With the surge in popularity of river cruises, many traditional ocean cruisers are giving waterways like the Rhine and the Danube -- even the Mekong and the Amazon -- a first look.
But when you're accustomed to Caribbean cruises from $399 and Alaska cruises from $699, river cruise pricing can seem expensive and incomprehensible. So how do you price out a river cruise to get the best deal? The first thing you should know is that the river cruise experience is vastly different from what you'll get by cruising on mega-ships in the Caribbean, Mediterranean or South Pacific. The bottom line: You're buying a different product with its own price structure. Leave all your preconceived notions about cruise fares, based on ocean trips, at your travel agent's door.
"It's a complex vacation form that has many elements and nuances," notes Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises, a Los Angeles-based boutique travel agency that sells river cruise vacations, almost all of them to first-timers. "It's best to focus on the product and its inherent value, not the price."
The main differences between ocean and river cruising are size and access. Instead of thousands of passengers, there are often fewer than 200 cruisers onboard each riverboat. And because of its nimble size, a river ship can dock in a town center -- on the Seine, just blocks from the Eiffel Tower, as an example. There is an intimacy to the travel experience that involves not just the size of the ship, but the destination itself. That may translate to higher starting rates, but you'll get a lot for your vacation dollar.
Here are some factors to consider as you price a river cruise:
Some regions of the world cost more than others. By far, Europe is the most affordable, with the majority of first-time river cruisers booking there. Editor's note: Read below for brief breakdowns on pricing cruises in Europe, the U.S. and exotic destinations like Egypt, China and Vietnam.
Just as with the ocean cruise lines, there is a strata among brands. In the popular European market, according to industry observers, Uniworld is the "luxury line," followed closely in that top tier by Tauck, Scenic and AmaWaterways. Avalon Waterways and Viking River Cruises are considered "contemporary" mass-market, and Grand Circle -- known for its high-quality program directors and older ships -- has a reputation as being the most affordable.
As far as the river cruise fares go, Tauck in 2011 became the first to go "all-inclusive," including tips. While no other company has yet followed suit, ocean cruisers will likely be surprised at what river cruise fares do include. As Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking, puts it: "The biggest difference between ocean and river cruising is that daily shore excursions are included. You do not get nickeled and dimed once you are onboard. The vast majority of what you are going to do is paid for so you can budget well in advance." Wine and beer included with dinner? Imagine that. Complimentary airport transfers? Free Wi-Fi? On river cruises, these are staples.
Before shopping for a river cruise, consider creating a checklist. "Price is clearly a part of it, but within that price are a lot of things that can add value," observes Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways. "I would look at the age of the ship, the size of the cabin. A lot of prices starting at the lowest category look very similar, but on a newer ship you may be getting 35 percent more space in your cabin." Other questions to tick off: Are there nice bathroom amenities? What is storage like? Can you fit luggage under your bed? What are the optional tours, and how much do they cost? "If you don't have a list of things to ask about," Clark adds, "you may get a similar price at two operators, but one of them may be giving you a lot more in terms of value."
Unlike the case with ocean cruising, early river cruise bookings tend to get you the best price point. There are also discounts for groups of typically eight to 10 people. On the down side, river cruise companies do charge a single supplement of 50 percent (or slightly more) for solo travelers who book cabins designed for double occupancy. However, some companies offer a "roommate" program, where a passenger is paired with another solo traveler, thereby quashing the single supplement. Occasionally, the lines will announce single supplement waivers or discounts on their Web sites; they're worth watching out for. They will also post last-minute sales when a ship doesn't fill to capacity. But that 11th-hour "good deal" is often offset by airfare, which is pricey when purchased on a last-minute basis.
Keep in mind that the cruise fare doesn't cover the entire cost of the trip. Other considerations include tips for the crew and local guides, airfare, travel cancellation insurance, and pre- and post-land stays in places like Prague, Budapest, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg. Marnell says the trip extensions have become so popular that "almost a majority" of Viking passengers now take advantage of them. (Many lines sell cruise-and-stay packages, too.)
The lines generally recommend that shoppers check out their Web sites and then consult travel agents. In many cases, the Web site will have a link to preferred travel agents within the shopper's zip code. "With the type of product that river cruising is, and while it's a great value, it's still a relatively new concept," notes Wesley Bosnic, senior vice president of Uniworld. "Consumers have a lot of questions." Editor's note: Grand Circle sells its cruises directly to the consumer, bypassing travel agents completely.
Going forward, travel experts predict that the river cruise experience, in Europe particularly, will continue to gain traction.
