In summing up my introductory three-night river cruise on the m/s Robert Burns, two words come to mind: pleasantly surprised. Robert Burns is one of a dozen ships operated by the U.K.’s Riviera Travel, which only recently began marketing Riviera River Cruises to North American travelers.
You’re not alone if you find yourself scratching your head about the company’s name. Why would a river cruise operator choose a name that brings to mind France’s sun-drenched Côte d’Azur? The explanation: Riviera Travel began operating in the U.K. more than three decades ago by offering getaways to the French Riviera, hence the name. One reassuring fact about the name is that Riviera has years of experience in accommodating travelers.
In early April, I was invited to Austria, along with a couple dozen North American travel agents and company executives, for the christening of Riviera’s Robert Burns. The christening was followed by a cruise from Vienna to Budapest, which gave me time to experience the operational aspects of the new ship.
From the outset, my expectations were that I would step aboard a low-cost river cruise where the company had cut costs to achieve an attractive price point. Riviera’s 8-day Blue Danube cruises begin at just $1,399 per person, which is considerably less than similar sailings offered by other river cruise companies.
Boarding Riviera River Cruises' Robert Burns in Vienna. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Reception, and one deck below, the main restaurant. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
After an overnight flight from the US, a cappuccino was just what I needed to reinvigorate myself. © 2018 Tamera Trexler
I found the interior decor of the lounge to be tasteful. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
The cafe style seating in the corners of the lounge was cozy and comfortable. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
The ship's boutique featured quality merchandise, not just trinkets and souvenirs. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Like Bill Bryson, an American author living in Britain, the Robert Burns appeals to both Americans and Brits. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
The bottle breaks, in Vienna, for Riviera River Cruises’ newest ship, the Robert Burns
Olga, from the Ukraine, and Patric, from Bali, greeted us warmly with champagne (or juice). © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Spirits on Robert Burns. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Riviera's drink menu is extensive ... © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
... and drinks are reasonably priced. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
In Vienna, what else? Classical music on board Robert Burns. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Villeroy & Boch on Robert Burns. © Ralph Grizzle
Gratuities, at guests' discretion, are pooled and shared among a deserving crew. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
In part, Riviera achieves its low price point by “unbundling” some features, such as inclusive beer and wine during lunch and dinner. On the other hand, Riviera includes costs that may be hidden, or in the fine print, on competitors, such as port charges. As an example, Uniworld includes beverages of all types (all the time) on its river cruises but does not include port charges in its fares. Port charges for Uniworld’s seven-night Delightful Danube cruise total more than $300 per stateroom.
While Riviera includes port charges, a beverage package will cost you $129 per person ($159 in 2019, $299 for longer cruises). The difference is that everyone must pay port charges whereas on river cruises that include beverages, non-imbibers essentially subsidize their fellow passengers who do drink.
Not so with Riviera’s unbundling of beverages. You pay for what you consume. And you need not pay $129 per person. A glass of house wine on Robert Burns will set you back about $3. If you had three glasses of wine a day for seven days (on an eight-day cruise, you disembark early on the eighth day and aren’t likely to consume), you’d spend only between $60 and $70.
Two things surprised me, well, three really about Riviera’s Robert Burns. The first was the overall ship experience. For most of its ships, Riviera contracts with Scylla, a Swiss river cruise ship owner that also manages the food and beverage, and hotel operations throughout its fleet.
Scylla is the same company that Tauck uses for its European river cruises. It would be a stretch to say that Riviera is like Tauck but at a lower price point (the two are not in the same competitive set and should not be viewed as being so). But as for the ship itself, the similarities were striking. Stepping into the reception area of the Robert Burns, for example, reminded me of stepping into the reception area on Tauck’s m/s Savor.
Step inside stateroom 311 on Robert Burns. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Our bed was comfy as Robert Burns watched over us at night. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
The bedside clock radio was convenient for charging my iPhone. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Desk in our stateroom. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
I found the USB outlets to be handy. Bring an adapter for the UK-style plugs. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Our marble bathroom was roomy with a large shower featuring a rainforest showerhead. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Crabtree & Evelyn bath amenities. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Riviera's river cruisers features coffee and tea in cabins. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Step-out balconies are available in the Deluxe Balcony Suites. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Likewise, both ships have restaurants situated aft, Arthur’s on Savor and The Bistro on Robert Burns. The additional dining venue, in fact, is one of the key points that differentiates Riviera from some of its competitors. The Bistro, a reservations-only, but complimentary, restaurant that serves up specialties such as Black Angus burgers for lunch and lobster tails for dinner, is open for both lunch and dinner. Other river cruise companies that have speciality restaurants typically open them only for dinner.
