THE LATEST EUROPEAN RIVER BOAT RATINGS
Each river boat company is rated on a 100 point scale which breaks down as follows:
- 25% – Overall Service and Concern for the Guest’s Total Satisfaction.
- 25% – All-inclusive nature of the product and quality of shore excursions.
- 20% – Quality of Accommodations and On-Board Facilities/Amenities.
- 20% – Overall Quality of Food and Beverage Services.
- 10% – Sophistication Level of Fellow Guests and Staff.
CURRENT RIVER BOAT REPORT CARD SUMMARY
LAST UPDATED MAY 25, 2020
EUROPE’S TOP RIVER BOAT LINES: THE LATEST RATINGS
#1 – CRYSTAL RIVER CRUISES
CURRENT REPORT CARD SCORE: 94%
OVERVIEW: THE CRYSTAL RIVERBOAT DOSSIER:
Claiming to bring “true luxury” to the European river cruising experience, Crystal Cruises promised vessels with state-of-the-art design, ground-breaking technology, and the youngest fleet available. When Crystal Cruises owners announced they would launch a River Cruise line in 2015 many were skeptical. Then the refurbished Mozart began sailing round-trip from Vienna in 2017. The travel industry was, it is fair to say, shocked by the level of consistency and excellence this vessel achieved in a very short period of time. The crew on the riverboats were trained aboard the Crystal cruise ships, which provided a strong background in maintaining the highest service standards. Crystal has since added four new-builds, boats from a single vision and a single yard. The Ravel and Mahler were launched in 2017 and the Debussy and Ravel in 2018.
These luxury river yachts feature all-inclusive amenities, elegantly-appointed suites, and personal levels of service for a maximum of 106 Guests on ships that would normally hold 140-160.
In the fourteen years that riverboatratings.com has been professionally evaluating river boat products, we have always taken the position that none of the current crop of riverboats on Europe’s waterways does or could possibly provide 5-star service in the future. That changed with the introduction of the new-build Crystal fleet.
We are not entirely comfortable reviewing Crystal’s riverboats. Our reputation as the nation’s leading ad-free consumer evaluation source is challenged when we are led to publishing an evaluation that reads like to might have been written by Crystal’s marketing department. But the truth is the truth. Crystal is the industry leader and the most surprising thing about that statement is the wider than expected gap between Crystal quality and other top-level contenders.
Here is the bottom line: When you are looking at the major cruise lines, the gap among the very top lines is much narrower and a bit more subjective. Crystal, Silversea, Regent Seven Seas, and Seabourn are worthy five-star cruise competitors and critical evaluations must focus on some narrow points of differentiation. The Riverboat category is different. There is now one, and only one, true five-star experience on Europe’s rivers. Its name is Crystal.
Again, we do not believe that Crystal is appropriate for everyone and there are other lines that are stronger in the ratings when it comes to specific attributes. But given the high ratings for Crystal, we feel obligated to clearly list some of the major reasons why our inspection teams have been so enthusiastic:
CRYSTAL’S OWNERSHIP AND HISTORY
Founded in 1988 by parent company Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha as Crystal Cruises, Crystal began with a vision to set a new standard in luxury travel and world exploration. The line began with luxury ocean cruising and quickly developed a reputation for delivering a supreme level of service found aboard the most elegant of ships. Currently owned by global hospitality leader Genting Hong Kong since 2015, Crystal continues to focus on service and innovation in the global cruise industry.
In 2017 and 2018, Crystal debuted four new all-suite luxury river yachts built from the German shipyard Lloyd Werft.
THE CASE FOR CRYSTAL’S SOLITARY FIVE-STAR STATUS:
- Crystal has the most comfortable bedding and bedroom services in the industry. All beds are King Size. Beds face the river for unparalleled views. Bedding/Sheets are of the highest quality. Bathrooms feature a step-in shower with double marble vanities. Beds are covered with fine Egyptian cotton linens; there are walk-in closets, full-length mirrors, ETRO robes and slippers, wall-mounted flat-screen HD TVs, and Nespresso machines.
- Every stateroom comes with an attendant as well as a personal butler. This enables Crystal to offer 24-Hour room service – no other line has this feature.
- Crystal does not place guests on a lower or third deck. The ship has been built with only two passenger decks, each well positioned above the water. Again, an industry exclusive. Crystal simply eliminated the bottom deck – the only river boat line to do so. This means that “budget level” accommodations do not exist on these ships. But more importantly, Crystal has significantly reduced the number of guests its four sisters accommodate. This creates a more personalized, “to order” level of service with some guests surprised to be addressed by name by a crew that has been superbly trained.
- We have always said that the galleys on the river boat fleets of competing lines were too small to create “cooked to order” five-star quality cuisine. On other river boat lines, kitchen staff in the small galley must work on one course at a time, everyone making salads, then moving on to the next course cafeteria style. Crystal’s galleys are each three times larger than the galleys on competing lines. This allows for fresh local ingredients to be cooked to order for each guest. Crystal galley compares favorably with a land-based kitchen serving 106 guests.
- Crystal includes all beverages, shore excursions, and gratuities in its cruise fare.
In order to give guests the best possible experience, the Crystal riverboat fleet offer all-suite accommodations that are located entirely above the waterline, providing spectacular and unobstructed views through the Panoramic Balcony-Windows.
Let’s take a moment to say what this really means. After construction began in the yard that Crystal now owns, changes were made to the design structure of each of Crystal’s new riverboats to totally eliminate lower deck passenger cabins. This sharply reduces the number of guests each Crystal ship will carry – fewer guests, lower density but, typically, prices would have to be raised to make up for lost revenues. Crystal does now have the lowest guest density stats of any riverboat line sailing in Europe.
Crystal features itineraries focusing on longer and overnight stays and daytime cruising, in addition to sailing less-traveled routes to avoid congestion of other vessels in port. Here again, challenges remain, as surely the larger river boat companies like Viking River with 60 vessels, are constantly seeking new itineraries and routes in Europe.
But despite the challenges, Crystal is already positioned by our CSI Inspection Team as the top-rated river boat line in Europe. This has to do with the level of inclusive service, the crew hired to work aboard the vessels, the per guest spend rates on food, the industry-leading cabin-size, and a series of creative itineraries. As one of the world’s most trusted luxury travel brands, Crystal is not in a position to disappoint t its loyal past cruise guests who wish to try the river cruise experience. We have no hesitation at all in granting Crystal the very top position in our River Boat Ratings. Quite frankly, it is theirs to lose and we seriously doubt they will allow that to happen. The cost to their brand would be too painful.Guests truly seeking the very best riverboat product available in Europe must turn to Crystal as their first choice.
IT IS NOT ALL PERFECT: OUR CSI INSPECTORS VIEW THE FOLLOWING AS AREAS NEEDING IMPROVEMENT:
- At the present time, Crystal is just behind Tauck is terms of per diem, per person cost. In fact, given what the line is offering, we have some serious doubts as to how long current pricing models can be sustained. For instance – if one of the four or more shore excursions offered in each port has only two guests who wish to take it – Crystal will operate it just for them at no additional charge.
- Crystal does offer Special Excursions that come with a supplement. It also offers the opportunity to dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant in some ports, but that comes at a cost. It will be hard to claim “all-exclusive” if too many lux experiences are being sold at additional cost.
- Crystal wants to operate private touring for guests as an additional profit-center. Each ship has an assigned in-house Concierge who works directly with guests to set up private pre/post cruise and in port sightseeing. This cuts the travel consultant out of the picture and this could cause friction within the agent community. It can also result in some fairly pricey outsourced land arrangements.
- Given its cost and positioning, Crystal is not designing any on-board lecture programs that place it above the competition despite its sophisticated clientele. This is an area where innovation is possible but it is not yet evident.
- Crystal is not currently offering an air program and it only offers hotel packages in selected ports. These packages normally include multiple-night stays and they may appear to be more expensive than similar arrangements made independently.
OFFICERS AND CREW
Crystal carries fewer guests and more crew than any of its competitors. The line has the highest crew:guest ratio in the industry. Crew on the river boats are trained aboard the Crystal cruise ships, which provided a strong background in maintaining the highest service standards. On average there are about 68 crew members for 106 guests on the newly built all-suite fleet.
ACCOMMODATIONS AND OUR CATEGORY RECOMMENDATIONS
A variety of configurations are available and Crystal does boast Europe’s only all-suite, all-panoramic balcony window river ships. All five Crystal river yachts offer guest amenities including Crystal’s butler service for every suite which includes unpacking and packing upon request, shore excursion arrangements and in-suite hors d’oeuvres and daily canape service.
Ranging in size, Crystal offers suites that reach up to 759 square feet, the Crystal Suite, to a smaller Petite Suite at just 188 square feet. Deluxe Suites are a good choice for many and provide a comfortable 237-253 square feet. All feature plush king-sized beds that face toward the Panoramic Balcony-Windows.
Most guests will be happiest with the upper deck S1 or S2 (lower deck) Deluxe staterooms. They are 253 sq. ft. and maximize space by providing push-button floor to ceiling windows that open for uncluttered views of the river with the push of a button. As most guests wish to see the river from the upper Vista Deck observation areas, the balcony window makes much more sense than the traditional small table and chair found on other lines. Crystal knows that its guests want fresh breezes, beds that face the water, and the additional space built into each stateroom when balconies are eliminated. Guests on riverboats almost always prefer getting a 360 degree view of the river from the Observation desk than the much more restricted view they would get from a sitting balcony on other ships.
The “worst” staterooms offered on Crystal would be mid to upper range on most other lines. The Petite Suites, Category S4 and S5 are 188 sq. ft. and they still come with the patented Crystal Panoramic window as well as full butler service. For those on a bit of a budget, these Petite Suites are the value sweet spot.
STATEROOMS WE SUGGEST AVOIDING IF BETTER OPTIONS ARE AVAILABLE:
300 – 301 – 215- 217 – 200 – 201
JUST HOW GOOD IS DINING ON THE CRYSTAL RIVERBOAT FLEET?
Dining on the Crystal fleet is an elevated experience with Michelin star-inspired, farm-to-table cuisine with regionally-inspired menus. Additional features include Crystal’s highly-acclaimed cuisine in multiple eateries: the elegant Waterside Restaurant, namesake Bistro cafés, and the exclusive Vintage Room; and Palm Court. Sommeliers share insights with you to make your meals even more memorable and enjoyable. Celebrated vintages are available with unlimited pours for your delight. Crystal will also offer true open-seating dining, allowing guests to dine where they want, when they want, and with whom they want. This is a river boating first and it is, in our opinion, a true “luxury differentiator.”
In-Suite Dining is available 24 hours a day and The Pantry is a self-service offering with pastries, specialty coffee and teas, wine and non-alcoholic beverages. Hunger will not be a complaint on this voyage!
