This week on Avid Travel With Britton Frost, I am joined by Sarah Sweeney from Vantage. Having never sailed with Vantage, I used this podcast as a bit of a “getting to know you” exercise to see what Vantage had to offer.
During this interview, I learned a lot about the company. We talked about where Vantage sails, what makes Vantage different, what is included in a Vantage cruise, what the company is looking forward to in 2021 and beyond, and so much more.
Now that I’ve learned what Vantage has to offer, I hope you will use this opportunity to do the same.
Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.
Britton: Today I am joined by Sarah Sweeney from Vantage. She’s the Copy Manager there. And today we’re going to talk a little bit about Vantage because, to be quite honest, Sarah, I don’t know very much about it. I’ve never traveled with Vantage. Obviously, I know what we’ve corresponded about and what I’ve researched. I’m really excited to learn more about the company.
Sarah Sweeney: Awesome! Well, I am thrilled to be here, Britton. So ask me anything and everything.
B: Absolutely. To start, can you give me a little bit of background about Vantage and how long has the company been offering river cruises? I know you don’t just do river cruises, so you can talk about that as well.
SS: The company has been around since 1983 and we first started by offering land tours to affinity groups such as college groups and etc. And they eventually became so popular that we expanded into offering tours to the public. But it wasn’t until mid-80s that we unveiled river cruises, and not until the late 90s, and even the early 2000s, that we acquired our own deluxe European fleet that we operate in Europe today. So, we’ve had more than 35 years in the industry and we just keep growing and evolving.
B: So, you’re relatively new to river cruising. But let’s talk about the fleet and where the ships go. How many ships are there?
SS: Right now on our European river fleet we have three ships: the m/s River Venture, the m/s River Splendor, and the m/s River Voyager. They are traveling the Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers. The River Venture currently sails the Seine on our France Culinary Delights river cruise. It’s a culinary themed river cruise. But after 2020, it’s going to be moving to the Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers and we’ll start offering Paris and France extensions. In terms of new things that the company is doing, we are expanding outside of Europe: In 2020, we are launching the m/s Nebu on the Nile river in Egypt. It will offer travelers a truly luxurious experience. Nebu is the Egyptian hieroglyphic for gold; so, we’re hoping that this ship sets a standard for river cruising on the Nile and we’re also hoping that it’ll be an enriching and edifying experience too, because we have an onboard expert Egyptologist who is going to be accompanying all travelers to these ancient sites along the Nile. This is a truly remarkable experience not to be missed and we’re super excited about that. Our river ships are in Europe and in Egypt, but those are our own ships. We also charter out river cruise boats in the Amazon and others.
B: Do you have a favorite itinerary or is there a certain place that you really like to cruise?
SS: Yes. So, I was a newbie river cruiser. I mean, I’m in my thirties; river cruising wasn’t really on my radar until I started working at Vantage. And, to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect because large ships and ocean liners give me the heebie-jeebies. I went on my first river cruise last year and I’m a convert, I have to say. It’s so fun! And it exceeded my expectations. Last year, right around this time, I was actually on our Christmas cruise, Danube Splendor. It’s a holiday cruise through Germany, Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia at Christmas time. Christmas markets, warm mulled cider, handmade gifts, all sorts of treats and indulgences, and the Europe way with just everything is frosted with that glitter and snow at Christmas time. It was charming. And the ship experience was phenomenal because Vantage ships are intimate and they’re small. We have 172 guests on board and that sounds like a lot to me, but it’s really not when you think about it. I mean, I saw people every day who I got to know, and when I didn’t get to know those people, I at least recognized their faces. That’s because it’s a smaller cohort and you’re around these people every day. So it really was a unique experience. It was like a floating bed and breakfast. It’s very hands on. It’s very immersive. You get to know the staff, you get to know your fellow cruisers. And it’s just a great experience all around. If you’re looking for an intimate experience with friends and family, you won’t be lost in the crowd. And that was important for me. I learned a lot on that river cruise.
B: When I first started river cruising, I was also like, wow, what’s it going to be like? I’m 24, but my first river cruise was when I was 14. And so, I just was very young, like this was a whole new experience. But then, I did start also picking up on that intimacy and I think that’s part of what makes river cruising so special. And, like you said, even if maybe you didn’t know someone’s name, you would still recognize their faces and see them. My dad and I often joke that if I didn’t know everyone’s name after I got off the week-long cruise, I had failed, because I just wanted to go around and meet everyone. It’s really an intimate experience, but more than the passenger count. Let’s talk a little bit more about the ships. Maybe dining venues. What’s the dining experience like? Entertainment, lounges, what onboard amenities do the ships have?
SS: I would say that the ships are very classic. When you step on board, you’re gonna notice sumptuous jewel toned carpets and nice art. Everything is spotless, I have to say. So it’s a very classic, luxurious feel. The dining was exceptional, that’s another thing that people have about boats in general. Like, what am I going to be eating? I’m scared, whatever. But it was truly a refined experience from breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s an onboard chef who I would say the general style of cooking on a Vantage river cruise is European. It’s a more refined palate, I would say. Especially at dinner, you’re getting a little amuse-bouche. To start off dinner time, you have a menu of three to four specialties that the chef has whipped up. But you can also order if you’re feeling a little bit more mellow: You can order a chicken breast or a steak with a baked potato. So, you don’t have to get a halibut fillet or whatever fancy thing is happening that night. You can be as fancy or as unfancy as you want and it’s all delicious. I really enjoyed the lunch. It’s more of a buffet style. And then there’s also a set menu. Again, if you’re not feeling what’s on the buffet, the salad bar, and the hot bar, you can order from a menu also. And again, you’re going to get those same luxurious dining experiences as well. When it comes to breakfast, you’ll have a little omelet bar, a cereal bar, things like bacon and eggs and all that stuff. Or you can have the chef make you an omelet to your liking. I probably ate too much because it really was that good. It was just an all-around decadent experience, you’re wanting for nothing when it comes to dining. And on a Vantage cruise, I should also say that alcohol is free flow at dinner time. So that’s important to note as well. In terms of the amenities, there’s a spa on board the ship, so I had a little massage while I was on this Christmas cruise because why not? Treat yourself. There’s also a gym and a small fitness center, which is important. Though you are getting exercise when you’re onshore and on walking tours and things like that. What else is there? There is a track on the top deck, so you can also get in a workout and a vigorous walk or even a light jog upstairs, depending on the weather, and take in some of the scenery of Europe from the top deck, which is always nice. The spa was amazing.
