Why You Need a River Cruise Expert to Plan Your River Cruise Vacation

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

http://www.dreamdestinations.com

We recently helped two couples plan a European river cruise for the 2019 cruise season.  Neither had been on a river cruise.  It got me to thinking—what questions would I have about taking a river cruise for a travel advisor that might be different from another type of vacation?  The more we talked and emailed each other, it became evident to me that both really wanted to go, but they wanted the best possible experience for their money and had a lot of questions.  We finally got them booked on a line neither had previously knew about but was the best option for them–I am quite confident they will have a great vacation.

Emerald Sun Watermarked
The Emerald Sun–a great option many Americans do not know about

I guess it is really not surprising they had so many questions—I read recently that about 526,000 Americans took a river cruise in 2016 compared to 11.5 million who took an ocean cruise (sources Seatrade Cruise News and Cruise Lines International Organization (CLIA)).  In other words, only about 4.5% of all American cruisers took a river cruise in 2016.  No wonder, so many have questions about river cruising!

So, here are some facts about vacations as compared to cruise vacations and the questions I would ask us if I wanted to go on a river cruise.

Reasons People Take Vacations

It might seem strange to start with this information, but to my way of thinking, the purpose or why of the vacation is the central question that needs to be answered.  It really determines if a river cruise is right for your travels.  Here are 3 of the top 4 reasons folks take a vacation (I omitted spend time with family which was number 3 reason to take a vacation) and how a certain type of vacation rates with respondents of a J. D, Power survey conducted for CLIA:

Reasons to Take a Vacation by Vacation Type Any Vacation Ocean Cruise River Cruise
# 1 To see & do new things 42% 45% 54%
#2 To relax & get rid of stress 33% 32% 19%
# 4 To gain knowledge of history & other cultures 6% 8% 13%

 

So for me, this brings up my first 3 questions:  1) Will I get to see and do new things?; 2) Will I get to relax and get rid of stress?; and 3) Will I gain knowledge of history and other cultures?

So, now if my responses match 2 of the 3 general questions of why I want to go on the vacation, I am probably a pretty good match for a river cruise.  If the object is to relax, and get rid of stress, a river cruise may not be my best option.  The reason is simple—the river boats often port near or in the city centers and with the included tours, it is more active than just lounging around a swimming pool or spending a day relaxing in a hammock by the beach.  It doesn’t mean you can’t relax on a river cruise—Anne often takes a day off from the sightseeing and just enjoys a short walk on her own or stays onboard.  While these are basic questions, there must be follow on—what sights, what type of new things, how much history, how much mixing with people and their cultures.

Durstein Shuttle Train
Even though the port of Durstein is a pleasant walk half mile walk, there is even a shuttle train to help some river cruise guests with mobility problems

Next Comes the river in Europe

I have written several blogs about what you can expect to see on Europe’s rivers while on a river cruise.  Most river cruisers select either the upper Danube (38.1 % according to Seatrade Cruise News) or the Rhine (31.1%, again Seatrade Cruise news)—that’s 69.2 % of all river cruisers.  While these are great options, by no means are the only options.

Picture6
The Main River is a great cruise route–picture is from AmaWaterways

The type of cruise experience is the central theme here.  My questions would be—What will I get to see on my cruise?  Why should I go on this river?  Are there any problems I might experience on this river?  When is the best time to go?  Here is the link to my blog about the reasons to sail on a particular Europe River: What is the Best Europe River Cruise Route?

Now, What Cruise Line

Perhaps this is the hardest set of questions—not everyone has the same tastes.  I tried to capture some of the differences in my River Cruise Vibes blog.  Level of service, inclusions, ship facilities, food and wine and cruise atmosphere all are part of this set of questions.  Here is the link to my River Cruise Vibes blog: River Cruise Vibes

Next, What Cabin Type?

Although river ships are small compared to ocean liners and the staterooms are usually smaller, there is a large range of options for your cabin.  They all come a different price points and options, like balconies, bed size and bathroom configuration and features.  While this is an important set of questions, the typical river cruiser does not spend that much time in their cabin except to sleep and get ready for their next excursion and meal, so to some, this may not be as important as it is to others. 

 

AmaCerto Stateroom
Our Stateroom on the AmaCerto–pretty nice!

