The Changing Face of River Cruising

The Changing Face of River Cruising

Viking River CruisesViking River Cruises’ Freya

By Allan E. Jordan 2017-09-03 20:20:09

After more than a decade of rapid growth, the river cruise segment is showing its first signs of maturation. The pace of new ship introductions and passenger growth is slowing from the peaks experienced earlier in the decade, and the industry is diversifying to fuel its future growth.

“We all remember when demand outpaced capacity and you needed to book your customers 18 to 24 months in advance,” recalls John Lovell, president, Travel Leaders Network, Leisure Group & Hotels. Driven by aggressive advertising programs, river cruising became the fastest growing segment of the travel industry. Between 2004 and 2015, the compound annual growth for North American-sourced river cruise passengers was a staggering 14 percent, compared with three percent for the more developed ocean cruise business.  In 2016, 1.4 million people sailed Europe’s rivers, with 40 percent coming from North America and 30 percent from Germany.

The aging baby boom generation’s affluence and desire for new experiences helped to fuel this growth. “The largest target market is baby boomers,” says Lori Sheller, vice president of cruise development at Tourico Holidays, a travel wholesaler. But with demand slowing, “we are slowly seeing changes in the river product to accommodate families and even Millennials,” Sheller says.

More amenities

With over 150 new ships competing on the market, river cruise operators are now offering traditional travel industry promotions, like free or reduced airfare, gratuities, onboard credits and beverage packages. River cruise lines are also beginning to compete by installing more luxurious amenities. Viking River Cruises took a quantum leap in 2012 when it introduced its Longship design, which features suites, private verandahs and an outdoor dining area while also increasing capacity. Viking now has a fleet of 45 Longships sailing in Europe.

In order to attract new market demographics and appeal to changing travel patterns, the river cruise lines are also introducing new marketing programs. Viking, for example, launched a direct marketing program in China with three European vessels dedicated to the Chinese market.

AmaWaterways is introducing hiking and biking excursions, food and wine experiences, and multigenerational travel including programs with Disney and Backroads. Many of the ships are also offering wellness travel with onboard exercise facilities, pools and spas.

New competitors

Several new competitors are entering the river cruise market, including Crystal Cruises, one of the leaders in luxury ocean cruising. Crystal is introducing four new deluxe vessels they are calling “river yachts,” with all-suite accommodations and butler service. Another ocean cruise line, Fred. Olsen Cruises, has announced plans for its first river cruise program in 2018.

The most closely-watched launch may be U by Uniworld, a new brand dedicated to the 21 to 44-age bracket. Uniworld is targeting Millennials by offering a more contemporary look onboard, longer port stays, and shore programs that incorporate local bars, restaurants and adventures.

Global growth

The industry is also experiencing growth in other parts of the world, including China, and a resurgence on the Mississippi River and its tributaries with the American Queen Steamboat Company. High consumer satisfaction with river cruising is also driving the global expansion with travel agents reporting that customers who liked their European river trips are now looking to more exotic itineraries, like cruises on the Amazon and Mekong.

Despite its strong growth, river cruising is still not a “mainstream” product, according to many industry analysts. Given the new entrants to the market and the improved marketing programs, analysts forecast annual growth of five to six percent. “We’ve started to see a more normalized growth rate, but still very healthy growth,” concludes Lovell. “River cruising continues to rank as a top vacation option with our customers.”

River Cruising

(written by Ted Blank for Forest Lake News)

Have you dreamed of gliding along Germany’s Rhine River, admiring the castles and medieval cities? How about sipping a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir as you follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark on the Columbia River? Or, for the more adventurous, discovering the magic of the Temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia on a Mekong River Cruise.

River cruising has become tremendously popular in the past five years. Chances are, you know of a friend or a family member who has enjoyed a river cruise, and you might even be thinking about one yourself. However, you probably have some questions that I’ll answer in this month’s column. I’ve enjoyed five river cruises myself, and recently returned from my sixth – a wine tasting voyage along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.

River cruises represent a mix of people, including avid ocean cruisers, land tour takers, and independent travelers who enjoy discovering the world on their own. United by a passion for knowledge, culture, heritage, and culinary delights – food, wine, and beer – river cruisers are seeking a destination-focused vacation full of authentic experiences at a relaxed and civilized pace. Most river cruisers are well traveled people who dislike being rushed or herded while on vacation, but enjoy the time to really immerse themselves in a destination.

Demographically speaking, river cruisers tend to be mature. The average age of passengers on the 20 largest river cruise lines is about 62. Recently, however, some cruise lines have added new programs to encourage younger, more active travelers to cruise. Free bicycles, hiking tours, new and exciting shore excursion programs, beer tasting cruises, and dedicated family cruises are becoming common. In fact, Disney now offers a variety of river cruises throughout Europe specifically for families with young children!

