Floating new ideas

River cruise lines today offer larger cabins, more wellness amenities, varied dining options, themed itineraries and a wider array of excursions in a bid to draw younger, more active travelers.

PHOTO BY PHILIP LEE HARVEY/ UNIWORLD BOUTIQUE RIVER CRUISE COLLECTION

PHOTO BY PHILIP LEE HARVEY/ UNIWORLD BOUTIQUE RIVER CRUISE COLLECTION

PHOTO BY PHILIP LEE HARVEY/ UNIWORLD BOUTIQUE RIVER CRUISE COLLECTION

When Kristin Karst called from a recent sailing aboard her namesake AmaKristina to talk about the evolution of river cruising, she started off with an apology for being a few minutes late because she had been finishing up an afternoon Champagne yoga class.

So how exactly does one do Champagne yoga? Well, she explained, you keep the glass nearby so you can take sips during and after poses.

It’s just one of a host of new activities AmaWaterways guests might encounter this year as the company dramatically beefs up its wellness offerings and strives to position itself “as the leader in active river cruising.”

And it’s just one example of a multitude of changes, especially among European products, that have gradually ushered in a new generation of river cruisers over the past decade and dramatically changed the very nature of the experience.

AmaWaterways staff doing a Champagne Yoga class with Selina onboard AmaKristina.

AmaWaterways staff doing a Champagne Yoga class with Selina onboard AmaKristina.

AmaWaterways staff doing a Champagne Yoga class with Selina onboard AmaKristina.

“Ten or 15 years ago, river cruises were for when you were 70 or 80 years old and you couldn’t do anything else,” said Karst, one of the founders of AmaWaterways.

The line has been among the leaders in developing programs to attract younger travelers, first by adding bicycles to all its ships (now a staple on most upscale lines) and then by following Tauck’s lead in offering dedicated family cruises, which AmaWaterways does in partnership with Disney.

While river cruising is still a great option for older, less active travelers looking for a floating hotel with daily, low-exertion, guided bus tours, the industry over the past few years has moved into a hypercompetitive state of expansion and change, with a growing list of players scurrying to innovate and copy each other as they rush to tap into increasing demand from travelers of all ages to experience river and other small-ship sailing experiences.

After all, one river line can barely adopt a new itinerary or program before its competitors jump in to follow. Many claim to be the first in something — from adding fitness instructors to farm-to-table dining — but it’s nearly impossible verify the claims because they are replicated so quickly.

While that might be stressful for operators, it spells good news for travelers. Today’s upscale lines, responding to demands by modern travelers for active and authentic experiences, have larger cabins; more, better and healthier dining options; more onboard amenities like spas, gyms, fitness instructors and personal trainers; and a growing variety of both active and traditional excursions as well as concierges at the ready to put together private or personalized activities that include everything from kayaking to guided runs to cooking classes.

Many are also offering shorter itineraries to attract those who are still in the workforce and have less time for traveling.

While the trends have been building for years, Marcus Leskovar, executive vice president of Amadeus River Cruises, said river cruising has only recently gone mainstream.

“I now talk to more and more people who say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of river cruising. I want to try it,’” Leskovar said. “Whereas just a few years ago I would have needed to explain to them what river cruising is about.”

According to CLIA, river cruises in Europe have seen 53% year-over-year growth on eastern waterways, which include the Rhine, Moselle, Danube and Elbe; 30% growth on the Saone, Seine and Loire in the west; and 24% growth to the south on the Douro, Rhone, Dordogne, Garonne and Po rivers.

River cruising ranked No. 3 in Virtuoso’s top travel trends for 2019, ahead of luxury cruising. And AAA reports that sailings on small, luxury cruise lines have exploded, with more and more members now selling river cruises, including agents who previously never did.

Today, there are more than 450 river ships sailing between Amsterdam and Budapest, Leskovar said, and more and more keep coming on line each year.

While most people associate river cruises with Europe, the industry is also quickly taking off in the United States, with operators extending their seasons for sell-out crowds and racing to find and build new ships.

For example, American Cruise Lines skipped the traditional media and travel agent preview sailing for the first of its modern riverboats, the American Song, last fall because its inaugural cruise was sold out. A sister ship, the American Harmony, launches this spring.

The other main domestic operator, the American Queen Steamboat Company, recently acquired Victory Cruises, a Great Lakes operator, and it is building its fourth paddlewheeler.

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Active
Cruises

Avalon Waterways offers active excursions like kayaking for travelers who want to do more than the traditional bus tour.

Avalon Waterways offers active excursions like kayaking for travelers who want to do more than the traditional bus tour.

Avalon Waterways offers active excursions like kayaking for travelers who want to do more than the traditional bus tour.

One of the biggest drivers of the increased demand is the growing emphasis on “active” itineraries that go far beyond the traditional, daily bus excursions to museums and other historical or otherwise notable sites.

The movement began in part in 2006, when AmaWaterways began putting bicycles on its ships, using them for guided excursions and making them available for guests to check out for exploring on their own.

Today, bicycles have become a staple on most upscale lines, and competitors have upped the ante on activities by adding gyms, fitness instructors, personal trainers and alternatives to bus excursions.