Still, the stateroom can make or break the experience for some river cruisers, especially a seasoned ocean cruiser who prefers a huge suite—river cruise staterooms may be just too small for them or they may need to have a larger stateroom on one of the two Giants of the Danube (another blog I recently wrote).  Is it getting a little complicated?—add in 8 river cruise lines with different features and you can see it really does require a special knowledge of each line to choose the right stateroom for your cruise.

When Should I go?

There are certain times of the year river cruising is less expensive.  If my plans are flexible, I would want to know if I can save some money and still get a great vacation.  One of our favorite times is late October thru November, as the weather is still generally mild, there are less crowds and prices seem generally lower.

Rhine River Gorge
The Rhine River Gorge is fabulous in October

Pre and Post Stays

Most Americans do not want to fly to Europe for only 7 days—due the distance and cost involved in this type of vacation, it often makes sense to extend with a land package.  This creates a new set of questions—among them, what do the cruise lines offer, should my travel advisor create a special add-on package with another vendor, what will I see and do, and how much extra does it cost?

Flights and Transfers

Most river cruise lines offer good deals for flights to help you get to Europe.  However, these can be great experience or a computer generated 3 leg flight that saves the cruise line some money while you suffer a 24 hour ordeal.  This is a tricky feature that really requires the help of a travel professional, in my opinion.  What is included?  Transfers—yes or no?  How much to upgrade?  Can I use my airline mileage?  Just reading some of the consumer complaints about river cruising, it often seems to me the air offers are among the most complained about feature of river cruising.

Entertainment and Night Life

River cruise ships do not have big production shows or casinos (sorry Anne) and if you are a night owl, most river cruise lines won’t meet your expectations.  However, U by Uniworld has a cruise more oriented to the night life.  If you like more cultural small groups or glass blowing demonstrations or cooking classes or themed cruise (our favorite is wine cruises), then river cruising is a good match.  You can bet, I would ask these types of questions.

The Uniworld A 2018
The A–U by Uniworld  in 2018–a different river cruise experience

 My Final set of Questions—what is the Value I will get for my Money?

You might seem surprised that money is my last set of questions.  Value is really taking all the desires you have for the vacation (the above questions) and selecting the line that best matches what you expect for the vacation.  Once you are comfortable you will get a great vacation, and realize all that is included, the cost often seems justified.  Here is a link I wrote earlier about the Great Value of a River Cruise: The Great Value of a Europe River Cruise

Do you see now why you need a River Cruise Expert to help you through this Process?

There are so many things you really need to know to get the puzzle of river cruising right.  I study this all the time and it is hard for me to know everything—I learn something new almost every day.  There is no way you can have all the answers, especially when each cruise line only puts their best foot forward in their brochures and advertisements. 

My Final Thoughts

As you can see, asking a lot of questions about river cruising and then making wise travel choices, is more complex than you may have thought.  Trip planning is not easy.  Making sound decisions are critical to the travel planning process.  Time and money issues are complex—we all want the best at the least possible price.  We help you solve those complex issues, saving you hassles, time and worry.  We are travel experts, ocean and river cruise experts, and Europe destination experts.  We have first-hand knowledge of almost anywhere you want to visit in Europe.  We know our products and the vendors who sell them to you.  We have designed special tours for dozens of clients, led several and will continue to find just the right vacation that will exceed your expectations.

When you are spending your hard-earned money for a vacation, you want an advisor who can match you with the right trip.  You want someone who will understand your expectations and fuel your anticipation (or excitement) to get you the best possible trip experience.  And, you want someone who can help you with the decision-making process.  We think we have all these qualities.

Whatever your Dream Destinations are, we are here to help you get the best possible vacation based on what is important to you!  We will provide you high quality, expertly planned travel.  Please give me a call 713-397-0188 (Hank) or email me at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com.  We want to help you:  Savor life…make memories…Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

Hank Schrader
Hank Schrader

HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 45 years.  He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA).  This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years.  He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees.   His other Certifications:

  • AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
  • Viking River Cruise Specialist
  • Scenic River Cruise Specialist
  • Emerald Waterways  Specialist
  • Avalon Waterways Specialist
  • Brit Agent
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River Cruise Vibes

