Soaring River Cruise Interest
Decades ago, luxury travelers only wanted to sail on big ocean ships, as European river cruise products, even if designated “luxury,” were not designed for the most upscale travelers, according to Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc., Fort Worth, TX. In her 40s, she sailed on Peter Deilmann, then the top luxury operator by many standards. She says the guests were all elderly, the programming not to her liking and, customization and active river adventures weren’t yet on the horizon. Thankfully, Turpin says todays river cruise marketplace is very different.
“I attribute the wonderful impetus to Viking River Cruises, as they were very smart and targeted their advertising to the exact market they needed to attract,” says Turpin, citing videos showing the river cruise experience that ran in conjunction with “Downton Abbey” and other PBS shows. She also credits Ama Waterways, Uniworld, Tauck, Avalon Waterways and others for raising the quality of river cruising and the publics knowledge of it.
Having sailed on China and European river cruises, Turpin says it’s a fabulous way for luxury travelers who’ve always wanted to do in-depth touring to get an immersive international experience. “Our travelers typically have cruised the world on an ocean ship and are now ready to see the inside of a continent,” she stresses.
Yet, until recently, that did not include Turpins traditional Crystal clients. They weren’t ready to try river cruising as they wanted an all-inclusive product and the same experiences they had on the line’s ocean vessels. She says it’s a plus that the line has launched Crystal Mozart, a Danube River vessel, this year. Her Crystal loyalists have returned happy and next year, the line will add Crystal Debussy, Crystal Bach, Crystal Mahler and Crystal Ravel.
The age for guests on river vessels is dropping, especially on shorter cruises. She says that’s much the same way Alaska cruising changed over the decades. Potential Alaska cruisers in the 1970s or 1980s often said, “I’ll take that trip right before I die,” Turpin notes, but now Alaska attracts people who love eco- tourism and active soft adventure. Similarly, “today’s river cruising isn’t your mother’s old sit around in a rocking chair’ kind of cruise,” Turpin quips.
Many lines now carry bicycles on their vessels or have active shore trips. Turpin’s cruisers have enjoyed the Backroads adventure program on Ama Waterways, and she says even families are sailing. Many river lines, including Tauck, Uniworld, Avalon Waterways and Ama Waterways (in partnership with Disney) now have family-themed departures in Europe.
Echoing Kalish’s views of the rise of customized, personalized arrangements for luxury cruisers, Turpin recently worked with Crystal River Cruises to organize a four-day customized itinerary for two couples in and around Budapest, with pampering accommodations at the Four Season Gresham Palace and a special dinner at a Hungarian restaurant in a private room. “These were two socialites from Dallas who wanted to see Budapest in style, and did not just want a car and driver,” Turpin says. For another couple celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary, her agency arranged a lovely celebration and special concert in Vienna.
Usually when Turpin is setting up private arrangements for shore trips on ocean cruises, she does it herself, but “when we’re enhancing the river experience, it’s usually pre- or post- and not during the cruise itself.” She says the river lines offer many alternative options during the sailing, which encourage people to get on and off, and go at their own pace. Turpin likes the “levels of tours” river lines offer — such as active, regular and gentle.
River cruising is also expanding in the Pacific Northwest and in Americas heartland, and internationally from the Amazon to the Mekong. For example, Uniworld offers a 15-day “Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong” itinerary from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, while A&K has a “Family China & the Yangtze” program including a three-night cruise. “Yesterday, a cruiser who mainly likes Crystal booked two river cruises — an African safari river cruise and a Mekong cruise on AmaWaterways,” Turpin notes. She likes that the particular African itinerary — with a river cruise on the Zambezi Queen — ties in both Botswana and Tanzania and is “one of the very best ways to do a safari.” Sometimes impromptu tours or options surface, even if they’re not on the schedule. Why not ask the concierge or shore desk about a desired activity and see if it can be arranged? Turpin was among eight people who shopped with one river vessel’s chef as he strolled through a local market, essentially leading an impromptu tour.
“We picked out the fish, veggies and everything for that day’s meal, plus we were treated to fresh bread and cakes,” she says. For Turpin, a top benefit of river cruising that guests love is just walking off the river vessel into the center of town.