The reasons to experience a river cruise are varied, but most cruisers appreciate the comfortable or luxurious surroundings, the intimate size of the vessels (80 to 150 guests, typically), and the freedom of only having to pack and unpack once. Flexible sightseeing excursions – typically included in the all-inclusive cruise fare – and nonstop scenery are also important benefits to river cruising. Truly, though, it is the magical combination of these factors that makes river cruising so popular. The only danger of river cruising is that you might get hooked. Many river cruise line boast repeat passenger rates of over 90 percent, so first-time river cruisers are highly likely to come back a second, third, or even fourth time to explore a different part of the world.

Each day on a river cruise is unique, but typically combine delicious gourmet meals, scenic cruising, and an opportunity to explore a historic city, cultural attraction, or natural feature on land. On some cruises, truly gourmet meals and fine wines enhance the experience. Cabins are comfortable – typically larger than those on an ocean cruise ship – and most feature private balconies or large windows to enjoy the panoramic views. The small size of the ships allows them to offer a high level of personal service. Entertainment includes presentations, tastings and demonstrations by local experts, or perhaps a local musical performance. Amenities also typically include fitness facilities, a choice of dining options, and sometimes a pool or hot tub.

River cruises on Europe’s main rivers – the Rhine, Danube, Seine, and Rhone – are a great way to discover Europe’s treasures. Closer to home, river cruises operate on the Mississippi, Columbia and Snake system, and the St. John’s River in Florida. Further afield, the Amazon in South America, Mekong and Irawwaddy in Asia, and Nile in Africa are also popular river cruising destinations.
Over 20 companies offer river cruises worldwide, ranging from the luxurious to the budget. On my website, www.ingenioustravels.com, you can read more detailed blog posts about several of the river cruises I’ve personally enjoyed. Happy travels!

Ted Blank is a Forest Lake-based travel agent and owner of Ingenious Travels.

 

 

River Cruises Are Not Just for Old Folks

As I boarded the plane to Basel, Switzerland to catch my Viking River Cruise, I swore on a stack of Bibles I would be bored to death among all the ‘old’ people on that cruise. I’m ashamed to say that was my perception of what a river cruise offered; no casino, no bars, no shows, no pool all equated to boredom. Well as Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, surprise, surprise.”

I walked onto the Viking Kvasir in Basel to smiling faces and helping hands. I was led to my stateroom, which had a lovely balcony and ample room for my two large suitcases (to this day I still don’t know how to travel light). Eager to explore my new surroundings, I freshened up and headed to the main room of the ship. There I found the one and only bar with guests already ensconced. And lo and behold, they were young. I pulled up a stool and became fast and furious friends with the bartender and maitre d’.

So, here is what I found to be one of the many perks of a river cruise- it’s your own floating Cheers. Everyone knows your name. No matter where I went on the ship, I was not only greeted but also engaged in conversation. The staff was always so willing to assist in anyway possible, right down to the pianist who would play well after his time was up. Ok, I bribed him with a drink but he cheerfully stayed.

If you are looking for and expect that big cruise ship feel, don’t book your ticket on Viking because that is not what a cruise like this is about. What it is about is that feeling of being ‘home’, it is small without all the distractions, guests will mingle with each other more and the staff is pretty entertaining. They spend time with you and do the little things that you don’t get on a huge cruise ship. For example, one day after an excursion, we all came down the walkway and some of the staff were on the upper deck with a banner that read “Welcome Home” and singing and clapping. This is the type of thing that makes a river cruise so memorable.

Speaking of mealtime, the food was outstanding. The menu was fabulous each and every day down the Rhine. The service was impeccable and my wine glass was always full.

My cruise took me through four countries and 9 cities. My first port of call was Breisach, Germany where I disembarked to explore the magical Black Forest. Next stop was Strasbourg, France, which made me feel like I had stepped into a fairy tale. I visited Strasbourg Cathedral and rode the carousel that sits in Cathedral Square. Day 4 found me at Heidelberg Castle and enjoying traditional German food and music at a tavern in Rudescheim. Day 5 was spent cruising to Koblenz, Germany where I was completely enthralled by the little towns, castles and ruins that dotted the riverbank. I headed to Marksburg Castle and yet another glimpse into a time gone by. Day 6 was Cologne, Germany where I was awe struck by the gothic cathedral. Day 7 was a drive into the picturesque Dutch countryside to see the nineteen, mid 18th century Kinderdijk Windmills.

The next morning I said goodbye to all my new friends and disembarked for three days in Amsterdam (another story for another time). Drifting off to sleep on the plane back to Miami, there was only one thought on my mind. How could I return to my little floating ‘home’ on the Rhine?

 

Mistakes You Can Make on a River Cruise

 

(This article was recently posted on Wendy Perrin site. You might want to check out her site as she has some good information)

Contemplating a river trip in Europe? It’s all the rage nowadays, and river cruise lines are racing to introduce new and better ships to meet the insane demand from travelers. A river cruise is a scenic and effortless way to travel, for sure, but take heed: Many of the rules that apply when choosing a hotel or a big ocean cruise ship don’t carry over to river boats. To get the best value for your dollar, here are seven things to keep in mind. (I’ve illustrated these seven things with photos from my trip on the Seine last week, from Paris through Normandy, aboard Avalon Waterways’ new Avalon Tapestry II.)

