It’s great to see from Silver Travel Advisor’s last two surveys how river cruising is continuing to grow in popularity. 55% of those surveyed said that they would like to take a river cruise and of those who have already river cruised, 40% have gone on to book again. Given the incredible array of destinations, experiences and ships on offer, that doesn’t surprise me at all.
When I first started working in the cruise sector in 1996, the perceptions and lack of familiarity of ocean cruising created a minefield for those who wanted to book their first ocean cruise. 25 years on, ocean cruising has become much better understood; river cruising however, has not yet reached that point and it takes long and hard research to discover the different river cruise experiences offered by the multitude of operators waiting to welcome you onboard. The most misleading information you’ll probably read are those two alluring words “all inclusive” because, whilst all river cruises offer accommodation, meals and entertainment onboard, what “all inclusive” means to one company may not be the same for another. A simple example is shore excursions where one company’s included excursions can be a standard city tour in the larger towns and cities whilst from another company you will be able to choose from a number of options in every place you stop.
So, if you are new to river cruise, how do you know where to start? Although there are no official ratings for river cruise ships or companies, river cruises come at different price points dependant on the quality of experience on offer, just like any other holiday option or commodity. What may or may not be included also contributes to one’s overall product satisfaction.
The most popular reason for wanting to take a river cruise is to see the many different places included in an itinerary, (sometimes not accessible by land when one goes further afield to South East Asia or Africa), whilst having to pack and unpack just the once. The majority of river cruises are 7-night itineraries and can either start and finish in the same port e.g. Paris if cruising on the Seine or start in one port and end in another e.g. start in Passau and end in Budapest if cruising the Upper Danube. However, if you’d like to sail further and see more, there are companies who offer up to 21 nights onboard. If 7 nights is too short and 21 nights too long, you can always add on a few days at either end of your cruise by staying on land.
So, here’s my 3-step guide to help you choose which river cruise to book:
Firstly, decide where you’d like to sail. In Europe, a river cruise can take you through many countries with the most popular rivers being the Rhine and the Danube through central Europe, the Rhone in southern France and the Douro in northern Portugal. Additionally, consider the Seine, Loire and Garonne (Bordeaux) in France, the Elbe in Germany, the Lower Danube out to the Black Sea and the Dutch and Belgian Waterways for the Tulip Fields and WW II history. By far the most popular long-haul destination is the Mekong on a 7-night sailing through Vietnam and Cambodia. As most cruise lines sail on the same rivers, itineraries will be similar and so you’ll generally find that you are spoiled for choice by the number of brands you can choose from!
The second step is to decide what type of cruise experience suits you. For a British style of service, sailing with fellow Brits and a more “escorted” type of holiday Riviera Travel, Saga Holidays, Titan Travel, Great Rail Journeys and Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines should be your first ports of call. If you prefer a more Northern European mix of travelling companions, cuisine and onboard service perhaps try Nicko Cruises (German), A-Rosa (German), CroisiEurope (French) or Amadeus River Cruises (Austrian). Perhaps you enjoy Aussie service style and companionship and if that’s the case, Scenic, Emerald Waterways, APT and Travel Marvel are the companies to look for. For those seeking an all-American experience, check out American Queen Steamboat Company or American Cruise Lines. And finally, if your preference is to travel with Americans and other nationalities from around the world whilst enjoying international service standards, then look no further than AmaWaterways, Uniworld, Avalon Waterways and Viking.
Once you have your shortlist you can think about what you want from your ship. Whilst all river ships (except two) are the same size and look similar from the outside, the interior decor, ambience, service style, cuisine and configuration will vary considerably between companies. Having already decided on your preferred cruise experience and destination, a quick look at your shortlisted companies’ websites will reveal great images, videos and information about your next holiday (and for those who prefer, brochures are always available from the cruise line or your travel agent).
To make sure you are clear about which is the right brand for you, I’d suggest you pay particular attention to the following:
On the accommodation front, cabin sizes vary but you’ll find the quickest way of seeing who has the largest cabins is to check the ship’s maximum passenger capacity. Generally, those with fewer passengers have larger cabins! If a French balcony or Full Balcony is important to you, be sure to choose the right ship as whilst they all offer some cabins without a balcony of any description, there are some ships that have no balconies at all.
Dining options and cuisine are an important part of any cruise and all ships will have a main restaurant. But is it “fixed” seating (sitting at the same table every meal at designated start and finish times) or “open” seating (sit where and when you like)? Is it self-service, waiter service or a combination? How many courses per meal? What cuisine is offered? Are there alternative dining venues? Lots that needs to align with your preferences here, so choosing the brand to suit you is vital.
As we said earlier, river cruising is all about the destinations you visit so it is really important that you thoroughly research excursion programmes to ensure that your cruise will deliver the sightseeing experience you are expecting. Oh, and when you are back on board relaxing in the lounge after dinner, be sure to know what entertainment you can expect.
Finally, let’s return to the confusing “all inclusive” element. Just because cruise lines offer the most competitive rates does not necessarily mean you are getting the best value for money so here are the main things to look out for:
- Are flights and transfers included in the brochure fare?
- Is the wine and beer at mealtimes included at all and if so, is it free pouring or restricted to a glass or two (and don’t forget to think about the quality too!)?
- Are alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks onboard included all the time or only at designated times?
- As we all strive for healthier lifestyles, many operators are now offering optional complimentary wellness programmes that include yoga, stretch, core and cardio classes as well as runs and walks ashore but does that apply to your cruise?
- And what about those all-important tips to reward the crew who have served you so well – if they are not included in the brochure fare, what is the recommended amount and are they mandatory or optional?
As we sit at home thinking about next year’s holiday, just imagine relaxing on deck, drink in hand, serenely sailing past sunbathed riverbanks lined with picturesque villages and breathtaking scenery, eagerly looking forward to arriving at your next place of discovery. Like choosing a holiday destination and hotel, your choice of river cruise itinerary and cruise company is paramount to the enjoyment of your holiday and whether you think it offers value for money. Cruises for 2021 and 2022 cruises are on sale now and with only a small number of cruises operating this year and the majority of bookings on cancelled cruises transferring to next year, availability of departure date, itinerary and cabin type for 2021 will become more limited the later you book. So why not book now, as most operators have relaxed their cancellation terms allowing you the chance to cancel nearer to departure for less cost.
So, have a go at following the research steps above and if you find you there is anything you’d like to better understand, the cruise lines or your travel agent will be delighted to provide you with all the advice you need to book your first or next river cruise.
Browse through our recommended partners for river cruises by region.
More about Stuart
Stuart Perl is passionate about cruise having worked in senior management positions within the industry for the past 25 years. He has recently co-founded The Cruise Strategy Company, an independent cruise consultancy for travel agencies who want to sell cruise. Previously he was Managing Director of AmaWaterways River Cruises and has also held the positions of Managing Director for Peter Deilmann River & Ocean Cruises, Marketing Director for Cunard Line and International Sales and Marketing Director for Seabourn Cruise Line. Stuart is a Fellow of the Institute of Travel & Tourism.