Passengers from an AmaWaterways ship take to the road on bicycles. River cruise ship loaner bikes have become commonplace since AmaWaterways launched the amenity in 2006. PHOTO BY MICHEL VERDURE/AMAWATERWAYS

Passengers from an AmaWaterways ship take to the road on bicycles. River cruise ship loaner bikes have become commonplace since AmaWaterways launched the amenity in 2006. PHOTO BY MICHEL VERDURE/AMAWATERWAYS

Passengers from an AmaWaterways ship take to the road on bicycles. River cruise ship loaner bikes have become commonplace since AmaWaterways launched the amenity in 2006. PHOTO BY MICHEL VERDURE/AMAWATERWAYS

While Avalon, Crystal, Amadeus, Uniworld and others all now have workout rooms and onboard fitness trainers who lead yoga and other classes on all their ships, AmaWaterways this year will have certified fitness trainers on all but its small Africa ship. And it will offer a half-dozen classes ranging from yoga and Pilates to stretching, resistance-band and high-intensity workouts throughout the day — adding up, Karst said, to more fitness opportunities than any other river cruise line. (Champagne yoga isn’t part of the regular lineup, but an extra that could pop up on some ship itineraries.)

Its megaship, the AmaMagna, which launches in May, will also have a watersports platform off the stern for launching kayaks and paddleboards.

The upcoming AmaMagna, which will be the largest river cruise ship sailing Europe’s rivers, will feature a deck for launching watercraft.

The upcoming AmaMagna, which will be the largest river cruise ship sailing Europe’s rivers, will feature a deck for launching watercraft.

The upcoming AmaMagna, which will be the largest river cruise ship sailing Europe’s rivers, will feature a deck for launching watercraft.

Even Viking, which remains hyperfocused on the traditional 50-plus demographic, has added more active excursions, a response to the fact that even many older travelers are much more active that they used to be.

This year, for example, Viking will offer kayaking on the Elbe, Danube, Moselle and a tributary of the Seine in Normandy. It will also offer bike and e-bike tours in places like the Wachau Valley, around the working windmills of Kinderdijk in the Netherlands and through vineyards in the Black Forest. Other new excursions include a guided Budapest Castle hike as well as a hike in the Passau Hills.

Avalon this year is launching three classes of excursion options on each of its cruises: classic, discovery and active.

Classic is, as its name implies, a land tour with a local expert guiding travelers through the history and heritage of destinations and must-see sites.

Discovery excursions aim to immerse guests in the local culture and include workshops on subjects like cooking and painting.

A cooking class onboard an Avalon Waterways cruise. This year, Avalon Waterways began offering three classes of excursion options on its cruises: classic, discovery and active. PHOTO BY JOE HANCOCK/AVALON WATERWAYS

A cooking class onboard an Avalon Waterways cruise. This year, Avalon Waterways began offering three classes of excursion options on its cruises: classic, discovery and active. PHOTO BY JOE HANCOCK/AVALON WATERWAYS

A cooking class onboard an Avalon Waterways cruise. This year, Avalon Waterways began offering three classes of excursion options on its cruises: classic, discovery and active. PHOTO BY JOE HANCOCK/AVALON WATERWAYS

Active excursions range from guided jogging tours of Amsterdam to biking, paddling and hiking at different destinations.

What’s more, said Avalon Waterways managing director Pam Hoffee, beginning this year, each Avalon ship will have an adventure center with an onboard host who “will be on hand with gear, maps and more for active pursuits on and off the ship.”

Likewise, Tauck last year expanded its shore excursions, including guided bicycling and hiking tours and yoga-inspired stretching classes.

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Themed
Cruises

A brew is poured onboard one of Avalon Waterways’ beer cruises. Such themed or special-interest cruises began as a way to sell less popular sailings, but they now are a selling point for river cruisers. PHOTO BY JOHN AMATUCCI/AVALON WATERWAYS

A brew is poured onboard one of Avalon Waterways’ beer cruises. Such themed or special-interest cruises began as a way to sell less popular sailings, but they now are a selling point for river cruisers. PHOTO BY JOHN AMATUCCI/AVALON WATERWAYS

A brew is poured onboard one of Avalon Waterways’ beer cruises. Such themed or special-interest cruises began as a way to sell less popular sailings, but they now are a selling point for river cruisers. PHOTO BY JOHN AMATUCCI/AVALON WATERWAYS

Culinary, wine and beer cruises are also growing in popularity, including special sailings with celebrity chefs and wine and beer experts and visits to craft breweries, vineyards and popular but sometimes hard to get into restaurants.

Hoffee said special-interest cruises started as a way to help sell less popular sailings.
“That’s really changed over the past few years,” she said. “When I look at those departures, that have either a beer or wine theme, they tend to sell at a faster pace than other departures for that same itinerary,” she said. “It’s exciting because it shows that people are choosing that as a reason to travel. … It’s about finding people’s interests.”

Crystal, which prides itself on its top-notch cuisine, also offers excursions, at an additional cost, to Michelin-starred restaurants. And Tauck now offers a private dinner inside the German Parliament building and lunch at Alain Ducasse’s newest restaurant, Ore, in the Palace of Versailles.