Mistake No. 1: Splurging on a balcony
You’d probably assume a balcony is critical—for the view, the fresh air, the photo ops, the extra space, the privacy. A balcony is a big plus at a resort and on a huge ocean ship, but on river boats it can actually be a drawback: River ships have a width limit (so that they can fit through locks), which means that cabins can only be so wide, which in turn means that a balcony takes away from your interior room space. If it’s chilly or raining—as it sometimes is—you’ll value the interior room space more than the balcony. Also, a balcony lets you see only one side of a river, whereas elsewhere on the ship you can see both sides at once. And who wants to miss half a river?

This is why many savvy river cruisers opt for a “French balcony” instead of an “outside balcony.” A French balcony is a glass door or wall-to-wall window (here’s an example) that opens to give you fresh air and the feel of a veranda, minus the outside floor, tables, and chairs. The best such pseudo-balcony I’ve seen is on Avalon Waterways’ newer ships. The outside wall of the cabin is floor-to-ceiling glass that stretches 11 feet wide and slides open 7 feet wide. Basically, it turns your whole room into a veranda.

Cabin aboard Avalon Tapestry II

My cabin (#312) aboard Avalon Tapestry II on the Seine River in Normandy.

Avalon calls these cabins “Panorama Suites.” Technically, they’re not actually suites: Each is one room that measures 200 square feet and has a comfy sitting area (a chair, a loveseat, and a table) overlooking the water. The bed faces the view—a bed position that is unusual for river ships and is a nice touch, as the view is the first thing you see when you wake in the morning (unless you’ve drawn the curtains, you’re in a lock, or another ship is parked alongside you—which is a reason why most people do draw their curtains at night).

With cabins that transform into open-air terraces, who needs a balcony?

View from a cabin aboard Avalon Tapestry II

Looking out my window from the other side of the bed.

Mistake No. 2: Assuming that your whole itinerary is on the river
The beauty of a river cruise is that it’s a picturesque and easy way to see towns and cities along a river. Typically, the ship drops you off in town, and you can choose to walk around and explore on your own (always my preference) or take a walking tour or bus tour with a group from the ship. Sometimes passengers are bussed to sights an hour or two (or more) away from the river. And sometimes those bus tours can mean missing whole stretches of the river. On the Seine, for instance, opting for the bus tour to Honfleur or Normandy’s WW2 landing beaches could mean missing a picturesque stretch of the river because the bus picks you up at one port and drops you off at the next. (Which is why, on last week’s cruise, I opted not to go to Honfleur or the landing beaches.)

Riverscape on the Seine

If I’d opted to go with everyone on the bus, I would have missed riverscape like this.

So find out whether the cruise line and itinerary you’re considering may force you to choose between the river itself and the sights away from it—and whether those stretches of river are not-to-be-missed picturesque or okay-to-miss industrial. A good cruise director will answer these questions honestly and accurately, and Google Earth can help too. If the cruise director can’t tell you which stretches of the river are most interesting, do what I do—even though technically it’s not allowed: Knock on the wheelhouse door, befriend the captain, and ask him (at a moment when he’s not busy steering around barges or into locks). Captains always know.

Don’t bother spending precious time attempting to find out where your ship will dock in each town. We choose hotels for their location, of course—so it’s understandable that you’d want to know where a ship will be situated—but, for the most part, they all dock in the same spot. Some ships might have better real estate in certain cities. In Budapest, for instance, Viking’s spot isright under the Chain Bridge. As a general rule, though, all the ships park in pretty much the same area—and, to some degree, where they park can’t be known far ahead anyway. In Passau aboard Viking, we docked in one spot and then later the ship moved several slips downriver.

Parking the Avalon Tapestry II in Paris

Parking the Avalon Tapestry II in Paris

Mistake No. 3: Insisting that your ship have a gym and a pool
I want these in a hotel or on a giant cruise ship as much as the next person, but the fact is, on river ships, you rarely see anyone in the gym (which is tiny and only minimally equipped) or the pool (which is equally tiny except on some Uniworld ships that have gorgeous indoor pools and some AmaWaterways ships that have a relatively spacious pool with a swim-up bar). There just isn’t enough time to use the gym or pool, as you’re off the ship exploring all day. And if you’re not off the ship, chances are either it’s night time or you’re gliding down a significant stretch of river that you won’t want to miss. Cruise-line execs keep gyms and pools on ships as marketing tools to get travelers to choose their ship, but the reality is that you likely won’t end up using either.

Here’s the ship’s gym

Here’s the ship’s gym.

Hot tub on the Avalon Tapestry II

The ship has a hot tub, although I never saw anyone use that either.