"It's just mind-boggling how popular river cruises have become. They have evolved from, and many are owned by, the old motorcoach bus tour companies. People got tired of packing and unpacking and riding all day in a bus -- and the companies started to build boats," says Jill Jergel, a senior program manager and destination specialist for the Elegant Journeys Department of Frontiers International Travel in Wexford, Pa. "They built them, and the people came. It's a phenomenon."
Pricing a Europe River Cruise
If price is an important consideration, look at Europe first.
"Europe is, for all of us, the most important destination," says Clark. "We all have ships there. The volume is there. That's where the best deals are always going to be."
Fares start at about $180 per person, per night, for budget-priced cruises and range up to $500 per person, per night, for an all-inclusive luxury experience.
There are lots of itineraries that take in Old World capitals and picturesque villages on rivers like the Seine, Rhine, Rhone, Danube, Douro and Main. Cruise tours typically range from seven to 21 nights. Overall, the seven-night cruises on the Rhine and Danube tend to be the most popular starter cruises. It's worth noting that France is the most expensive country in Europe for river cruising.
Cabins are prized real estate on oceangoing ships -- not so much on river cruises where the passing scenery itself (viewed from the sun deck or lounge, often with expert commentary) takes precedence. A rule of thumb: The lower the deck, the cheaper the cabin and the cruise fare itself. In many cases, the square footage of a standard cabin on a four-deck European river cruise ship is the same, no matter the location; the only differentiating factor is the size of the porthole or whether the stateroom has some manner of balcony. It's true the new ships in the region have upped the ante with an assortment of attractive suites and verandahs, but most of the inventory still runs in the 170-square-foot-or-less range.
Europe also has shoulder seasons when cruises can be had, if not on the cheap then at least more cheaply. Hands down, mid-May through late September are the most popular months, and sailings during that time are usually 15 to 20 percent higher in price. Business slacks off a bit in the heat of July and August, as do prices by as much as 10 percent. Price-sensitive travelers should also consider late March and late fall when colder temperatures prevail. Holiday Christmas market cruises in November and December are priced lower than those during any other time of the year, offering the best deal in Europe overall.
Some lines do have themed cruises -- wine, art, food and Jewish history, among others. With rare exceptions, river cruising in Europe is not kid-friendly. Notably, Tauck now offers select summertime departures for family cruises on the Danube and Rhine.
A Note About Canal Barging
A number of companies -- including Abercrombie & Kent, European Waterways and Frontiers International Travel -- offer cruises on barges that ply the canals of France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy. Barging is also popular in Scotland, England and Ireland.
The all-inclusive pricing structure is similar to that of traditional river cruising, but the experience is quite different. Barges typically accommodate from four to 16 passengers and a crew that includes a guide, chef, pilot and, sometimes, a host. Each barge is decorated in its own distinctive style, ranging from charming "French country" to grand "English manor." There is a premium on service, with three gourmet meals a day, an open bar, vintage wines and customized sightseeing excursions.
The pace? Sweet and slow. A river ship in Europe will cruise hundreds of miles over a seven- to 10-night itinerary. Barges do about 60 miles over the course of a six-night cruise. (Almost all barge cruises are six nights with a few repositioning cruises, from, say, Holland to France, that last 10 or 12 nights.)
"On a barge, you are literally gliding along a canal, immersed in a corner of Europe. It can be pricey, or it can be cheap -- though never as cheap as buying a cabin on the bottom of an older ship slogging down the Rhine," says Richard Harris, senior vice president of operations for Abercrombie & Kent. "Big ships are the professional hotel operations; barges are floating country inns. One thing for sure is that when you step aboard a barge for a week, all you would need is money for incidentals."
There are two ways to price a barge cruise. One is the hotel barge, where a passenger buys a cabin. The other is the charter barge, where a group charters the boat. Charters are cheaper. Prices are set by the barge owners.
"The charter is the most flexible and, frankly, the most fun," says Elegant Journey's Jergel, who's also a barge specialist who has been listed for the past decade on Conde Nast Traveler's annual ranking of Top Travel Specialists. "You have the flexibility to say 'Hey, we want to go on a bike ride this morning and then go to the market. Can you pick us up there?' On a hotel barge, they have to conform to a slightly more rigid schedule so everyone is sure to get what they paid for."
As an example, Abercrombie & Kent's pricing starts at $498 per person, per night, on a hotel barge cruise. The cost can be 10 to 20 percent cheaper when purchased as a charter. The only extras are gratuities to the crew. Travelers who are willing to wait to book until three to six weeks prior to departure can sometimes find reduced fares of 10 to 25 percent on barges that don't sell out.
Pricing a U.S. River Cruise
A made-in-America cruise can be more expensive than cruising the rivers of Europe, but there are other benefits to consider that go beyond price.