Another unique Crystal feature is The Visa Bar, a pop-up bar on the open-air top deck. Beautiful views abound along with delicious cocktails, conversations and sometimes even movies under the stars or viewing for must-see sporting matches.
The Marketplace offers an upscale buffet for breakfast or lunch. Guests can order off a menu for both breakfast and lunch at the bistro. Lunch hours are from 12:00 – 2:30 pm.
Crystal stands alone in offering 24-hour room service to all guests.
THE HUSBAND QUESTION: JUST HOW FANCY IS THE DRESS?
Crystal does advise guests to plan on “Crystal Casual Attire” for its evening dress code. a dressed-up version of casual looks. What does that mean? Typically, a dressed-up version of casual looks and we have some examples listed below. Specifically, leave your jeans for another occasion–denim jeans are not appropriate for evening dinner attire.
Examples for Women’s Crystal Casual includes: blouse, sweater, dress slacks, skirt and dress.
Winter suggestions are added to include warm wraps or evening coats, as well as gloves and scarves for fall and winter months.
Men’s Crystal Casual includes open-collar shirt, collared polo shirt, button-down shirt, dress shirt (no tie required), dress pants/smart trousers, sport coat (optional). Winter suggestions include overcoat, scarves, gloves, and hats for fall and winter months. When and if dining at a more formal restaurant on land, a coat and tie is recommended for gentleman.
If bringing along a sport jacket is not acceptable – consider another product like Amtrack or Greyhound.
DO THEY OFFER LAUNDRY AND/OR DRY-CLEANING SERVICES?
Complete valet services are available including laundry, pressing, and dry cleaning. Services may be arranged through your Stateroom Attendant or your Penthouse Attendant or Butler. Valet charges are billed to your shipboard account. Pressing is complimentary to guests in Crystal and Penthouse Suites. Complimentary self-service launderettes, including washing machines, detergent, fabric softener, dryers, irons and ironing boards are provided onboard all Crystal ships.
GUEST PROFILE AND SOPHISTICATION RATING
Crystal Guests are normally extremely well-traveled and most have been to Europe several times. Just over 40% of the line’s current guests have sailed top-rated Crystal Cruises and so naturally turn to the parent company when looking for a riverboat. The Crystal name is worldwide with particular value in both Europe and Asia. Crystal attracts a low percentage of international travelers but a high percentage of those who have had extremely successful business careers.
The guests aboard Crystal have high expectations and that includes sailing on the line RBR has rated “Best in Europe”. They will use the onboard Concierge services for private requests including last-minute drivers in port as well as hard-to-obtain restaurant reservations in some of the larger ports.
CRYSTAL’S CURRENT SOPHISTICATION RATING IS 92%
Well-heeled, well-traveled, well-educated guests who like country club casual attire, name recognition, and a group of fellow travelers with whom they can share past travel experiences. They do not ever want to be nickel and dimed or asked to pay for drinks. They are into food, wine, or both and will want to do some dining ashore. Often, they will have their travel consultant arrange for private excursions based on their interests.
Guests do not require that everything is included in the price of their cruise. They include all age groups and a percentage who will take advantage of bicycles or more active hikes. Price is a consideration but they do not make travel decisions on price alone. They may do one private tour but are not adverse to traveling on bus tours with other guests. They are often professional and have likely been to Europe before. They are not into dressing up on vacation and are generally “social” travelers.
Realize that river cruising can be a great value and that every price range riverboat line visits essentially the same ports. Price is a consideration and this could well be their first experience on a cruise or riverboat. Guests often travel with family or friends and they are not seeking an inclusive vacation. They do not wish to “pay for other people’s drinks” and the price is a major determination when selecting a river cruise.
JUST HOW BAD IS THE EVENING ‘ENTERTAINMENT”?
Crystal has put some thought into mini-concerts, one or two guest lectures per cruise, and some successful attempts at light-hearted adult games in the evening. But those seeking a well-organized entertainment program on a ship carrying fewer than 110 guests will be disappointed. Mingling with fellow guests and friends and walking ashore, when possible, after dinner, are the primary sources of post-dinner stimulation. Few guests have any expectations at all for “entertainment” aboard a riverboat so there is little complaining about this aspect of river cruising. One could, in fact, argue that one of the primary reasons for the success of river boating is how little it has in common with a show-stopping vacation at a Las Vegas strip hotel.
SPA AND FITNESS OPTIONS
Public amenities and services include a full-service spa and separate fitness center, equipped with modern machines and cardio equipment as well as free weights – both with dedicated professionals for service and nearly unheard of in the river cruising market. Plus, a partial indoor/outdoor pool on the aft of Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler are unique features.
Specifically, the aforementioned Crystal Life Spa is a well-appointed spa with private treatment rooms and dedicated spa-professionals available to provide a variety of relaxing spa treatments and massages. Reservations for these services are only made onboard. Fitness buffs do not have to miss a workout while onboard a Crystal River Ship. Each vessel has ample equipment plus, a full-time Fitness Director leading daily yoga and stretching classes, in addition to leading biking and hiking excursions that are available.
AIR/SEA AND PROMOTIONAL PRICING
Airfare is not included as part of Crystal’s inclusive fare, however, special airfare rates are available to Crystal guests. In these instances, complimentary transfers are included and Crystal claims that guests can rely on Crystal’s support in the event of an unanticipated airline or cruise itinerary change or delay.
Other promotional offers are available and can include 2-for-1 Fares and book now specials.
We are starting to see special price offers for July and August sailings as demand during peak summer months has waned in the past year. Crystal tends to discount upfront based on sales patterns in previous years. The line is quite concerned about disappointing those who book early and goes to some lengths to see to it that early bookers get the best rates.
CRYSTAL RIVERBOATS IN A SENTENCE:
“Based on the luxury of its hardware and the caring service standards that go along with its “software” Crystal is the best overall river cruising option available to those seeking informal elegance and anticipatory service on Europe’s rivers.”
#2 – AMA WATERWAYS
CURRENT REPORT CARD SCORE: 86%
RIVERBOATRATINGS BOTTOM LINE:
Launched in 2002 by seasoned river cruise executives, AmaWaterways is generally regarded as the best of the rest after Tauck and Scenic are taken out of the equation. AmaWaterways now has 20 vessels and their newest ships have top category suites with twin balconies. This line offers a solid guarantee of quality with some interesting onboard innovations. Cruisers can, for instance, dine ashore on the line’s ‘Culinary Delight’ series of tours. We particularly like the pacing of walking tours, allowing for several levels of walker and for those who prefer to start later. French balconies and complimentary in-room internet service are provided. AmaWaterways even offers guided bicycle touring. One gets the sense that management is constantly thinking up ways to appeal to a younger and more sophisticated clientele. The attitude at AmaWaterways seems to be “Why can’t we do that on our boats?”
Combine the above with the fact that AmaWaterways is, in our opinion “The Best Value for the Quality” in the European market and you have several compelling reasons to consider this line. If you need another one, the respected Berlitz Guide to River Cruising names AMA the Best River Cruise Line in Europe in its 2020 Edition.
AMAWATERWAYS DEBUTS NEW SHIP WITH GAME-CHANGING DESIGN
AmaMagna to Feature Open-Water Sports Platform, Multiple Dining Options, Larger Staterooms and Eco-Friendly Engine
AmaWaterways has announced plans for AmaMagna, it’s biggest ship ever to be launched in 2019. AmaMagna represents a new concept specifically designed to elevate the modern luxury market. Twice the width of traditional European river ships, the latest AmaWaterways innovation welcomes only 194 guests and affords luxurious living spaces, multiple dining options including an al fresco glass-enclosed restaurant, more onboard activities, and enhanced evening entertainment. The ship will debut a quieter and more fuel-efficient engine and – a first for river cruising – open-water sports platform, complete with zodiac boats, canoes, and recreational equipment. Construction for the new vessel, destined to sail Danube itineraries, began
“As the luxury river cruise market continues to grow, we want to carry on as the leader in industry innovation. While this new double-width concept has been on the table for some time, we believe, given the unique demand that exists, that now is the perfect moment to introduce this style of ship,” said Rudi Schreiner, president, and co-owner of AmaWaterways.
AmaMagna will provide guests with generous personal space, the freedom of multiple dining choices, and exceptional stateroom comfort. Combining this with our award-winning cuisine, noteworthy shore excursions, and remarkable onboard service, we feel this ship is a game-changer.”
In total, AmaMagna will feature 97 staterooms – the majority of which will be over 300 square feet, some of the largest in river cruising. Additional amenities include a large heated sundeck swimming pool with whirlpool and sky bar, a spacious spa area with new treatments, a fitness room large enough for small group classes, and generous common areas designed to accommodate a variety of onboard events.
“We’ve expanded the options for our guests by incorporating exceptional epicurean adventures, and new wellness offerings. Our guests deserve the very best and we are always thinking about new opportunities that will give them the vacation of a lifetime,” said Schreiner. “Now is the perfect time for us to introduce a new concept of luxurious European river cruising.”
AMA has achieved high levels of consistencies and the line has won numerous “World’s Best” Awards from Travel + leisure to Virtuoso. They are not the best but they are slowly tapping on Tauck’s door. They currently represent the happiest marriage of quality and value in the industry. In addition to cruising Europe’s waterways, AMA has programs in Russia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Their boats in Asia are generally leased. They have a unique relationship with the lovely Zambezi Queen in southern Africa presenting a rare opportunity to combine river cruising with a safari experience.
Their infotainment system is complete with complimentary high-speed internet access and first-run movies keep guests well-connected and entertained. Each boat carries approximately 20 bicycles and tours include complimentary wireless audio devices so a guide’s words are always within earshot.
The ‘set your own pace’ shore excursions enrich traveler’s experiences and twin balconied staterooms encourage you to relax and watch the world go by. Criticism of AmaWaterway’s on-board service is rather rare, particularly on the line’s newest ships launched after 2011. Inclusive offerings create good value.
OWNERSHIP AND HISTORY:
In 2002, AmaWaterways was launched through the collaborative efforts of Austrian-born, former Viking River Cruise President, Rudi Schreiner, travel-industry executive Kristin Karst, and Brendan Worldwide Vacations founder and owner Jimmy Murphy.
OFFICERS AND CREW:
The international crew is primarily European, with many staff members from Romania, Hungary and Slovenia. Most staff has graduated from a European-based hotel management school and many of the guides are fluent in four or five languages. Unfortunately, English skills vary greatly among the staff. Each cruise also features a cruise director who leads shore excursions, arranges for airport transportation, and offers running commentary during scenic cruising and more. Unlike Tauck, AMA does not have personal on-board tour guides assigned to small groups. The lone tour director basically does it all. This is an area where improvements can be made.
