What is “Luxury” in River Cruising?

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

Recently the Editor-in-Chief of Travel Age West Magazine, a publication for travel professionals, posed this question to his readers and asked for comments from the field.  He basically challenged us to explain how we explain “luxury” river cruising to clients.  He also asked if we have any amenities that we feel are mandatory to classify a river cruise line as “luxury”. 

Before we begin, it is important to decide what luxury is.  The American Heritage Dictionary defines luxury as: “1) Something that is not essential but is conductive to pleasure and comfort. 2) Something that is expensive or hard to obtain. 3) Sumptuous living or surroundings.” 

But, as my lovely wife points out, we all have different ideas of what luxury is.

I’m sure long time readers of this blog know Anne and I are up for this challenge, so here goes!

Section I Are there any “Luxury” River Cruise Lines?

We think we cannot define or segment river cruise lines using the “luxury” classification.  We feel that each client has different ideas of what luxury is, so a label of luxury has little meaning to most of our clients, if it does not include what is luxury to them.  Here are some reasons why:

Most River Cruise Lines are Already in the Premium Oceangoing Category—Defining What is Luxury or Not Luxury is Difficult at Best

A problem, when trying to place a river cruise company in the luxury category and trying explain what is luxury river cruising to clients new to river cruising, is that the starting bar is already very high.  By 2017 all of the eight major lines that market to US clients (AmaWaterways. Avalon, Crystal, Emerald, Scenic, Tauck, Uniworld, and Viking) have good accommodations, Wi-Fi, wine & beer with lunch and dinner, limited entertainment and tours included in their base fare.  I have said over and over again—there is no bad river cruise, all are very good.  Most ocean cruise lines charge extra for many of the included items by all of these river cruise lines.


Do the Bathtub & Dual Sinks on a Suite on the AmaCerto Make the Cruise a Luxury Cruise ? (photos taken on our 2012 Blue Danube Discovery Cruise)

Each river cruise company offers suites on their riverships, so if a suite moves the needle to luxury, so be it.  Does included all alcoholic drinks make it luxury?  Does the quality of wine make it luxury?  Does included gratuities make it luxury?  Does a butler make it luxury?  Does no extra charge for any tour make it luxury?  How about the food?  Does the breakdown of the nationalities make it luxury—does the guest want to be with Americans or other nationals?  Does one factor outweigh the others and make it luxury?  Do you have to have a specific number of these factors to make it luxury?—we just do not presume to guess our clients preferences.

The Seafood Buffet on the Scenic Opal would be luxury to Anne & Hank but would all our clients agree?

There are no true Luxury River Cruise Ships like there are in Ocean Cruise Ships Due to Lack of Luxury Facilities on Riverships


This is a pretty bold statement, but true.  The biggest reason for this is due to rivership size limitations.  The most common rivership size is 110 m (361 feet) or 135 m (443 feet) longships and they are all 11.58 m (38 feet) wide or so. The size limitations are necessary so riverships can fit into most of the various locks in Europe, especially the Main-Danube Canal.  They also can only be 3 decks tall to fit under some bridges—while there is a roof sun deck 4, all items on the deck, including the navigation cabin can be lowered, so the rivership is only 3 decks in height when passing lower bridges.

Anne & Hank with Kristin Karst (left) and with river cruise pioneer Rudi Schreiner of AmaWatwerways (right)                 

It was completion of the Main-Danube Canal that was the impetus for modern river cruising—pioneers like Rudi Schreiner realized this canal completion could offer a boat tour of unparalleled experience that would be far better than a bus tour along most of the heartland of Europe.  River cruising went from pretty sparse overnight accommodations in the early 1990s to really nice staterooms and riverships in the later 2000s.  Riverships must use the limited amount of space to decide what to include with their onboard facilities.  River cruise ships have smaller suites sizes; are missing many onboard upscale facilities found on oceangoing vessels (casinos, multiple restaurants, multiple shopping areas, huge entertainment areas, several pools and large gyms and large spa facilities) and there are no large entertainment shows.  These luxury items are common are oceangoing vessels, and are lacking on riverships.  This is one reason the luxury designation is not a good term to use when describing river cruising.

Only Crystal has found a way around this by refitting an oversized, older vessel, to get closer to the “Crystal Experience” that their clients have come to expect on their two Crystal oceangoing ships.  The only problem with this approach to improve the onboard facilities, is that now the destinations the ship can visit are limited.  The restricted sailings of the larger vessel makes it a huge negative on the number one reason to go on a river cruise—to see and visit all the great destinations—it cannot go into the Main-Danube Canal area and misses some great ports.  Also, having only one ship in their river cruising line at present is another limiting factor.

