Why are Americans are flocking to European river boats like never before? New vessels, better accomodations and free Internet.
River cruising is defying the economy these days, doing better than ever in its history. In the last five years, the number of river cruises -- primarily in Europe but also on the Yangtze and the Nile -- has grown by leaps and bounds with the addition of brand-new vessels. These boats have never been more popular, primarily with American passengers (85%) but also with Europeans, who have always enjoyed them.
One of the more successful lines is Viking River Cruises. Other top contenders include Avalon Waterways and AMA Waterways. Joost Ovendag, an executive at Viking River Cruises, told me why river cruising is more popular than ever, even in a time when major cruise lines are selling cabins for a song.
One of the biggest reasons is the new generation of riverboats, which started appearing about six years ago; not only are they just plain beautiful, but they are much more comfortable and convenient for guests. For example, many have full sliding glass doors in almost every outside cabin, opening up to something like a French balcony (i.e., with a small amount of deck space barely deep enough to stand on). They're too small for a table and chairs, but you are technically outside, and you can open up your cabin to the fresh air, sounds and smells of your surroundings. Earlier riverboats rarely offered even a window you could open.
The Viking Primadonna is an unusual Catamaran design with a two-story atrium
Another benefit of these new boats is bow-to-stern wireless Internet access; Viking River doesn't even charge for it. (Personally, I think this is the biggest secret to their success. I always need to work when I cruise, and I cannot even think about going on a ship that does not have a working Internet connection, no matter how much I have to pay for it.)
This is another significant change from the previous generation of riverboats, where the ability to get online was limited to about an hour every day when they connected the one public terminal they had to the modem. With free Internet all day long, I could live on a riverboat and still do my job. Brad Ball of Silversea Cruises tells me that his luxury cruise line is seeing many more younger people taking cruise vacations when they understand that they can continue to work onboard. For Americans, it is an extremely important advantage because we do not get as much vacation time as the average European.
European River Cruising
European river cruise boats are generally two decks tall, with a great deal of public space on the roof -- tables, chairs, games, sundeck, etc. The average passenger capacity is about 200 guests, and cruises tend to be seven to 14 days. Viking River, like other river cruise lines, started out with a broad appeal to the European market, but Viking River eventually chose to distinguish itself by focusing on American passengers. It's a subtle difference with a surprising effect. In the past, it was common for half a river boat's passengers to be American while the others were all Germans, for example. As a result, everything had to be presented in two languages -- tours, onboard lectures, menus, etc. When the boats were marketed to 50 percent Americans and 50 percent British, there was no language barrier, but there were subtle cultural differences. For example, most of the Brits had already seen the Eiffel Tour and were less interested than the Americans.
By focusing almost exclusively on an American audience, Viking River has created a cruise experience that is an ideal way to see Europe, getting into the heart of the continent and experiencing the local lifestyle not just in the major cities, but in remote rural locations. This is a difference Americans seem to enjoy more than Europeans; it isn't that exciting for a German tourist to sail through small German towns, but for Americans, that farmhouse and a drop of Riesling is an adventure.
The most popular rivers for cruising in Europe include the Rhine and the Danube, but you can also cruise on the Rhone and the Seine in France, and the lesser known but very scenic Main river through Southern Germany and the Elbe River through northeast Germany.
Cruising the Seine in France
|Honfleur Waterfront||Local Cheese||Friendly French Souls|
Many river cruises can (and should be) combined with hotel stays in major cities before the cruise begins. Not all of the most popular destinations in Europe are on rivers, but there are still opportunities to see these places as part of your vacation. Prague, for example, is one of the best preserved cities in Europe, with large areas looking exactly the same as many centuries ago. The city is not on a navigable river, but it is a big part of many European river cruises for guests who fly there and stay for a few days before boarding the river boat.
In fact, there are many pre and post-cruise options like this, which we will explore later.
What is Included in a River Boat Cruise?
The river cruise experience is like the large ship experience in many ways, but with many distinct advantages.
As on large ships, all your meals are included in the price of the cruise on Viking River. But wine and other spirits with your meals are also included - a feature generally reserved for only luxury lines like Regent, Silversea and Seabourn. Furthermore, all your shore tours are included in the price of cruise -- something no large cruise ship offers.
One thing that has changed in the last few years and has made river cruising far more popular is a new-found flexibility when it comes to shore tours. When Americans fly all the way to Europe, they want to see Europe in depth. In the 1990s, many riverboats operated under the European model of taking guests out for a morning tour, then bringing them back to the ship for lunch and setting out on a different tour in the afternoon. Viking River realized that for Americans, eating is not as important as it is to Europeans; Americans would rather be sightseeing. So Viking River now offers more all-day tours, with lunch in a local restaurant at the destination. The lunch is still included in the cruise fare, but guests can try authentic local cuisine at no extra charge.
The brand new Viking Legend has balconies for every cabin and free Internet access.
On a river cruise, all meals are open seating; breakfasts are generally buffet-style, but the chef will be there to cook special omelets or frittatas. The boat may be sailing during breakfast, so you can watch the scenery go by through the full picture windows in the dining room. Or the boat may be tied up to a dock at its destination already, and immediately after breakfast a tour will be scheduled for all guests.
