Preview 2015: River Cruise

In recent years, the river cruise market has been one of if not the hottest growth sectors in the industry, but heading into 2015, it finds itself on the cusp of a market-changing development in the form of greater diversification among river cruise players.

As they seek to better differentiate themselves, river cruise lines are gradually creating stronger brand identities.

For example, the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is going after the uber-luxury river cruise space with its six-star brand promise and over-the-top hardware that will extend to its 2015 launch of the 155-passenger Danube cruiser S.S. Maria Theresa.

AmaWaterways has made a name for itself among foodies and oenophiles for its extensive wine-themed cruises and impressive food-and-beverage program. In 2015, Ama will launch two sister ships in Europe, the 164-passenger AmaSerena and the 164-passenger AmaVista, which will bring the company’s European fleet to 16 vessels, all featuring multiple dining venues and a well-curated wine selection.

Meanwhile, Avalon Waterways is going after the choice generation, travelers who want to customize their experience. With its Avalon Choice Cruising program, the company has worked to build multiple dining and excursion options into its river cruises. The line will introduce two newbuilds in Europe for 2015: the 128-passenger Avalon Tranquility II and the 166-passenger Avalon Tapestry II, bringing its European fleet to 15.

Tauck has made its strength as a land operator a standout trademark in its river cruise operation, which is dotted by onshore experiences designed to surprise and thrill passengers (think dinner and entertainment in a remote castle setting). And as it starts to see more success in the river cruise niche it has carved out for itself, Tauck is gradually expanding its fleet, as well. In 2015, it will launch the 118-passenger Esprit, bringing the company’s European fleet size to seven.

For travelers who like brand uniformity, it’s hard to compete with the strength of the Viking Cruises brand. Viking has ordered an additional 12 river cruise ships for 2015: 10 Viking Longships and two smaller vessels for the Elbe River. The additions will bring the company’s European river fleet total to a staggering 64. Of those, 40 will be Longships, which are all virtually identical vessels, creating a truly uniform experience across rivers and destinations for the passenger who craves the comfort of consistency.

Scenic Cruises, meanwhile, is looking to court boutique hotel lovers with forward-thinking amenities like a new pool concept. Its two 2015 Europe vessels will feature a relaxation pool adjacent to a jet-stream pool for lap-style swimming. And its sister company, newcomer Emerald Waterways, is having fun with public areas like a roof-deck pool that converts into a cinema at night. Emerald is doubling its fleet size to four vessels next year.

Clearly, there’s no resting on their laurels for river cruise lines. With stiffer competition, they are getting increasingly innovative, and it’s making things interesting. Take French river cruise company CroisiEurope, which is launching a paddlewheeler — yes, a paddlewheeler — though not the kind you’re familiar with. This will be a smaller European version that will navigate the Loire River in April. The 96-passenger Loire Princesse, the first overnight passenger vessel on the Loire, promises to be a unique offering.

Exotic river rush

Rivers in Asia and South America will continue to see investment into 2015, with a greater emphasis being placed on luxury services and amenities.

AmaWaterways is introducing the 124-passenger AmaDara on the Mekong River in August, featuring a salon and spa services, a swimming pool and an onboard fitness center. One month later, Haimark Travel will launch its Southeast Asia spa-concept vessel. The 24-passenger Mekong Princess will place a strong emphasis on spa treatments and services.

Avalon is also introducing two 36-passenger Suite Ships in Asia next year, one on the Mekong and another on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar.

With any luck and a reprieve from political unrest, 2015 promises to be the year cruising returns to Egypt’s Nile River, as the country begins to see some semblance of stability after years of turmoil.

Abercrombie & Kent’s Nile fleet is already up and running, while Uniworld’s luxury Nile vessel, the River Tosca, is gearing up to begin sailing once again in September.

Another paddlewheeler here at home

In March, American Cruise Lines will launch its second built-from-the-ground-up paddlewheeler on the Mississippi, the 150-passenger American Eagle.

The vessel will feature 84 staterooms, 78 of which will have private balconies with sliding glass doors. There will be multiple drinking and dining areas and an outdoor exercise area with a putting green. Elevators will provide access to all five decks.

The American Eagle, which will sail mostly eight-day cruises along the Mississippi, will bring to three the number of paddlewheelers plying the Mississippi in 2015.

Holiday cruises expand beyond Christmas markets

By Michelle Baran
New Years Eve celebration in Amsterdam.For years, river cruise lines have offered a small selection of Christmas market cruises along festive stretches of Central and Western Europe waterways as a way to sell a bit more inventory during the colder off-season. But with river cruising gaining in popularity, so, too, are the more value-oriented holiday cruises, which have expanded both in numbers and scope to encompass itineraries that include more New Year’s celebrations as well as destinations beyond the traditional Germany, Austria and Czech Republic.

For instance, CroisiEurope has three distinct categories of cruises this holiday season: Christmas markets, Christmas cruises and New Year’s cruises. The Christmas cruises include itineraries in Brussels, Venice and Bordeaux, France, and the New Year’s sailings take place in Venice and Bordeaux.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s holiday cruise lineup features the traditional Christmas market routes but also includes a seven-day Parisian Winter Holiday itinerary, with the Dec. 27 departure including a New Year’s celebration in the City of Lights. And in addition to its plethora of holiday cruises along the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers, Viking Cruises is now offering holiday cruises throughout France and in Portugal, destinations only more recently cropping up on the holiday river cruise radar.