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

I have wanted to write this blog for a long time. Since 2009, I have studied Europe River cruising to try and learn all I could about the river cruise industry. A few industry experts have tried to make comprehensive comparisons of the different lines. Each has a slightly different approach. We have taken a unique approach by creating a PowerPoint presentation. Our 73 slide 2016 Comparison Guide is very good but even that lacks one factor—the vibe of the line and its ships. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines vibe as “the feeling that someone or something gives you.” So, here goes—my evaluation of the vibe or feeling you will get on 8 river cruise lines.
The Starting Point–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 the many questions travelers often have about the differences between river cruise lines (there are 17 comparisons charts in the presentation). HERE IS THE LINK TO OUR GUIDE. Once you know about the offerings of each line, now it is time to learn about their vibe.
Disclaimer
We have sailed on 14 Europe River cruises. We have been on 3 different lines—AmaWaterways, Scenic and Emerald. We have sent guests on AmaWaterways (lots), Scenic, Uniworld and Viking. I hold specialty certifications from 5 river cruise lines, have attended over 30 in person seminars or webinars and read everything I could on Europe River cruising. There are a lot of facts behind these opinions, but some is just personal opinion. I challenge you to be the critical thinker and judge my opinions based on what is important to you for your vacations. As always, let us know what you think—we love to hear from you!
River Cruise Overview
Usually the first question we are asked about river cruises is “What line is best?” Our answer: They all are good, but there are some big differences between companies. Most folks have heard of Viking, since they advertise heavily and have 50% of all the river cruise vessels on Europe’s rivers. The other lines may not be as well-known, but offer great vacations.
What are the 8 companies we are going to examine? They are (in alphabetical order): AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Crystal, Emerald, Scenic, Tauck River Cruises, Uniworld and Viking. There are no industry standards to rate the river cruise lines and it is important to understand that some ratings are only personal opinion. Every major river cruise line has won some sort of award from a travel industry group, or by reader poll, so that is not the best criteria to use to judge a river cruise line. In all my research and experiences, I have never read a comparison on the vibe of each line.
My Personal Best Line List by Category
Here is a brief summary of my thoughts about matching your personal priorities to a specific river cruise line:
Best Overall—AmaWaterways, Scenic
Best Food & Wine—AmaWaterways, Scenic
Best Shore Excursions—Tauck, AmaWaterways
Best Resolution of Problems—Tauck, AmaWaterways
Best Minimalist Cruise—Avalon, Viking
Best Cabins Views—Avalon, AmaWaterways (dual balconies)
Best Unique Cabins—Uniworld
Best Low Cost Cruise—Emerald, Viking (although you may have to pay full fare earlier than others)
Best All Inclusive— Scenic, Tauck, Uniworld, Crystal
Best Ship Design—AmaWaterways, Viking
The Vibes of 8 River Cruise Lines
AmaWaterways

AmaWaterways Crew
AmaWaterways Crew singing Christmas Carols on one of our cruises

AmaWaterways is by far our favorite river cruise line of these eight lines. To us, we feel like we belong—the vibe is you are part of the family and they want you back. For us, AmaWaterways is the Goldilocks of Europe River Cruising. It is just the right blend of great tour options, wonderful food and wine, comfortable staterooms and a staff only too willing to please. Almost every serious travel industry writer about river cruising rates Ama very high—they often agree with our assessment that it is the best value for the price. While not all inclusive, it is almost so—in 2018 you can get a free happy hour drink before diner—a nice plus. They have awesome cuisine–for a foodie or wine lover, this is a great choice, especially the wine cruises. While others tout their included gratuities, we think it makes the staff just a little bit more attentive. The other thing is that all are equal on AmaWaterways, regardless of what you pay for the cruise—that is not true on several other all-inclusive river cruise lines. A couple of great examples of this is the Chef’s Table Specialty Restaurant—it’s included, as are the Limited Addition Tours. We just can’t say enough about the staff—on our last two trips, we have bought pizza for the crew in appreciation of how hard they work and how well they take care of us (the second time, our traveling companions, the Thomas, split the pizza party cost—we are not the only ones who appreciate the care we received!). The other factor is the consistency—it will be great vacation or they will fix it—we have seen a unbelievable response to a high water situation on the Rhone that doubled the trip, changed all tours and they pulled it off like it was no big deal. Their partnership with Adventures with Disney and Backroads bicycles is another plus. And, last but not least, they are willing to go head to head with Crystal with a new wide ship in 2019. The AmaMagna, will be the widest ship on the Danube, but offer similar space and facilities as the Crystal Mozart. The best thing about Ama just may be they are constantly improving but have not lost any of the features that make them best in our opinion.

