. Uniworld is introducing spa cuisine.

- Internet access is either spotty or not available on river cruises. But, even small villages in Europe have Internet cafes these days, and the rates are cheaper than onboard.

- Gyms and spa services on the river don’t compare to large cruise ships, although some Viking vessels, and the new Amadeus Royal, have small swimming pools.

- On the plus side, all cabins on river vessels are “outdoor view,” cabins, and the newest feature “French balcony” sliding glass doors.