For seasoned ocean cruisers thinking of taking a first river cruise, it may appear that all river cruises and river ships are the same – ships look a similar size and shape in pictures, the rivers don’t alter much and most itineraries visit a lot of the same ports of call.
It is true that the size of river cruise ships is governed by the rivers they sail on – the width of locks to be traversed, the height of bridges to go under and the depth of the river itself. A colleague of mine once described a river cruise ship as being like a shoe box: the width and height of the box is confined, with the main difference being what goes inside! The recent increase in uptake of river cruises worldwide has partly been driven by the ingenuity and different inclusions of river cruise companies with regard to their ships.
This includes different cabin combinations (from cabins with river view (half height) windows, French or full balconies to cabins for multi-generational cruising and suites), numbers of lounges and bars (traditionally, the panoramic lounge bar and main public focus of the ship, faces forward, but increasingly there is a quiet area at the back of the ship too), adoption of the ocean cruising trend to include alternate dining venues on board and recently the addition of small swimming pools, as opposed to splash pools or Jacuzzis (either of the infinity type or inside, with the ability to cover over the pool and offer it as an alternate venue for dancing or as a cinema at night).
The experiences offered off the ships also differ with the provision of different types and themes of shore excursions and opportunities to explore ‘DIY’ style with bikes, e (lectric) bikes, walking poles and sat nav.
River cruises offer a range of inclusions (similar to ocean cruise lines) and although I have tried to arbitrarily assign a price point to the cruise lines below, it is important to temper this by considering the different inclusions. The cost of your cruise may be already paid for, but how much will it cost you to actually get off the ship?
Each river cruise company (like ocean cruise lines) have their own USPs and recently, I was lucky enough to experience and tour a selection of river cruise ships in Paris. These are just a few of my observations, hopefully highlighting the differences between companies, in depth reports on the ships and photos, to follow.
CroisiEurope is Europe’s biggest river cruise company, sailing over 50 vessels. They have quite a unique ship design with shallow drafts on their ships (and paddle wheels on others). This means, for example, that they can moor in Honfleur town itself, as well as sail on the Elbe and Loire rivers (both notorious for low water levels). They even have a ship sailing on the waterways of Venice. View this as an affordable floating all-inclusive hotel right in the centre of the city (offering a more reasonably priced alternative to a land stay in Venice). Both French and English are spoken on board, but the menus are unashamedly French – plat du jour (no choice within courses, but alternatives will be offered if required). LOW PRICE
Uniworld is a luxury river cruise line whose ships have padded material on their walls (as opposed to wall paper) to absorb noise levels. Each ship is a boutique style floating hotel, with features designed to complement the particular river they sail on, including handcrafted furniture, authenticated antiques and original artwork. Uniworld have also had a policy encouraging sustainability for a number of years and provide glassware in cabins as well as a complimentary metal drinks bottle for each guest, thereby cutting down on the use of plastic on board. HIGH PRICE
AmaWaterways is one of the river cruise lines bucking the trend and building a bigger ship (AmaMagna) to sail on the Danube in 2019 (the locks are wider than on the Rhine). It will be nearly double width (72 feet across) and have lifts to the sun deck (most lifts on river cruise ships only service the accommodation decks and this has implications for getting to dry land by clambering over adjacently moored ships if mobility issues are present). Along with the promise of being able to moor next to the quay/dock at practically every port of call and the larger cabin sizes, this ship has the potential to open up river cruising to less mobile passengers. AmaWaterways was the first river cruise line to offer complimentary bikes on board, so it is not surprising that in 2019 it will have Wellness Hosts on each of its ships. They will run 4-6 fitness classes every day from yoga, stretches and Pilates, to circuit training and core strengthening sessions as well as offering guided hikes, runs, bike rides and wellness lectures. MID TO HIGH PRICE
Avalon Waterways are part of the Globus Group who partner Landmine Design, a social enterprise project in Cambodia where people displaced by the Khmer Rouge, live on land which has the greatest concentration of land mines in the world, with no electricity, clean water and little food. The Minefield Village offers women the opportunity to work (at making jewellery etc), close to their homes, so they can maintain family life. Everyone on an Avalon cruise is given a bracelet from this project – containing a single yellow bead (Gamboge bead), symbolising the end of a cycle of despair and the beginning of one of hope. A further important USP for Avalon is their complementary home pick up service (as long as you live within 100 miles of your departure airport), so that your cruise really does start when you close your front door. MID TO HIGH PRICE
A-Rosa are a German river cruise company who have teamed up with Shearings and Newmarket to offer fly cruise opportunities sailing on their ‘international ships’ where both German and English are spoken. In a similar way to Croisi, the menus are geared towards German dishes, but every meal is served buffet style, even dinner. A-Rosa are currently probably the best river cruise line for families – as children under 15 years old travel free (one free place per paying adult) and the cruise line also offers Kids Clubs on specific dates. LOW PRICE
Scenic are an Australian touring company, who like several other similar companies, have applied their successful touring model to river cruising, whereby the floating hotel is the ship. All Scenic guests enjoy the attention of a butler on board. Their ships are termed ‘ Space Ships’ and when first launched in 2008, were quite futuristic in design, with a large guest to space ratio, as well the first ships to have full size, outdoor balconies. HIGH PRICE
Amadeus is an Austrian company with over 40 years’ experience in the European river cruise market. They were the first company to utilise drop down panoramic window technology in their French balcony cabins, the first to offer walk in wardrobes (as well as the romantic notion of using the wardrobe as the connecting door for interconnecting cabins – a la C S Lewis’ Narnian wardrobe) and will be the first river cruise company to utilise iPads in cabins and offer enhanced Wi-Fi to allow personal streaming. MID PRICE