Europe river cruising continues to evolve in the most exciting and surprising ways. As the romance of the river swells the imagination of more and more travellers (Australian passenger numbers increased 65 per cent in 2014 alone*), operators are responding with cutting edge ship design, creative itineraries and value-packed inclusions.
Left in the wake of such competition, however, are many would-be river cruisers faced with the (albeit exciting) challenge of deciding which operator has the features and benefits to suit them. Coupled with the common holiday ponderings like when and where to go, it all adds up to an investment which simply cannot be left to chance.
That's why we asked Travel Associates consultants from around Australia to answer a dozen of the most frequently asked questions they receive day-to-day about river cruising in Europe.
1. When Is The Best Time To Go?
A lot depends on whether you prefer hot or cool weather. Summer (June to August) is the most popular European river cruise season – when you can make the most of the ship’s sun deck; walking and cycling tours are a breeze; and towns and cities are buzzing with activity. Spring and autumn generally mean milder days, lower prices and fewer crowds, especially around iconic tourist attractions. Those dreaming of a White Christmas should enquire about the winter river cruises – with traditional festive markets open from late November to mid-December.
— Alan Reis, Reis & James Travel Associates, Manuka ACT
2. When Is The Best Time To Book?
While it seems there’s a dizzying amount of itineraries and dates, remember that even the biggest river ships only accommodate 190 guests and fill up quickly. It’s best to book at least 12 months ahead to bag your preferred dates and itinerary. Most cruise lines offer earlybird deals including fly-free, reduced airfares or pay-in-full discounts 12 to 18 months out – which we’ve seen already for 2016 departures. Waiting for last-minute specials can pay off with generous savings, but you roll the dice with ship, stateroom and itinerary choices.
— Kerrie Fellowes, Maria, Fellowes & Turner Travel Associates, Penrith NSW
3. Are Shore Excursions Included?
Shore excursions are often an ocean cruising extra, but they’re almost always included in Europe river cruising. Bottom line is, you’re not going to miss the big ticket items with most companies. It’s the sheer range, personalisation and exclusivity of shore excursions which makes river cruising so exciting. Tauck’s Uncommon Access tours, for example, have long been renowned and seemingly all companies are trying hard to woo us with included, one-of-a-kind experiences sure to please even the most experienced traveller. While Avalon allows you to personalise your experience, just remember that some of its shore excursions attract an extra fee.
— Bryan Wye, Wye & James Travel Associates, Turramurra NSW
4. Is All-Inclusive The Best Option?
It’s easier to say schwarzwälder kirschtorte than decide which company has the most ‘all-inclusive’ offering. The great news is that river cruising has become so competitive the baseline of inclusions (Russia aside) for most companies represents great value – with the battle waged largely in the beverage and shore excursion arenas. There’s no denying the allure of not having to open your wallet after arriving, but the more inclusions the higher the price. If you don’t need alcohol on tap 24/7 and want more time to make your own discoveries, a slightly less-inclusive river cruise with Avalon might well suit. Why pay for things you don’t need?
— Matthew Chisholm, Chisholm & Turner Travel Associates, Camden NSW
5. What About Bicycles And Fitness?
Most river ships carry bicycles so you can make your own discoveries and offset all the local beer, wine and bratwurst. For maximum results, try switching off the electronic assistance on Scenic's e-bikes, which otherwise make light work of those hilly, cobblestone paths. Other companies like Avalon organise local rentals so you can join guided cycling tours. Newer ships have small fitness centres, and most have pools on the sun deck designed, however, for dips – not channeling your inner Thorpe-y. The heated indoor pools on Uniworld’s Super Ships are a cut above, enveloped by glass walls and mosaics, with poolside fitness classes daily.
— Greg Ashmore, Ashmore & James Travel Associates, Canterbury VIC
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6. Are All Beverages Included?