AmaCerto Stateroom
Our Stateroom on the AmaCerto

Avalon
Avalon’s vibe, to me, is summed up in its slogan—“a different point of view.” First, Avalon tries to define itself by the staterooms. They emphasize the bed placement facing towards the balcony on the top two floors of their “Space Ships.” The floor to ceiling window of the stateroom is known as an “open air balcony.” Second, Avalon also emphasizes what they call the “luxury of choice.” This means many extras cost more but it allows the traveler to select what is important to them. Avalon was the last cruise line of these 8 to add free beer and wine at lunch and dinner—they seem slower to adapt to the changing river cruise world to me. But, at least they are making some changes. A new feature is “Avalon Fresh.” Avalon Fresh is locally sourced vegetarian cuisine. The additional dishes are the creation of Austrian chefs and brothers Karl and Leo Wrenkh. These chefs are emphasizing fun and tasty food that is both fresh and healthy. These new dishes will be added to the regular entrees for the evening meal and will be featured on the menu with a special Avalon Fresh logo.
Crystal
Crystal’s vibe, to me, is that they are trying to bring their famous luxury ocean cruise brand to river cruising. Crystal Cruises’ affluent, multi-generational guests appreciate the renowned Crystal Experience distinguished by classic service, abundant space, fine quality, and extensive choices. Crystal is the only ultra-luxury ocean cruise line that has entered the river cruise market. They started with one big ship, redesigned the entire ship, so that the guests could experience the Crystal lifestyle. Every stateroom has a butler. On each sailing, every guest will get to go to a Michelin Stared restaurant on land. It should be noted, however, guests do not have a choice of the several restaurants used during the cruise (it is limited to a small number of guests to make the experience more intimate but there is a fixed menu—if you don’t like pigeon, for instance, as one reviewer wrote, not such a great meal). They are slowly adding 4 more ships, smaller in size but all balcony cabins, which can go through the locks and canals of Europe. For a luxury line, there are a lot of extras on Crystal to spend your money on, such as helicopter rides, speed launches, private tours, and even an extra charge for exclusive dining. My take on the vibe of Crystal is that the ship and Crystal experience are more important than the sights, but many influential industry writers have selected Crystal as the best Europe river cruise line. With only one ship in service all of 2017 and a new one just christened this week, I just think it is too soon to declare it best, but if Crystal Ocean cruises are your favorite, Crystal seems to been able to replicate most of their luxury features on Europe’s Rivers.
Emerald

Pool Watermarked
Emerald Sun Pool with retractable roof that converts into an evening cinema

We liked Emerald a lot—they compete very favorably with Viking. The vibe was contemporary but a solid value—the owner likes to call it a four star experience on a five star ship. It does have that vibe, not first class, but fun, well thought out, and a solid value—who could not like a glass enclosed swimming pool for daytime use that converts to a movie theater at night (it even has the popcorn!)? The Emerald Waterways line includes complimentary beverages at lunch and dinner; all on board meals; balcony cabins on the upper 2 decks; bikes (without electronic assisted feature); and complimentary Wi-Fi. As with most river cruise lines, there are included tours in every sailing. They also have an EmeraldPLUS no addition cost tours to enhance the standard offerings. There are also Discover More tour options that cost extra and require a minimum number of passengers. Gratuities are included in the basic cruise fare. Their long ships (135 meters or 443 feet) carry 182 passengers.

Lounge Watermarked
Lounge on the Emerald Sun

Scenic

Scenic Opal Buffet
Sea Food Buffet on the Scenic Opal Lobster Therimdor Station

The vibe at Scenic is an emphasis on all-inclusive, no extra costs, in a first class, modern rivership with an Aussie flair. Scenic is an Australian tour company (founded in 1986 by Glen Moroney) that started Europe River cruising in 2008. They have 2 brands—Scenic (an all-inclusive luxury line) and Emerald Waterways (their deluxe river cruise line). The Scenic line features your own butler (services vary by stateroom category); complimentary beverages all day, every day; six dining options; the Tailormade GPS device for individual exploration; balcony suites on the 2 upper decks; electronically assisted bikes; complimentary Wi-Fi; laundry and airport transfers. There are no extra charges for tours or gratuities but massages and the hairdresser are extra charges. Their long ships (135 meters or 443 feet) carry 167 passengers.
Scenic has a lot to offer—it is all-inclusive—and really delivers. 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). During our cruise, sometimes the offerings were just exceptional—the seafood buffet for lunch one day, the Portobellos restaurant experience, the sundowner party (an off ship party) and the concert at a palace were outstanding. Yet on other days, it was just so-so. I have also read that there have been some other problems on a cruise during a high water situation. I think they achieve their vibe–it is exclusive, and contemporary with an Aussie flair, but some people are more exclusive than others. It still is our number 2 best line, and our favorite in the all-inclusive category.

