River cruising is a hot travel trend. But with so many companies, itineraries and destinations, how do newbie cruisers make the right choice? Brian Johnston explains.
There’s never been a better time for a holiday afloat. River/cruise companies are tempting us with newer ships, better itineraries and more amenities, leaving eager passengers with only one headache: how to choose between them.
Major companies generally have high standards, so consider your destination first. Cruise beginners often head to the Rhine or Danube, but there are plenty of alternatives, even in Europe. You might prefer the beautiful Douro River in Portugal (Uniworld), the majestic Volga in Russia (Viking) or the Seine and Rhône in France (Trafalgar). CroisiEurope specialises in short-duration cruises on rivers such as the Gironde and Garonne in France and Guadalquivir in Spain, great add-ons to regular European holidays. Special-interest cruises are also growing, such as golf in Austria or gastronomic tours through Normandy (APT) or Dutch tulip season or German Christmas markets (Scenic).
Head further east and fabulous options include the glories of ancient Egypt along the Nile (Abercrombie & Kent), the temples of Cambodia and Vietnam on the Mekong (Pandaw) or the Irrawaddy through Myanmar (Orient-Express). In China, great stretches of the Yangtze River can be explored, usually combined with land visits to Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’an (Viking).
Few Australians think of America as a river destination, but your options include the Mississippi and the Wild West’s Snake and Columbia Rivers (American Cruise Lines). In South America, you can explore the Amazon River (Amazon Clipper). If you don’t want to leave home, the Murray (Captain Cook Cruises) is another option: after all, the Murray is the world’s second-longest navigable river.
Take a good look at the itineraries on offer, particularly where and how often you make shore excursions, although it is wise to remember that in vast countries such as China and Russia there will inevitably be more time spent on board. Some companies (particularly Scenic) offer seamless coach touring before or after their cruises.
Next consider the type of on-board experience you want. For example, you’ll get a lovely small-ship vibe on Tauck (118 passengers) or River Cloud (just 90 passengers). You may be mostly with Australians on Avalon or Scenic, mostly Americans with Viking, and able to mix with Europeans on CroisiEurope, where cruises are bilingual. Talk to friends: word of mouth often gives you intelligent cruise insights.
Choose a ship as you would a hotel. Consider the level of luxury, service and organisation that you expect. Refurbished older ships are aimed at the budget-conscious, while new ships are increasingly luxurious. Scenic’s Space-Ships, for example, have an alternative fine-dining restaurant and large suites with full-size balconies, while Uniworld’s Antoinette even boasts a cinema and swimming pool.
River-cruise ships now have a range of cabins but, unlike ocean liners, no inside cabins. The cheapest are on lower decks with portholes: you see the world from water level and will find your aspect is darkened by the sides of quays when moored. Higher decks cost more and come with windows or balconies. Mid-range cabins tend to sell out quickly.
Lastly, study the inclusions. Extra charges might include port fees, fuel surcharges, internet access and alcohol. Tipping is often extra; count on $10 per person per day. Most river cruises offer cabin, food and shore excursions as part of the package. Lower-priced cruises may have optional add-ons – not necessarily a bad thing, as you can choose to pay only for the features you will use.
It sounds complicated, but a bit of research should set you up for a great escape. River cruising is a joy – so go on, get out there.
We asked two experts for advice on getting value from your river cruise. Adriana Petkov at Viking River Cruises suggests the following:
• Book a year in advance to guarantee savings and preferred choice of stateroom.
• Subscribe to operators’ newsletters and keep an eye on early-booking discounts and specials.
• Viking’s best-value stateroom is Category E/F. You sacrifice the French balcony of Category C/D but get more internal space.
Meanwhile Justine Lally at APT also has useful advice:
• Book early. Best deals – such as Fly Free, cabin upgrade and on-board credit offers – come during preview campaigns.
• Check inclusions so you know the charges you will face on board.
• See if there are opportunities to personalise your experience, such as choice of activity level or start times on shore tours.
YOURLifeChoices TOP 10 RIVER CRUISE DESTINATIONS
Rhine River, Germany
Amsterdam to Basel is an impressive slice of Europe, mostly through Germany’s vineyards, flower-filled towns and cathedral cities.
Danube River, Eastern Europe
Cruises take in various sections from Nuremburg (Germany) to Bucharest (Romania) through Eastern Europe’s delights.
Volga River, Russia
The Volga and associated waterways highlight Russian history and culture between Moscow and St Petersburg.
Nile River, Egypt
A cruise between Luxor and Aswan through stunning desert landscapes and ancient history is outstanding.
Yangtze River, China
Modern dam engineering, magnificent gorges and 5,000 years of culture between Nanjing and Chongqing.
Irrawaddy River, Myanmar
From the capital Yangon to Bhamo, cruise past golden temples and legendary Mandalay on the river less travelled.
Murray River, Australia
Quintessential Australian countryside and colonial history on a 320km cruise between Blanchetown and Murray Bridge.
Mississippi River, USA
New Orleans to Memphis through the American heartland in the footsteps of Huckleberry Finn and jazz musicians.
Amazon River, Brazil
Cruises out of Manaus aren’t luxurious, but rich in the adventure of the Brazilian rainforest and tribal cultures.
Douro River, Portugal
A relatively short but highly scenic journey through baroque towns and the world’s oldest wine region in northern Portugal.
Abercrombie & Kent: www.abercrombiekent.com.au
American Cruise Lines: www.americancruiselines.com
Amazon Clipper: www.adventureassociates.com
Avalon Waterways: www.avalonwaterways.com.au
Captain Cook Cruises: www.captaincook.com.au
Pandaw Cruises: www.activetravel.com.au
River Cloud: www.seacloud.com
Scenic Tours: www.scenictours.com
Tauck River Cruises: www.tauck.com
Trafalgar River Cruises: www.trafalgartours.com
Uniworld Cruises: www.uniworldcruises.com.au
Viking River Cruises: www.vikingrivercruises.com.au