By Donna Manz
If there were a 12-point program for river-cruise dependency, I would flunk it.
Eighteen river cruises in about seven years may sound like a lot, but once you appreciate its addictive attributes, particularly sailing along Europe’s legendary great waterways, you’ll understand.
From castle fortresses on-high, to quaint medieval fairy-tale towns and storied imperial cities, today’s itineraries and ships change from year to year. They evolve based on the interests of an expanding demographic and psychographic market.
And you’ll find plenty of variety on a luxury river cruise. You can, for example, enjoy a food or wine-focused sailing or join a drag-queen river cruise. And, as you might expect, there are also Jewish heritage cruises, which are as much for families of Jewish heritage as they are for World War II researchers. Want to learn to paint? Renown artists are featured in selected sailings with workshops open to all onboard. The list is fairly extensive.
Kids are welcome on most itineraries as the breadth of experiences explodes each new cruising season. No wonder river cruising is one of the hottest niche markets in the travel industry.
River Cruises: When to Sail Post-Covid 19
River cruises suffered the same setbacks as did all of the travel and tourism industry that was caught up in the Covid19 pandemic. Present industry forecasts are for river cruising to return early September 2020, barring any complications.
Beyond that, river cruising is poised to make a magnificent come-back in 2021. In fact, bookings for 2021 are up 30% over new bookings the same time last year. And promotional offers are exceptionally enticing. With discounts across the industry, ships are already filling for 2021.
There is no pressing reason to cancel a fall 2020 sailing if you are already booked. But understand the experience will differ substantially from those of previous seasons. In 2020 expect masks on excursions; no buffets where guests take their own food; no sweet-or-treat stations around the ship. Every river cruise line explains their debut Covid19 response on their websites. This year’s river cruising season will be an abbreviated one.
My 19th sailing, hosting a group, was scheduled for this month. We have rescheduled for 2021, hopeful that once this crisis abates, we will once again celebrate love of life and the freedom of movement that has been constrained.
It is imperative that travelers understand that Europe’s borders are opening slowly and prudently. Currently, travel is permitted for EU residents to visit another EU country if the borders are open between them. Americans, however, must currently quarantine if they enter the European Union as a guest. And the re-opening plans change frequently.
A Diversity of Luxury River-Cruise Ships, Experiences, Destinations
Spectacular vistas and storybook towns entice cruisers of all ages with a diversity of ships, experiences, and destinations. Intimate river-cruise ships have the ability to tailor the experience, the activities, and the excursions to the wishes of onboard guests. The most prominent of the brands have the network and desire to customize itineraries.
I’ve experienced, first-hand, the dominant trends in the river-cruise industry. They include enhancement of pre- and post-cruise extensions, such as stays in Baden-Baden, or Nice on the French Riviera.
There’s also been a surge in “themed” sailings from wine-and-culinary to onboard art workshops to World War II history. And there’s the growing popularity of “family” sailings, in which children’s cabin fares are discounted and youth-focused activities abound.
On a Luxury River Cruise: Bespoke Excursions and “Signature” Private Events
Each river has its own personality; each destination its own character. And, each river-cruise company, its own profile.
Bearing in mind that value and price are different descriptions, the higher the price, the greater the company’s efforts to tailor itineraries to its target market. Companies also want to customize passengers’ experiences both onboard and off. It’s that unique focus that draws me to river cruises.
What I may want at a particular time, draws me to a specific ship, a specific waterway, a specific destination. In addition, each season brings enhanced itineraries and new themes and programs. Look to 2021 for lots of “newness” as river-cruise companies compete for your business.
Most likely many will be offering unique “adventures”. I remember one such adventure not long ago in Paris while berthed on the Seine. I was aboard Uniworld’s SS Joie de Vivre and, for a small extra-charge, took a “Retro Sidecar Tour” through the city. Zipping-and-zagging through the streets of Paris with a professional driver (waving furiously to the tourists as we zipped by) was exhilarating and free-spirited and totally unique.
In 2020/2021 every prominent river-cruise brand will be competing to offer you the most bespoke excursions and “signature” private events such as this. Helicopter over Austria’s Wachau Valley, anyone?
Active Cruise Experiences
“Wellness” and active excursions are buzzwords in 2020 and beyond.
Kayaking is not the most typical activity, but it is offered on some itineraries. Hiking up mountainside vineyards is commonplace on most of the France- and Rhine-River cruises, and, every year, new wine-themed cruises appear.
If kayaking is a bit too active, perhaps an organized bicycle tour led by licensed bicycle touring guides might appeal more. Tauck, Uniworld, and AMA Waterways all feature such bike tours on a number of itineraries. Onboard, bicycles stand by, ready for fit guests to go off on their own.
New in Pre-and-Post River Cruise Extensions
AMA Waterways is offering exclusive signature extensions beyond the traditional options.
It is offering a new three-night France land extension in Nice, on its “Colors of Provence and Spain” itinerary. Guests will explore the French Riviera, including visits to the stunning Aix-en-Provence, Monaco, and Monte Carlo. There will also be a three-night land extension in Barcelona.
Ama is also offering an Iceland extension – a three-night Iceland land extension launched on select departures and itineraries – primarily on itineraries sailing the Rhine River.
On both the “Riches of the Mekong” and “Charms of the Mekong” itineraries, Ama passengers can book a new three-night land extension in Bangkok after exploring Vietnam and Cambodia by river.
Uniworld is taking land “options” to the next level with the company’s innovative rail partnership with illustrious luxury rail provider, Golden Eagle. The new tours are bookable now for 2021.
Two new itineraries incorporate cruise, land, and train travel through Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. The Alps excursion is aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express.
