Most river cruises offer bike tours. // © 2014 Avalon Waterways
Shore excursions are the essence of the river cruise experience. Even on a cruise, going off shore to experience other cultures is still the main attraction. The attention to quality must extend from the onboard experience to the onshore experience. Agents and cruise lines agree that insider cultural opportunities, intimate contact with the local population and meeting the clients’ expectations of the destination are the components to a great excursion.
The sentence that repeatedly comes up in consumer reviews of river cruises is “I could not have done this on my own.” Passengers expect a strong sense of connection with the people and places in the ports along their itinerary.
A typical response reads like one Los Angeles couple’s account, as posted on Rick Kaplan’s Premier River Cruises website. They were reviewing a day on their first river cruise, which included a Melk to Durnstein guided bike tour along the Danube River. The couple wrote that they loved picnicking like locals, stopping in medieval villages so small they weren’t even on the map and sampling local cheeses, “most of which were like nothing we get in the U.S.” These three elements — living like locals, accessing places off the tourist track and having experiences very different from home — hit at the heart of what visitors want.
Travelers want experiences that match their concept of a destination, but that serve their own interests as well.
“Among my most memorable shore excursions was a Waltz Concert in Vienna [offered by several cruise lines],” said Beth Levich, owner of Cruise Holidays of Portland and All About River Cruises in Lake Oswego, Ore. “Guests also love to go to a winery where dinner is served. I think for those who like good wine, that tops the list.”
Time is precious for travelers, and they want to be sure they’re maximizing their entire trip, even during included meal times.
“Guests want a robust experience, and they are very willing to pay extra for it,” said Tom Baker, co-owner of Houston-based Cruise Center. “They want to make the most of their time.”
Baker added that his clients want to gain an understanding of the history and culture of the destination. Scenic and Tauck stand out for the quality of their tours, he said.
In addition to the content of the excursion, cruise lines need to offer shore excursions for guests with various physical ability levels. Most companies have addressed this concern by providing at least three levels of activity: leisurely walks, which in some cases also mean walkers push a companion’s wheelchair; traditional tours with moderate walks followed by free time; and fast or active walks for those who want to push the pace.
Some lines offer options for late risers who prefer to start their tours mid-morning.
Travelers can also find extensive opportunities for touring independently or by bicycle.
Avalon Waterways, for instance, has partnered with bicycle-tour specialists in Amsterdam; Breisach, Germany; Lyon; Durnstein, Austria; and Vienna for optional guided excursions. AmaWaterways is the only river cruise line that carries more than two dozen bicycles and safety helmets, free for use throughout Europe.
Scenic offers electric-assisted bikes, which are both practical in hilly terrain and enable guests to blast gleefully past Europeans. These bikes are equipped with special mounts for Scenic’s most notable contribution to flexible exploration: the Tailormade device, a personal GPS-guided system that can be activated when a guest is near something interesting, whether on land or while cruising. Scenic’s long history as a tour company has enabled it to develop excellent lectures that are pre-loaded on the device or can be accessed via iPhone or iPad through Scenic’s Tailormade app.
On guided tours, many river cruise lines have invested in QuietVox technology, which allows guests to hear their guides from a distance on their own portable receivers, with freedom to move around.
Another effective way to enable independent exploration is American Queen Steamboat Company’s hop-on, hop-off tours with knowledgeable drivers. Coaches are painted to resemble the ship, which makes them easy to find and board.
In some ports, cruise lines will offer unusual tours for guests who have been there before or who just want something off the beaten path, such as Avalon’s Sayn Manor House visit in Koblenz, Germany, or the Jewish Heritage Walk in Cologne. Ama’s Limited Edition Tours are also very impressive to veteran travelers.
In the quest to offer unique experiences, everything from ox carts to small village homes is fair game. In the Mekong, Viking Cruise passengers travel by small boat to visit a tribal village, while Ama brings its guests through the countryside in an ox cart. With Scenic Enrich, travelers visit the homes of European villagers.
Meals eaten off the ship are also considered a highlight of cruises. Tauck takes its passengers to top regional restaurants and, on the Duoro, Uniworld gives its guests lunch money to discover their own favorite cafe in Salamanca, Spain. It’s a topic of conversation for days after.
River lines have developed a variety of relationships to enhance the guest experience ashore. Scenic gives its guests a special sense of proprietorship when they go to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, since the company sponsors and supports one of the white stallions. And Viking River Cruises, a national sponsor of Masterpiece Theatre’s hit “Downton Abbey,” offers a half-day guided tour of the real castle, home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.
As river cruise lines race to offer astonishing onboard experiences, it’s clear that they haven’t forgotten what goes on outside the ship, either.