IMG_9620
Our Stateroom Bed

Tauck
This all-inclusive line strives for a relaxed elegance vibe. Many praise the Tauck tours—there are 3 US full time guides on board—and they offer many exclusive tour experiences. They use older, leased riverships, some of which are being upgraded to larger cabins. Tauck generally carries few passengers, has a great reputation among all exclusive lines, but others have been disappointed in this line. Some rate it as the second best river cruise line, tout their conflict resolution and tours but it only gets average ratings on food and wine by others. Tauck has an interesting arrangement for their riverships—they handle all the tours and another company, handles all on board operations, such as food and beverage, hotel and operating the rivership.
Uniworld
The vibe of Uniworld, for me, is change. The opulent, individual staterooms of Uniworld, along with unique ship décor, have long been their defining feature. The all-inclusive nature of Uniworld has also been a good draw in the US market. There does seem to be a movement away from the more structured aspects of river cruising for the company. For example, on their newest ship, the S.S. Joie de Vivre (it sails the Seine River in France), there is a more relaxed evening dining schedule and more flexibility on start times in tours. But, the biggest change to Uniworld, will be the 2018 addition of U by Uniworld–they are converting 2 riverships to their newest brand. Uniworld is using words like “social, relaxed, fun, connected, scenic, and enriching” to describe the new brand. Gone will be the opulent interiors on some of their redesigned riverships, there will be DJ’s, more emphasis on night life—even bean bag chairs and hammocks on the top deck. To keep a lower price point, the ship will offer only 2 meals each day. The idea is to appeal to the younger generation (21-40). The travel community is split on this concept—some praise it, others predict it will be a bust. For me, the vibe is change—is the more structured, refined cruise line of the past morphing into a more upbeat and contemporary line, or is it a dual line with two distinct products? I’m not sure, but one thing is certain—change is in the wind for Uniworld.
Viking
The vibe of Viking is a solid value but no frills—the destination is the important thing and they will offer you a comfortable way to see Europe and upgrades will cost you extra. It is another line with a change in emphasis. At one time a few years ago, they were placing as many as 12 new long ships on Europe’s Rivers a year. The pace has slowed to just 2 this year. But, maybe the biggest change, is the wildly successful ocean cruise launch—it really is just all the wonderful features and inclusions of river cruising on their 3 ocean going ships. Viking Ocean Cruises has a real winner in that market. By far, they are the most prolific Europe River Cruise line– Viking, has about 50% of all the riverships on Europe’s Rivers. It is a Nordic brand—Scandinavian design features on their signature long ships that hold 190 passengers—the most of any river cruise line in Europe. No frills here—no bikes, no hot tubs, no pools, same two wines all week on the cruise and only one tour per day included. Still, they offer a good product at a reasonable price, but sometimes it requires complete payment for the cruise as much as one year in advance to get the best deals. Some writers have stated perhaps Viking River Cruises has grown too fast, and perhaps, the emphasis on ocean cruising has taken some of the luster off their river cruise operations. I’m not sure if it has grown too fast, or now it is emphasizing their ocean division, but Viking will keep operating the most riverships in Europe for quite some time in the future and many will sail with them.
Our Final Thoughts
As you can see, there is much more than these brief thoughts to select the right cruise line for your vacation. For me, the most important criteria to determine which cruise line to use is that the river route and what you want to see is available on the cruises lines you are considering. Once the right route is selected, then it is time to choose which cruise lines matches your priorities. But never worry—we are here to help you get the best possible river cruises based on what is important to you! Please give me a call 713-397-0188 (Hank) or email me at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com. We want to help you: Savor life…make memories…Visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!

Hank Schrader
HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 45 years. He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years. He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees. His other Certifications:
• AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
• Viking River Cruise Specialist
• Scenic River Cruise Specialist
• Emerald Waterways Specialist
• Avalon Waterways Specialist
• Brit Agent

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