Guests may book the 14-day Cruise & Rail, which incorporates Milan, Venice and the Swiss Alps. It begins with a Milan land portion and is combined with a one-week cruise Venice/Venice on the super-ship SS La Venezia, ending with a train trip to Zurich.
Alternatively, they offer the 12-day Cruise & Rail, Venice & the Swiss Alps. The luxury train runs along Lake Zurich, stopping in medieval towns such as Lienz, Austria. In Slovenia it carries passengers along picturesque Lake Bled and later to the capital of Ljubljana. Excursion highlights include a visit to Gutenberg Castle in the town of Balzers, Liechtenstein, and a private concert in the caves of Postojna in Slovenia.
More River-Cruise Extensions
Uniworld’s new-for-2020 Rhine & Moselle itinerary, with a land tour to Baden-Baden, is my September 2021 travel highlight. The price includes hotel and entry to the famed spas and Baden-Baden’s luxury casino. This itinerary takes us on Europe’s quaintest, most beguiling waterways.
Another interesting luxury river cruise is being launched by Uniworld, which will also be cruising the Peruvian Amazon in 2021. With two Amazon itineraries from which to choose, in partnership with Aqua Expeditions, guests explore the Amazon on the all-suite Aria Amazon river ship. Naturalist guides take guests out on skiffs for up-close views of the Amazon’s unique flora and fauna, and bring them to interesting small villages along the river.
Tauck is launching two new itineraries in Egypt in 2021, and both will be highlighted by a Tauck exclusive, after-hours, private tour of the Valley of the Kings. The tour includes a private visit to the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Each of the new tours features a multiple-night cruise and exploration along the Nile, aboard a luxury Oberoi riverboat.
Cruises for Family and Multi-Generational Adventures
A river cruise is an exciting way to introduce children to other cultures through immersive interactions.
Ama Waterways, Uniworld, and Tauck offer family programs hosted by dedicated family cruise managers. Ama and Uniworld offer connecting cabins on select ships, while Ama offers triples and quads on its newest ships, as well.
AmaWaterways partners with Adventures by Disney on several departure dates for an added sprinkle of “pixie dust.” On these sailings, shore excursions and onboard experiences bring “magic” to life. Book with Adventures by Disney.
CroisiEurope is a European brand whose announcements are given in multiple western European languages, with tours given in French. It offers free rates for children up to 16 years old on sailings to Portugal, Spain, and Italy on its “family” programs. The line can accommodate children in adjacent cabins; kids must be, at least, five years old.
As part of its Tauck Bridges brand of family vacations, Tauck created river cruises made to appeal to multiple generations along the Danube, Rhine, Rhone, Seine, and Douro rivers. Young guests will interact with regional musicians and artists or work alongside a professional chef. Tauck exclusives also encompass a private after-hours visit to the Louvre Museum for a scavenger hunt.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection similarly offers its Generations Collection, complete with 25% savings for children ages 4 to 17 when traveling with an adult. Travel + Leisure readers have voted Uniworld’s Generations sailings the #1 family river cruise program several years since the program debuted in 2013.
On the docket are its own child-friendly shore excursions and onboard activities. These include a kids’ menus, a separate Young Travelers’ Table, dedicated family “hosts” for kids, ship tours, pillow gifts, and more. Well-behaved parents may be invited to tag along on some of their children’s excursions.
Behind the Scenes
Luxury river-cruise companies are putting forth greater efforts to become environmentally friendly with eco-friendly new ships. They are also elevating their “wellness” programs.
Ama Waterways’ AmaKristina earned a Green Award certification, which recognizes a high standard of safety, quality and environmental performance. The AmaKristina is the first river-cruise ship ever to receive the certification, presented with her award during a special ceremony on January 30 in Arnhem, The Netherlands.
AmaWaterways’ new Wellness Program was expanded to six ships in 2018 and is now fleet-wide in Europe. The program incorporates daily group exercise sessions from stretching to strengthening, as well as nutritional information sessions with a professionally-trained “wellness” host.
Uniworld’s Mekong Jewel was launched in 2020 to sail through Vietnam & Cambodia. Constructed with sustainable, eco-friendly materials, their all-suite “super-ship” Mekong Jewel features a swimming pool, spa, sauna and steam room, gym, hair salon, nail bar, two lounges and a library.
You can’t talk about luxury river cruise trends or what’s new in river cruising without alluding to the new state-of-the-art ships. Many bow to the characteristics of the rivers the ships highlight.
Ama Waterways’ AmaMagna has no peer in the industry. At twice the width of a traditional river ship, the AmaMagna sails the Danube only. With four dining venues, five bars, an indoor fitness center and outdoor equipment, the AmaMagna holds up to 196 passengers in 98 staterooms.
When Uniworld’s River Countess was reborn in northern Italy as the SS (super-ship) La Venezia in 2020. The ship’s interior was designed to reflect the elegant finesse of La Serenissima, Venice – the Queen of the Adriatic.
Crystal’s new river vessels are the river cruising industry’s first and only all-balcony, all-suite, all-butler vessels in Europe, with every category of accommodation positioned above the water line. All suites feature Panoramic Balcony-Windows™, walk-in closets and dual vanity in the bathrooms, featured in most categories.
No longer the purview of “mature” travelers, river cruising has re-defined itself to offer an experience and a price-tag to appeal to any age demographic.
If you go:
See your travel professional or the websites of these companies for additional information:
AMA Waterways https://www.amawaterways.com/
Crystal Cruises https://www.crystalcruises.com/
Uniworld River Cruises https://www.uniworld.com/en/