Mistake No. 4: Choosing a ship based on the number of passengers
Most people I know, when choosing a hotel or an oceangoing cruise ship, veer away from anything too huge. But on Europe’s rivers there are only two sizes of cruise ship: 110-meter vessels (which hold about 128 passengers each) and 135-meter vessels (which hold about 166 passengers each). Viking’s longships squeeze 190 passengers onto a 135-meter ship, which competing cruise lines say make it feel crowded. Honestly, though, I sailed on a 190-passenger Viking ship and, other than chairs spaced close together in the observation lounge and trouble finding seats for my party of four at dinner one night, the ship didn’t feel crowded to me. (Then again, I grew up in Manhattan, so my definition of “crowded” may differ from yours.) Nor did I experience less personal service on Viking, partly because Viking (unlike other river cruise lines) has a dedicated concierge who provides such service. If I were you, instead of choosing among river ships based on the number of passengers, I’d choose based on factors that I think will affect your trip more—namely, itinerary, river landscape, cabin type, and like-minded fellow passengers.

Mistake No. 5: Booking the least expensive cabin
In a hotel it can make sense: Choose the lowest-category room at a fabulous property, so you can take advantage of everything the hotel offers, and use the room just for sleeping. On a river cruise, though, the least expensive cabin can be really tight—170 square feet or less—with small windows that don’t open. It’s usually worth the several hundred dollars more to get a French balcony. The aforementioned Avalon “Panorama Suite” cabins cost about $100 more per person per day than the ship’s lowest-category rooms. They’re worth it.

Mistake No. 6: Assuming you can dine on your own
In a hotel or on a megaship, it’s easy to stick to yourselves, but on a river ship, there’s a lot of forced socializing. Every night there’s a four-course (at least), two-hour (at least) dinner where you’re seated at tables with other passengers, some of whom you just met. I’ve made some great friends at these chance meetings, but I’ve also been stuck with some louts. Viking is the only river line I know that provides an alternative venue where you can grab a half-hour dinner on your own if you just don’t feel like making chit-chat with strangers.

Mistake No. 7: Assuming there’s room service
Room service is a given in hotels, and it’s usually free on ocean cruise ships, but on river ships it barely exists. On certain ships, in certain cabins, you can get a room-service breakfast, but you almost never can get a room-service dinner. (Avalon is now offering room-service dinner for a fee of 20 euros, so you can dine in the privacy of your own room, overlooking the water.)

It’s not clear to me why you’d ever need a room-service breakfast, though, given that on many ships food is available in the observation lounge—which is no more than a 30-second walk from your cabin on these small ships—starting at about 6 a.m.

“Early risers’ breakfast,” in Avalon Tapestry II’s observation lounge

“Early risers’ breakfast,” in Avalon Tapestry II’s observation lounge, precedes the regular breakfast buffet in the dining room.

Attention, caffeine addicts: Don’t expect to find an in-room coffee machine in most river-ship cabins. You really don’t need one, though: Every vessel I’ve sailed on has a fancy coffee machine mid-ship (either off the lobby or in the observation lounge) that whips up espressos, cappuccinos, and machiattos, plus there’s hot chocolate, an assortment of teas, and snacks such as cookies and fruit. And that coffee machine is never more than a 30-second walk from your cabin. In fact, on the Avalon Tapestry II, there are two such coffee set-ups—one in the front lounge, one in the back lounge. Which means coffee is never more than 15 seconds away.

Coffee machine in the back observation lounge of Avalon Tapestry II

The coffee machine in the back observation lounge of Avalon Tapestry II is one of two coffee-and-tea set-ups aboard the ship.

Finally, one mistake you are too smart to make: Assuming the Wi-Fi will work at all times
The good news: The Wi-Fi on river ships is free. The bad news: It comes and goes, depending on whether you’re in a lock or on a remote stretch of the river or the other passengers are sucking up all the bandwidth. Where you’ll have Wi-Fi and where you won’t is unpredictable—and none of the river lines are better or worse at providing it—so just know that, generally speaking, your best windows of connectivity are when you’re not in a lock and other passengers are off the ship or have gone to sleep. Know that coffee shops in towns along the way offer better and free Wi-Fi. Also know that nobody requires more frequent Wi-Fi than I do, and a river ship is actually one of the best working environments I know: You can sit at your laptop for hours yet have an ever-changing view.

As an example, here’s a fellow passenger at work in the observation lounge aboard Avalon Tapestry II. It’s Gene Sloan, who writes Cruise Log for USA Today—and here’s what Gene had to say about Avalon’s panorama-view cabins.

