Next big thing in river cruising: Small groups

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An off-ship meal during a Switzerland & the Rhine cruise through A&K’s small-group Connections European River Journeys.
An off-ship meal during a Switzerland & the Rhine cruise through A&K’s small-group Connections European River Journeys.

As demand for river cruises grows, operators are increasingly seeking to differentiate themselves with everything from more group tour options to customizable private excursions and special small-group journeys that enable access to more intimate venues.

Last year, for instance, Crystal River Cruises introduced options for its guests to escape the traditional microphone-in-the-ear group motorcoach tour and do customized personal or smaller group excursions.

And Abercrombie & Kent said demand is strong for its now-4-year-old, small-group Connections European River Journeys, which put groups of no more than 24 on Amadeus-branded ships operated by Luftner. 

Although the groups sail with other guests on the 150-passenger ships, the A&K travelers have their own private tour guide and separate excursions to places larger groups can't go. Other perks include private transfers, upgraded cabins, boutique hotels on their pre- and post-trip stays, a private chef's dinner and authentic local off-ship meals.

"We've worked really hard to make this an A&K-level experience, with all the things that implies," said Joanne Benes, A&K senior product specialist for Europe. "Our resident tour directors are really on par with a concierge from the world's finest hotel."

And the smaller group size enables A&K to take their guests farther from the ship for excursions to places like an art shelter in Nuremberg, private flower farms outside Amsterdam or for home-cooked lunches at a farmhouse in France, she said. 

The Chateau de Fontainebleau, home to French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III.
The Chateau de Fontainebleau, home to French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III.

European Waterways, which operates luxury barges, said demand for experiential excursions is at an all-time high, prompting it to expand its 2019 offerings to include an assortment of guided tours led by local dignitaries such as counts, baronesses and even members of the French military.

Among the additions in France is a private tour of the French military stables of the Chateau de Fontainebleau, a 1,500-room architectural marvel that was the opulent "country house" for French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III.

Other options: a stroll around the Chateau de Commarin accompanied by Count Bertrand de Vogue from the 26th generation of the de Vogue family, which has maintained continuous residence there since the 13th century, or a Champagne tasting and gastronomic lunch with the baroness at the historical Chateau de Ricey-Bas, a stately home in Les Riceys.

The line's classic Italy cruise features a unique dining experience at Villa Ca'Zen in the heart of the Po Valley, where Lord Byron wrote some of his most celebrated works.

The change is also evident in the everyday offerings of river cruise lines. 

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, for instance, on sailings between Bucharest, Romania, and Budapest, takes groups of no more than 10 to lunch in a village with families in homes they had to abandon for more than seven years during the brutal Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s.

Also this year, Tauck ramped up its shore excursions, adding a second option in many locations to give its guests a choice of experiences to better match their interests. 

For instance, on day five of the company's Blue Danube itinerary, guests can now choose between full-day excursions to Salz-burg, Austria, or Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. 

And on the new Rhine Enchantment itinerary, guests have their choice of a visit and wine tasting in Riquewihr, France, or a guided bicycle ride in the Black Forest.

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