Land tours are conducted on restroom-equipped motor coaches. Another thing that has changed over the years is that river cruise companies are starting to offer more flexibility in the shore tours. They may give passengers a choice of a few different tour options every day. Combine this with the new procedure of not returning to the vessel for lunch, and Americans are finding that river cruises are far more versatile and experiential than they were just a few years ago. Add in the comfort of all the new vessels, and you start to understand why river cruising has never been more popular.
Viking River Fleet and Itineraries
The company's fleet now has 20 boats. Most cruise in Europe, but Viking River also has vessels on the Yangtze (China) and the Nile (Egypt).
The newest Viking River boat is the Viking Legend, similar to the Viking Sun and Viking Helvetica. All three cruise in Europe, and all come with French balconies and deluxe staterooms. The line's Viking Danube, Viking Europe and Viking Pride also cruise in western Europe.
The Viking Neptune sails in southern France, while the Viking Spirit sails from Paris to northern France. The Viking Pride, Viking Sea and Viking Sky all sail on the Danube, as does the elegant Viking Primadonna, which is actually a striking catamaran with a two-deck atrium. Sailing on the Elbe is the Viking Schumann.
Viking River now has five boats sailing in Russia, four of them between Moscow and St. Petersburg. This is one of the most memorable trips I have ever been on. These vessels are more like ships than riverboats, with up to four decks above the waterline and many more cabins. They were all built in Russia and have been on the waterways their entire existence, much of it a secret during the Cold War area. The fifth boat, the Viking Lomonosov, sails on the Footsteps of the Cossacks voyage through the Ukraine to the Black Sea.
Two of the Russian river boats, the Viking Kirov and the Viking Surkov, used to have tiny two-person cabins on the lower decks that were little more than closets. The toilets were in the showers and the beds were like cots. But those rooms have been renovated and the entire vessels are now more in keeping with the standard Royal Viking staterooms.
There is one vessel sailing on the Yangtze, the Viking Century Sun. Many boats on the Yangtze do not cater specifically to western culture Americans; some primarily cater to Asian Americans. There is a vast difference in the food and culture onboard. Only Viking River guarantees the kind of cuisine the typical American will find palatable in China - because true Chinese food is nothing like the Chinese food found in America.
Two vessels sail on the Nile: The Prince Abbas does the more complete upper Nile journey including Lake Nasser (Pathway of the Pharaohs), while the Royal Lotus does that itinerary as well as the shorter Nile Explorer. Both end up in Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, but if you are going to fly all the way there, take the longer journey if you can.
The River Cruising Season
Northern Europe gets cold and parts of the rivers actually freeze every year. So the average river cruise season starts in mid-March and continues through the summer and fall, depending on the location within Europe. In fact, holiday cruises are especially popular with river cruise companies and it is probably not too late to book a New Years cruise on Viking River.
The boats generally go dark in January - they are docked and maintained until the next season, which begins the following March. Summer in Europe can be hot and full of tourists, so not surprisingly, the best time to take a cruise is actually in the shoulder season. For Russia, the best values are to be found in May and June. It gets very cold in St Petersburg by the time the last boat leaves in September. (I was on that cruise. The good news was that we were able to see the opening night of the Kirov ballet - an amazing treat.)
The Yangtze is a warm-climate river, so the most pleasant cruising is in the spring and fall when the weather is more temperate.
In Europe, the best combination of value pricing and temperate weather occurs in October and November. As noted, holiday cruises are also very popular and usually sell out, but they are special occasions with many cities holding special seasonal events.
click on pictures below for larger images:
|Docked along the Seine||Castle of Richard the Lionheart|
|Inside castle walls back to front||Entrance to main building|
Why Take a River Cruise?
There are many ways to see Europe: rent a car, get a railpass, take a motor coach tour or take a regular cruise ship. But river cruises are the most convenient and immersive. About half the guests come from the world of coach tours, because they are similar in what you see. The difference is that your hotel travels with you, so you are not lugging suitcases every couple of dsays. The other half comes from the big ships, so they are already understand the convenience of cruise ships -- but with river cruises, your liquor and shore tours are included in the fare. You also get much closer to the interior of Europe, and since you are on smaller vessels, you are likely to make more friends. I firmly believe a river cruise is the best way to see Europe - with some flexibility pre and post-cruise to see cities like Prague that are not on the major rivers.
River cruises have only gotten better for Americans in the last few years because of companies like Viking River no longer trying to cater to multiple nationalities. They understand how Americans want to see Europe and that is what they offer.
There is also a new emphasis on the culinary side of the voyage. They realize Americans want to try real European food, so they hire the best chefs and buy produce locally. Eating is half the fun of a river cruise, but it doesn't take up half of your vacation time like it once did when the lines carried Europeans on the same vessels.
The NEW Viking River
Viking River is now much more experienced at what they do. In the last 20 years, they have taken on the best tour guides and cruise managers. The company does not subcontract its vessels to outside crews; everyone onboard works for the cruise line. The same is true in the sales office. It's all one big happy family now, unlike other riverboat companies.
Another new feature is headphones used on the line's shoreside walking tours. The tour guides now speak to everyone in the group over a wireless microphone that goes directly into your headset. This means you can tour churches or the Coliseum in Rome, and never get drowned out by other tour groups, or get lost because you can't see your guide.
When it comes to seeing Europe, I cannot recommend river cruises highly enough. There are other well-known and well-managed river cruise companies that cater to Americans, but Viking River is one of my personal favorites and I recommend them highly.