In-room furnishings include white plush down bedding, a sitting area, flat-panel TV, safe, terry bathrobes, slippers, individually controlled air-conditioning, closet, and bottled water replenished daily. Suites enjoy spacious closets and minibar.
The newer vessels clearly have the best suite accommodations. In 2010, a new, and rather revolutionary design concept was introduced featuring both a French balcony and a true balcony with deck chairs in several categories.
- Standard Accommodations: Mid-range cabins enjoy floor to ceiling windows and French balconies.
- Entry Level Accommodations: The most basic cabins are in less desirable locations with small, fixed, chest-high windows.
AmaWaterways en-suite bathrooms are spacious and feature a separate shower with multi-jet shower head and marbled-clad finishing. Each is equipped with a hairdryer, magnifying mirror and spa-quality soaps, shampoo/conditioner and body lotion. Suites include a bathtub.
As a member of La Chaine des Roisseurs, one of the world’s most prestigious culinary organizations, guests aboard AmaWaterways enjoy better than standard riverboat dining and complimentary wines with dinner.
Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style however you may also order from the menu. The multi-course dinner is served ala carte with special attention paid to regional specialties. Wine and beer selections included complimentary at dinner and soft drinks, coffee, bottled water, and teas are served complimentary throughout the day.
Newer ships offer a variety of specialty dining venues, intimate chef tasting menus, and a wine room.New-builds feature the alternative aft restaurant Erlebris, a lounge cum intimate dining venue that has the advantage of a glassed-in kitchen. AMA has pioneered wine and culinary riverboat theme cruises, but, thus far, most of these cruises have been scheduled on off-season dates.
Despite the fact that it attracts about 20% of its guests outside North America, AMA lists each of its ships as “Non-Smoking”, limiting smoking to certain portions of the upper sundeck. Smoking is not permitted in any dining venue or in cabins.
AmaWaterways offers ‘set your own pace’ complimentary shore excursion in each port. The ‘Gentle Walkers’ take in the sites at a leisurely pace, the ‘Active Walkers’ group moves more quickly and therefore is able to cover more ground and ‘Late Starter’ is designed for those relaxed vacationers who prefer to sleep in. Each tour is locally guided tour is facilitated through a live transmission headset system, avoiding the need to huddle-in to hear the commentary.
For the adventurous, bikes and helmets are available free of charge should you wish to explore on your own. If you extend your riverboat cruise with a pre or post-cruise stay, tour packages can be arranged including 4- and 5-star accommodations.
Nightly performances drawn from the local onshore population can create a uniquely shallow talent pool however most guests do enjoy the onboard camaraderie and the ability to get to know many of their fellow travelers. AMA normally includes a staff talent show and a trivia contest. So far, they have resisted bingo.
SPA AND FITNESS OPTIONS
AmaWaterways vessels often do offer a fitness area complete with a sauna or steam room. Many include outdoor heated pools or whirlpools and some include a walking deck. For the health-conscious, we think the walking space trumps a small swimming pool as more desirable based on the fact a small pool serving more than a hundred guests is just not worth the risk of water-borne infection. Beauty salons and massage services are available on all ships. There are however significant differences between ships in the fleet which is why we tend to recommend the newer vessels.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
AMA is sleek, tuned-in, and has mass appeal. It is partially inclusive and so comes in at a better price point than some of the very top-rated all-inclusive lines above. But for many of our readers, undecided about how much they wish to commit to sailing one of the very top lines, AMA is an excellent choice. It may well be the best overall choice for a majority of RBR visitors. The line has bright, committed management that is extremely aware of the need to handle challenges like water level restrictions, with calm, guest-focused leadership.
#3 – UNIWORLD RIVER CRUISES
CURRENT REPORT CARD SCORE: 83%
RIVERBOATRATINGS BOTTOM LINE:
Uniworld provides an intimate, boutique cruise experience onboard well-appointed river cruise ships. True to most river boats, Uniworld is limited by the size of the rivers it sails therefore cabin size and activities available onboard lack in comparison to larger, seafaring cruise lines. Uniworld offers itineraries on 13 rivers throughout Europe, as well as in Russia, Egypt, China as well as Vietnam and Cambodia. Airport transfers are included complimentary on the embarkation and departure days, and internet access and WI-FI are complimentary while onboard.
Uniworld’s fleet contains many top ten rated river boat ships by the readers of Conde Nast poll. The River Queen and River Beatrice enjoy the #1 and #2 positions, with River Royale, River Countess and River Duchess falling in the top ten. Zagat also recognizes the river cruise line for Top Cabins and Top Dining.
OWNERSHIP AND HISTORY:
Founded in 1976 by Serbian-born Serba Ilich, a former executive with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Uniworld positions itself to target the North American travel market by hiring English-speaking staff and offering dining to suit American tastes.
In 2004, Travel Corporation, a Bermuda-based organization purchased controlling interest in the company. Travel Corporation has varied interests in the travel industry including Contiki Holidays, Trafalgar Tours, Insight Vacations as well as Red Carnation, which operates deluxe hotels. While the partnership transformed the onboard ambience on all the river ships it acquired and created a decidedly more upscale ambiance, Uniworld like all brands within the group, continues to operate as an independent and autonomous company. That offers the river boat line comfortable funding that shields it from many market ups and downs.
Uniworld’s fleet consists of 10 fully-owned and recently refurbished boats in Europe. Believing owning its ships and operations provides the company with greater control over its product, Uniworld’s investment and hands-on management style translates into a consistent level of service.
Headquartered in Los Angeles headquarters, the company has subsidiary offices across Europe and in Egypt. Current President and Chief Executive Officer is Mr. Guy Young. Young came to Uniworld in 2006 from the Travel Corporation Canada where he served as President for six years. Over the course of Young’s career, he distinguished himself in roles of growing responsibility within the hotel and service industry. Young is a graduate from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas where he earned his Bachelor’s in Business Administration.
OFFICERS AND CREW:
With an average capacity of 130 guests, Uniworld’s professionally-trained, English-speaking staff is able to provide quality service with a ratio of 1 staff member for every 3 guests. Officers tend to be European although the crew is sourced from the sailing region. Like its competitors, the majority of the crew aboard its vessels in Europe hail from Eastern European countries.
In Europe, Uniworld’s fleet consists of 10 fully-owned and operated ships. The company charters numerous boats for use on the rivers of Russia, Egypt, Portugal, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Interiors are designed by the Red Carnation Hotel Collection design team and the décor of each ship is stylish and unique. Common features include a 24-hour reception area, a lounge with panoramic views, open dining, flat-screen TVs, handcrafted beds from Savoir of England with fine linen and a wide variety of pillow options. Complimentary bottled water is provided in all staterooms.
Uniworld’s designs are, in the view of many, over the top, and some describe the décor as “some nightmare in which Laura Ashley goes berserk” to “reminiscent of your aunt’s home in the Cotswolds>”
The River Queen is reminiscent of a vintage steamship with Art Deco themes in blue and white. Sixty-seven of the eighty staterooms aboard the River Beatrice enjoy French balconies and are decorated in stylized floral patterns. Perhaps its most spectacular vessel, Uniworld’s first to be built from scratch, the innovative S.S. Antoinette features cabins and suites with alcove conservatories that, at the touch of a button, transform into open-air balconies. Marble bathrooms come standard in all cabins.
Best Accommodations: Suites onboard Uniworld’s fleet offer exclusive services, added amenities and in some cases butler service.
- Standard Accommodations: Guest cabins on the upper decks enjoy French Balconies. Although staterooms are comfortable, space is limited. There is no room for a third bed and be forewarned to bring luggage small enough to fit under the bed as there is no extra spare space for storage.
- Entry-Level Accommodations: Guests cabins on the lower decks offer a picture window. Dimensions of this cabin category are the same, but the lack of fresh air can make them appear smaller.
Bathrooms vary from ship to ship, growing in size and elegance on the newest vessels. Marble-clad bathrooms with stylish fixtures, L’Occitane en Provence amenities, and plush towels are the rule. Hair Dryers are included however some ships do require adaptors/converts for personal usages as power outlets are in 220V. Small and efficient, bathrooms on the lower decks do lack some basic features such as a proper home for soap and toothbrush.
Meals sometimes exceed expectations aboard Uniworld’s fleet. Table settings and menu items are borrowed from the kitchen of Mrs. Beatrice Tollman, the founder, and president of Red Carnation, and invite the ambiance of being a guest in someone’s home. As possible, meals are prepared using the fresh ingredients procured from local farmers’ markets visited while ashore. Portion control is quite evident and second helpings are not normally offered.
Dining is open and the experiences vary to include a Captain’s Welcome Gala and Farewell dinner. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style while dinners are ordered ala carte from a daily menu. Dinner is served between 7 and 9 pm and includes a selection of wines and beers. In addition to an early riser breakfast and afternoon tea, fruit and tea are served after shore excursions and soft drinks are always complimentary.
Food and wine aficionados will appreciate Uniworld’s exclusive Epicurean Adventurer Program offered complimentary on certain departures. The program is designed to allow guests to expand their knowledge of the relationship between food and wine and to savor many varietals throughout the course of their meal during the food and wine pairing dinner. Guests are also invited to partake in culinary demonstrations and tastings. True foodies or wine connoisseurs, might do better arranging their own, private culinary itinerary once off the boat in selected ports.
Many shore excursions are offered complimentary however optional tours are offered at a cost. Tours are led by experienced English-speaking local guides and the lone Uniworld Cruise and Tour Manager. On ships in Europe, state-of-the-art Quietvox portable lightweight audio headset systems are used during tours allowing guests to move at their own pace while enjoying the guide’s commentary. “Choice is Yours,” “Go Active” and “Go Gentle” shore excursions enable visitors to experience a destination at their own pace and many include special access at museums, home-hosted lunches, classical concerts, and elegant receptions in addition to the ‘must-sees’ in each destination. Some itineraries, often during the offseason, offer the exclusive Epicurean Adventurer Program while others cater to multi-generational groups of family and friends. Uniworld gets high grades for making the effort to differentiate its tour product but the more creative options normally come at an additional cost.
Subdued, genteel entertainment is the norm, with pianists playing in the lounge and singing standards, and on occasion local cultural performances are offered onboard. Cruise managers will provide a brief explanation of the history of the region and the following day’s itinerary. Asking cruise managers to provide cultural and historical lectures is one of the downsides of river cruising in Europe.
Uniworld is a west coast-based company that accounts for a higher-than-average number of clients from California and the Pacific Northwest. It is a company that enjoys a strong following among retirees who enjoy the décor flair and the solid American guest orientation of the line. Uniworld does not offer five-star service but it has some of the trappings of an old-world, luxury ambiance.
OVERVIEW: THE TAUCK RIVERBOAT DOSSIER: Tauck Tours is a Connecticut-based, family-owned business that entered the river cruise business in 2006. Tauck offers a superior riverboat experience in Europe. Its recent announcements concerning the reconstruction of its Jewel Class ships helps assure the company’s position at one of the world’s top river boat products across the board. Tauck’s riverboat programs cost more than most of its competitors. But savvy travelers know that is true only because Tauck has zero “add-ons”. Inclusive amenities now include all gratuities, all shore excursions, unlimited wine and beer with meals and during the day, along with spirits, and airport transfers. Room service is limited to breakfasts served to Category 7 Suite guests in their cabin. Although Tauck’s boats have an entire deck of top-level 300 sq. ft. suites, all feature double French balconies. True balconies, allowing guests to sit outside and enjoy the views are not available in these top-level Category 7 Suites. But we do not believe that this is critical as a highly functional open-air upper deck with 360-degree views is only one deck above.
The fact is that any of our top-rated lines can deliver a wonderful, often memorable riverboat experience. But where these lines differ is the manner in which they handle river-related or itinerary issues and problems. This is where Tauck excels. Guests booking Tauck know that their concerns will be addressed immediately by a caring and intelligent management team. Time and time again, we’ve seen Tauck pull victory from the jaws of river level defeat. Many of their competitors have no such record of high guest satisfaction. Tauck joins Crystal, AMA, and Uniworld among the top tier river cruise lines. But the Tauck product suffers from the fact that unlike its competitors, Tauck does not own its riverboats – it leases them from a company called Scylla which is based in Switzerland. This has, in our view, allowed competitors like AMA and Crystal to steadily improve their products while Tauck has not led in innovation.
We believe the most significant competitive advantage enjoyed by Tauck guests is the presence of an onboard Tauck Cruise Director and three highly-visible Tour Directors, who work for Tauck. They provide a link to the quality one finds on Tauck’s generally First Class worldwide land tours. But even this highly desirable advantage, can create a negative backlash. Some of our Inspection Team has reported that guests sometimes identify the best of the three guides and then are disappointed when they can’t join that guide’s group.
With more than 85 years of experience as a tour operator, Tauck’s onboard staff presence can quickly resolve problems should they arise. But since the crew is employed by the shipowners, not Tauck directly, issues have arisen due to a lack of communication. In terms of overall quality and product consistency, only Crystal River Cruises and Scenic are seen as challengers to Tauck’s overall quality. This may be changing as both Uniworld and AMA Waterways, particularly, have made major improvements to their entire product line. Tauck is a primarily American product and country club golf stories along with stories of past Tauck adventures frequently dominate the on-board conversation.
Although it is not in any brochure or discussed online, Tauck’s customer service policies often exceed those of any of their competitors. This is clearly a company that has “made things right” whenever there have been issues in the past involving water levels or service issues. Any riverboat line looks good when everything is going well. Tauck manages to look good even when travel glitches occur. That has a lot to do with the fact that this is the only top-grade worldwide tour operator managing boats on Europe’s major rivers. If Tauck loses a riverboat client, they lose a potential lifelong client who would have traveled with them to the corners of the earth. No other riverboat company has that much at risk in delivering a superior product. In essence, that is the real secret of Tauck’s rather meteoric success on Europe’s rivers.
Tauck has 90 years of experience offering escorted tours, but comes late to the river cruise industry, launching its first ship in 2006. The company offers an upscale all-inclusive experience with excursions, staff gratuities, onboard meals, wine and beer with dinner, and beverages including spirits available throughout the day, entertainment and port charges all included in the fare. On most Tauck Programs, pre and post land programs are fairly priced and Tauck allows guests to book extra hotel nights at negotiated rates that include transfers even if the air is not booked through the line.
A popular feature is the shore dining option offering guests the chance to enjoy regional cuisine at local restaurants. A Tauck Cruise Director supported by three additional professionally-trained Tauck Assistant Directors facilitates culturally rich, mostly private, shore excursions and experiences. Passengers are normally quite pleased with the personalized attention and service they receive. Guest cabins satisfy with French balconies (sliding doors with rail guards) and floor-to-ceiling windows. The on-board experience is relaxed, spacious, refined, and elegant. Tauck guests seem to sincerely appreciate the fact that Tauck simply does not ever “upsell” its product. There are no extra-fee tours or amenities. Initially, Tauck’s competitors have let them “own” this notion of true inclusiveness. But in 2020, that is no longer true and Tauck is no longer the most inclusive of the lines.
OWNERSHIP AND HISTORY
Tauck is a family-owned travel company based in Norwalk, CT. Founded in 1925 by Arthur Tauck, his descendants are still very much involved in the business today. The Swiss Emerald, Tauck’s first company-owned riverboat was launched in 2006. Two years later the Swiss Sapphire was launched, followed by the Swiss Jewel in 2009. The ms Treasures was christened by Robin Tauck who also serves as godmother of the ship, in an event held in Cologne, Germany in July 2011. In 2014, Tauck took delivery of two new ships, the Inspire and Savor. These ships represent a new class of riverboats for Tauck called “Inspiration Class”. In 2016, Tauck will take delivery of two additional new-builds named the Grace and the Joy. Jewel-class boats in the Tauck fleet were built between 2006-2011 and carry 118 Guests. The newer Inspiration Class boats are longer and carry 130 guests. Note that Viking River’s “Longboats” carry 190 guests, 46% more than Tauck’s Jewel Class, and 32% more than their new Inspiration Class vessels. In the close confines of a riverboat, those statistics are meaningful.
OFFICERS AND CREW
The crew onboard is mostly European. On average, there are 36 crew members on board each of the Jewel Class ships and 39 crew members on Inspiration Class vessels. The crew is supplied by a Swiss company called Scylla Tours. Scylla owns all of the vessels which are on long-term lease to Tauck.
TAUCK RECONFIGURES ITS FIVE JEWEL CLASS SHIPS
Ships Have Larger Cabins, Reduced Capacity and Upgraded “Arthur’s” Restaurant As Tauck Enhances Deployments of its “Destination Fleet”
Tauck has reconfigured more than half of its European river cruising fleet in the past 24-months. The extensive rehab involved Tauck’s five Jewel Class riverboats enhanced with larger cabins, overall passenger capacity will be reduced, and each ship will also have its second onboard dining venue upgraded.
Tauck’s 110-meter Jewel Class ships include the ms Swiss Emerald, ms Swiss Sapphire, ms Swiss Jewel, ms Esprit, and ms Treasures. The company’s European riverboat fleet also includes four 135-meter Inspiration Class ships; the new ms Grace and ms Joy launching later this year, and the ms Inspire and the ms Savor.
The most dramatic enhancement aboard each ship will take place on the Ruby (middle) Deck, where 30 150 square-foot cabins in the current configuration will be replaced with 20 cabins measuring 225 square feet each. Aboard each reconfigured vessel, 69% of all cabins will thus be 225 square feet or larger – the highest percentage of such cabins on any 110-meter riverboats in Europe. In addition, overall capacity will be reduced from 118 passengers to 98, with the total number of cabins on each vessel going from 59 to 49. Tauck will continue to staff each ship with a Tauck Cruise Director and a full complement of three Tauck Directors.
On the Diamond (upper) Deck of each reconfigured vessel, the ship’s second dining venue, The Bistro, will be upgraded with its own dedicated kitchen and chef. The Bistro will be renamed Arthur’s, in tribute to company chairman Arthur Tauck Jr., and its expanded menu will continue to provide more casual alternatives to the fine dining selections offered in the ship’s main Compass Rose restaurant. Tauck first introduced the concept of a second onboard dining venue in 2006 with the launch of the ms Swiss Emerald, and the dedicated kitchen and Arthur’s name are enhancements already included on Tauck’s 135-meter ships.
Tauck is also adjusting its deployment strategy matching each ship to destinations and itineraries best suited for its specific length. On longer cruises including a transit of the Main-Danube Canal, Tauck will deploy 110-meter ships because their shorter length allows for greater efficiency and flexibility in passing through the canal’s many locks. Tauck will also continue to position two 110-meter ships in France, the ms Swiss Sapphire on the Seine and ms Swiss Emerald on Rhone/Saône, where their modest length makes docking easier in France’s smaller or more crowded ports like Paris. Tauck’s four 135-meter ships will be assigned to itineraries specifically on the Danube River, or on the Rhine and Moselle Rivers.
While Tauck won’t begin reconfiguring its ships until later this year, it has no plans to relax in the interim. Besides launching two new 135-meter ships in the coming months, Tauck is also introducing a new 10-day Rhine River cruise. Tauck has also enhanced a number of its river cruises with memorable onshore dinners in exclusive venues, including the 14th-century castle in Germany, a former Benedictine monastery (also in Germany), and a 275-year-old French chateau inspired by Versailles and today owned by descendants of Napoleon.
Ship accommodations are currently categorized in six categories on three deck levels. The Diamond Deck houses the Suites and four Junior Suites. One deck below, the Ruby Deck, has two Junior Suites forward and the rest are Standard Cabins. The most basic cabins are found on the third deck, the Emerald Deck, which sandwiched between the fitness center and crew space. Cabins are equipped with twin beds or one queen and are elevated to provide luggage storage underneath. Be sure to bring your adapters and converters as ships are equipped with 220 volts, two-pin plugs to charge electronics and the like. Bedding is luxurious and the minibar is stocked with your favorite sodas and bottled water, complimentary. Robes and slippers are provided for your comfort and every cabin is equipped with a silent alarm so at the push of a button help is on the way, should you suddenly become ill and need assistance.
Best Accommodations: The 14 suites found on the top deck measure a spacious 300 square feet and feature walk-in closets, marble baths, and full-size tubs, showers, double-bed sofa, writing desk, and double floor-to-ceiling windows. Room service is offered to suites. Junior Suites are a comfortable alternative, with 183 square feet and a small sitting area. For the majority of guests, Tauck’s 225 sq. ft. French Balcony Category 6 staterooms on their Inspiration Class ships are the best option for those who seek space and do not feel the need to be on the top passenger deck. This option is not available on the Jewel Class boats as there are only two Category 6 staterooms that are 183 sq. ft. Both are located in undesirable forward locations.
Standard Accommodations: These well-appointed and positioned cabins offer a minimum of 150 square feet and included flat-screen TVs, mini bar, safes, and cabin-controlled air conditioning.
Entry-Level Accommodations: The narrow and twisting stairway to access entry-level cabins on the lowest deck is shared by the crew and those fellow passengers wanting to access the fitness center and massage room.
We are not huge fans of the new Loft Cabins requiring guests to go up a small four-step staircase to reach a picture window and small balcony area. They can be both noisy and, for some, claustrophobic.
Breakfast on board is a buffet-style full of fruit, meats, cheeses, juices, bread, and pastries and hot and cold cereals. You may also order eggs, omelets, pancakes from the Chef’s station.
Another buffet offers lunch consisting of salads, hot and cold dishes, a menu is also provided with various selections. Beer, soft drinks, and juices are served.
On-board the Swiss named ships the open seating for dinner has tables for 4, 6, and 8. After the first cocktail reception, you will have many dining invitations so don’t fret that you won’t have tablemates. If you wish to dine at a table for 2, the Maître D will try to ensure no one else will be seated at your table. European-style dinner is a set menu with appetizer, soup, and salad as well as four or five good entrée selections including a vegetarian option. Regional wines are served, as are a soft drink, beer, and juices. Many tempting dessert choices will be offered.
An alternative to the dining room is a small intimate setting found on the top deck called the Lido bar. Here coffee and pastries are served to the early risers and light lunch offerings served bistro style. Cookies and fruit are available around the clock and some passengers play cards here to pass the time. There is a well equipped self-service coffee machine for coffee, cappuccinos, espressos, various flavored coffees, and hot water for tea. A limited dinner can be served in this area with advance reservations for a party of up to 20.
A word and about DRESS and LAUNDRY:
Dinner is not a formal affair and it is not required to dress. Men do not need to wear a suit and tie and it is unlikely that many men will wear a jacket. Dress pants and a collared shirt are the norms. There is no self-service laundry, only valet style incurring significant onboard charges. Laundry is collected in the early morning and returned before the end of the day.
Tauck utilizes one Tour Director for every 40 passengers. If the sailing is sold out you will find three tour directors leading three groups off the ship, plus the main Tour Director. Active sightseeing, memorable cultural performances, insider experiences and visits to UNESCO World Heritage sites are offered on a complimentary basis.
Passengers may opt to use earpieces called quiet boxes to be able to hear the guides no matter what the vantage point. Bicycles and helmets are offered complimentary for passengers who wish to explore on their own.
Tauck has stringent requirements for all of its in-port suppliers. Those that do not meet them are quickly removed. As one of the world’s very best tour operators and the winners of numerous “Best Tour Operator” awards, Tauck monitors every aspect of its tour offerings. Although it is often dependent on local tour operators, Tauck makes every effort to deliver the best on-shore tour product of any riverboat operator, and, based on numerous experiences by members of our Inspection Team, they normally succeed. Tauck measures everything including the number of steps from a sightseeing destination to the nearest acceptable restroom. Being the “Best Ashore in Riverboating” is no small feat and it is a major reason why Tauck tends to sell out ahead of any of its competitors. Our field reports indicate that Tauck differentiates itself from its competitors off the boats than it does on-board.
Most evening activities include a subdued musician or a movie. Themed games, cooking demonstrations or wine tastings are also offered and special events are commemorated with a performance by local musicians and lecturers.
Wireless internet is available onboard but reception is spotty and limited. There are three computers in the aft on the top deck of the Lido bar. There are also two laptops that are available for cabin use loaned out in two-hour intervals on a complimentary basis. There is a small library and DVD’s can be borrowed for use in the DVD players found in the suites. Television onboard will consist of many foreign language channels as well as CNN.
SPA AND FITNESS OPTIONS
Found on the lower deck is the fitness center equipped with a few machines and free weights. Music is provided but there is no television. Depending on the sailing there may be a masseuse and massage table onboard. These services are at an additional cost. A 24-hour hot tub is found on the top deck but we highly recommend, as always, that hot tub experiences be avoided aboard ships and riverboats.
AIR/SEA AND PROMOTIONAL PRICING
Tauck does on occasion offer special promotions on business class airfare, although they are infrequent.
Tauck is the down comforter of river cruising. It has intelligent management and a community of believers who have extreme loyalty to the product. Many knowledgeable travelers choose Tauck because of its reputation that “if something goes wrong – they will make it right.” This reputation is, in our view, fully justified, and, for many, it is reason enough, in a universe of crowded rivers, high and low water levels, and geopolitical challenges, the integrity of Tauck counts for a great deal.
Tauck has attractive, relatively speaking, single supplements, usually no more than 75%. On all sailings, the lowest cabin category supplement is waived. This is a wonderful bonus for single travelers.
CERTIFIED CSI INSPECTION REPORT: TAUCK’S BLUE DANUBE CRUISE 2019
We were first-time travelers with Tauck, but there were many travelers who had many trips with Tauck and to a person, all were extremely complimentary and the fact that they were back ‘again’, speaks for itself. One couple was on their 14th adventure with Tauck! One comment resonated with us from a couple who had traveled many times with Tauck — “with Tauck, you have access to experiences that no other cruise line provides”. This certainly proved to be the case as there were many rich experiences.
Food & Beverages aboard the ship: Very good
Food & Beverages on excursion dinners/lunches: Very good
Cruise-line Crew: Warm and friendly and extremely accommodating
Tauck cruise directors: Excellent and informative
Excursion opportunities: Excellent
Hotels on the front and back end of the trip: This was probably the weaker point of the trip. We were put up at Intercontinental in Prague and it was ok (we understood from the Tauck tour directors that this was a bit of a ‘backup’ hotel from their ‘typical’) but perhaps a notch below what we expected. In Budapest, we were put up at the New York Palace Hotel (which was a nice hotel with incredible ‘details’ in the public areas), but the location was pretty removed from the nicer tourist areas – again tour directors for Tauck noted this was a ‘backup’ to their normal hotel and location which was the Ritz Carlton.
Handling all the ‘details’ of the travel: Excellent
Air travel to and fro: Mostly good. The outgoing trip was fine – we had good arrangements and reasonable layover time in Philly on the way out and Tauck picked us up promptly in Prague and took us to the hotel. The return trip started super early and we wound up with over 6 hr layover in Heathrow – which seemed to be excessive. We probably didn’t pay enough attention to our return trip timings or we’d have tried to shorten this time. I’ve traveled extensively to and from Europe during my working life and I felt this length of layover was a bit excessive (2-3 hrs seemed more my experience). Anyway, a minor inconvenience in the scheme of things.
CERTIFIED CSI INSPECTION REPORT: TAUCK’S SAVORING FRANCE
Tauck Savoring France 4/24 – 5/3 Cruise comments
The cruise director and three tour directors were all very good at their trade and sensitive to the needs of their guests. The MS Emerald crew were very good and most helpful. Kudos to them all!
4/24 Arrival – Worked well – driver from CDG was excellent, very informative, pleasant. Hotel check-in went well–room available on arrival. The room was European smallish but adequate. Welcome by Tauck staff good; informative, pleasant. Welcome dinner good; efficiently done. Music was acceptable. Night bus tour OK.
4/25 – “Toujours La Dimanche” – Chocolate, Macaroons, olive oil tasting – excellent! Good presentations, interesting subjects.
Breakfasts at the Intercontinental Hotel were excellent with a wide selection of foods and good service.
4/26 – Cordon Bleu cooking school (macarons) – very interesting! Good instructors, very helpful. An interesting team exercise.
TGV to Lyon: a bit confusing regarding track location – long walk – warn people of potential long walk within Gare de Lyon.
4/27 – Tour of Les Halles market very interesting – our guide – a middle-age man — was excellent! Tasting of food and wine – very good.
Oingt – OK, a bit long and hard walking. While warnings were provided, this was a difficult and potentially hazardous walk for older and less sure-footed guests.
Gayot winery tour in Anse – rough, poorly maintained location, featuring a quirky husband and wife team and just so-so wine. Suggest a more representative winery and professional presentation.
4/28 – Viviers – Interesting medieval town with a very entertaining tour guide, Pierre. Had a very nice home visit with a Vietnamese couple; very gracious. Petanque games were interesting.
The on-board wine tasting presentation was excellent. Unfortunately, only one of the reds and no whites was acceptable to me. Perhaps a better-known winery…?
4/29 – Arles – Good, guide, a young man well informed and with a good command of the English language. Interesting walking tour, especially the Coliseum.
Lunch and entertainment at the Camargue ranch were very good; quite interesting. Trip to round-up the bulls was especially interesting. Our hosts were gracious and accommodating.
4/30 – Avignon – Palais des Papes was a disappointment: just an excessive number of very large and quite empty rooms, combined with too many stairs! Our young female host gave a good presentation and history lesson, yet could not make the tour worthwhile due to the subject’s desolate chambers! Ya’ gotta do better than that!
The Roman aqueduct was potentially interesting with a very complete museum presentation which our guide raced through, totally confusing us. The visit was somewhat saved with the actual walk to the aqueduct.
This guide was unsatisfactory due to an unstructured presentation, failing to adequately use museum visual aids, very poor English – vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation. I am told that these guides are government employees assigned at random. Our guide ruined our visit due to her significant inadequacies.
Transportation back to the boat not provided – difficult for the aged. Boat location was a long walk from town – entrance from the road to the ship upon return was across a ditch with no easy way around it.
Dinner at Duchy D’Uzès. Wonderful setting/structure, good string trio (the principal violinist should be a bit more subtle staccato passages), and excellent wines/dinner. Keep this one!
5/1 – Chateauneuf du Pape wine tasting – Most varietals not suitable for American palates. Steep hill to wine cellars was very difficult for older and infirm guests, especially climbing back to the buses. While cautions regarding these grades were included in briefing materials, most attendees were surprised by their steepness. Suggest working on descriptions of the difficulty accommodating precipitous terrain and stairs. Another example of this was experienced by visitors to the Pope’s Castle and its endless stairs.
The alternative tour using a miniature train was OK but left the participants far from the boat at the end of the tour. Many endured a long walk back or were compelled to take a taxi. On balance, though, the more gentle tours for the less able or adventurous were appreciated.
5/2 Tain l’Hermitage – Train through town and surrounding vineyards – very good, especially the tour of the vineyards.
Valence – Cooking school was interesting, but the cooking lesson featured an esoteric concoction of little interest to most of the attendees. However, the wine and cheese pairing presentation was excellent. The presenter was an expert at his craft, providing a good presentation.
5/3 To Paris – Transfer to TGV went well as did the trip to Paris. (We stayed an additional week in Paris.)
- We sailed MS Emerald three years ago on the Danube, so knew the original configuration of the boat. We were pleasantly surprised with the reconfigured 200-series staterooms on this cruise. They were more spacious and better arranged. We were especially impressed with the larger and redesigned bathroom. Good work!
- Again, the crew and staff for all phases of the tour were excellent. Of particular note were the very hard-working cabin cleaners.
CERTIFIED CRUISE INSPECTION REPORT:
Although Richard and I are back on terra firma after our Danube cruise, I am still floating. What an incredible adventure you prepared for us, thank you so much! We went on a fantastic voyage! This trip was planned to celebrate Richard’s birthday, but we were both gifted with memories we will treasure forever.
