Nov 8 2014
You can stay in one place to avoid a jumble of hotels, but that means renting a car or riding trains to and from home base, which can eat up a lot of time.
Cruising is another option, and the biggest growth area globally is in river voyages, which show a 10 percent annual increase in patronage compared to 7 percent for the industry overall. It’s a more intimate way of traveling on water because of the lower number of passengers and close proximity to shoreline.
Since vessels are smaller, crowds are more manageable and logistics less complicated if something goes wrong.
That’s what we learned on the Danube River in Europe this autumn, when our cruise was cut short by one day because of high water. The transition of 134 passengers from riverboat to buses and hotel rooms happened smoothly with Lueftner Cruises, an Austrian company.
River patrols ordered the halt in sailings because the elevated water level and fast current meant riverboats like ours might be unable to safely pass beneath bridges. Coincidentally, this happened on Lueftner’s last voyage of the season.
We watched river cruise prices for months before booking. By the time Lueftner’s Amadeus Royal popped up as a Gate 1 Travel tour on travelzoo.com, we knew $2,998 for two (plus airfare) for a nine-day adventure and top-level cabin with French balcony was a deep discount.
The trip certainly wasn’t a disappointment, but I also learned a few things. For example:
– Unsafe water levels – too high or too low – are unlikely but possible during Danube and other river cruises.
– I expected to add gratuities to the tour cost but was surprised by the suggested daily rates, per traveler: $16 for the crew, $7 for the tour manager. That was in addition to $2 or $3 for each local tour guide and $1 or $2 for each bus driver.
– “French balcony” isn’t the same as “veranda.” Having a patio door to slide open doesn’t mean you’ll have outdoor seating, too.
– Most sailing happens in darkness, so having a private seat to watch the world go by doesn’t matter. The timing is logical because you’ll want to be in port cities when businesses and attractions are open.
– Introverts don’t have many places to escape, outside of their quarters. Our ship’s lounge was the only bar and only place for briefings, lectures and entertainment. It was big enough to seat everybody snugly. In warmer weather, the upper deck and its lounge chairs would have provided additional elbowroom.
– There likely is only one dining room and meal service time on a river cruise. Ours had lots of tables for eight and none for two. Dinner included house wines, to drink only in the dining room. Menus were appealing, but choices obviously are more limited than on a mega cruise ship.
– Cruises navigate many locks on the Danube, and it starts as a big thrill because some are only inches wider than the ship. After the third or fourth lock, the process feels routine – and lock passage happens a dozen more times before the trip ends.
– Riverboats sometimes dock far from a city’s downtown. It was a $20 cab ride in Germany from Nuremberg’s city center to our ship. The dock in Vienna was similarly isolated.
Docks in Budapest were within a walk of shopping and sites, but that’s where we arrived by bus because of those high water levels. The three-hour ride cut into touring time.
For most, that complication turned beautiful Budapest into a quick windshield tour with less than one hour to roam, shop and snap photos independently.
It was nobody’s fault, but what a shame – and what a good decision we had unwittingly made to stay a couple of days longer on our own, after the cruise ended.
Weather along the Danube River was similar to what you’d expect in Wisconsin during autumn: cool and sometimes rainy. The best landscape was Wachau Valley, a steeply tiled mosaic of vineyards and other lush cropland in Austria. It looked like a dream and was our rare daylight cruise. Driving the area wouldn’t have had the same impact.
All said, I’d book a river cruise again and add a couple of days for independent travel. The lower cost of traveling off-season is worth the need to dress in layers.
The number of cruise passengers worldwide has increased from 12 million to 21.3 million during the past decade, reports Cruise Line International Association, a trade association. The average cruise length is seven days, with three or four port stops.
“Seeing the world in comfort and ease, especially exotic locations, will continue to drive new itinerary creation and cruise ship deployment,” the group predicts.
Ken McFarland of Fairbanks, Alaska, is organizing a June 6-14, 2015, nature trip into the Amazon River headwaters and Pacaya Samiria Reserve, one of Peru’s largest protected wildlife areas. Space is limited to 28 people on this MS Amatista excursion; the itinerary includes birding, jungle walks and swimming with dolphins.
I went to the Big Island for one of Ken’s trips many years ago. It was a weeklong contra dance camp in a setting that was Hawaii’s answer to our Northwoods – beautifully lush and green, but with tropical foliage and an oceanfront instead of lakeshore. It remains an unforgettable and lovely memory, although it was not luxury travel.
The Amatista is an early 19th century style of wooden riverboat. The cost for the Peru trip is $2,600, not including airfare to/from Lima and one round-trip flight within Peru. Download trip details at reeljig.com/mcfarland.
Closer to home, Mississippi River cruises are making a steady comeback. My colleague Lillian Africano of New Jersey writes about the revamped American Queen, a 436-passenger paddlewheel steamboat, at allthingscruise.com.
Prices for 2015 start at $2,299 for eight days. Find sailing dates and details at americanqueensteamboatcompany.com, 888-749-5280.
American Cruise Lines in 2015 introduces a 22-day and 16-stop cruise from the Gulf of Mexico to Minnesota on the 150-passenger American Eagle. Prices start at $12,550. americancruiselines.com, 800-460-4518