There are other aspects where Riviera differentiates itself among river cruise companies, and during my all-too-short time on board Robert Burns, I discovered seven ways by which Riviera seeks to stand out.
1. Pricing. On several itineraries where I compared pricing, Riviera offered among the lowest lead-in prices. As noted, however, Riviera does not include beverages, even with lunch and dinner. Nor are gratuities of 8 euros to 12 euros per person per day included in the fare, and although tips are at your discretion, most American guests would feel compelled to stuff the envelopes left on their beds on the last night of the cruise. But even with allowances for beverages and gratuities added in, Riviera ranks among the price-leaders on most itineraries.
2. No Discounting. Riviera does not discount. Nor does the company provide booking incentives. No discounting and no booking incentives can actually be viewed as plusses. “It’s good to know that you’re not going to be sitting beside someone at dinner who paid less than you did,” says Jana Tvedt, the company’s Vice President, who was on my sailing in April. “Our pricing philosophy is that we don’t discount, we don’t do promotions.”
From Riviera’s website (abridged): Our pricing is transparent and clear. It includes essentials like taxes, “fuel” supplements and there are no hidden extras. We’re proud that since our inception 30 years ago, we’ve never levied a surcharge – even when currency, fuel and more recently tax movements were excessive. Our ‘no surcharge’ guarantee means that whatever happens after booking, the price will not increase.
Equally, we do not artificially inflate our initial prices to offer ‘early’ or ‘late’ booking discounts which merely mislead as to the true cost of your holiday. … our policy saves you the trouble of shopping around trying find your cruise cheaper elsewhere – you won’t. Some may call us old fashioned, but to us it’s just being ‘moral’. We have never discounted, never will and have been told many times just how much this is appreciated by our clients.
3. Upgrades Are Reasonably Priced. The cost to upgrade from the bottom deck to the middle deck to the upper deck isn’t as costly as it is on some of Riviera’s competitors. On Robert Burns’ October 28, 2019 Blue Danube eight-day sailing, for example, the lead-in rate is $1,399 per person for entry-level accommodations measuring 172 square feet with fixed, quarter-height riverview windows. Moving up one deck to 183-square-foot accommodations featuring French balconies adds only $520 per person, for a total of $1,919 per person.
The alternative dining venue, The Bistro, was situated aft and open for lunch and dinner - at no extra charge. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Open kitchen and happy chefs in The Bistro, the alternative dining venue on Robert Burns. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
And to work off those calories, a fitness room ... © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
or ... What's a boat without bikes? Robert Burns features eight bikes, which we took out for spin each day of our trip. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
Or a dip in the pool or putting. © 2018 Ralph Grizzle
4. No single supplements. Five staterooms on Emerald Deck are made available on nearly all of Riviera’s cruises for single travelers (only three cabins are offered for single travelers on the Douro). All are double staterooms that solo travelers can occupy with no single supplements.
5. Stateroom size. The smallest staterooms on Robert Burns and its sister ships measure 172 square feet. That is larger than the smallest staterooms on many other river cruise ships. Moreover, no matter which stateroom you choose, you’ll receive many of the same amenities as the occupants do on the upper decks, including bathrobes, coffee and tea maker (as well as an ample supply of coffee and tea) and even room service upon request.
6. Multiple dining venues. Robert Burns features the main dining room, which is open seating (meaning no assigned dining times) as well as The Bistro, situated aft on deck 3 and free of charge. The Bistro cannot be pre-booked, however, so you will need to make reservations when on board. The open-kitchen concept offers dining during lunch and dinner except for embarkation day and is open only for lunch on the day of the Captain’s Gala Dinner. I found the setting to be intimate, the service excellent and the food delectable during both lunch and dinner when I dined there.
7. Independence. Generally, Riviera includes a complimentary tour in the morning and free time in the afternoon. “It takes away some of the stress,” says Riviera’s International Sales & Marketing Manager Thomas Morgan. “We give you an overview type tour in the morning, then the freedom to explore in the afternoon.” I enjoyed having the free time in the afternoon to use one of the eight bikes on board Robert Burns without feeling that I was missing a tour.
Quibbles & Brits. I asked travel agents on my sailing what they thought about Riviera River Cruises and Robert Burns. Would it appeal to their American clients? All who I spoke with were unanimously affirmative. They cited the ship’s “elegant decor” and “spacious staterooms” among the key selling features. The only real quibble was one that I heard on the last night of our voyage, “We are on a ship operated by a British company,” one said. “It could have been even more British.” How could any Anglophile argue with that?
I know now why Riviera River Cruises chose its name, but I’m not sure why the company chose to name its ships after famous authors, though I do like it. The company introduces two more ships in 2019. They’re to be named the George Elliot and the William Wordsworth. And as Riviera has done with the Robert Burns, the company is poised to do those authors proud.