The river cruise sector hopes that ‘vaccination confidence’, particularly among those in the 50-plus bracket, will see clients make a rapid return to European waterways.

Smooth sailing

watch from my balcony as the water starts to darken with the vanishing sun, signalling that it’s time to head to the top deck for an unobstructed view.

As I take my seat, the reassuring purr of a motor begins and before long I’m enjoying the ever-changing scenery of the River Danube on a sunset cruise, losing track of time as another cityscape slips behind rolling hills. 

Vienna, the second stop on my four-day Riviera cruise, captivates me with its sparkling clean streets and cultural credentials. Built on music and art, it’s a city that enjoys the finer things in life; a place where grand palaces are used as art galleries and opera houses draped in gold recite the works of home-grown, all-time-great composers. Even the horses are in a class of their own – the majestic white Lipizzaner stallions performing their equine ballet is a must-see.

As we wind further down the river my thoughts turn to tomorrow and waking up in Budapest. Images of hilltop castles and steamy thermal spas fill my mind as we edge ever closer, one bend at a time. But as the sky changes to a dusky pink and pockets of lights begin to twinkle along the shoreline, I’m reminded that the journey is just as magical as the destination. 

Mature and ready

Long popular with the over 50s demographic, river cruising is expected to be in great demand this year as this age group enjoys the benefit of being high up the vaccination roster. Operators such as TUI are reporting that 50% of bookings have been made by those 50-plus, thanks to a growing ‘vaccine confidence’. 

Titan, like all lines, has updated its hygiene protocols with features such as a pre-departure medical evaluation, PCR testing for guests and crew and an adapted food and beverage service in order to minimise social contact. Most operators have also introduced flexible dates and overseas medical assistance as part of their insurance policy.

Joseph Grimley, Director of Trade Sales for Scenic and Emerald Cruises, is cautiously optimistic: “While the vaccination roll-out is a positive development for the travel industry as a whole, it is too early to comment how this will impact travel and cruising in the future,” he says.

A-ROSA River Cruises tested new protocols – including the wearing of mouth and nose coverings in some public spaces – during five months of sailing in 2020 and say they have “high hopes for later this year and into 2022” when it comes to setting sail. 

Lucia Rowe, Managing Director of A-ROSA River Cruises UK & Ireland, believes vaccinations are giving travellers cause to dream. “There is a lot of pent-up demand, especially in the over-50s market. By late March, approximately 32 million people in this age group should have received their first dose of the vaccine and I think at this point, when customers have some real date parameters they can plan within, we could see a surge in demand.”

Steve Goodenough, Managing Director of Arena Travel, says many of its clients are near the top of the queue for the vaccine and it is clear that they are starting to plan ahead. “We have noticed increased levels of enquiries and bookings for our longer river cruise itineraries, perhaps signifying demand for ‘trips of a lifetime’ after so long confined to home,” he said.

Viking UK’s Head of Sales, Neil Barclay, says now is an ideal time to persuade customers to plan ahead. “By booking early they can take advantage of early bird discounts and have their choice of dates and preferred stateroom,” he explains. 

“Christmas market cruises are very popular and often fully-booked months in advance so it’s best to book now to avoid disappointment – we are anticipating an increase in demand for 2021.”

Barclay also thinks hotel barges will sell well in 2021. “Since hotel barges hold just a small number of people, they create the perfect ‘travel bubble’ for groups of like-minded friends, special-interest clubs and families – who will have the barges all to themselves. Themed cruises are especially fun because everyone is sharing their particular passions with people they know.”

3 themed cruises

Food, glorious food: European Waterways offers six-night food-themed charters cruising through tranquil countryside aboard its luxury hotel barges, L’Impressionniste in Southern Burgundy and Enchanté on the Canal du Midi. Breaks include immersive excursions like truffle hunting, gourmet dining and onboard cooking classes by master chefs, vine dining at local wineries and shopping with the chef. 

Foot passenger: CroisiEurope has a range of hiking-focused cruises including a Douro River-based cruise in Portugal. The Porto to Salamanca itinerary includes walking tours with a qualified mountain guide and sees guests stride along the scenic Atlantic coast in Porto, through vineyards and the Douro National Park’s famous Vultures’ Cliff.

Groovy moves: Saga has a Sounds of the 60s on the Rhine cruise, promising live swinging 60s music every evening from host Jeremy Huggett and the Band of Gold. While passing the rolling scenery of the Rhine Valley, guests can enjoy hits by the likes of The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Dusty Springfield.

3 festive cruises

The classic Rhine: Traditional Christmas Markets on the Rhine with Titan is a four-night round-trip sailing from Cologne. It showcases the German city’s many markets as well as the riverside towns of Koblenz, Mainz and pretty Rudesheim, where cobbled streets are filled with festive stalls. A highlight of this cruise is the passage through the Rhine Gorge where steep hills are dotted with craggy castles. 

The diverse Danube: Scenic’s Danube Christmas Markets cruise is a one-week voyage from Nuremberg – home to arguably Germany’s premier Christmas market – to Hungary’s grand capital, Budapest. Stops include Vienna, where a festive market adds some seasonal sparkle to the city’s cultural draw cards.

Bonjour Noel: Christmas in Southern France with Emerald Waterways is a four-night cruise along the Rhone between Avignon and Arles, with Christmas markets, seasonal parades and concerts providing ample entertainment. 

Book it with...

Titan Travel

An eight-day Melodies of the Danube cruise, including a classical concert in Vienna, is priced from £1,499pp.