Tauck Bridges offers exclusive after-hours tours of the Louvre.

Tauck Bridges offers exclusive after-hours tours of the Louvre.

Tauck Bridges offers exclusive after-hours tours of the Louvre.

Private tours are also key as some destinations grapple with overtourism. Tauck, for example, offers exclusive, preopening visits to Versailles and after-hours tours of the
Louvre. And river lines with onboard concierges can often help guests arrange their own after-hours, private excursions to typically crowded sites.

As Leskovar of Amadeus said, “It’s all about creating authentic, meaningful experiences.”

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Bigger
Cabins

The spacious, ocean-cruise-size suites onboard the AmaMagna will feature full balconies.

The spacious, ocean-cruise-size suites onboard the AmaMagna will feature full balconies.

The spacious, ocean-cruise-size suites onboard the AmaMagna will feature full balconies.

Perhaps the biggest change over the past few years has been the move to fewer, bigger and more luxurious cabins.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, for example, this year is launching is sixth super ship, the Bon Voyage, which is a top-to-bottom overhaul of the River Royale featuring more suites, larger cabins, a swimming pool and a host of upgraded amenities.

It is also introducing four supership-style vessels over the next three years to replace its older ships in Egypt, Portugal, Vietnam and Russia.

Marilyn Conroy, who recently joined U.K.-based Riviera River Cruises as a vice president to help it launch in North America, said cabin sizes on the line’s two new ships will range from 172 square feet to 269 square feet.

Tauck, which just completed a two-year initiative to reconfigure half of its riverboat fleet with fewer, larger cabins, last week announced plans for its first new ship in four years and its first on Portugal’s Douro. The Andorinha, the company said, has fewer but larger cabins than any other major line’s ship on the river, with all but four of the cabins being at least 200 square feet and the bulk being 225 square feet or more.

But perhaps the biggest news of 2019 will be the launch of AmaWaterways’ AmaMagna, which will be the largest river cruise ship on any European river.

The AmaMagna will be twice the width of traditional river ships and will feature ocean-cruise-size suites, the majority of which will be between 355 and 710 square feet with full balconies. There will be four dining venues, a wellness studio and spa and an expansive sun deck with a large pool, barbecue area and a pop-up elevator.

“Feedback from our travel partners is that many ‘ocean cruisers’ want to try river cruising but are reluctant due to the stateroom sizes and limited dining venues compared with ocean cruise ships,” said Rudi Schreiner, Karst’s husband and the president and co-owner of AmaWaterways.

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Changing
Demographics

A TRX, or suspension training, class onboard a U by Uniworld ship. The brand, launched by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, was originally age-restricted and focused on the millennial market.

A TRX, or suspension training, class onboard a U by Uniworld ship. The brand, launched by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, was originally age-restricted and focused on the millennial market.

A TRX, or suspension training, class onboard a U by Uniworld ship. The brand, launched by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, was originally age-restricted and focused on the millennial market.

All the changes, most lines agree, are attracting a younger demographic. Karst said that over the past 10 years, the average age of AmaWaterways’ travelers dropped from 70 to 61, “and it seems every year the age is dropping.”
And river cruise companies say they are seeing more solo travelers.

“We are seeing also more women traveling together,” Karst said. “They don’t have to be widows; they are friends, cousins, daughters. This is a new trend, and it’s really increasing.”

To attract more solo travelers, many lines now have a select number of cabins on each ship that they offer to single travelers without the dreaded single supplement.

And Riviera is adding a half-dozen sailings on which the entire ship is available to single travelers with no up-charge.

Still, despite the additions of activities with a younger focus, one demographic that remains elusive is the coveted millennial crowd.

Two years ago, Uniworld made the brave but risky move of creating a separate brand, U by Uniworld, which was originally to be sold only to millennials. But with demand lacking, Uniworld backtracked and eliminated the age limit, while still gearing its programming to a much younger crowd. Still, it’s a been a bit slow on the uptake.

"It’s a bit of an experiment. We are still tweaking and trying to figure it out, but they are operating, they are booking and we are dedicated to pursing this."
–Marcus Leskovar, Executive Vice President of Amadeus River Cruises

The company last week announced it was canceling all 2019 sailings of the B, which sailed the Seine last year, and will reposition it in 2020 to join its sister ship, the A, on the more popular Central Europe waterways.

CEO Ellen Bettridge has said repeatedly that sales are steady and improving for the line, but perhaps the best indicator of the strategy is the fact that unlike just about everything else in river cruising, no one is rushing to copy the concept.

That doesn’t mean it’s a failure. It could very well just be a bit ahead of its time. While some in the industry are skeptical of the concept, Leskovar said that Amadeus has also been quietly experimenting with the millennial market, offering shorter, five-day sailings in conjunction with fitness companies, influencers and different content.

“It’s a bit of an experiment,” he said. “We are still tweaking and trying to figure it out, but they are operating, they are booking and we are dedicated to pursing this.

“It’s definitely a long-game thing. But the long game is something as a company and a brand that you have to keep in mind, because your current clientele may not be able to travel forever.”

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