Viking River Cruises

THE RAIN STOPPED, clouds parted and a glowing sunset bathed the ancient city of Koblenz, Germany, in light. There, at the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine rivers, Viking River Cruises celebrated 20 years and christened its two new Longships for 2017, the Herja and the Hild. The newcomers will sail the Rhine on a new route, Paris to the Swiss Alps. These latest additions mark another year of strong growth for Viking, which now operates 48 Longships. The company launched its third ocean ship, Viking Sky, in February and will add a fourth, Viking Sun, in November, making it the largest small-ship ocean cruise line with the youngest fleet. We sat down with Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen, who announced more news for Viking River Cruises and added that it will be the first foreign company allowed to have a license to operate ships along the Nile River. The new ship named Viking Ra (Hagen decided on the name that day) will begin sailing in March 2018. Hagen eschews the label of “luxury,” saying instead that Viking strives for “understated elegance with great attention to detail” on all the ships. Touting “large bathroom amenity bottles that are easy to open,” he tells the story of the difficulty he once had opening a shampoo bottle in a hotel shower, then goes on to cite the ship’s “heated tile floors and towel racks, and no-fog bathroom mirrors.” The Hild has large, two-door showers and a daylight-lighted bathroom mirror. As for international upheaval around the globe, Hagen’s response is practical. “The Viking motto is ‘Exploring in comfort,’ and we take safety very, very seriously,” he says. “We carry a Norwegian flag when we travel worldwide. At the end of the day, I think it is more interesting to see things than to sit home and be afraid,” he adds. Viking now owns 60 of the docking spaces along the Rhine and its operating destinations include a new river cruise to Ukraine, also scheduled for 2018. “We take great pride in owning and operating our ships. We don’t have partners as we like to be in charge of our own destinations,” Hagen says. Hagen is proud of the design and construction of the Longships as they come with more cabins (95) than other river cruise lines. Additionally, Viking has designed a larger, costlier, asymmetrical ship with stateroom balconies on one side, suites on the other, and a square bow that allows for additional accommodations. “They always put me in the best suite,” says Hagen about the Explorer Suite, which according to him is the largest of any river cruise suites (and the only one to offer room service breakfast). He indicates that the ship’s amenities wouldn’t matter, however, “if our Longships weren’t diesel electric drive, which means the aft of the ship is well-insulated and doesn’t vibrate.” The new Hild doesn’t disappoint. Even though we experienced only a fraction of the 12-day Paris to the Swiss Alps tour, it was enough to get a sense Viking’s dedication to service, cuisine and special extras. The Hild’s 39 Veranda staterooms have full-sized, private balconies and ample storage space that help to keep belongings organized and out of sight. The top Sun Deck has a putting green; an organic herb garden, which the chef uses to garnish and flavor dishes; and ample seating space from which guests can watch mountain

goats navigate steeply set vineyards, and view castle ruins standing high on the hills or set within the river itself. As the Hild sailed leisurely past Lorelei Rock on the narrowest part of the Rhine, a lecturer regaled us with the history of the sea and the stories of the legendary maiden, while a classical duo played “Die Lorelei,” one of Germany’s most famous folk songs. Torstein Hagen calls Viking “the thinking person’s cruise,” with destination exploration being the high point. The rain didn’t stop our walking tour of Mainz, of which there are so many highlights that it’s difficult to single out one. The Chagall windows at St. Stephen’s Church — the only such windows in the country — were glowing despite the cloudy weather. A stop at the Gutenberg Museum is an ode to Mainz’s most famous resident, Johanes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press and moveable type and, in the process, changed the world forever. His Gutenberg Bibles, which now number 49 in the world from the original 180, are distinguished by their rich and unique illustrations. Guests can see the bible that Mainz’s mayor promised citizens he would (and did) bring back from a New York City auction, now valued at $20 million. During a stop at Worms and a tour of its famous cathedral and the statue of Martin Luther, we chanced upon an authentically dressed docent who introduced herself as Eva, the wife of a 16th-century bookseller. Eva delivered a monologue about Luther’s visit and asked us, “Did you see Martin Luther arrive this morning?” She was also “selling” his writings. This surprise, authentic moment that transported passengers back in time was created by Viking and was a highlight of the trip. With its popular Christmas market, the opulent opera house Napoleon built for his wife Josephine, and 342 miles of bicycle lanes, one not-to-miss excursion in Strasbourg is the optional “Taste the Best of Alsace” walking tour. Stops include a boulangerie, boutique wine and cheese shops, and the unforgettable Christian, a chocolatier opened in 1960 and now a second-generation patisserie salon known for the world’s rarest chocolates (more than 60 from around the globe) — especially pastries and chocolate drinks favored by Marie Antoinette. These are all crafted by a team of 24 chocolate chefs. It is even heavenlier and more decadent than it sounds. Back on the Hild, sailing down the Rhine, we watched the ever-changing terrain through floor-to-ceiling windows, chatted with new friends over a glass of Alsace Pinot Noir, nibbled on foie gras the chefs sourced that day at the Strasbourg open-air market, and listened to the ship’s resident composer, pianist, and singer, Cezar. At dinner, soft drinks, wine and beer are complimentary, part of the line’s Viking Inclusive Value that also covers the meals themselves, shore excursions and Wi-Fi. “People don’t want to be nickeled and dimed,” says Hagen. Guests can also opt for the beverage package, which, at $20 a day, opens the door to such indulgences as Brunello wine or Glengoyne 21-year-old Highland single malt scotch.

