Tired of the delays and expense of air travel but still want to take in several countries in one trip? Frustrated by the soaring cost of hotels and restaurant meals on your holiday?
There is another way.
Cruising the inland waterways of Europe, Asia and America is easy, relaxing, and remarkably good value. And thousands of Australians are discovering it has undergone a remarkable transformation.
Immersive shore excursions really let you taste the cultures of the people you are passing. And new activities – from hiking and kayaking to cycling – are attracting a younger crowd.
Research by Avalon Waterways shows more young people and first-time cruisers are choosing river voyages.
Most experts agree the pandemic has made us conscious of crowds and concerned about our personal space. So river ships, which usually carry between 100 and 150 guests, are a great option.
And then there is the simple arithmetic.
Dare to compare
One popular route is Amsterdam to Budapest. It has castles, countryside, and delicious food and wine. You pass through five countries in 15 days with so many exciting stops along the way: the Rhine Gorge, Vienna where Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss lived, and one of my all-time favourites, beautiful Budapest.
You’ll get to know the cultures of Central Europe by trying local food and wine in a special way.
History, music and art are just a stone’s throw from the ship. And most lines now include at least one free shore excursion to see it all.
Say we tried to recreate that experience. My back of an envelope valuation:
- 15 nights in a 4-star hotel at average price on Booking.com of $400 per night = $6000.
- Budget flights to five cities average $250 and taxis to and from the airport = $1750.
- $200 a day for food = $3000.
- No sightseeing or other incidentals like service, guides, friendly staff to look after you, free coffee, tea and beverages. Total cost: $10,950.
Now, let’s compare the benefits. First, you only need to unpack once. Additionally, you can enjoy free shore excursions. You will also have the opportunity to eat three meals with wine, or even more with snacks. Furthermore, you will receive excellent service.
Lastly, you will have access to all the amenities of a boutique hotel. Luxury lines like Scenic, Avalon and Viking are between $6295 and $7600 and Travelmarvel or Emerald are just under $4000.
And if that hasn’t won you over, there is more.
The value of river cruising
River ships often moor right in the heart of the city, meaning you can just walk down the gangplank and be where the action is. Not a moment is wasted getting there – sailing through the countryside is part of the pleasure.
River ships are more relaxed about security because they have smaller numbers of guests, and often leave late – meaning you can dine on shore and mingle with the locals.
It’s true the ships are smaller – in Europe they are all the same size because of the locks and bridges they pass. So that means gyms, pools and spas are, well, petite.
But the action is on the shore, and lines like Australian newcomer AmaWaterways are all about encouraging guests to take in the sights – even after diner.
Queuing for a tender? Not on these ships.
In Asia, where rivers like the Mekong take guests through a cultural melting pot, you will be welcomed by local communities and taken into their homes. With just a few hundreds guests, it’s much more practical to accommodate real personal experiences.
I love cruising in Asia. All the convenience, and the luxury of knowing there is a crew looking out for you, makes you want to wander further and experience more.
Want fresh air? There are no inside staterooms and almost every room has a balcony or a “French balcony” – your window will electronically wind down to let the outside in.
Over the past decade, river cruising has also aimed high for sustainability targets with lines now dipping deep into reducing their environmental impact.
Avalon Waterways’ goal is to launch the first fully electric river cruise vessel by 2027. It is also aiming for more local food production, partner with more destinations to generate sustainable energy when docked, making shore excursions more sustainable and reducing paper waste to 1 per cent by the end of this year.
Through its Lighthouse Project, it is also supporting about 50 non-profit organisations, such as Trees4Travel, where Avalon offsets the carbon footprint of every guest by donating tens of thousands of trees each year. The Great Ocean Clean-up, meanwhile, is dedicated to removing plastics from oceans before they enter river waterways. Add to that design elements such as LED, insulated windows to reduce energy needs for heating and cooling, power locks to plug into the port’s power supply instead of generators, solar heating systems, water treatment plants, reduced food waste plus new configurations that reduce fuel consumption and there’s a whole lot of greening going on.
In 2020, The Travel Corporation which has Uniworld among its brands, established How We Tread Right – a five-year sustainability strategy across all of its brands. Uniworld has reduced food waste by 15 per cent in the first three months and increased its use of local and organic products defining ‘local’ as a product sourced within a 50-80km radius of the riverbank along the route of the itinerary.
Uniworld is also aiming to include at least one significant local experience on 50 per cent of its itineraries by 2025 through its Make Travel Matter program.
One example is a visit to the Iraq Al-Amir Womens’ Cooperative in Jordan where women create and sell traditional handcrafted paper bowls. Another is in India where guests can gain an insight into the humbling work of the Calcutta Rescue that provides free services to people in need.
Australians have to travel long distances to experience river cruising. So many lines now include extensions that allow either back-to-back itineraries or land excursions. Shorter journeys of around seven days bookended by city or country tours are a great way to get the best of both worlds.
Visiting historic sites is an important part of the river cruising story.
River lines across Europe and Asia in 2024 will host dedicated voyages visiting key sites that played a part in the end of World War II or the Vietnam War.
Scenic, Viking, APT and Avalon Waterways have all created itineraries combining war history with their cruise offerings.
Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking, said: “Many of our guests, particularly those with family members who served in the armed forces, have a keen interest in World War II history.”
Scenic has an 11-day Normandy & Gems of the Seine itinerary, with multiple departure dates and visits planned to a range of meaningful sites. Avalon Waterways has an extensive list of history-centric European river cruises, with a highlight being the Grand France sailing over 15 days, specifically themed around Second World War history.
APT runs a 15-day Western Front Explorer, which includes a visit to the Passchendaele Memorial Gardens, where guests are treated to some of the stories, music and poetry of the First World War.
A Mekong River cruise, such as a Cambodia and Vietnam cruise, will take you to key sites of the Vietnam War as well as cover the Cambodian genocide. Emerald Cruises’ 13-day Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong itinerary covers similar territory.
See these lines for more: