River cruising the 'most relaxing, comfortable' way to see Europe

By Gene Sloan, USA TODAY

The number of Americans who take river cruises in Europe is still tiny as compared to the number who take ocean cruises. But it's a niche that's growing fast, thanks to a handful of companies such as Chatsworth, Calif.-based AmaWaterways. Founded in 2002, the rapidly expanding river line now operates 9 vessels in Europe and Asia, with three more on the way for 2011. What's fueling the growth in river cruising? USA TODAY's Gene Sloan talks with AmaWaterways co-founder and executive vice president Kristin Karst:

Q: River cruising has taken off in recent years. What's driving the growth? What is the allure of a river cruise?

A: (People are discovering that) river cruising is the most relaxing, comfortable and elegant way to experience a destination like Europe or Russia, or Vietnam and Cambodia. River cruising maximizes your time at a destination and with it the destination experience due to the fact that you don't have to check in and check out of hotels. No time is wasted (traveling through) congested rush hour traffic or along view-obstructed highways (to get to the next city). While you are asleep, the ship brings you comfortably to the next destination. (In many cases) you dock in the center of town, and you simply have to step off the ship and you are there.

Q: How does a river cruise differ from an ocean cruise?

A: On an ocean cruise the ship is the prime destination, while on a river cruise, the ship is the floating boutique hotel that brings you to the desired destination. River cruises offer a very cozy environment with only 100 to 180 guests on board, and within one week you can meet all of them and make many new friends. It is an educational experience, and it is as easy to get on and off the ship as walking in and out of a hotel. (On European itineraries) we are docked most of the time in the center of a gorgeous city or quaint village, surrounded by lovely vineyards and/or old European heritage sites. What better way to travel through Europe?

Q: Tell us a little about AmaWaterways. What is its focus?

A: The focus is to provide the highest quality river cruise experience at an excellent value. In 2005, we started the construction of our own ships, (and) in the past six years we've built eight of Europe's best and most advanced river cruise ships. Today, we own Europe's most modern and most advanced as well as most luxurious river cruise fleet. We are constantly setting new standards for the river cruise industry, offering larger staterooms, more dining choices complemented with included local boutique wines, beers and soft drinks with dinner, 30 to 40 bicycles (for passenger use) on each ship, plus a sophisticated infotainment system including free Internet with monitor, keyboard and mouse in every stateroom.

Q: You've also begun expanding outside of Europe.

A: We have developed new itineraries on the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, and we are building the most deluxe ships for these itineraries (La Marguerite & AmaLotus). In 2011, we also will offer the most deluxe river cruise ship in Russia, the AmaKatarina. For the past two years, she has been completely rebuilt and will offer large staterooms of which 85% offer balconies.

Q: There's a perception among some vacationers that river cruising is just for older people. Is that fair? Describe the typical AmaWaterways passenger.

A: When the river cruise concept evolved in the late 1990s, the majority of passengers were older or more senior people. This is (in part) due to the fact that older people have far more travel experiences and many of them are always looking for new adventures. The older or senior age group discovered river cruising first, but in recent years, as river cruising has become more and more popular, it has taken off among all age groups.

RELATED: Expansion to bring three more AmaWaterways ships in 2011

River cruising can be a very active way as well as a very relaxing way of traveling through Europe. Today, most shore excursions include walking tours or at least partial city walks. Since most European city centers are closed for traffic and are designated pedestrian zones, walking is a requirement to visit the key sights of Europe. We divide our walking groups into various levels from very gentle to standard to very active walkers. Passengers often use our bicycles to ride parallel to the ship from one town to the next.

Q: You offer a wide mix of itineraries. Is there one in particular you would recommend for someone new to river cruising who wants to see if they like it?

A: The best itinerary for somebody new to river cruising would be a seven-night Danube cruise combined with three nights in Prague or Munich. This combines the three capital cities of Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest with some of the most scenic river valleys, and it also offers several charming mid-size towns such as Regensburg, Passau, Linz or Salzburg.

Q: What is your favorite place to river cruise?

A: The Mosel Valley offers the most scenic villages and the steepest vineyards in the world. Along the Rhine River Gorge you will find one stunning castle after the next one. The Danube river offers great scenery as well as magnificent cities and fascinating ethnic and cultural differences as you travel from Germany downriver to the Black Sea. There is not a single favorite to me; all itineraries offer their own unique charm and splendor (editor's note: Click HERE for a sampling of AmaWaterways itineraries).

Q: The river cruise business is exploding in Europe and growing in Asia, too, but doesn't seem to be making much headway in the United States. Why is that?

A: Most major cities in Central Europe have been built along a river, (as) European rivers used to be the main artery for transporting goods during the Middle Ages, (and) in Europe, rivers flow through city centers and every few miles you will find charming villages along the river. In the USA, rivers don't offer the same scenery as in Europe. Most major cities in the USA are located along the coast. Rivers never had such dominant importance in the United States as they had in Europe. Furthermore, in the United States, cities along the river are far apart from each other, which puts some limitations on daily highlights.

Still, with the current expansion in world-wide river cruising, there also will be more future demand for American river cruises. New England and the East Coast with the Hudson River, Chesapeake Bay and the Inland Passage offer great small ship destinations. These are not necessarily river cruises, but they offer a very similar environment as European river cruises. There are a few great cruise lines (in this region) such as American Cruise Lines that are offering remarkable itineraries and great ships.

Q: Vacationers sometimes experience sticker shock when seeing the lead-in prices for river cruises, which sometimes are significantly higher than the lead-in rates for ocean cruises. Talk to us a little about AmaWaterways' pricing.

A: (Unlike many ocean cruise lines) AmaWaterways offers all-inclusive vacations with ... unlimited wine, beer and soft drinks with dinner (at no extra charge), unlimited bottled water in your stateroom, coffee, latte, espresso, cappuccino or specialty teas throughout the day. Daily shore excursions, lectures and wine tastings (also) are included in the price. Free Internet, state of the art flat screen TV with Hollywood movies and classic films as well as a large number of TV programs including CNN and music selections are available, (and) bicycles can be used free of charge. You actually can cruise through Europe (on AmaWaterways) without spending any additional money after buying your cruise ticket. Our guests actually receive great value for their money and there is no nickel-and-diming on board.

Q: What do you see for the future of river cruising? Is this an industry that will continue to grow as rapidly as it has in the last few years?

A: Yes. There is room to grow. If you compare passenger numbers of river and ocean cruises, you will realize that during one full season a river cruise ship carries a similar number of passengers as an ocean cruise ship carries each week or month, depending on the size of the ocean liner. Today, one single new ocean cruise ship carries the same number of passengers annually as all North American river cruise passengers traveling to Europe annually.

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