River Cruise Insider's Guide: Growing With the Flow

AmaWaterways’ new AmaReina in Bratislava, Slovakia

AmaWaterways’ new AmaReina in Bratislava, Slovakia

River cruises, especially those in Europe, are gaining in popularity. In a recent Travel Leaders Leisure Group survey, agents were asked to name the five top “international destinations” they’re booking for 2014 based on actual sales data. Cruises are considered “destinations” within this survey, and this year European river cruising made a healthy showing, cited by 21 percent of the agents.

A new survey by the American Affluence Research Center, meanwhile, shows that among the wealthiest 11.4 million households in the U.S., only 8 percent have taken a river cruise. Given recent capacity increases and deluxe new ships with luxury touches, agents likely have good potential for future sales. 

And a number of lines report that their clients are getting younger, more of them are opting to travel solo, and they are being courted with special deals. AmaWaterways, for example, is waiving the single supplement on nearly 70 European cruises. Tauck is likewise waiving the single supplement for all Category 1 cabins on its European river cruises, plus it’s taking $1,000 off the price for solo travelers booking Category 4 and 5 cabins on 28 departures of 13 different river cruises. A-Rosa is forgoing the supplement on Categories A & S (two-bed outside cabins on Deck 1, the lowest deck) and reducing the supplement to 120 percent in Categories C & D (two-bed outside cabin, with balcony, on Deck 2).

Other target markets include honeymooners (many vessels have top-end suites of 300-to-600-square feet, designed for privacy), active travelers (guided biking tours are an increasingly popular option), and culinary travelers (many ships now offer fine-dining restaurants, culinary demonstrations and even wine-and-cuisine focused shore experiences).

River Cruise Insider's Guide: Of First-Timers and Trends

What’s New

To keep up with the demand, river cruise lines continue to add ships and enhance their product. Following are some of the latest developments.

Abercrombie & Kent has expanded its Connections Journeys program to include European river cruises in conjunction with Amadeus Cruises. For 2014 A&K also published its first brochure that focuses solely on river cruising. Nine journeys will include France, Holland, Germany, Austria and Hungary. Highlights include groups of no more than 24 guests. Programs start and end on land in well-placed city hotels so everyone gets to know each other well. The group on board also experiences land programs separately from the rest of the ship’s guests, adding to the bonding experience.

Aquavit Lounge on the recently launched Viking Heimdal

Aquavit Lounge on the recently launched Viking Heimdal

AmaWaterways introduced the AmaReina and AmaSonata in April. Both are sister ships to the 2013 newcomers AmaCerto and AmaPrima and were custom-designed to offer guests innovative, elegant and comfortable experiences on the river.

Both 164-passenger ships feature spacious staterooms (most with French balconies or twin balconies) measuring up to 300 square feet, open lounges with panoramic riverside views, multiple dining venues including the intimate Chef’s Table Restaurant, a heated pool on the Sun Deck, fitness room, and onboard salon and massage services. Other highlights include complimentary bicycles, Internet and a comprehensive Infotainment System, which features first-run Hollywood movies, news, music and popular TV shows.

In 2015, two more new ships, the AmaVista and AmaSerena, will join the AmaWaterways European fleet and the newly built AmaDara will begin cruising the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia.

A-Rosa Cruises, which launched its first product designed for the North American market in 2013, introduced its newest ship, A-Rosa Flora, this spring, joining the A-Rosa Aqua and A-Rosa Silva. It will sail the Rhine, Mosel and Danube rivers. For the first time, adults with children can stay in one cabin; the two Family cabins on board offer ample space for up to four people. Guests staying in any suite in the A-Rosa fleet suite enjoy 24-hour butler service as well.

The gourmet restaurant on Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine is named after French artist Paul Cézanne.

The gourmet restaurant on Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine is named after French artist Paul Cézanne.

In March, Avalon Waterways unveiled and christened two Suite Ships: Avalon Poetry II and Avalon Impression. The latter will sail four itineraries: Tulip Time, Capitals of Central Europe, The Legendary Danube, and Magnificent Europe. The former will offer Tulip Time; Tulips of Northern Holland; Windmills, Vineyards & Paris; The Legendary Danube; Central European Experience; The Blue Danube Discovery; and Jewels of Central Europe.

Another spring launch, the Lafayette, is the newest member of CroisiEurope’s Rhine Fleet in Strasbourg, France. It offers larger, more spacious cabins, each equipped with floor to ceiling picture windows, a wide-screen TV, safe, hair dryer, mini bar, individual air-conditioning and heating controls, and more. There’s also a dining room, lounge and sundeck.

A new itinerary along the Rhine sailing from Amsterdam to Basel includes exclusive excursions to Mainau Island, Mainz, the Black Forest and the Titisee, Strasbourg and Aix-la-Chapelle or Aachen. In addition to the Lafayette, CroisiEurope also christened two hotel barges, the Anne-Marie and the Madeleine. In April 2015 the line’s Loire Princesse will become the first vessel with cabins to cruise along the Loire.

