River cruising really boils down to personal preferences, the way cruises are packaged might prove just as important to you as the size of the vessel or the ports being visited. Perhaps you have a particular passion that you want to indulge or you want to make a special occasion all the more special. You can take a biking themed adventure, a river cruise hosted by a popular land-based tour operator, or partake in special “themed cruises” designed with a particular topic like art, history, or beer and wine appreciation in mind.
Tour packages can come in many shapes and sizes. Some companies, like Backroads, offer river cruises, expanding the breadth of their offerings. But did you know that they don’t typically own their ships? Instead, they lease out blocks of staterooms—and sometimes the entire ship—for their tour package. So if you’re choosing a cruise vacation based upon the ship, you may very well discover that you’re comparing one and the same vessel. Not to say that the experiences don’t warrant separate branding; the itineraries are greatly influenced by a tour company’s unique style and approach. It’s just that some operators call attention to their elite partnerships, such as Adventures By Disney does with AmaWaterways, while others let the mode of transportation play more of a cameo to the limelight.
Does knowing this matter? Not really. I just thought I’d explain how these partnerships work for those observant travel shoppers who want to know how a “touring” experience might differ from a cruise purchased directly from the affiliate cruise line. Armed with the understanding of how it works, you can decide if it’s worth the value proposition.
After recognizing a striking resemblance between a tour company and a river cruise itinerary, travelers are often perplexed by differences in price. Often, it can be chalked up to room categories, with a tour company offering a higher level than the base rates advertised by a cruise line, as well as some additional perks, dedicated excursion guides, and things of that nature. Other times, it’s because the tour company is offering something quite specialized.
For instance, I like being active. Ten years ago, river cruising would not have been for me as an active traveler, but today river cruises offer bikes and hikes, with varying degrees of difficulty, from gentle hikes through towns to rigorous hikes up mountains, from easy bike rides along the river to epic rides that take the whole day to complete. So there are certainly plenty of ways to increase your heart rate while taking in sights when traveling with river cruise lines. But for die-hard bike lovers like me, there are some added perks when taking a cruise with Backroads, heralded for adventure travel across the globe. From sag wagons carting calorie-rich snacks and energy drinks to the bike-enthusiast guides, tricked-out bikes, and personalized jerseys, the details ratchet up your river-cruise-bike adventure a gear or two.
Backroads is just one example of a tour company that operates with a river cruise company. One that I happen to enjoy and have a bit of personal experience with. Adventures by Disney offers family-friendly excursions and entertainment aboard AmaWaterways. Club Vosgien of Strasbourg has partnered with CroisiEurope to form CroisiRando, which offers guided hiking excursions on each itinerary. There are multiple tour companies that partner with river cruise lines to allow guests a variety of choices when booking their trip.
Different from tour packages is theme cruises. While tour packages provide companies to partner with cruise lines to create itineraries that cater to specific interests, theme cruises are designed with those specific interests in mind.
There are cruises for food lovers, wine lovers, music lovers—and much more. Perhaps you want to take a cruise during Holland’s Tulip season, or hopscotch from one Christmas market to the next. While specialized cruises might be something offered through tour companies (such as my Backroads’ bike-themed sailing), many river cruise lines also designate sailings to delve into a particular pursuit. Certainly, regularly scheduled itineraries offer many ways to explore various interests—be it through a wine tasting or excursion to the farmers’ market with the chef.
However, a dedicated theme cruise zeros in on an interest with special features, like having master sommeliers on board, attending famed jazz festivals and or in-depth explorations of the art, history, and culture of a region. Avalon Waterways offers a gamut of options from golf-themed river cruises and Art & Impressionist river cruises to Jewish Heritage and Garden & Nature-themed cruises. Most river cruise companies offer designated wine and Christmas cruises.
These theme cruises vary by season and operator, so keep your eyes peeled because you may find something that speaks to you.