Warning – I am not pulling any punches here – I need to get some things off my chest. 🙂
Some of this will be fun where I take the …. out of some cruise companies with their over-the-top hype and half-truths. But at the same time it will give you lots to think about before you book your next river cruise.
Just over ten years ago there were no Australian companies with their own river cruise ships. In Europe there were a number of long established French, German and Dutch companies, as well as Viking the US operator – all with cruises on the Danube, Rhine and Rhone. In Russia there was Viking and local Russian companies cruising on the Volga. In the USA there has always been the Mississippi, and in Egypt the Nile. But river cruising in Asia as we now know it was non existent. Now look at the choice – WOW. Today Australians just can’t get enough of river cruising!
Firstly, I must make a confession – I was involved for a number of years in promoting and selling the largest river cruise company in the world. Head office in LA even offered me a very senior position which I turned down.
I have cruised on a number of rivers including the Seine, Danube, Rhone, Volga and Yangtze.
Today I am still very actively involved with the best Russian companies, as well as a very long established European company offering Danube cruises. I have also supplied cruise product to some very well known Australian travel companies. Yes I do have considerable insider knowledge and understanding of what really goes on behind the scenes, and it’s all totally current. So any comments or advice that I may give are based on very strong foundations.
Initially I must say that it is very clear that all the major river cruise companies, including the two big Australian operators, have a very good product with a very high satisfaction record. The vast majority of travellers return home from a river cruise very happy with the experience. Having said that, I can still offer some concrete suggestions to those contemplating a river cruise, perhaps for the first time, so that you get exactly what you want and expect– at the price you want to pay.
To be fair, and avoid the time and expense of litigation, 🙂 I ‘ll not name any specific companies, but you will be able to read between the lines sometimes. I can substantiate all that I say.
At the outset, let me say that there is no travel product that I have ever seen that has so much money spent on promotion and execution. The weekend travel newspaper supplements are crammed with full page advertisements, wraparounds, and often full colour multi-page brochure inserts. We are bombarded on TV with more advertisements, particularly in sponsored travel programs, and most major companies have a celebrity (normally female) as their “brand ambassador”. And almost every senior travel journalist has been on a river cruise and written an article. One could be forgiven for being “river cruised out’.
In addition, in 30 years in travel I have never seen such expensive travel brochures. The 2017 river cruise brochure from one company is 2 cm thick and weighs 1.5 kg! Tens of thousands of these go out to all travel agents in Australia. The investment in marketing by at least the top companies in Australia is the tens of millions of dollars – each – I know.
Then add to that the huge investment in new ships in the last 5 years. I can think of at least 5 companies which have added a minimum of 2 new European river cruise ships a year, and are now adding more in Asia. The ships are becoming more and more “flash” in the amenities they provide, with new ships offering swimming pools on top deck, well equipped gyms, cinemas, and even swim up bars – on a river cruise ship! And the latest I have seen will have a rear launching platform for kayaks and jet-skis…But these considerable investments and the banks must be repaid.
In addition, the ships themselves are relatively small – in Europe and China between 150 and 200 passengers, and in S E Asia, the average is around 50. This means that they lack the economies of scale of the ocean vessels so the costs per passenger are higher than ocean liners.
Then add the numerous inclusions like butlers, free alcoholic drinks, fully inclusive sightseeing ashore, entertainment including classical concerts, gratuities, and more – all have to be paid for by the guest.
So the end result is a product which is at a premium price to the traveller. Travel on the very popular 15 day Amsterdam to Budapest cruise and you’ll pay AUD 7.500 per person for the lead–in cabin – the one on the bottom deck with the small windows which is rarely illustrated in the brochures. That’s $1,000 a day for two! If you want a balcony cabin expect to pay at least another AUD 1,000 per person, which will add up to about AUD 17,000. If you want a two room suite then you are looking at $25,000 for two. Travel in summer peak season and it goes even higher. Other European rivers cost the same or more. Yes it often includes a “free” or very cheap airfare but more about that later.
Egypt has clearly fallen from favour, but daily prices are similar at around AUD 500 per person per day for a top ship. The increasingly popular SE Asia cruises prices can be around AUD 350 per day in some countries like Vietnam and Cambodia where competition is fierce. In China, Yangtze cruises tend to be packaged with land content and vary widely in price as a result of various standards of ship.
In Russia you can pay as little as AUD 200 a day for a good 3-star ship, but again AUD 500 a day and sometimes much more for a 4-star ship.
