River cruising is becoming a preferred choice for vacations as travelers seek out new experiences. Hard to believe that the industry only emerged in 1992 after the completion of the Main-Danube Canal, making it possible for pretty much all of Europe to leverage its maritime landscape. While the Continent’s rivers had long been used for merchant trading, the completion of the Canal opened up new routes and provided the European travel industry with unique opportunities for travelers to experience this destination from an entirely different point of view.
While American travel companies didn’t jump on board until around 10 years later, they quickly witnessed the rise of river cruising once they rolled out their ships. One of the lines making a name for itself on this side of the Atlantic is AmaWaterways, which operates voyages in Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa. For anyone who’s never been on a cruise or doesn’t like the idea of being on the open ocean, river cruising offers a unique opportunity to test the waters. I had a chat with Gary Murphy, Vice President of Sales from AmaWaterways to learn more about its growing appeal.
Q: For an industry that’s fairly young, you’re doing pretty well. What’s all the fuss?
A: Over 90% of the folks who book with us are people who enjoy cruising but want a more intimate experience than on a gigantic ship. They love the feeling of going on a smaller boutique type of experience. Depending on the itinerary and ship, we max out at 162 guests. River cruising can be a very leisurely vacation or it can be extremely active. The ship is not the destination like it is on an ocean cruise.
Q: What do you want people to know about this bird’s eye view?
A: When you look at river cruising, you need to look at it like a floating hotel. Many cities in Europe evolved along the banks of major rivers and a river cruise can take you right to the historic center of those cities. Often, you’re asleep when the ship is en route to the next destination. If you’re going through central Europe on a motor coach or train, you’re traveling during the day. On the ship you wake up in a new town, go out and explore it, come back to the ship for lunch, then cruise to another town. There’s always something new to see.
Q: What about those bikes on your European itineraries.
A: We once had a group of six women who planted the seed for guided bike tours. They were on a cruise in the Netherlands and didn’t take the daily sightseeing tours with us – instead, they borrowed our bikes and planned out their own routes, cycling to the next port and meeting back up with the ship. They did all the research themselves, which was a bit of work for them. So we thought, let’s do this for our guests. Now on every European itinerary (except Portugal) we’re the only river cruise line that travels with over 25 bikes stored on the ship. They’re completely complimentary and guests love being able to explore on their own or take a guided bike tour.
Q: So you’re giving it up for us gals here, right?
A: It was a great idea and we’re happy to give those women full credit! Women like to bike and they don’t want to have to carry their luggage with them or have a van follow them. Many of our ships cruise along the Rhine or Danube, both of which have paved bike paths along the riverbanks, completely separate from the roads. On certain days you can ride ahead of the ship, going through small towns along the way, and meet the ship in the next port. If the ship is in port all day, you can borrow a bike and sightsee on your own, returning to the ship later that afternoon. On our guided bike tours we have two guides, one who rides in front with the fastest rider and one who rides in back with the slowest rider. They’re there to keep an eye on everything.
Q: What’s the most popular itinerary these days?
A: The most popular cruise for the company is also the most popular cruise with women, Budapest to Nuremburg on the Danube. It’s a great itinerary with Vienna, Budapest, a pre/post stay in Prague, and pretty little towns like Durnstein and Melk. Another popular one is our Paris & Normandy cruise. France is commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, and our Paris & Normandy itinerary includes some special excursions to the D-Day beaches. And we have a Knitting Cruise that sails over New Year’s in 2014, which is already 60% sold out.
Q: I don’t knit but it might be a good excuse to learn. Who’s the inspiration behind these ideas?
A: Kristin Karst, our Executive Vice President, is very creative, very active and she loves designing eclectic itineraries. For instance, she created a Chocolate Cruise where guests visit a castle, see how chocolates are made, and learn how to pair dark chocolate with red wine. Our culinary and wine tours are really popular. In Austria, guests on our wine cruises get to do a tasting of Sekt, the Austrian version of champagne, served inside a mountain cave outside the town of Schlumberger.
Q: You’ve added a new destination in 2014 that’s long been closed to tourists. Tell me about Myanmar.
A: It’s a niche market. We like going into destinations that are interesting to operate in. Our president, Rudi Schreiner, is a river cruising pioneer who loves going into new areas of business and designing ships that best serve that area. Our ships in Mekong are hands down the best ships there. Rudi is designing a ship for Myanmar, a beautiful small ship with only 28 suites. It’s the perfect size to operate on the Ayeyarwady River.
Q: For all its popularity, there’s not a lot of advertising for river cruising. Why is that?
A: We advertise in conjunction with retail travel agents and all of our business comes through them. We create a lot of educational tools for travel agents because it’s very important for them to understand our product and the exceptional value we offer. A good travel agent can point out the differences and benefits between competitors and help clients determine which river cruise is the best choice for them. The best travel agents are the ones who know how to match their clients to the right product.
Q: Younger people don’t typically cruise, are you seeing any changes there?
A: We’re seeing them in multi-generational family travel because river cruising lends itself to that type of vacation experience. For instance, teenagers or active folks can bike, their parents can go on a culinary tour, the grandparents can go on a leisurely walking tour, and then you all meet back on board to share a meal and spend some time together as a family.
You know, two years ago I went surfing in Indonesia and brought my family with me. We were standing in the airport and my daughters started complaining about the long flying time. My 16-year old turned to me and said, “Dad, we should have just taken another river cruise!”
Curious if a river cruise is the way to go? Learn more at AmaWaterways or speak with a travel agent.