Since 2013 and 2014 respectively, Tauck and Scenic have included complimentary wine, beer spirits, coffee, tea and soft drinks, and remain the most inclusive for having a tipple. APT and Uniworld offer almost the same on their Europe river cruises, with the key exclusion of premium wines and spirits which incur a charge. Avalon offers beer, wine and soft drinks with dinner only. Sparkling wine and juices are served with breakfast, and soft drinks with lunch. Regular coffee and tea is also available free throughout the day from self-service stations. Prost!
— Kirsty Peckham, Scarfe & Turner Travel Associates, Darwin NT
7. Can I Get A Private Butler?
Like the idea of complimentary refreshments served to your stateroom, never being without a re-stocked minibar and a laundry concierge service? Scenic’s International Butler Academy-trained butlers provide such things for all guests on European river cruises (except Russia). APT and Uniworld offer butlers for guests staying in suites and, like Scenic, offer a sliding scale of personal services depending on the suite you book. I can’t guarantee your butler will be called Alfred or James, but they definitely won’t be happy unless you are.
— Lisa Connelly, Connelly & Turner Travel Associates, Malvern VIC
8. Is WiFi Available Onboard?
It’s almost a given your photos will make you the envy of your friends. The good news is you don’t have to wait until you’re home to share them, as free WiFi is available on almost all river ships in Europe. Keep in mind it’s often not available 24/7, as coverage varies according to weather and location. As its typically a satellite service, WiFi might be slower than yours at home, too. For 2016 river cruises, Uniworld, Tauck, Scenic, Avalon and APT offer complimentary WiFi throughout their staterooms, suites and public areas. Bring your own device rather than rely on the limited and varied internet facilities.
— Josh Thorpe, Thorpe & Turner Travel Associates, Hobart TAS
9. What Nationalities Will I Meet?
Open the Escapes or Traveller lift out in Sunday’s newspaper and it’s almost a given you’ll see APT and Scenic cruises. With the primary market in our own backyard, and enlisting Australian star power like Luke Nguyen and Catriona Rowntree, the two are perennial favourites with Australian travellers who make up the majority of guests (note AmaWaterways is the American arm of APT). While Avalon, Uniworld and Tauck also attract Anitpodean travellers, they’re also very popular with Americans and Canadians – generally a wonderful mix of well-travelled, English speaking guests.
— Lex Noller, Noller & Turner Travel Associates, Rosalie QLD
10. What About Special Diets?
You can find vegetarian, low-kilojoule, low-carb or low-fat options available for meals on board and others included in the fare. Other dietary needs, like gluten free or vegan options, might require special preparation. Whether you need to notify the company at the time of booking, or simply discuss them with the maitre d’ on board, varies between company. Scenic even requires special dietary requests in writing before departure, so it’s important to check with us when booking and that you are ready to discuss this with the Tour Director on day one.
— Lisa Clarke, Clarke & Turner Travel Associates, Tununda SA
11. Should I Take The Family?
While river ships do not have facilities or activities for young children, companies are starting to respond to the growing trend in multi-generational travel – and a Europe river cruise can make for an unforgettable holiday for families with older children. Uniworld and Tauck have introduced a few family-friendly itineraries; and we’ve seen exciting discounts like 50 per cent off for children between four and 18 on select cruises for a limited time. Children under 12 are not encouraged on Scenic, with the exception of Christmas cruises; and must be over eight for APT and Avalon.
— Amy Raats, Raats & Turner Travel Associates, Cottesloe WA
12. What About Travelling Solo?
Most river cruise companies offer deals on a selection of cruises that waive, or reduce, the single supplement payable – but there are very few dedicated single cabins (Scenic Space-Ships have just one on each ship). Hands down, the best company for solo cruisers is Tauck, which offers single fares for its smallest cabins (Category 1) on all its Europe cruises, plus discounts on other categories. Beyond that, Avalon and Uniworld currently offer the greatest number of cruises that waive the single supplement.
— Meaghan Wolf, Wolf & Turner Travel Associates, Blackburn VIC
*CLIA Australasia’s 2014 Australian Cruise Industry Source Market Report
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