So now you have some rough idea of the cost involved, let’s go through the steps of selecting a river cruise for you.
Selecting a destination and itinerary. This is purely a personal thing depending on your interests. Many people that I meet have already enjoyed the 15 day Amsterdam to Budapest cruise, but it is not compulsory for all Australians to take that cruise! One chap that I met went to Europe and came back saying that it was “Just a lot of dirty old buildings” – beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. So if Asia, Egypt, USA or South America is your thing, then look at cruises there – you have lots of choice.
The new up and coming rivers are the Douro and Dordogne in Europe, the Irrawaddy, Mekong and Ganges in Asia, the Amazon in South America, and the Snake River in USA.
My one important piece of advice is to look closely at the day by day itinerary and see if it has enough variety. Perhaps like me you can only look at so many churches or temples (or markets), so you need to examine the whole experience and ask if it is your “thing”. Does it have enough day by day to keep you interested?
Just because your friends did a particular cruise and enjoyed it, is not a good enough reason for you to do it. You are not them.
Selecting a cruise company/ship/cabin. Now the fun begins! No doubt you will soon have the brochures of “the big two” who carry out massive advertising in the media. And no matter what travel agency you go into, you will be offered one or sometimes both. Many agencies are aligned with one or the other, but some work with both. And to be fair many will offer you one or two more.
Now go to www.travelbrochures.com.au and look for all the brochures relating to your destination of choice – WOW – look how many. This will keep you busy for a while.
The first 20% of many river cruise brochures are blatant sales pitch, with spectacular photos of the dramatic scenery, stunningly elegant suites, wonderful food, butlers, and evening concerts in spectacular settings. And I love the “typical” elegantly dressed passengers sipping cocktails on deck as they converse – I’m sure I recognize them from “Dallas” or was it “Days of Our Lives”. It certainly wasn’t “Neighbours”.
My top hype award goes to “The Royal Invitation” where passengers are supposedly welcomed by a princess into her castle to gain “an unforgettable glimpse into the life of European royalty”. In reality you visit the “castle” (mostly 19th century Gothic), whose family has owned it since 1907. It looks a lovely venue and I am sure that it is a most enjoyable evening. If the princess is about she’ll say hello to the 170 of you, but you’re not glimpsing the life of European royalty, and the visit is not Exclusive to the cruise company as they claim. On their own website, the castle owners say that it’s available for hire 200 days a year for weddings, corporate events and birthdays – and of course river cruise dinners. Do I sound cynical? Perhaps I am but I feel much better now! Ha Ha.
To digress, in the 90s I annually escorted 15 to 20 guests on a unique UK tour during which we had cocktails in the Great Hall at ancient Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull with Sir Lachlan Maclean (Clan Chief). Now that was definitely exclusive. “Lachie” did that for no one else. Moving on..
Here are my thoughts on some of the important matters to consider when making your choice
The satisfaction record of the cruise company – do they deliver what they promise? Surf the internet and you will find out.
What plans do they have in place to deal with low water levels or flooding which may render part or the whole of the river impossible to navigate? This is a fairly regular problem on some major rivers and recent past experience shows that some companies cope much better than others. Ask your travel agent for this information.
Time of year. Selecting the time of year to cruise is to me a major decision. I would avoid monsoon months in Asia, and the absolute middle of summer in many places. So in the northern hemisphere May, June and September for me would be ideal. If you want a cheap cruise in Europe on a top ship then look at October /November and March/April for the really best prices. But who wants to spend good money to be on a European river cruise in those months – shorter days, cold, and often wet.
Inclusions. When selecting a company and ship keep in mind that the more inclusions the higher the price.
Shore Excursions. A number of companies have “free choice” for shore excursions. This means you can choose from lots of excursions, all at no extra cost. So you can do little or none. But you can be sure that most, if not all the excursions are built into the cost of the cruise price, so you are paying whether you take them or not. This even applies to escorted shopping trips.
Butlers – again add extra cost, but be aware that the range and quality of the service depends on whether you are in a top suite or the basic cabin. In the latter he’ll turn down your bed, bring you a cup of tea and wake you up – that’s about it. Sounds like room service to me. But if do you want the bells and whistles butler there is plenty of choice with a number of so called 5–star ships.
Gratuities. Having gratuities included takes a weight off your mind but again it is included in the price.