CroisiEurope’s newest ship, the Lafayette

CroisiEurope’s newest ship, the Lafayette

​Earlier this year CroisiEurope acquired Compagnie Fluviale du Mékong (CFM), giving the line four new colonial-style ships that will cruise along the Mekong between Cambodia and Vietnam. These vessels will continue to sail their original itineraries traveling between Siem Reap and Saigon, via Phnom Penh, from August to April. Two additional vessels are currently being constructed in Vietnam.

Also debuting this year in Europe are Emerald Sky and Emerald Star, both sailing for new brand Emerald Waterways. Christened by British style icon Twiggy, the new ships have 72 suites and 20 staterooms, including two specifically built for solo occupancy. A new type of cabin design replaces the French balcony, common to most ships, with an indoor balcony complete with decked area.

Onboard amenities include a heated swimming pool with a retractable roof that transforms into a movie theater in the evening, a hairdresser, massage therapy room, fitness area and two restaurants: Reflections, the main dining room, and The Terrace, which serves breakfast and lunch.

European Waterways carried out a number of upgrades across its fleet this winter that included renovating the interiors and exteriors of several barges, upgrading spa pools and sundecks, replacing carpets and furniture. It installed new air conditioning systems on luxury barges Renaissance, which cruises Burgundy and the Upper Loire, and Panache, which sails through Alsace-Lorraine and Holland. It also installed a new sundeck canopy on Enchanté, which tours the Canal du Midi.

Scenic Cruises, which just published its 2015 Early Booking Pre-Release brochure, has introduced two new luxury “Space-Ships,” Scenic Gem and Scenic Jade. The former is custom-built for sailing on France’s Seine River in 2014, while the latter will cruise along the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers. 

New from Tauck in 2014 are the Inspire and Savor. Each has a second onboard restaurant offering lighter and traditional American fare to complement the ship’s more formal main dining room. Named Arthur’s in honor of company chairman Arthur Tauck, Jr., the café-like restaurant will be located aft on the Diamond Deck where it will feature selections prepared in its own full-service kitchen.

There are also eight “loft” cabins located on the lower (Emerald) deck of the Inspire and Savor. Cabins have a raised platform seating area located against the ships’ hull/outer wall with a correspondingly higher ceiling immediately above. The higher ceiling in turn allows the use of a much taller window than can normally be incorporated into lower-level cabins. The middle portion of this window can be opened electronically and allows natural light to fill the cabin. Four of the 150-square-foot cabins are being set aside for guests who are traveling solo.

In Lyon, France, back in March, renowned French actress Catherine Deneuve christened her namesake riverboat, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s new S.S. Catherine. Making its home on the Rhône and Saône rivers in Burgundy and Provence, the S.S. Catherine has been styled and fashioned to reflect these regions of France.

The “artistic” theming that guests will discover throughout the ship includes public venues named after artists such as Matisse, Van Gogh and Cezanne. The latter’s name is given to the gourmet restaurant onboard.

Of note to environmentally conscious clients, the ship has eco-friendly diesel-electric engines and other new technological features. Uniworld is also building a sister ship, S.S. Maria Theresa, which is set to launch in January 2015.

In a multi-phased event that took place over a 24-hour span, Viking Cruises set a new world record on March 19 with the inauguration of 16 Viking Longships—nine were christened in Amsterdam, four were christened in Rostock, Germany, and three were christened in Avignon, France. The first-of-its kind ceremony was subsequently certified by a Guinness World Records adjudicator as “The Most Ships Inaugurated in One Day by One Company.” Viking held the previous record, having christened 10 new ships in one day in 2013. Two days later Viking also christened two new river vessels in Porto, Portugal.

All of Viking’s new ships will be deployed on its most popular itineraries in Europe, and 2014 marks the first year that the company’s Longships will sail in France. A total of four Viking Longships will be deployed on Viking’s itineraries in France, including one vessel dedicated specifically to the company’s new Châteaux, Rivers & Wine itinerary in Bordeaux. Also, as a testament to the popularity of Viking’s Portugal’s River of Gold itinerary, the two new ships there will double the company’s current capacity on the Douro River.

Northwest Passages

American Queen Steamboat Company, known for its American Queen paddlewheel steamboat excursions on the Mississippi River, has launched a season of cruises on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Sailing between Portland, Oregon, and Clarkston in eastern Washington State, the newly refurbished American Empress affords views of Columbia Gorge, the Cascade Mountains, the 600-foot Multnomah Falls, Idaho’s Hell’s Canyon and the collapsed volcanic crater of Mount St. Helens. Guests will also have opportunities to observe salmon swimming upstream and bison, deer and elk grazing on the shores. A highlight is a visit to Maryhill Winery and Walla Walla Wine Trail.

Another option on these rivers is Un-Cruise Adventures’ 88-guest S.S. Legacy. Week-long cruises sail roundtrip from Portland with a focus on living history, such as the Lewis and Clark expedition, Oregon Trail, Native American heritage and trailblazing pioneers. The ship will cruise in the spring and fall this year, then operate full-time from April through November beginning in 2015.

American Cruise Lines also offers itineraries on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as detailed in its new 2014-2015 brochure, along with Puget Sound and San Juan Islands cruises and Southeast Alaska (Inside Passages) sailings.