Our 2016 River Cruise Company Comparisons

This is so complex a subject that only a complete comparisons like our 73 slide 2016 River Cruise Company Comparison Guide adequately address these questions (there are 17 comparisons charts in the presentation).  HERE IS THE LINK TO OUR GUIDE

One Reasonable Segmentation Method:  More Inclusive vs. less Inclusive River Cruise Companies

There are 4 more inclusive lines (Crystal, Scenic, Tauck, & Uniworld), but even on these lines, there may be extras, especially on Crystal (helicopter rides, speed launches, private tours, and an extra charge for exclusive dining).  There are butlers on Scenic and Crystal, but on Scenic, the butler service increases in relation with cabin category selected.  For example, the Diamond category guests on Deck 3 have better butler services, and a unique dining experience (unfortunately in the same main dining room as the other guests).  Often these lines charge $1500–$2000 per person extra for minor perks and clients would come out ahead pricewise on other lines with as good or even a better cruise experience.  If a butler and room service is luxury, then that may make it a luxury cruise to some and worth the extra price.

Even more inclusive lines may own or lease their ships—again a subtle difference—Tauck leases its ships and their ships just do not match others in the all-inclusive category.

Each river cruise line has its distinct advantages and disadvantages—it all comes down to the perception of value by each client.

We do not classify river cruise lines—we talk about their advantages and disadvantages, but most of all, what will be the experience for our clients.

Section II—How We Manage Consumer Expectations

How we help Our Clients Navigate the Maze of River Cruise Companies

This is part of a blog I wrote earlier about the maze of river cruise companies.  “Here is how we start the process.  Our first step is to match you with the available options.  We first learn who you are, visit with you by asking lot of questions about what you like and do not like and then find the best options.  We have developed a great Europe River cruise questionnaire that will help us learn what you really want on your river cruise.  We spend our time doing the research for you, so you can spend your time dreaming about the memories you are going to make.”  We never address luxury directly, we address the advantages and disadvantages of each line and what is included and how the line will best match their preferences.  Then we discuss value—is the extra price worth the extra perks?

Our European River Cruise Questionnaire

Besides basic contact info, here is the absolute minimum info we need to help our clients get the best possible river cruise—previous cruise experience, days available for the trip, activities (we ask about 14 activities), what you like to see and where you want to go, how many Europe countries previously visited, how important is wine and food, passport data and special meal requirements and any physical mobility problems.  Then we start expanding on these responses until we get the perfect trip described from our clients in their own words.  Then, using our knowledge of all European Rivers, who sails them, and what factors are important to the client, we match them to the right company.  Having written 49 Europe city guides, earning 6 river cruise specialist designation from all of the previous 8 mentioned lines that currently offer specialist programs and personally sailing on 11 river cruises, makes this process easy for us.

Destinations—the Number One thing to Decide on Selecting a River Cruise Company

The primary consideration for taking a river cruise, in my opinion, are the destinations—what you will get to visit and see.  In my blog last week I explained about river cruise tours and emphasized AmaWaterways’ Limited Edition tours but did not really address the luxury concept of included tours.  Most companies use a pool of similar guides—we have seen the exact same guide led a tour from AmaWaterways one day in Nuremberg, Germany and the next day for Viking—pretty hard to miss a 6 foot 8 inch former pro basketball player holding a lollipop Ama sign one day and a Viking sign the next.  The real question boils down to what you will get to see and visit and if there are any exclusive tours or experiences that only the river cruise line you are considering to travel with offers.  At present, only Tauck uses on-board guides, so if that is important, maybe it becomes more in the luxury category.  Does AmaWaterways Late Riser tours or Limited Edition tour make it luxury?  Does Scenic’s Sundowner experience make it luxury?  How about concerts in an exclusive location, like Tauck and Scenic offer or after-hours access to sights offered by Uniworld—are these luxury?

River Cruise Company Cruise Travel Industry Awards and Brochures Make it Difficult for Consumers to Decipher Claims About who is the Best River Cruise Line

When defining luxury cruise line on ocean going ships, the luxury lines usually have smaller ships (less passengers), offer better food and premium service, may include alcoholic beverages and spend more time in port and there is less emphasis on selling extras—there are more inclusions and they command a higher price point.  The problem when trying to apply this to river cruising is that most all river cruise lines already include many of the distinguishing features of luxury cruise lines in their base fare.

Most river cruise lines have won several awards and selected as best in reader polls.  Again, this confusion makes it very hard for the consumer to objectively evaluate the highly competitive Europe River cruise companies.  Adding in world river cruises like the Nile, Amazon, Africa and Asia adds a whole other dimension to trying to segment river cruises into a luxury category—each area of the world is quite different and the experiences they provide are quite different.

Brochures often claim they are the best but the truth is there is no best river cruise for everyone.

The Bottom Line

Using a term like a luxury river cruise line and trying to put them into distinct categories does not translate well to river cruises—it is such a distinct product, that all lines fall into the premium category at least and most really are pretty much luxury in the Europe market, just different degrees of luxury depending upon one’s personal definition.

We prefer not to segment—we prefer to explain the advantages and disadvantages of each line.

The only thing that works for us is matching client expectations by knowing exactly what they want to experience and having an exceptional knowledge of what each lines offers.  This is where we shine—we know Europe River Cruises better than most travel professionals. 

We hope this will inspire you to give us a call (Hank 713-397-0188) or send me an email (hschrader@dreamdestinations.com) so we can help you visit Europe on a river cruise and help you:  Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!



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