There are ripples on the water of the usually tranquil river cruise markets of Europe. Disruptors – more usually found in the world of high-tech finance – are appearing to upset the old order, which divided lines between ultra lux all-inclusive or no frills.
River cruising is a brilliant way to indulge in fine food, fabulous culture and a wonderfully relaxed form of travel (though they are getting more active, with bikes and hikes).
For years, however, it’s not been for the financially feint hearted. The Scenics of this world have ensured that prices remain relatively high – particularly for solo passengers.
Enter Riviera Travel – a British company with new ships, five-star inclusions – and surprising prices. In fact, they claim they are 50 per cent cheaper than other lines.
They’ve not been long in the Australian market – but already they are claiming a 68 per cent increase in Aussie passengers. And they are out for more with a local website and a strong marketing campaign.
The price point is certainly compelling. A shoulder season trip through the Dutch bulb fields, for instance, comes out at $251.80 a night.
Rivercruise Passenger’s excellent price check table has costs for regular lines ranging from $1,190 to $268 a night (that lower price is CroisiEurope, among the no-frills cruise lines of Europe).
What’s more, Riviera’s fleet is among the newest on the waterways. The have only been in river cruising for nine years, but they launched four new ships last year, two this year and two more in 2019.
Not quite up to Viking’s numbers – they hold the Guinness Book of Records for launches. But enough to create waves.
By next year, they will have 12 ships and carry 47,000 passengers.
Bible of the cruise world Berlitz says Riviera has “some of the finest river cruise ships to grace Europe’s waterways”.
By next year, none will be over six years old.
So, what’s the catch? Well, while tea and coffee are free, wine and beer are extra. A generous glass is around $6.40, and packages are $199 per week. And while there is a shore excursion a day with guide, you won’t be having an exclusive lunch with the Baron in his castle. There aren’t any white-gloved butlers, either.
But you do get genuine five-star ships: Crabtree and Evelyn and l’occitane amenities, marble baths, slippers and robes, complimentary Wi-Fi, two dining options at no extra charge.
And if you are a solo passenger, there are exclusive sailings with no single supplement. They launched these cruises this year, and they have four planned for 2019. A deluxe balcony on the Danube for a week, for instance, comes in at $4,829.
To quote the company: “the price is the price”. No discounts, which means you’ll never suffer the embarrassment of sitting next to someone at dinner who paid half your fare.
Australian sales manager Thomas Morgan, an affable Brit who loves the Australian lifestyle, says some Australian lines have had the market to themselves for years. But that is now changing.
“We put the best price on from day one – the other guys who are coming on a $9,000, $10,000 and $11,000 – that’s when they start discounting. They are over-inflating to afford the discounts.
“We don’t do the ultra all-inclusive. It doesn’t make sense on a river cruise. We include all the important things: port charges, taxes, excursions. But we don’t do all-inclusive drinks. We think that would mean an extra $300 – $400 for everyone regardless. So we take that out. There is a drinks package of $199 a week which is wine and beer with meals, or you pay as you go.
“We also don’t include gratuities. It’s five-star cruising, so why would you be told you are being charged gratuities. That would probably mean $20 a day per person. We leave an envelope in the cabin at the end of the cruise.
“We are also the UK’s largest tour operator. We have great rates because of the volumes we put through. We pass on all those savings to the customer.”
Mr Morgan believes the line’s success is due to low prices, five-star ships and special attention to solo travellers. Australians, he believes, are natural partners to British passengers.
“The culture, the sense of humour, the way they travel are very similar to the Brits,” says Mr Morgan of Australian travellers. “So they get on really easily at dinner and at the bar.”
It’s a British line, so they do have afternoon tea: think proper scones, finger sandwiches and tea from the pot.
Mr Morgan says the instant appeal is that Riviera is at a 4-star prices, but with five-star facilities. The line has also created itineraries that few others sail.
Its 15-day Budapest to the Black Sea itinerary, introduced for the first time this year, has already added four more sailings for 2019.
“We sail right into the Danube Delta, a UNESCO site. A lot of people have chosen to take this – especially Australian travellers. A lot of people have done the Amsterdam to Budapest traditional trip, but this is very different.”
The Bruges itinerary goes to the Commonwealth Cemetery instead of the American Cemetery. And Amsterdam to Lucerne offers a Swiss rail journey with views of Mount Eiger.
Australians can now also join add-on, overland tours to selected sailings.
Mr Morgan believes Riviera is a game changer. “I think we are sitting in the market where people have thought they couldn’t afford five-star river cruising – we’re offering that. We’re offering people who have paid $10,000 to $12,000 five-star cruising at half that price.”
Riviera Travel sells through Cruise Traveller and Cruiseco. Rivieratravel.com.au