Probably the most unusual recent event in travel was the announcement by the well-known Celebrity Cruises that it will soon add a river cruise to one of its familiar ocean cruises. Passengers will first spend a week-or-so sailing the Mediterranean and will then be delivered to a Riviera port for transfer to another one-week cruise on a river of France. Northing could better illustrate a virtual mania that has descended on travel executives, as they frantically scramble to take advantage of a remarkable explosion of interest in river cruises.
A surge of bookings for those river cruises has led the river cruiselines to build no fewer than 70 new river cruiseships for addition to their fleets in 2015 (one such cruise line, Viking, will add no fewer than 10 new "longboats"). No sooner, it seems, is a new ship and a new river itinerary announced than they are sold out and on wait-lists. So many river ships now ply the Rhine, the Danube, and other familiar streams, that river cruiselines are looking for new rivers to offer in China and southeast Asia. So heavy is the business foreseen for 2015 that hardly any river cruise line is discounting its published prices, in contrast to the constant auctioning of cabins on the big ocean cruise liners.
What caused this fire sale? The cruises are apparently so comfortable and non-challenging that they appeal to a certain middle-aged and elderly passenger looking primarily for relaxation. The river ships are confined to 100 to 140 passengers, and almost always for adults only (children are specifically prohibited by many lines). A sort of clubby atmosphere prevails amidst this small number of passengers. Every morning, the ships dock alongside the river at a point found in the very center of the towns they visit. Passengers, if they wish to pass up the organized, group, motorcoach sightseeing tours, simply walk up a set of stairs from a river landing and find themselves in the very center of such spots as Cologne, Dusseldorf, Heidelberg, Basel, or Vienna. Most of them return in early evening to dinner and then for musical entertainment by a singer or small band, all aboard the ship and for no extra charge. Passengers go to bed early.
The level of cuisine is extremely high, and aided by the fresh ingredients purchased by the ship's chefs from nearby markets in the cities where the boats stop. On one of my own recent river cruises, the captain hurried off the ship to a wine merchant he knew, and brought back a case of the finest white Moselles, which we all enjoyed that night. Hardly anyone used the swimming pool on the top deck, or even spent much time there. We all wandered off into the various towns, strolled at leisure, and then returned to the spacious cabins and lounges of our ship.
Which ship should you choose? At various stops, I meandered over to other riverboats docked alongside ours, and for the life of me couldn't tell any difference among them, even though I was seeing riverboats of different price categories. One thing was clear: that the activities---the sightseeing, the tours being offered--were identical to all ships. Though one riverboat may have a larger swimming pool (or even two swimming pools that no one uses), I can't imagine that paying more money will get you better meals than we were served on my own, medium-level ship. We had paté de foie gras and caviar with many meals, and other goodies, and it was scarcely conceivable that we could have eaten better on a pricier ship. And how much more comfortable could any ship be?
So good luck on your own river cruise. And keep in mind that these aren't for swingers, and rarely for single persons traveling alone (passengers are almost always couples of middle age) and very definitely not for families with children. But, giving them their due, the riverboat companies must be doing something right, because they are enjoying tremendous popularity among the age groups they serve.