"Sometimes we're a little bit pricier, but there's the ease of traveling with us, which makes up for the whole value," notes Susan Shultz, director of sales for American Cruise Lines. "We have an all-American crew. Our ships are built in the U.S. There's no language barrier. There's no international flight. And our amenities are equal to, or exceed those of, the European river cruises."
Popular river cruise routes in the U.S. include the Mississippi, the Hudson, the rivers along the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway, the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay and, out west, the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The pricing structure on U.S. cruises is similar to that of their European counterparts. Early booking is advised. There are group discounts. However, unlike the European product, shoulder seasons don't come into play. Ships sail only at peak times. On the East Coast, for example, that means late June to late September.
In the case of American Cruise Lines, the cruise fares cover evening lectures from local experts, entertainment, all meals, wine and beer with lunch and dinner, and a complimentary cocktail hour. Fares on a seven-night cruise start at about $500 per person, per night. Neither tips nor port charges are included. Shore excursions on American Cruise Lines' river sailings are an additional $20 to $70 per person. American has six vessels in its fleet, accommodating 49 to 150 cruisers. American's newest vessel, Queen of the Mississippi, offers much larger than average standard cabins with sliding-glass doors and balconies.
Meanwhile, American Queen Steamboat Company's paddlewheel steamboat is a fixture on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. Cruises last as long as 12 nights and turn on themes like Mardi Gras, Blues and Barbecue, and "Blue Hawaii," an Elvis tribute.
The line, which touts itself as the most inclusive river cruise product in North America, offers seven-night cruises priced as low as $200 per person, per night. Fares include complimentary wine and beer with dinner, all shore excursions, bottled water and sodas and a one-night stay in a deluxe hotel in the city of embarkation.
Lindblad Expeditions is known for its adventure cruises in exotic places, but for one month in the fall -- mid-September through mid-October -- its 62-passenger sister ships, Sea Lion and Sea Bird, sail the Columbia and Snake rivers. These voyages dig deep into the region, telling its story through wine- and beer-tasting, kayaking, hikes, museum outings and cuisine. Working with the Food Alliance, Lindblad has changed the way it purchases food in the Pacific Northwest so that it is now almost completely locally grown. Fares are all-inclusive, except for gratuities. The price per person, per night, for the six-night cruise is about $720.
U.S.-based cruises, which attract a senior crowd, do offer fare reductions for families. As examples, Lindblad offers a $500 discount to children 17 and younger, and American Cruise Lines has a couple of special deals for kids: Children up to 2 years old need only pay port charges, and kids 3 to 18 are charged a flat $1,500 fare when traveling with two paying adults.
Pricing an Exotic River Cruise
The biggest difference in river cruising in places like China, Egypt, Vietnam and Peru is that the trip also includes a land component that is often longer than the cruise itself.
"In exotic parts of the world, [the] cruise is [just] a part of the total travel experience," notes Harris. "On the Yangtze, you basically have a three-night to four-night cruise. No one goes to China for four nights on a boat. It's part of a larger touring itinerary in China." A full China itinerary can span two to three weeks.
Players in the "exotic" market include Avalon, Viking, Uniworld, Tauck, AmaWaterways, Grand Circle, Lindblad and Abercrombie & Kent. Fares range from roughly $285 per person, per night, (or $2,000 a week) for the least expensive trips to $570 per person, per night, (or $4,000 a week) for a deluxe experience.
"The more exotic destinations tend to appeal to those who have first explored Europe and are looking for other vacation alternatives," notes Kaplan. "But river cruise lines find it difficult to open new destinations in remote regions because of cost. And unlike ocean cruises, which have the world to explore and do so, river cruises are somewhat limited by the number of navigable rivers that are in places that are both safe and in demand."
There are additional costs associated with exotic travel that the passenger should consider, as well. Unlike in Europe, visas are required for entry to places like Southeast Asia and China. Visa services generally range from $60 per person up to several hundred dollars. Airfare, due to the length of the flights, is also more expensive than Europe by as much as 20 to 40 percent.
However, there are "value" seasons associated with weather and, consequently, limited demand periods. The summer months in China, late spring in Egypt, and April and early October in Russia are all considered shoulder seasons.
Cruises on the Mekong River are particularly popular among exotic river sailings.
"The most affordable time to visit Vietnam is in December or January, due to the holidays and the misperception that the weather is bad, or in July and August when it's hot and humid. We see offers at two-for-one prices on those," adds Kaplan. "There are good values. You just have to be willing to compromise on your window."
And don't wait too long to lock in your cabin. The Mekong is "not a place people have offered in the last couple of years, so there's this urgency to book," says Jacinta McEvoy, vice president of sales for Lindblad, which introduced a Vietnam and Cambodia cruise in 2012. "But let's face it: in general, there has been this surge of interest in river cruising. People are looking at every river everywhere that they can possibly cruise on."