As the river cruising world gets more crowded, even long-established companies find that they need to up their game to compete. Vantage Deluxe World Travel -- a Boston-based tour company that celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2013 -- has met the challenge by launching a fleet of three new ships between 2012 and 2013 that are as good as, if not better than, others plying European rivers.
River Splendor, which launched in March 2013, represents one of these. (The others are River Venture, which was another spring 2013 addition, and River Discovery II, which went into service in 2012.) The line caters primarily to passengers older than 55, which puts it in direct competition with Grand Circle Cruise Lines (the owners of Vantage and GCCL are brothers, with not-so-friendly relations); both lines also eschew the use of travel agents and have similarities in their programming style. But Vantage seems to have incorporated extensive market research into its ship design, particularly when it comes to technology usage and cabin preferences, in a way that the other has not.
Case in point: Eight cabins on River Splendor cater to solo travelers, a key amenity, as nearly half of the line's passengers are widows or widowers, COO Kevin Wallace says. Suite options have also been expanded, and all cabins have hotel-style beds (most of which can be arranged as either a double or two twins). On the technology front, the line expanded its broadband capabilities to make Wi-Fi available throughout the ship, and a computer room has both Macs and PC's available, as well as a printer. iPad minis are also available to passengers during each trip. The in-cabin flat-screen TV's offer a browsing menu so passengers can check out Vantage's other trips -- and cleverly record which ones are viewed for follow-up and booking.
River Splendor and its sister ships mimic some of the more notable features of the Viking Longships, including the Captains Club, a public area in the aft of the ship that offers more casual dining options and a retractable roof that lets in natural light. Vantage has also given its main lounge, Latitude 52 degrees, outward-facing doors that can open during nice weather. While other lines experiment with full-size verandahs, the Vantage fleet has gone with French balconies instead of full; the ships are similar to other new-builds in the level of luxury and amenities provided in the cabins and bathrooms. Vantage also has four program directors for each cruise, which gives the trip more of a "tour feel." That said, these local guides can give passengers valuable insight into the culture that you might not find elsewhere.
All in all, River Splendor and the other new ships in the Vantage fleet represent a conscious effort to stay current with its customers' expectations of "value luxury," a business decision that will stand the company in good stead going forward.
The average age of a River Splendor passenger is 70, plus or minus a decade. It's a well-traveled bunch, albeit one that enjoys the convenience of group tours. Although it avoids travel agents, Vantage does promote bookings for affinity organizations and large families, and it has a well-developed Group Leader program. Pre- and post-trips, as well as the open seating and daily city tours, encourage mingling.
As with most river cruises, the ship doesn't offer formal nights, and onboard dress is casual. Shorts and jeans are not permitted at dinner. For the Captain's Welcome and Farewell dinners, men may want to pack a sports coat, and women might throw in a dress or nicer top and pants. You'll want comfortable walking shoes for touring, as many towns have cobblestone streets. Women won't need heels.
The ship's onboard currency is the euro, and money can be exchanged at the reception desk. (There is a small fee for converting U.S. dollars.) Travelers checks are not accepted; credit cards taken include Visa, MasterCard and American Express.
Gratuities for the crew are paid at the end of the trip, in cash or with your credit card as an addition to your total bill. The company pools tips, and you are not encouraged to give individual amounts to waiters or housekeeping staffers. The recommended amount is 9 to 11 euros per person, per day. Program directors are considered individual contractors, and they can't accept credit cards or travelers checks. The company recommends 4 to 6 euros per day for them. And, finally, you'll want to budget a few small bills, in euros or local currency, to tip local guides and bus drivers.
Tips are not automatically added to bar bills.