Even a seemingly mundane 3-hour bus ride was a highlight! The Tauck staff was wonderful. We felt well taken care of. Thank you for the special added touches and gifts on the cruise and in Paris. If I start writing about our stay at La Reserve Hotel, this email will never end. The cake and champagne was tres magnifique, merci! There were times I was was so surprised and delighted [on this trip] that I forgot to freeze special moments with my camera. Truth be told, I doubt a photo would have captured all the emotions I was feeling.
This trip was so much more than we anticipated. We absolutely loved not having to think about incidental charges and tipping. The shipboard credit was a great bonus and traveling category 7 was definitely the way to go! The perk of breakfast delivered to our stateroom was truly a welcome delight. The fruit was bright and sweet, eggs cooked to perfection, and we sipped freshly brewed coffee while cruising along the Danube with our sliding doors open to breathe in fresh air and take in the splendid views.
We left a lock with our names on the love lock bridge in Saltzburg-sounds sappy I know, but we often felt as if we were on our honeymoon. We are grateful the Churchill and Turen team planned our trip. I’m no longer dreading turning 50 this December. I know exactly what I want for my birthday!
Note: Our Cruise Ship Inspection Team travels undercover and pays full fare.
VERIFIED CSI INSPECTION REPORT:
It was great. We had a wonderful time and would recommend Churchill & Turen and Tauck to anyone. Already have.
Here is a summary.
Trip planning, attention to details, information & communications, admin, everything was totally worry-free.
All logistics throughout the trip – could not have been better. All coordination and transfers perfect. Buses were pristine,
Ship (Savor) was incredible. We ended up comparing all our hotel rooms and bathrooms to the ship. Best stateroom by far that we’ve ever traveled in. AC was perfect. We took advantage of all ship amenities.
Service – could not have been better. Everyone was wonderful, helpful, fun. Spent some time getting to know our security, Mr Ivan (“e vaan”). Believe it or not, he would get the award for the best smile of all crew, which one would not know from his work face. Every person on board made us feel special.
Food – just the best we could ask for. Probably too good, which I believe was the plan anyway! Could not get enough of the lamb, veal, bakery items, and fresh fruit. The outdoor BBQ one evening was a real highlight. We never tried room service but did make use of Authur’s quite a bit. Having the self serve coffee/expresso machine there was really nice; casual lunch and late dining / snacking were just the best. Actually ordered the salmon tempura from there to the main dining once. Can’t comment on the wine/tasting, etc as we don’t drink, but sure looked like all were really enjoying.
Food on our own – incredible small finds in Prague, all over. A unique special memory was the Blue Duckling. Quaint, great food, fun piano. In Budapest, a favorite was dining along the river at Dunacorso outside. Lots of great places to eat.
Dining off the ship was really good, and the efforts to make the events special were very good. Food portions were much smaller vs on ship, but no one starved! Entertainment in Vienna was the best – the quartet was fabulous.
The visit to homes in Engelhartzell was a high point. Could have spent a full day doing that! Excursions were good, but not what we hoped. Walking around Prague and Budapest on our own was the best fun. Of the cities visited our favorites if force ranked: Salzburg, Prague & Budapest, Durnstein/Engelhartzell, Regensburg, Vienna, Bratislava. The bicycle excursions were really good but the long ride along the Danube was a bit too long for anyone that does not ride a bike much, even if in real good shape. The scenery was incredible. We do have some recommendations, which we also provided to Tauck.
The weather turned out much drier than expected, and lots of blue sky. Wow!!
Hotels were as expected – outstanding. Dining at Ritz was really good. Locations were excellent.
The guides ranged from very so-so to good. All were extremely friendly. We have had a lot of experience with guides in many countries, so maybe our expectations were too high for Tauck – especially since the cruise was so “First Class” in all other categories. Maybe one context is that we did a lot of EF Tours with our kids throughout their high school and then some early college. EF is designed for students. The things EF did best were the tours and guides, and everything else is basically 2-star. We thought many of our Tauck tours moved way too slow for us, and we wanted to break off and did at some points.
Vienna was a huge disappointment. We would gladly substitute a day there for being able to do both Salzburg and Cesky. Shopping there was a total non-event unless you’re a Gucci or something. The museums were huge disappointments based on expectations and any other world city comparisons. We went to four on our own.
The on-board exercise area is a waste of a cabin.
Only request for food on-board: little things. The ship was about 90% Americans. So, you better have some ranch dressing. Would have loved some blue cheese. Getting hot sauce was challenging. The hollandaise sauce wasn’t good. The cooks seemed challenged with eggs at breakfast. I wanted to cook my own.
#5 – SCENIC
OVERVIEW; THE SCENIC RIVER BOAT DOSSIER:
Scenic has declined in our rankings as a result of its inexplicable handling of guests booked on canceled sailings due to Covid-19 related issues. Where Scenic canceled paid-in-full sailings, booked guests are being refused any refunds until June of 2023, when they can first apply for what is rightly theirs. Our CSI inspections, where itinerary changes were required, were not particularly favorable. Scenic seems to have some management issues with headquarters being located in Switzerland and Australia. The line has had several lawsuits filed in Australia as a result of the manner in which it substituted bus tours for river cruises when conditions made sailing impossible. It recently lost the major class-action suit. This leads us to question the company’s financial health.
Scenic has achieved high ratings on the basis of unusually impressive word-of-mouth, the design of benchmark-design new ships, and services that have to be considered “The Most Inclusive On The River”. You can literally sail Scenic and never feel the need to remove your wallet from the wall safe in your cabin.
Scenic has a crew that seems dedicated to caring service and to remembering guests’ likes and dislikes. The newest class of ships is a study in contrasts, black lacquer doors line the ship’s passageways and large modern art pieces adorn the walls. This is in stark contrast to some of the dowdy designs of other lines who seem uninterested in copying Scenic’s contemporary design flair.
This is a river cruise line sincerely dedicated to meeting the needs of the upscale traveler – that is more a statement of fact than a PR release. All lines make this claim, but Scenic delivers on it.
The specifics include all shore excursions, complimentary special excursions that are “optional on all other lines but Tauck and Crystal, reserved Scenic special shore events, all drinks and gratuities, full-balconies, room service, a stocked refrigerator, and three dining venues, Butler services are offered for guests in all cabin levels. Services are offered on a sliding scale – with those paying for the higher suites getting the most services and actually seeing their butler from time to time.
Scenic’s riverboats are called “space ships”, a nod to the space ratios per passenger. This is a figure usually applied to cruise lines to assess their level of comfort. In the world of European riverboats, size per guest (imagine yourself walking and being surrounded by an imaginary box of private space) takes on a particular meaning. In the case of Scenic it translates to the fact that Scenic, when compared to competitors, could easily carry 20-25 more guests than it does.
But Scenic is not an American company and before 2014, the line made little effort to appeal to American guests. That has changed. Last year, Scenic reported that sales in North America were up over 180% and they have opened a US-based office. In April of 2016, they chose an American riverboat consultant, Riverboat Ratings Associate Editor, to be their newest ship’s Godmother, a nod to the growing importance of the American market.
Americans sailing Scenic will find boats filled with affluent Australians on a two-week Holiday. Guests from Canada, the United Kingdom as well as South Africa constitute the bulk of the remaining passengers. Scenic has a somewhat younger, more adventurous vibe than its American competitors. This has to do with the long travel time from Australia but, if truth be told, it also is related to the truly inclusive nature of these cruises and the orientation of the line toward more active travelers. Being on a Scenic sailing with an average age that is 5-10 years younger than its American counterpart, like Tauck, would not be unusual.
The company was founded by Glen Moroney in 1986 as a Melbourne-based tour firm specializing in senior citizen touring. It is still family-owned. The company grew and the riverboat division was launched in 2008 with the Scenic Sapphire and Emerald. The company now has more than a dozen ships and is doing river cruises in throughout Asia, North America, and Europe. The Scenic Spirit will be doing cruises in Southeast Asia, an extremely popular destination in the Australian market.
In 2014, Scenic launched a new river cruise line called Emerald Cruises. Emerald is meant to be less expensive than Scenic with fewer inclusions. The fact that Emerald was launched with new boats, makes it an attractive alternative for budget-conscious travelers who wish to vacation on a largely Australian product. In order to grow the company, Moroney and his staff have moved from Melbourne to Switzerland to better manage their European crew and port operations.
Scenic staffs using traditional riverboat sources. But unlike the vast majority of their competitors, they own, rather than lease their boats. This gives them a great deal of autonomy in terms of crew allocations, staffing, and on-board operations.
There are some Indonesians, who provide genuine warmth and good service supplemented by staff from Eastern Europe, a group that traditionally finds it a bit harder to smile. But somehow, Scenic has overcome that stereotype and our inspectors found the staff engaging and friendly at every turn. In fact, when our team did its exclusive “Guest Recognition Drill” Scenic scored the highest grades in the riverboat industry and came very close to meeting the scores of the top two five-star rated luxury cruise lines.
Scenic’s tag line is “Luxury Cruises and Tours”. But luxury is defined in Australia in somewhat different terms than it is in the States so don;t look for staff to know your name. Diamond Deck guests are often found discussing the various merits or failings of their butlers. Although Scenic has significantly grown its US business, staff can sometimes be unfamiliar with the eccentricities of American taste.
Scenic’s boats are unusually contemporary in design. They offer a stunning contrast to older, more traditional vanilla-box riverboat designs found on several competitors. For some older travelers the furniture may be too modern, seeming to appeal to a younger crowd. Couches, for instance, are lower to the floor and few of the chairs in suites or public areas are plush, allowing guests to sink down into them. Many of the older guests aboard found the modern furnishings tough to navigate. Sitting was no problem – getting up from one’s seat was a struggle for some.
We have been surprised by the quality of the bedding, with a full “pillow menu” available as well as Egyptian lines. The staterooms feature mini-bars that are complimentary. We love the fact that there is a turn-down service each evening. Staterooms feature butler service by graduates of the highly-regarded International Butler Academy. And everyone, including guests in the least expensive cabins receives butler service.
The entry-level cabins are a tight 160 sq. ft., are on the bottom deck and should be avoided. The mid-range categories range from 225-250 sq. ft. and offer a small, private balcony. The Royal Panorama Suites and the Royal Suites are the top accommodations at 325 sq. ft. and 315 sq. ft. Both feature sun lounges, an exclusive retractable glass window that can fold away resulting in a balcony fitting two guests. Even the entry-level categories surprisingly include the complimentary mini-bar as well as limited butler services.