Fellow passengers. When selecting a cruise company be aware that often they sell into particular markets, so you may find that the passengers are 90% from USA/Canada, France, South America or of course Australia and New Zealand. There are a few companies with a good mix, and those are the ones that I prefer.
5-star ships. Almost without exception the owners of all newly built river cruise ships call them 5-star ships. They aren’t. They are good 4-star ships with some 5-star upper deck suites and staterooms. How can you call it 5-star when the bottom deck cabins and some of the others are just basic 4-star. Want to see a true 5-star ship? Then look at some of the 5-star ocean liners.
Cabin type. Be aware that the English language is being rewritten by some river cruise companies!! I am looking at the brochure of well known one where their cabin on 3rd level at the waterline, with two windows at the top of the outside wall is called a ” Two Window Suite” SUITE – Give me a break! A suite in the accepted sense in the travel industry consists of two rooms – a bedroom and a lounge. This is a CABIN. Nothing wrong with it at all, but still a CABIN.
When selecting your cabin (or stateroom or suite) ask yourself what is important to you, and how much time will you spend in it. If you have the funds, by all means go for a real suite. But if like many you have to watch the pennies, then look at a standard cabin with or without a balcony.
Finally, before booking, ensure that you see a cabin picture and plan showing the measurements and detailing the cabin facilities. In many brochures you’ll see several pages of pictures of suites and balcony cabins, but if you are booking a lead–in cabin you may have to look a little harder. It will be buried somewhere at the back of the brochure. Up until this year, many companies failed to show you those cheaper cabins on the bottom deck, but for 2017 most have finally started to show pictures and plans of those cabins. Now you will know exactly what you have booked.
Balcony. I am not engaging in the great balcony debate, but I will say that I feel that a balcony is less important on a river cruise ship than an ocean vessel. The best viewing spot is from the sun deck or lounge where you can see both sides of the river as you travel along. You will perhaps mix more on a river cruise ship, spend less time in your cabin, and also spend much time off the ship on excursions.
And also when you stop at night, sometimes you are next to another ship looking into their cabins, or if next to the bank have the locals walking their dogs looking at you. The main advantage of a balcony is that it gives you far more extra light than those without, and a good view when you want one.
French Balcony (enclosed balcony). If you believe the hype, one major company claims to have introduced the first French Balcony about 9 years ago. But take a look at the MS Select Explorer built in Holland in 2001 – French Balconies. Ha ha. PS French Balcony really is a good idea, and most ships now have them on the top 2 decks.
Early Bird Deals. The weekend travel supplements are filled with Early Bird Deals for the following season where you are offered so called big discounts by paying early – but the asterisk lead you to the tiny fine print in grey at the bottom – I need a magnifying glass. They are almost without exception for the winter months – who wants to cruise in Europe in November or March to save $500 on a $7,000 cruise? And the two that I am looking at now request full payment 10 months or 12 months in advance!!!
Free Flights. Yes there are some but again look at the fine print. Normally they are for selected departures in the months you really don’t want to be cruising. And free? I recently rang the reservations number of one of the “big two” as Mr. Smith and asked about the 2017 Early Bird and advertised free flights on a cruise in 2018. I asked if I would pay the same price if I organized the flights myself with frequent flyer points. No. I would get a reduction of AUD 600 per person in the cruise price. So where is the ” Free Flight”?
A few operators offer cheap flights with cruises, and these are more genuine than the “free” flights”. The ones that I have seen give a return airfare to Europe for between AUD 750 and AUD 990 with a cruise of over 11 nights, and you do get a range of airlines and fewer limitations. Obviously the cruise company is cross – subsidizing and like many things it is swings and roundabouts.
Less expensive, good alternatives. If you are looking for a less expensive option with more freedom and flexibility, then they do exist in Europe, America and Asia – long established companies offering a good 4–star product, often with the option of suites as well as standard cabins. If you can’t find one, drop me a line and I’ll point you in the right direction – and for no charge!!
Conclusion. I have been quite harsh in many of my comments, with good reason, but there are excellent companies out there who don’t make extravagant claims. All river cruise companies offer a good product with high satisfaction rates, so as long as you have a great holiday and feel that you have had good value, then that is all that really matters. For 2018 and beyond I see very stiff competition between the river cruise companies with a definite oversupply of ships in some destinations. Couple that with reduced superannuation income for many Australians and our current obsession with “deals”, and I can see price wars coming. The ships must be filled at any cost, so look out for some very good last minute specials.