American River Cruise Operators Chase the British Pound

October 26, 2009
AMAWATERWAYS' Amacello Two American river cruise operators relatively unknown to the U.K. market have this week launched their first British brochures, complete with prices in Sterling.

Rivals Avalon and AMAWATERWAYS, two of the biggest names in European river cruising for North Americans and Australians, have both announced a big push to get Brits onboard and will compete head-on along the Rhine, Danube, Main, Moselle and Rhone.

In addition, Avalon features the Seine and AMAWATERWAYS sails on the Douro, Russia's waterways and the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia.

So why the sudden interest in U.K. cruisers?

AMAWATERWAYS, to be fair, has been selling here for some time but without a dedicated brochure. Steve Williams, managing director of the line's U.K. representative, Fred. Olsen Travel, told Cruise Critic: "The decor and fittings of the AMA ships appeal to Brits who value understated style rather than the more obvious gloss of design. Passengers like the free bikes to use in port and the free internet in every cabin. We felt that the tremendous growth in sales among British passengers warranted a brochure with Sterling prices."

Avalon Cruises U.K. managing director, Alan MacLean, said in a bullish press statement: "River cruising is definitely bucking the trend in the recent economic downturn, being enjoyed by a largely recession-proof sector of the population who are prepared to pay for the highest level of quality and service."

This influx from across the pond comes at a time when Peter Deilmann, one of the best-loved brands by Brits to ply Europe's waterways, is nearing the end of its life, withdrawing its river fleet from service at the end of 2009 due to financial problems. The newcomers edging in to take its place offer newer ships -- and embrace the current trend for including everything in the price.

Both target the top end of the market and offer roomy cabins with French balconies, decent bathrooms, queen-sized beds with duvets and flat-screen televisions. Food on each line reflects the region in which the ship is sailing, although it's geared to North American tastes. Each includes regional wines with dinner and shore excursions in every port.

Prices reflect this level of luxury. AMAWATERWAYS charges £1,197 per person for eight days on the Rhine, excluding flights, while Avalon comes in at £1,325 per person including flights.

Compare this to river operators who offer a more traditional product. A week on the Rhine with Shearings, which charters older, four-star ships, costs from around £699 per person for seven nights including flights, but not drinks or excursions. Viking, the longest-established of the river cruise operators, charges £845 per person for eight days on the Rhine, including flights and tours but not drinks.

But there's more new competition still chasing the British cruise passenger. English-speaking departures on French line CroisiEurope are sold through specialist river cruise travel agents here and tour operator Connections Elegant River Cruises packages another big American operator, Uniworld, with its own 'VIP Home Departure Service', in which every passenger is picked up from their home. Swan Hellenic launched a river cruise operation this year, chartering a ship from the German-owned A-Rosa fleet, with an emphasis on culture and top notch speakers and an almost exclusively British clientele. You'll pay £1,495 per person for eight days on the Rhine, including flights and excursions but not drinks.

The one to watch, however, is Scenic Tours, which has four ultra-luxurious ships, dubbed 'Space Ships' because of their size, and featuring proper balconies you can sit on.

Carrying 60 percent well-heeled Australians, Scenic is the first operator in Europe to bring touches of luxury ocean cruising to rivers. Top suites come with butler service; meals are all-inclusive, there's a choice of included excursions in most ports; and, a first in Europe, alternative dining in the 30-seater Portobello fine-dining Italian restaurant.

But luxury like this doesn't come cheap. Eleven days from Munich to Budapest, all inclusive, costs a hefty £3,195 per person.

--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor