Top Holiday Market Cruises for 2014

In Strasbourg, France, the town’s namesake cathedral looms over a bustling Christmas market.
In Strasbourg, France, the town’s namesake cathedral looms over a bustling Christmas market.

On Europe’s rivers, late fall/early winter is the Christmas markets season. River lines are eager to promote these holiday voyages as a way to extend their annual season in Europe. So what travelers go? Why do they go? How can agents sell such voyages, and what tips and trends are good to know?

Enjoying Everything Christmas: The reality? “Most people who are interested in Christmas markets love everything about Christmas—traditions, food, decorations, music, collecting ornaments and nativity items,” says Joan Lorenz, manager, Travel Leaders, Eau Claire, WI. She tries to be visual with clients. “Painting a picture of a visit to a Christmas market usually piques the client’s interest,” she says, adding that towns and villages are transformed into wonderlands of decorations with special food and drink, music, plays and processions. “They’re a real treat for the senses,” she says.

Celebrating Nostalgia: Cathy Koenig, a Nexion agent at A Time 2 Travel, Laguna Niguel, CA, believes people who participate in a Christmas market river cruise often are seeking a way to celebrate the Christmas spirit in a simpler way. “For example, the trees are decorated with popcorn, orange slices, cranberries and homemade snowflakes,” Koenig says. Concurring is Sondra Wilson, owner, Travel Leaders in Richland and Kennewick, WA, who tells clients that “European Christmas market cruises are more like an opportunity to go back in time to what the holiday season should and used to be.”

Mingling With the Locals: Kristy Osborn, owner/manager, Travel Leaders, Loveland, CO, tells her clients about how European residents—not just tourists—regularly go to the markets to celebrate their traditions; visitors mingle with locals as they sample traditional foods while enjoying music, lighting displays and shopping: “From homemade candies to incredible pastries made right over a hot fire, it’s something everyone must try,” says Osborn. Koenig stresses to her clients that residents from Europe’s small villages meet evenings in the markets to drink “gluhwein” (hot mulled wine) and hot chocolate around the fire pit, while visiting with friends from their town.

Promoting as Girlfriend Getaways: “Because [many of these] tend to be shorter cruises, we market them as ‘Girlfriend Getaways,’” says Lisa Gilliatt, president, Travel Leaders, Cedar Rapids, IA. “This shopping trip is the perfect getaway for the girls.”

Enjoying Diverse Itineraries: Many Christmas market river cruises depart weekly and ply the Rhine, Main or Danube rivers. Germany is the country best known for its Christmas markets, says Lorenz, who also mentions excellent markets in places like Strasbourg, France; Basel, Switzerland; and Vienna, Austria.

A Christmas tree at Place Kléber, the central square of Strasbourg, France.
A Christmas tree at Place Kléber, the central square of Strasbourg, France.

Fortunately, the lines have a plethora of cruises on multiple rivers. In 2015, Avalon Waterways has cruises as long as 16 days, many options seven to 12 days in length, and even a shorter five-day cruise, a good way to see if clients will like the Christmas markets concept. One unusual short cruise? Croisi-Europe operates a four-day “Christmas Magic in Belgium” itinerary. Guests visit Brussels’ Christmas market before heading to Antwerp and then on to Bruges’ Christmas market.

Celebrating Market Personalities: Each Christmas market has its own personality, and river lines typically offer walking tours. New this year, each Holiday market itinerary for the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection now includes a special “Taste of Christmas” guided walking tour in such cities as Vienna, Paris, Strasbourg and Frankfurt. Guests receive a local Christmas treat from vendors.

Travel writer Chris Owen (@OrlandoChris on Twitter), who is still part owner of Dream Cruise Vacations, an agency he founded over 20 years ago, says cruisers should allow plenty of time for strolling in the markets. “On river cruises that include a daily orientation tour, they usually end in the market with an amount of ‘free time’,” says Owen. “The tours are good and very worthwhile to go on but just being in the markets is better.”

He advises talking to the tour guide ahead of time: “Nail down exactly how much free time there will be, and if it doesn’t seem enough, tell them you want more.” Some guides will possibly rearrange the tour order—doing preliminary sightseeing and then heading straight for the market so some guests may spend more time there; then the guide can continue touring with other guests who prefer to see more sites.

Which markets are best? It’s a matter of personal taste. From Wilson’s perspective, “Nuremberg has the best market, Vienna has multiple choices and I enjoyed Mainz.” She also liked Salzburg and Rudesheim. One possibility for those who love lights? In France, clients can visit Paris’ many “marche de Noel” or Christmas markets on a week-long “Parisian Winter Holiday” cruise on Uniworld’s River Baroness.

For travelers wanting to tour as many European Christmas markets as possible, Emerald Waterways’ 15-day “Christmas Markets of Europe Cruise,” sailing November 29, will take them to 25 markets from Amsterdam to Budapest. Some clients may wish to combine a markets cruise with the actual holiday dates; AmaWaterways’ two-week “Magnificent Europe” Christmas cruise itinerary, from Budapest to Amsterdam on December 17.

Shop ’Til You Drop: Never underestimate the power of “shopping.” Lorenz likes Germany’s Nuremberg Old Town market with booths selling handmade wooden toys, ornaments, nutcrackers and tasty treats. Koenig loves the St. Stephen’s Cathedral Christmas market in Vienna because of its handcrafted items. “My favorite market is at the Schonbrunn Palace because it’s so breathtakingly beautiful.”

Tauck cruise passengers will get an opportunity to visit the Rudesheim Christmas market.
Tauck cruise passengers will get an opportunity to visit the Rudesheim Christmas market.

Salzburg hosts a selection of local artists and the talent is very nice, according to Osborn. About Budapest, she says: “Honestly, I’ve never seen such beautiful decorations or lighting. Each avenue has its own theme for lighting and it’s simply beautiful.”

A shopping tip for clients: Tell them to do as Koenig does—bring along a second suitcase in which to pack items purchased for people back home. A small “wheeled” suitcase can be taken to the market, clients can unzip the top and put their purchases inside so they can easily navigate through the market without carrying bags.

Many handicraft items are authentically local, but “I tell everyone to watch out for things from China,” says Wilson.

Appealing to Foodies: The way to a river cruiser’s heart is often through food and wine. Gilliatt says that “many villages typically have their own sausages they create” so visitors are able to sample a plethora of different sausages as they move from market to market. “Seriously, the fresh grilled sausages alone are worth going for,” says Owen. Koenig recommends her clients try the gluhwein, served in almost every market.

Enjoying Other Perks: No continual packing and unpacking remains a top perk of a European river cruise. Guests also enjoy a highly inclusive experience with many of the river lines—special onboard demonstrations of craft making or holiday baking, holiday sing-alongs, and special experiences ashore also await. For example, Scenic Cruises takes its guests visiting Vienna to an exclusive evening concert at Palais Liechtenstein featuring the music of Strauss and Mozart, followed by a day of sightseeing.

Embracing the Demand: River lines are welcoming increased consumer demand with more capacity. For example, this year, Tauck boosted Christmas market departures by 67 percent and now has four vessels (including the new Inspire and Savor) operating such cruises. New this year, A-ROSA Cruises is offering three Christmas market cruises.

The holiday markets can be addictive to clients. Owen expected the experience to be “something to see once,” and was surprised by the many fellow Viking River Cruises guests who told him they come annually. “By the time we got back home, I got it,” he said. “There’s really nothing like it in North America.” Owen and his wife will also return for another Christmas markets cruise this year.

Many lines still have some stateroom availability for this year, but the most robust accommodation choices await those booking for 2015.

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