Scenic provides for the complimentary use of electric-powered bicycles in port. These motor-driven bikes are easier to peddle, particularly when it comes to sharp inclines. In several of the most popular itineraries in Europe, including Rhine, Danube, and cruises in the south of France, Scenic offer high quality bike excursions as part of their Freestyle Choice tour options. Serious bicycle riders can select a multi-speed bike while those who would like to do some riding without all of the strain can choose one of the electric bikes. There seem to be enough to satisfy all interested guests. This bike program is operated by a professional local in-port team. We were impressed with their instruction and concern for safety. Bike rides were conducted in a truly professional manner.
“Tailormade” hand-held speaker sets are another extremely worthwhile Scenic innovation. This gives guests going ashore the opportunity to hear commentary on dozens of pre-recorded tours. They can be used while sailing or in conjunction with guided or independent as well as bicycle touring. This is excellent for anti-social and independent types who would like to break away from group tours.
The menus on this fleet are ambitious. Often, they are over-stated and the small kitchen has a hard time keeping up with anything that smacks of a special order. But give Scenic credit for, at least, pretending to haute cuisine, something no riverboat can, under present cost and size circumstances, successfully pull off. The main dining room is called Crystal. The line is experimenting with a Table La Rive, a curtained-off section of the main dining room serving better food than the rest of the guests receive in a six-course meal paired with wines. This is exclusively available to guests booked on the upper Diamond Deck and it establishes a two-caste system that seems pretentious on such a small vessel. Our Inspection Team thought the effort missed the mark. It was necessary for La Rive guests to be served different foods in full view of the other guests who did not qualify based on their deck assignment.
Other options for the lower-classes on-board include a smallish Italian eatery called Portobellos and The River Café, an all-day casual dining option for sandwiches, wraps, and some rather good gelato. Dining is, overall, well-received as long as guests concentrate on grilled items, avoiding versions of Aussie fast-food or imitation-American dining. While there is portion control, seconds are always available.
Our Inspection Teams rated Scenic’s food among the best on Europe’s rivers. Their buffet breakfasts were singled out by inspectors as “better than many of the five-star cruise lines.” Noted in our reports were some specific examples of what sets Scenic apart at the breakfast table:
- Custom egg stations and local-style European breads and pastries
- Every ship has a $15,000 MF coffee maker with high-quality lattes and cappuccinos.
- There are always two kinds of bacon – crispy and regular, a small thing, but typical of the Scenic “touch”.
- Instead of canned apricots, the fruit section features fresh apricots marinated overnight in orange juice.
- There are always pannini’s and freshly-baked cookies available.
Unlike its competitors who might serve an in-cabin breakfast to guests booked on their upper deck suites, Scenic enables guests to order dinner from their butler who will serve it in the comfort of the guest’s suite.
We love the concept of Scenic “Sundowners”, cocktail parties held in lovely surroundings ashore. Scenic Enrich is a program of cultural immersion that comes at no additional cost. ScenicFreeChoice is, as the name implies, a series of complimentary tours available in each port. In fact, Scenic is truly inclusive and there are no tours in the Scenic Program that require additional expenditures.
Scenic is definitely not for everyone. But if guests feel that an international collection of fellow passengers, largely Aussie, is a plus, it has to be considered a top tier product. The issue has to do with Scenic’s staff cutbacks and policies that leads us to question their understanding of the American market. They have not handled water-level issues well in the past and the present decisions to refuse refunds to booked guests is troubling and, perhaps, indicative of trouble ahead.
Many US agents are unfamiliar with Scenic. They are a tad difficult to work with and this may turn off some travel consultants. Others may not be recommending Scenic, when they should, because the line has not yet penetrated the better consortium groups and an agent selling Scenic will not receive the appropriate booking credit. But Scenic is on a mission, make no mistake about it, to engage and conquer the US market. Those who count them out would be foolish – the boats and onboard products are that good.
To properly understand Scenic it might be interesting for you to visit our sister site, www.luxurycruiseratings.com You will notice that the top-rated cruise ship in the world is now the Europa 2 which belongs to Hapag-Lloyd. Few Americans, even sophisticated world travelers, know about this ship. The fact that the vast majority of guests are German is generally not seen as a marketing plus. Americans are often intimidated to sail with other nationalities. Scenic may be a victim of this narrow-minded view. But those guests who have sailed Scenic, tell us that the most outstanding characteristic of the line is the presence of the Aussies. That tends to make for a convivial atmosphere from start to finish.
Sadly, based on our most recent inspections, we are lowering our ratings of Scenic. They handle things beautifully in calm waters, but when things turn south, Scenic seems to be a company without a plan and guests who are affected by water-related itinerary changes may leave Europe with an extremely disappointing view of the company. It is hard to place the blame on any one thing, but the fact that management is based abroad has, thus far, resulted in confusing and untruthful messaging to guests who want to salvage their vacation in the best manner possible when aspects of a bus tour are substituted for sailing under conditions of flooding or drought.
Our most recent CSI Inspector Report reflected the manner in which Scenic staff reacted to major schedule changes due to high water:
- “The best component of this cruise was the flight home. Scenic’s lack of communication, incorrect and contradictory information left guests angry. Instead of a two-hour train trip to Macon guests were subjected to a grueling 8-hour bus transfer. They stopped briefly for lunch and then refused to pay for passenger’s $5.00 sandwiches. In Macon, guests changed to another ship berthed in a construction zone. It was necessary to walk through a construction area just to board the ship.
- Our “cruise” never cruised anywhere with the exception of one day at the end. We were inconveniently docked 98% of the time. Once aboard the Emerald we had to pack, 3 days later, for an 11-hour bus ride to an absolutely awful hotel in Avignon. We then had to pack again to spend two nights on our original ship the Sapphire.
- Guests were never told how much time they would be spending on buses and most wished they had gone home immediately after arriving to find the cruise canceled.
- The ship advertised a “fitness center”. There was none. The advertised “Sundowner” event never happened. The Table La Rive” for upper deck guests was advertised as relaxing and intimate. It wasn’t. Guests were seated, crammed is the right word, into two tables, and served a frantic meal in the middle of a crowded dining room.
- When we moved to the Emerald we were assigned a handicap cabin. The seat in the shower took up 90% of the available space. There was no room to stand.
- The cruise director was pleasant enough but communications were inconsistent and totally unreliable. It was one big amateur show.
- Every lunch buffet was populated by leftovers from previous meals. One day we noticed that there were a great many breakfast sausages left over. They showed up in a “sausage salad” at lunch.
- All the scheduled onboard entertainers were canceled or were “no-shows”.
- The first few days they delivered canapes to the cabin. Then, inexplicably, they stopped.
- Our room had no “do not disturb” sign so the crew would continually enter the room, or try to, unannounced.
- It is clear that management decisions are not being made on the ship. Scenic did not exhibit any evidence of water-related contingency planning.
- In the end, guests were offered future credits based on the number of nights of cruising they missed. This was erroneously calculated as three nights, upsetting the vast majority of guests who were expecting full refunds or credits.
It would appear that Scenic can be very, very good when the water is smooth. But this line has a long way to go in terms of reacting with class and consideration when water issues require major itinerary changes. for its largely upscale clientele.”
The above report is not typical of Scenic’s generally outstanding guest evaluations. It is somewhat typical of an industry-wide problem that involves creative planning for water-level related itinerary changes. Like many of its lower-cost and quality competitors, Scenic says that it reacts to emergencies on a “case by case” basis. In our view, that is insufficient for a line that is, in almost all other ways, at the top of its class. It should be clear that our CSI Team was aboard Scenic during a particularly bad water situation that was poorly handled at all levels. It would be fair to say that such a report could have been written about virtually any of the lines with the possible exception of Crystal and Tauck. But those are Scenic’s real competitors in the upscale market. This is far more an industry problem than a Scenic problem.
OUR LATEST CERTIFIED CSI INSPECTION REPORT:
Let’s start with the pre-tour in Amsterdam. You convinced us to give the Pulitzer Hotel a try and we are glad we did. What a delightful mouse-maze. Constructed over some two city blocks and comprising 28 refurbished Amsterdam townhouses, it is a challenge to find your way around. As he was helping us find the restaurant, one of the staff said (only half-jokingly) that new employees are given an hour per day for their first month or two to be lost! The staff was friendly and quite helpful. Our bellman found out it was our 40th anniversary and sent champagne to our room with a nice, handwritten note.
As to our cabin accommodations aboard, we made the right choice. We were in one of four Royal Balcony Suites in the middle of the upper deck. We paid extra for this upgrade and it was worth the price. While everyone on board was treated very well, we got a bit extra from all the staff. We had a large bedroom area and a nice, connecting sitting area with a large screen TV and a desk. We were impressed with the ingenious use of space, especially for storage. The only upgrade from our cabin were the two Panoramic cabins in the stern. These had large windows on two sides with great views. Because they are directly above the engine room, I thought noise and vibration might be an issue. However, one of the couples we met said it wasn’t an issue for them. So, the big drawback to the Panoramic cabins is that they are as far from the food and drinks as you can get and still be on the ship! Since we were midships, we made the right choice.
We and many of our fellow passengers commented on what a happy crew we had and how well they seemed to get along with one another. It was reflected in the congenial, “anything you need” service we received for the entire voyage. The hotel operations manager, Goran, knew most of the passenger’s names by the third or fourth day! During the trip we had two cruise directors, Simona and Nikola (we were on two back-to-back cruises). Very different personality types but both very capable and helpful with wonderful senses of humor and the patience of Job!
A reoccurring theme at the end of each cruise was “I’m staying on board and never leaving!” Nikola’s response was, “Can you stay onboard? Of course, we have plenty of uniforms.”
The on-shore excursions and various activities were fun and well organized. It did make for busy, sometimes tiring days. However, we did it all for fear of missing something. Some of the activities, such as the Medieval dinner at Marksburg Castle and the Octoberfest lunch seemed a bit contrived for the tourists, but that’s part of being a tourist. Other events, such as the concert at the Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna were nothing less than world-class.
The tours typically had local guides, usually one per bus. For the most part they were very knowledgeable, helpful and fluent in English. We had only one that didn’t seem up to Scenic’ s standards, and she might just have been having a bad day.
The last part of our trip, at the end of the river tour, was by coach through Romania, Bulgaria, and into Turkey. This is where we ran into the problem getting into Turkey, not because of any visa issue but because the Bulgarian border guards had gone on strike. The guides and driver quickly devised a Plan B and got us into Turkey via a different crossing. The highlight of this part of the tour was the visit to the Gallipoli battlegrounds. I had a general knowledge of this WWI event, but the detail provided by our Turkish guide, Ozcan Alkan, was just amazing. He had this encyclopedic knowledge of Turkish history, culture and politics that made the trip a real learning experience. We were all convinced he was directly wired into “Saint Google” (his term).
The only “low-light” of the coach part of the tour was the Garden of Eden hotel in Nessebar. It appeared to be a last-minute substitute for the original hotel. It definitely was not up to Scenic standards. The staff was unhelpful, the A/C seemed to be shut down for the season, and the only amenity in the bathroom was a single bar of soap. The consensus in our, by then group of 12 couples, was that Scenic should not use this hotel again.
Our final stop was Istanbul, staying at the InterContinental Hotel. This was our first time in Istanbul. The various tours on the itinerary gave us a very good overview. We also got out on our own and explored the city. The hotel lived up to its five-star rating; nice accommodations and friendly, helpful staff.
The trip, which we considered our Grand Tour of Europe, was everything we hoped it would be and more. On the first part of the river trip, Canadians and Australians made up most of the group. There were only 17 Americans aboard. When we travel abroad we want to meet people from other countries, not be in a “little America” cocoon. Scenic certainly provided that.
# 6- AVALON WATERWAYS
Current Report Card Score: 73%
RIVERBOATRATINGS BOTTOM LINE:
Avalon is a wholly owned subsidiary of mainstream tour operator Globus. The Swiss-based company is a major player in worldwide tourism, carrying more than half a million passengers annually. The Avalon fleet was designed primarily to support the Globus brand of touring. Relatively small, Avalon will operate 19 ships in Europe, the Mekong Delta, China, and Egypt by the end of 2013. Avalon’s newest class of ships is called “Suite” class. The Panorama introduced in 2011 is the first of this new breed and is referred to as an “All-Suite” vessel. In river boat terms, the cabins are large at 200 square feet with sliding glass walls, but to call 200 square feet a “suite”, one must be employed in a river boat marketing department. The Visionary and Vista came on board in 2012 and the Artistry 11 and Expression joinED the fleet in 2013. Avalon’s core guests are from North America and many have toured with one of the Globus brands. On board service and amenities are not the best in class but do satisfy those who are not travel sophisticates as well as those with budgetary concerns. Avalon charters the boats it uses outside of Europe.
# 7 – VIKING RIVER CRUISES
CURRENT REPORT CARD SCORE: 72%
Viking River Cruises is the largest river cruise line in the world. The extensive fleet is designed to navigate the world’s great rivers sailing in Europe, Russia and Ukraine, Egypt, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
When compared with its competitors, Viking is the most aggressively expanding river cruise line. The line has been adding an amazing 12-14 new Longships each of the last two years with similar expansion ahead. Viking River is the only riverboat cruise line that has launched its own cruise line.
Viking currently manages/owns 48 riverboats including 30 Longships. The line has been increasing its passenger count by 40% per year. Its size has enabled Viking River to do more advertising than all of its competitors combined and one could make the case that Vikings’ classic take on river cruising in its ads has been responsible for large portions of the growth of this travel segment.
The new design incorporated into the Longships includes hybrid diesel-electric engines and noise-insulated engine rooms reducing fuel consumption by 20% as well as engine noise and vibration. Additional ‘green’ features include an onboard membrane water treatment plant, solar panels, and organic herb garden.
Unique to Viking River Cruises is the fact it owns 65 centrally-located docking locations along rivers in Europe. As the ports are limited and local authorities determine who docks where ownership of docking space does give Viking Guests an advantage when time in port is limited.
Despite the advantages of size and growth, Viking remains the Ford and Chevrolet of river cruising. Service can be indifferent and food ranks below that served aboard competitors listed at the top of our ratings. For many of its best “deals” Viking River requires that guests pay for their cruise in full at the time of booking. This is often a sign that a company has a cash flow problem. There is little doubt that Viking River has substantial debt and cost savings measures can be seen in the number of add-ons for sale as well as the tight control in areas such as food portion control.
OWNERSHIP AND HISTORY
Viking River Cruises is one of the original global river cruising companies. About 20 years ago, Karine Hagen, daughter of Viking’s owner and Chairman took a multi-generational river cruise in Russia with members of her extended family. She reported back to her father what a lovely time was had by all and encouraged him to book a trip on the Volga River himself. Shortly thereafter, the Norwegian-native bought four Russian ships and Viking River Cruises was born.
Established in 1997, Viking steadily increased its fleet while catering to the European market. In 2000, Viking expanded into the US market, establishing its headquarters in Los Angeles.
The colorful CEO of Viking River is Torstein Hagen. Hagen was formerly the CEO of Royal Viking Line and has also served on the boards of Holland America Line and Kloster Cruise Ltd. The company’s Board of Directors includes prominent investors and financial leaders with a background in the cruising and shipping industries.
OFFICER AND CREW
As with most river cruise lines operating in Europe, crew comes from Eastern Europe with a smattering of other nationalities. The crew speaks English and has completed a proprietary training program implemented through Viking’s Swiss management team. Program Directors are native to the region, normally from Eastern Europe.
While accommodations on-board river cruise ships are limited by the size of the river and the need to navigate through locks, Viking’s staterooms do offer modern creature comforts. Most ships have been renovated or built since 2000 and offer outside staterooms with picture windows or sliding doors (French balconies). Storage and closet space is cleverly designed making the most efficient use of limited space and all rooms have a private bath with shower. Wireless internet, bottled water, and premium bath products are included complimentary and most ships include televisions, safes and refrigerators in staterooms. All ships are air-conditioned. We like the Scandinavian design features on the new Longships. The interior smacks of a modern, four-star hotel in Copenhagen.
- Best Accommodations: Featured on the newly designed Long Ships, the Explorer Suites are the largest of all river cruise suites in Europe at 445 square feet. These deluxe staterooms include a separate living room, bedrooms, and private wrap-around veranda with 270-degree views. The Veranda Suites come in a close second with a veranda off of the separate living room and a French balcony in the bedroom.
- Standard Accommodations: French Balcony Staterooms are comfortable with a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door, ample storage space, and a queen bed which can be converted into two twins.
- Entry-level Accommodations: While slightly larger than the French Balcony Staterooms, the Standard Staterooms are located on the lowest decks and include a half window near the ceiling as these cabins are at water level. Anyone who has issues with claustrophobia should pass on these.
Suites aboard the new Long Ships include a large bathroom with double sinks and heated floor and mirror. Premium bath amenities are included in all staterooms as well as a hairdryer and vanity kit. Staterooms are equipped with showers while suites have both tubs and showers.
Dining is open seating at set times, primarily with tables of four and six. For those who wish to be seated a preferred table near the window or for larger groups who wish to sit together, you will need to arrive promptly at meal-time as reservations are not accepted and seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis. Menus are tailored to the local region you are sailing through and while the dining room is comfortable and overall the dining is good, foodies will be disappointed having expected a higher quality and greater consistency. There is no room service.
Breakfast is served buffet-style however you can also order omelets, pancakes, and French toast. The fruit selection is limited and sometimes canned or previously frozen. An early-bird breakfast of coffee, tea, fruit juice, and small pastries is also available at dawn each morning.
The lunch buffet features salads, sandwiches, and a hot entree option such as pasta. Lunch can be enjoyed on the Sun Deck while dinner is always served in the restaurant. Dinner is a fixed menu with limited appetizer and entree options. Regional wine, beer, and soft drinks are served complimentary at lunch and dinner. Guests may purchase wines locally while onshore and enjoy them with dinner. There is no corkage fee.
Tea is served each afternoon, which consisted of small cakes and Lipton tea. Coffee, cappuccino, tea, and water are available at any time.
Dress is casual. There are no formal nights however for the Captain’s Welcome Dinner and/or Farewell Dinner most people will dress country club casual.
City orientation and highlights tours are offered complimentary in most ports of an itinerary. These tours are conducted by local guides to groups of 20 or 25 passengers, based upon fitness levels to set an appropriate walking pace. Additional tours offering greater depth and access to museums or specialty venues are provided for a supplemental cost. Most of these tours are proposed and can be booked once onboard however there are three which need to be arranged in advance; the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow. Reservations for the latter this tour must only be pre-arranged if your Volga River sailing is from Moscow to St. Petersburg, visits to the Kremlin Armoury can be booked onboard on sailings from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
Onboard Viking cruises you may also take advantage of the Onboard Host to assist with personalizing your shore excursions. This host acts like a hotel concierge and can arrange for reservations at local restaurants, book spa appointments, or theater tickets or arrange for a private car service. While this is a nice amenity and does add an additional level of service to the Viking experience, we would always recommend confirming your reservations for dining at the finest establishments, taking in a performance, or arranging private sightseeing tours well in advance to avoid disappointment. There are limits to what the overworked onboard host can do.
Life onboard Viking River Cruises is low-key and relaxed. You can expect guest lectures, cooking demonstrations, or the evening lounge musicians. Other onboard activities include hands-on crafts, cultural performances, and tastings of local wines, cheeses, or coffees. Some guests complain of being bored at night or when there are long stretches of time onboard.
SPA & FITNESS OPTIONS:
Viking River Cruises’ ships do not feature a spa or gym, other than the new Viking Emerald on the Yangtze River in China. The onboard Viking Host will assist you to book a spa appointment at a local spa on European river cruises however this will severely limit your time to explore the local area.
AIR/SEA PROMOTIONAL PRICING:
Viking offers contracted rates on international flights in conjunction with their river cruises. In order to arrive or depart on a date other than the embarkation or disembarkation sailing dates, select your preferred flight schedule or airline or arrive into or depart from an alternative city from the sailing itinerary, you must pay a $50 per person fee before your agent can be transferred to Viking’s air department. There will also be additional charges to deviate your flight itinerary to an alternative city or should you wish to stop over anywhere along the way. Viking’s contracted fares are competitive and if you book your air with Viking, they will include round trip transfers to and from the airport (assuming your flights coincide with ship/hotel check-in/check-out days), typically a $120 per person value.
If you decide to take a chance and leave booking your flight’s sight unseen to Viking, they will confirm the reservation 75 days prior to departure and provide you with the details 3 weeks before your trip with the final cruise documents. This timing is restrictive for those who are particular about seat assignments on long international flights.
We do recommend that guests consult the “Frequently Asked Questions for Air/Sea Guests” prepared by our staff. This report discusses the best strategy to select air in conjunction with cruise or riverboat vacations.
THE VIKING BOTTOM LINE:
We think that Viking River is more honest than some other lines in describing the experiences it offers. It is not a luxury product and makes few claims in this area. We have been generally disappointed in the manner in which the line has handled past emergencies such as high water on the Danube and low water on the Rhine. If everything is going well Viking is a viable option. But if there is a problem, we feel that the line’s customer service is less than acceptable. We do not believe that any consumer ought to be supporting any product that requires full payment far in advance in order to secure marketing discounts off a phony original price. That is, we believe, a red flag.
Others may rate Viking River higher than we do. The ships, particularly the Longboats, are stylish and contemporary. The food can be good though not memorable. But Viking loses points in our inspections as a result of the manner in which it responds to customer service issues. They clearly feel they are too big to fail – but sometimes, in the aftermath of a problem sailing, they do.