River cruising has grown in popularity over the past several years, with storied waterways such as the Danube and the Mississippi luring travelers by boat. While most of these itineraries were put on hold in 2020 due to the pandemic, as we eye a travel resurgence in 2021, travel experts point to river cruising as an ideal way to begin exploring the world once again.
“River cruising will absolutely be the perfect choice to travel many different destinations as safely, efficiently, and comfortably as possible,” says Laurel S. Brunvoll, Owner and President of Unforgettable Trips, a full-service travel agency. “I have seen a huge interest and increased demand in river cruising with my clients for 2021.”
In fact, a recent industry report by Cruise Critic found that the average cost of a booked cruise has risen 120 percent compared to this same period in 2019—due in large part to more bookings for river cruises, which command higher base fares and allow fewer guests onboard its smaller ships.
“We’ve seen an increase in number of cruisers booking on river lines, especially in the latter part of 2020,” says Colleen McDaniel, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic. “It shows that travelers today are willing to spend more money in order to have the experience that makes them most comfortable.”
Here are some of the reasons travel experts are currently seeing—and continue to expect—a post-pandemic surge in river cruising.
SMALL SHIPS, FEWER GUESTS
River cruise boats typically hold less than 100 passengers. This not only allows for a more intimate experience, but it also means extra room to make yourself comfortable and practice social distancing.
UNPACK ONCE, ACCESS A VARIETY OF DESTINATIONS
On a river cruise, you will visit multiple locations—small hamlets and land-locked cities that larger cruises cannot access—without having to change hotels. Micki Dudas, Managing Director of Leisure Travel Sales and Groups for AAA, likens river cruise vessels to “floating resorts” that provide a home base to the best of a destination. Plus, these ships sail inland waters, as opposed to the ocean, so they’re never far from land. “Our cruisers say this provides an additional level of comfort,” says McDaniel, “in case it’s necessary to disembark for any reason.”
NO STRESS ABOUT ORGANIZING DETAILS WITH INCLUSIVE PRICING
River cruise itineraries are thoughtfully curated vacations that can last a couple of days to a couple of weeks. You needn’t sweat the details, as all the organizing, right down to the meals and opportunity for shore excursions, is planned for you. “Depending upon the river cruise line, exclusive and private events and after-hours access to certain tourist attractions could be part of their river cruise vacation,” says Brunvoll.
ROBUST HEALTH AND SAFETY ENHANCEMENTS
Cruise lines have elevated their safety and hygiene protocol in the wake of COVID-19 to safeguard passengers and crew—and put all aboard at ease. Some lines have even partnered with experts in the field to guide these new health policies. Viking hired its very first Chief Health Officer, a board-certified trauma surgeon and retired Vice Admiral of the United States Navy Medical Corp., to oversee its enhancements. CroisiEurope partnered with Bureau Veritas to implement infection prevention measures across all its ships, and American Queen Steamboat Company partnered with Ochsner Health of Louisiana to guide its procedures.
Social distancing, elimination of buffet meal lines, daily temperature checks, and round-the-clock disinfecting of public areas are just the beginning of new safety protocol. Some cruise lines now mandate a COVID test ahead of boarding. Others are installing testing capabilities aboard the ships themselves and managing all off-shore activities. “Passengers on most river cruise lines can expect to take cruise line shore tours, with the goal of protecting the ship’s bubble,” says McDaniel.
BUNDLING THE BEST OF EUROPE
Many travelers who had to forgo European vacations in 2020 are chomping at the bit to travel there soon, and travel agents are encouraged by early bookings for 2021. Famous European waterways such as the Danube, Rhine, and Douro, with their historic castles, vineyards, cities and towns lining the shores, are among the most coveted European vacation destinations.
EXOTIC DESTINATIONS RISE IN RIVER CRUISE APPEAL
Travel agents are also seeing a boost in early bookings and inquiries for rivers across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. “I’ve been surprised,” says Brunvoll. “I’ve had a larger than normal number of people requesting and booking river cruises for the Nile River in Egypt and the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia.”
DOMESTIC RIVER CRUISES APPEAL TO TRAVELERS NOT WANTING TO FLY
For travelers who wish to stick a little closer to home, North America offers some stunning river cruise options that are attracting bookings for 2021 and beyond. The Mississippi, Snake, Columbia, and Ohio Rivers are among the most popular.
FLEXIBLE BOOK OPTIONS AND REASSURANCES
No worries if your cruise is canceled for any reason or you change your mind about traveling after booking your voyage, as most cruise lines now offer varying degrees of booking reassurances to make the vacation investment worry-free. These might include flexible booking options, no change fees, or fully refundable vacations. Check with each individual cruise line ahead of booking, however, as policies are subject to change.
A RIVER CRUISE FOR ALL BUDGETS
River cruising may have a reputation as being an expensive vacation, but travel agents stress that there is a cruise for everyone. “There is a river cruise experience for every size budget,” says Dudas, who notes that she’s seen an increase in first-time cruisers requesting river cruise trips for 2021.
Begin your Google search or speak with a travel advisor who specializes in river cruises to uncover the options, which range from river cruise vacations lasting a few days to a few weeks. Just do it sooner rather than later, especially if you’re eyeing a river adventure for 2021. “Don’t sit on the fence,” Brunvoll says. “There are only so many cruise itineraries out there, and I’m already booking into 2023.”