In order to further capitalize on the opportunity to enhance sales during the slower season beyond just the Christmas markets, river cruise companies are also promoting their new and enhanced New Year’s sailings as more cost-effective alternatives to land-based bashes.

“Europe’s top hotels can cost as much as 700% more over the New Year’s holiday,” AmaWaterways claimed in a recent statement promoting its holiday cruises. As an alternative, the company is including a two-day New Year’s extension in Amsterdam on two of its holiday cruises this year — its 14-night Magnificent Europe Christmas Cruise itinerary from Budapest to Amsterdam and its seven-night Treasures of the Main and Rhine from Nuremberg, Germany, to Amsterdam. The company’s 164-passenger AmaSonata will remain in port in Amsterdam through New Year’s, and passengers from either itinerary can stay onboard through Jan. 1 at no additional cost. Ama is also offering a seven-night Christmas on the Danube cruise that departs Vilshofen, Germany, on Dec. 27 and will be in Vienna on New Year’s Eve.

Indeed, whether they’re adding New Year’s options, expanding their holiday destinations or simply increasing the number of traditional Christmas market cruises, almost every major river cruise line is adding capacity to its holiday lineup this coming season. Tauck is growing its Christmas market river cruise departures by 67%, Avalon has increased its Christmas-themed departures by 40% and Scenic Cruises is operating two new eight-day holiday cruises this year, compared with one 15-day itinerary last year.

River cruise lines up the ante with cabin designs

By Michelle Baran

Aboard the Inspire and Savor, lower-deck cabins will have higher ceilings, larger windows and a raised platform seating area.With such limited space on river cruise vessels, river cruise lines have to get creative in order to evolve and differentiate their cabin designs. But this season, there will be no shortage of innovative stateroom concepts as river cruise operators roll out everything from tricked out lower-deck cabins to stunning suites.

River cruise lines often put a great deal of emphasis on their upper-deck staterooms, a showcase of competing balcony concepts, creative cabin layouts and sprawling suites. But one area of the river cruise ship that often gets neglected is the lower deck.

Because the lower deck dips partially below water level, the cabins on this level can usually only accommodate smaller windows that do not open.

But with its two new Inspiration Class ships, the 130-passenger Inspire and Savor (launching in April and June, respectively), Tauck has addressed the oft-overlooked lower-deck cabins with a new lofted lower-cabin design.

On both ships, eight of the lower-deck cabins will feature a raised platform seating area with a small table and two chairs and a raised ceiling that will accommodate a much taller window, the upper portion of which can be opened for fresh air.

The Category 3 cabins will be 225 square feet each, and the larger windows will measure 8 feet by 9.5 feet.

According to Tauck, suites are often the first class of cabins to sell, and other river cruise lines have confirmed a similar selling pattern on their vessels. But the lower-deck cabins are just as critical to filling the ships and achieving strong load factors. While they might not be as alluring as the more spacious suites or as upper-deck cabins that usually feature full or French balconies, they usually represent the lowest-priced cabins and thus open up river cruising to passengers who might be more budget-oriented, are traveling alone or are traveling with family.

The loft design is the strongest (if not the only) attempt to date at making these lower-deck cabins considerably more enticing and pleasant than they have traditionally been in the past.

Emerald Waterways Indoor Balcony designBoth ships will be 443 feet long with 22 suites at 300 square feet each, complete with two French balconies with floor-to-ceiling windows, a pullout couch, walk-in closest and bathroom with rainfall showerhead. There will also be 32 cabins at 225 square foot each and an additional 13 cabins ranging from 150 to 190 square feet. Four of the 150-square-foot cabins are being set aside for solo travelers.

Upper-deck developments

And while Tauck has made a big push to overhaul lower-level cabin design, developments are continuing throughout the upper-level staterooms on this year’s forthcoming newbuilds.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s 159-passenger S.S. Catherine, which is being christened this week in the South of France, features a 410-square-foot Royal Suite that joins the ranks of the Viking Longships’ 445-square-foot Explorer Suites as being among the few river cruise suites in Europe that top the 400-square-foot mark.

If preview photos of the S.S. Catherine are any indication, the Royal Suite (along with all of the vessel’s cabins, for that matter) promises to be not only spacious but a feast for the senses, featuring Uniworld’s trademark boutique hotel interiors that are designed by sister company Red Carnation Hotels. Think bold textiles, textured wallpaper and details galore.

Emerald Waterways, the river cruise line being launched by Australian parent Scenic Tours as a four-star alternative to the company’s existing river cruise line, Scenic Cruises, will officially come to life next month when its two debut vessels, the 182-passenger Emerald Star and Emerald Sky, set sail.

Rendering of a bathroom onboard the Mekong Princess.The vessels’ 180-square-foot Panorama Balcony Suite concept will feature an indoor balcony design, similar to a concept introduced by Uniworld several years ago, which involves a retractable window that with the touch of a button enables passengers to convert the room into an open-air balcony. The idea is to maximize limited cabin square footage.

Lastly, while it isn’t launching in 2014, Haimark Ltd.’s 24-passenger Mekong Princess, slated to deploy in Vietnam and Cambodia in September 2015, is worth mentioning for its all-suite spa concept that will place an emphasis on luxury spa treatments, services and details throughout the vessel.

Early renderings of the suites indicate over-the-top Indochina glamour coupled with relaxing spa amenities.