Benefits of Small Cruise Ships

In a cruise world where most of the advertising emphasis is on ships that carry thousands of passengers from port to port in a frenzy of activities and meals, consider that other, calmer options await.

The contemporary cruise business is not one-size-fits-all. For vacationers who may be new to the idea of cruising and are looking for a small, casual ship, I have two recommendations from recent trips on two continents.

If you are willing to share your ship only with a smaller crowd — say, about 200 fellow passengers — consider Windstar’s sparklingly refurbished Star Pride (summers in Europe, winters in Panama and Costa Rica) or floating on Germany’s Rhine River aboard Viking River Cruises’ new Viking Hild.

These are ships without water slides, whiz-bang attractions or bartending robots.

Both, however, provide gentle reminders of the joys of intimate cruising. Star Pride, like sisters Star Breeze and Star Legend, carries 212 passengers. Viking Hild, like her 47 sisters built during the past few years, carries 190.

These two vessels operate with different concepts, different styles, and different itineraries, but both offer adult contemporary experiences with good food, good service and atmospheres conducive to travelers getting to know fellow passengers. Neither requires men to pack a jacket or a tie. Typically, passengers return home with a list of email addresses, telephone numbers, and promises of meeting again on different waters.

STAR PRIDE AND VIKING HILD OPERATE WITH DIFFERENT CONCEPTS, DIFFERENT STYLES, AND DIFFERENT ITINERARIES, BUT BOTH OFFER ADULT CONTEMPORARY EXPERIENCES.

Such small ship traveling is booming, thanks mostly to the swiftly growing cruise lines that ply the world’s fascinating rivers. Their vessels couldn’t get much larger even if their owners wanted to house more passengers: Rivers tend to be shallow, so there’s little room for cabins below the water line. Older bridges often are so low that tables, deck chairs and the captain’s controls must fold down so the ship can pass under them. Locks, built so ships can move smoothly through changes in river elevations, are lean, leaving some ships only inches to spare on either side.

The result is that most river vessels, especially the newer ones with alternative restaurants and comfy lounges, carry fewer than 200 passengers, and some fewer than 150.

W3VikingHild
Viking River Cruises’ new Viking Hild on the Danube River at Durnstein, Austria.
Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruises, which has expanded to meet demand for modern vessels at a popular price, now serves half of all the North Americans cruising on Europe’s rivers.

Viking Hild, like her “longship” sisters, is a comfortable vessel that makes you feel at home in a floating living room with magnificent views through floor-to-ceiling windows and from the open-air top deck. Design elements include private balconies for many cabins; heated bathroom floors; and complimentary Wi-Fi and beer and wine at meals for all. An intimate aft terrace restaurant offers al fresco dining with a grill, for a lighter, simpler meal than what is served in the main restaurant.

Most of today’s river voyages are about cruising in escorted tour mode, with a free guided walk available for passengers at each port stop (and some alternative tour choices for a fee).

MOST RIVER VESSELS, ESPECIALLY THE NEWER ONES WITH ALTERNATIVE RESTAURANTS AND COMFY LOUNGES, CARRY FEWER THAN 200 PASSENGERS, AND SOME FEWER THAN 150.

Among ocean-going cruise companies, most lines are building larger ships — even such luxury lines as Seabourn, which once owned the Star Pride and her two sisters, which are now part of Windstar and are owned privately by Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Seabourn’s newest ship, Seabourn Encore, carries 600 passengers.

All three Windstar motor ships, refurbished and buffed to a contemporary style, are favored by passengers for their casual atmosphere, their aft end watersports platform filled with sea toys, a comfortable dining area inside and out, and the Yacht Club high at the bow that is brighter and airier than in the ships’ earlier days. Bring two bathing suits and flip flops for off-the-ship daily excursions, especially in Central America on Zodiac wet landings to a remote beach, where the crew prepares a full lunch grilled outdoors.

One advantage of cruising on a renovated luxury ship such as Star Pride is that while the rates for a one-week trip are less than the rates charged by luxury lines, the accommodations onboard still are luxury large and include such details as marble bathrooms and a walk-in closet. Cabins, called suites, have a curtain that can be drawn to separate a spacious sitting area from the bed.

“Windstar is a magic brand,” said the line’s new president John Delaney, who formerly worked at Seabourn when that line owned the three 212-passenger motorized Windstar ships. (Windstar also owns and operates three motor-sailing vessels, Wind Star and Wind Spirit, which carry 148 passengers, and Wind Surf, with a capacity of 310 passengers.)

“Star Pride is upscale, casual, small ship sailing,” said Delaney. “We can keep an eye on each of the 212 people onboard, and we can offer activities with that size in mind.” One such special occasion each week is an elaborate dinner buffet on deck, where all the passengers and much of the crew gather to eat, socialize, and dance to a band that plays under the stars.

River Cruising is Hot

River cruising is probably the most relaxing way to travel, according to Mary Jean Thompson of TravelDesigns by Campbell, a Virtuoso agency in Dallas, TX,. “The pace of ‘rolling down the river’ is good for the soul and the heart,” she say. Perhaps that’s one reason why a new AAA survey indicates that four in 10 Americans say they would consider a river cruise for their upcoming vacation. Travel Agent asked Thompson and other travel advisors for their intel on top trends for the segment heading into 2017. Here are the highlights.

Slight Europe Uptick Driven by Value: “We have seen an uptick in river cruise bookings over the last few months, but still not the strength in bookings of two to three years ago,” observes Alan Rosen, president, Sand & C Travel, Boynton Beach, FL. But demand is heading in the right direction. His agency is seeing more interest in European rivers compared to a year ago when most of his retiree clients would not even consider it after the events in France and Belgium. So “if things stay relatively quiet in central Europe, I am cautiously optimistic that it will continue to improve, particularly if the lines continue with the strong promotions such as free or drastically reduced air pricing,” he believes.

For Mark Comfort, owner, Cruise Holidays of Kansas City, KS, “the value for river cruising in 2017 is driving in new customers who have not tried river cruising due to what they perceive as [it being] too expensive in years past.” Similarly, Michael Consoli, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Roswell, GA, says river lines are helping his business by offering more value-adds or incentives such as a choice of gratuities, onboard credits, beverage packages and significantly reduced air fare.

For bookings made by March 31, Emerald Waterways is offering free roundtrip airfare from major U.S. and Canadian gateways for those booking a Balcony Suite (including Panorama Balcony Suite, Riverview Suite, Grand Balcony Suite and Owner’s One-Bedroom Suite), on any 2017 Europe voyage. Those booking a stateroom cabin category on a Europe itinerary can receive a reduced airfare of $795 US / CAD per person. Guests booking their own air flights will receive air credits of $1,000 (for Balcony Suite guests) and $600 (for stateroom guests).

Looking for Rooms with a View: Clients are increasingly seeking out “the view.” Candie Steinman, franchise owner, Dream Vacations, Fort Myers, FL, says, “The trend I am seeing is requests for ‘rooms with a view’ on river cruises.” Her returning passengers want the large windows of Avalon Waterways, French balcony and veranda staterooms on Viking River Cruises’ Longships, or AmaWaterways’ balconies. “Customers are requesting the newer ships with these features,” she adds.

Broader Demographic, More Active Psychographic: Agents report that more families and active cruisers are now sailing global rivers. Tauck has family sailings, while AmaWaterways has expanded its European biking and hiking tours. “Health, wellness and active travel is a trend that we first embraced in 2006 when we decided to carry 25 bicycles onboard our European ships. We are seeing this trend continue in 2017 throughout the river cruise industry,” remarks Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways.

And yes, there is an indication that even Millennials are now more seriously considering river cruising, and lines are working to make them feel welcome. Earlier this year, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection announced its new “U By Uniworld” sailings, designed to appeal to youthful adventure seekers; sales begin next month with the first sailings sometime early next year.

The boutique American Duchess will be the first all-suite paddlewheeler on U.S. rivers. Seen here is the lobby of the vessel.

Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld’s president and CEO, says her line is “targeting active travelers between the ages of 18 and 40, with everything from the decor, dining and cocktail service to the land activities curated to appeal to, and meet the needs of, this audience.”

River Baroness and River Ambassador will undergo extensive renovations and design changes tailoring the ships to be completely dedicated to the U by Uniworld experiences starting in early 2018. Ships will feature a more contemporary look in public areas and open spaces.

Other highlights include communal tables, a new culinary program, creative mixologists and international DJs. In such cities as Amsterdam or Budapest, younger travelers will head out to meet locals, enjoy restaurants and bars ashore, and set out on independent or adventurous excursions. Check out the social media campaign, #AllAboutU on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Spending More Time in Port: Now seeing river cruise clients who want to spend more time in ports along the rivers — a trend similar to what has happened in the past several years for ocean voyages — Rodney George, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Naples, FL, observes: “Look for the river cruise industry to slow down the pace of port hopping and give their passengers more time to explore the historic cities and towns along the way.”

More Repeaters, More Referrals: “What I’m seeing are repeat river cruisers and river cruise referrals,” Jim Carey of Cruise Holidays in Kennewick, WA, notes. “I’m finding that first-time river cruisers are coming home after a great experience and telling all of their friends and family about river cruising.” Thus, most of his new river bookings are referrals from guests who have already done a river cruise.

“Additionally, I’m getting repeat river cruisers,” Carey continues. “A few years ago everyone was on their first river cruise, and now those people are coming back to try a different river.”

Layering within the Portfolio: Repeat cruisers are seeking something fresh on the continent. “We see our clients looking for more than the typical Danube river cruise,” Consoli says. River lines are enticing guests with new itineraries that are a bit different. Consoli points to Viking River Cruises’ “Paris to the Swiss Alps” itinerary, a Rhine river cruise experience with hotel stays and tours in Paris and Zurich or “Rhineland Discovery,” which lets the guest explore Bruges and Ghent on a Rhine river cruise.

The lines have also added sailings on other rivers, such as the Elbe. CroisiEurope just began construction on the MS Elbe Princesse II, its third paddle-wheel riverboat. Like the MS Elbe Princesse I, it will cruise roundtrip between Berlin, Germany and Prague, Czech Republic, with opportunities to explore Sanssouci Palace’s gardens in Pottsdam; Lutherstadt Wittenberg; Meissen and its famous porcelain; and Litomerice.

In North America too, lines are “layering” their portfolios to entice repeaters and new-to-cruise guests.“I am seeing rising interest in cruising American rivers for 2017 and beyond, as some of my clients want to stay closer to home,” Muffett Grubb, owner, Cruise Holidays in Knoxville, TN, notes. American Queen Steamboat Company will launch the boutique, all-suite American Duchess this summer; the 166-passenger vessel will sail the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Itineraries will include overnight Nashville stays, shorter roundtrip sailings from Memphis and New Orleans, and, for the first time in company history, departures from Chicago (Ottawa, IL).

Expanding Globally: Mary Jean Thompson emphasizes, “My clients who have experienced river cruises in Europe are now wanting to explore the exotic itineraries like the Amazon and the Mekong.” Concurring on repeat guests’ shift to the exotic is Michael Graham, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Myrtle Beach, SC: “We are seeing past guests from European river cruises moving to more adventurous itineraries such as Russia, Portugal and Asia.”

A recent CruiseCompete.com booking trends survey also found that exotic options are gaining in popularity. It cited Pandaw’s new Borneo cruises this year; new African voyages by Croisi-Europe; and a focus on India with AmaWaterways building a new ship to sail in fall 2018 on the Ganges between Patna and Kolkata.

Several Viking River Cruises itineraries were cited by one agent as examples of fulfilling clients’ desires for something “more than the typical Danube River cruise.”

Inclusiveness Is Expanding: For 2017, American Cruise Lines is offering all guests traveling on its Mississippi River and Columbia River a complimentary pre-cruise package, which includes a premium hotel stay and transportation to the ship. Packages are offered, for example, in New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, St. Paul, Nashville and Pittsburgh. Other lines too are adding inclusions.

“We are seeing increased interest in the all-inclusive product, including open bars and gratuities,” notes Margarita Navarrete, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Fort Lauderdale, FL, adding that she is seeing more triple and quad bookings.

For 2017 and beyond, “the biggest trend I see is that river cruises are actually getting to be a true luxury cruise possibility,” asserts Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc., a Virtuoso agency in Fort Worth, TX. Crystal River Cruises launched a luxury experience last year on the Danube, as Crystal Mozart began sailing as the largest vessel on European rivers. Two new vessels, Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler will also debut in Europe this summer, and steel was just cut for two additional Rhine Class luxury river yachts, Crystal Debussy and Crystal Ravel, launching in 2018.

“With Uniworld, Tauck and Crystal being all-inclusive, this is going to bring a lot of interest from our ‘true luxury traveler,’” Turpin explains, adding that some new luxury products are bigger boats with larger cabins and more amenities. “I think this market is going to be big, because the true luxury cruiser will love to explore a different part of the world when they can go in the style they are used to,” Turpin reports.

More Customization & Smaller Groups: According to Consoli, his clients are increasingly asking his agency to add private tours, personalized pre- or post-cruise packages, or customized experiences. With the growth of European river cruising and the burgeoning portfolio of guest choices, A&K USA is seeing demand for a much more personal, intimate experience, stresses Liam Dunch, that firm’s Europe product manager. Its river experience is a small-group cruising option with a maximum of 24 guests.

And the ships themselves are also becoming more intimate. For example, Scenic Cruises’ new Scenic Spirit, launched in 2016, sails the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. Offering a boutique experience, the vessel has just 34 balcony suites and nearly a 1:1 guest-to-staff ratio.

Themes, Themes, Themes: Dunch also says A&K’s small-group experiences are coupled with themes such as art, music, flowers, Christmas markets and New Year celebrations. Theming has blossomed over the past several years. AmaWaterways will offer more than 50 wine cruise itineraries in 2017, while Uniworld’s “The Monarch Collection” focuses on highlighting Europe’s royal heritage.

Avalon Waterways’ World War II-themed cruises include the 11-day “Paris to Normandy with London,” itinerary, which departs on July 11. For classical music buffs, a 12-day “Musical Magic along the Blue Danube” cruise by Tauck includes a seven-night cruise, exploration of such cities as Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Bratislava and Budapest, plus a chance to visit the former homes of Mozart, Beethoven, Bartók or Liszt, and concert halls and palaces where these classical music legends performed.

Shift from Ocean Travel: “We are seeing a rather dramatic shift from ocean to river cruises with seasoned travelers,” Rodney George emphasizes. “Seems as though clients who have been traveling for [years] have seen the majority of the seaports around the world and are now in search of new destinations, especially the historic destinations lying along European rivers.”

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