B: And you’re on vacation. So, you know what? We can’t all keep up with it.
SS: But people do use the gym and it is important, especially on a longer cruise when you’re talking two weeks or even a month or something like that, it’s good to have that on board. But if you’ve got something in mind and you’re thinking about a river cruise, the great thing about Vantage is that we have a worldwide Concierge service. So, if you have a party that you’re looking to plan for your significant other, a birthday, or anniversary, or if you want to research your heritage in Italy, you can contact our Concierge and it doesn’t matter what cabin class you’re in, it’s free, it’s complimentary for everyone. And they’ll work with you to plan a party, to book an additional hotel stay, to rent a limousine, to get you a concert ticket somewhere, all that kind of stuff. You can really personalize and tailor your experience to what you’re looking for on a river cruise with our Concierge service.
B: And that’s really something that’s important too, because oftentimes I talk about starting your cruise, getting to your cruise port a day before the cruise leaves. And I like to tack on a couple of days at the end because I often find on these week-long sailings I want them to go longer. I don’t want them to end. So it’s nice to have someone to be able to take care of that for you. That’s amazing.
B: I know that you mentioned that alcohol is included at dinner. What else is included in the cruise fare?
SS: All shore excursions are included in the cruise fare. So, everything from walking tours to wine tastings, transportation to and from destinations, and also tips for local guides that show you around a destination and drivers that whisk you from your port to wherever you may be exploring that day. Our guests also have additional opportunities for more short excursions at a cost and those are optional and really depend on how active the traveler wants to be. Maybe they want to have some downtime in the afternoon to read on the ship or continue walking around town and shopping and whatnot. Or maybe they want to go on an optional tour to a nearby town. And that’s totally up to them. And we make that available to our guests as well. Vantage is also really cool because we have a roster of cultural connections that are also included. These are enriching activities that bring a traveler closer to the soul of a destination through immersive experiences. We’re talking a musical performance at the Kursalon, in Vienna, a culinary class with a chef and Amsterdam, a home hosted meal with a family in Croatia, these kinds of things that really get you hands on and involved in the local culture. So, that’s really fun. And I mentioned earlier the access to the Concierge service, also included in the cruise fare, and people do like to tack on additional days before and at the end of their trip. That’s something that we like to accommodate our travelers with as well.
B: And I always loved those, like getting invited into a family house or doing dinner, those cultural experiences because they’re really something that I don’t think that you can get on your own if you choose to travel. And so it’s really nice to be able to go on a cruise and take a trip with someone that has those sort of connections, so that you can build those relationships and see more how the culture works and to have a real life example of it rather than someone giving a presentation or whatever else may be happening.
SS: It really is so fun. And you know, I hear from our travelers all the time that they still correspond with the family that they met and Croatia or Slovakia or whatever, and they even still correspond with the cruise director. You really do form those intimate bonds with people on a river cruise.
B: And shifting away from intimate bonds actually, and going maybe the opposite, but you would still form intimate bonds. Let’s talk about solo travel where maybe you’ll bond with your passengers. Solo travel when river cruising is something that’s kind of hard to gauge a lot of the time because you look at these awful solo supplements where you’re paying 200% of the cruise fare sometimes. In fact, I know people who have taken guests with them just because they were already paying for a guest even though they didn’t have one… Let’s talk about how Vantage solves that issue, because I know that you’ve gotten a lot of awards for being an option for solo river cruisers.
SS: Yes. We were actually just awarded from Solo Traveler magazine: The Best River Cruise, Best Tours, and the Solo Traveler Choice Award for our pioneering solo travel initiatives, which include free single supplements. We have a set amount of free single supplements on every river cruise, which means that if you’re interested in one of our river cruises, the likelihood is that you’re not going to pay a single supplement for wanting to travel by yourself. That’s great news. And if those single supplements are all taken, we have reduced single supplements: You’ll pay just a fraction of the cost and you also have the opportunity to have a roommate, and we’ll match you with someone who is the same gender as you. It’s a little bit more comfortable. It’s kind of a built-in camaraderie that way. And if we’re unable to match you for whatever reason, you’ll just get a room and pay no single supplement. We really make it easy for people to travel solo, because having to pay that extra fee really feels like a punishment. Already you’re traveling alone, which some people are more comfortable with than others. But I think that, when you’re paying kind of a penalty, you’re like, is it really even worth it? But, with Vantage, it definitely is worth it. I’ve met so many inspiring people who have traveled solo with us and they really give me inspiration. I started traveling on my own years ago because I didn’t want to wait for other people to join me. And it really is amazing to see how many people repeatedly travel with Vantage because we really do make it that much easier for people to travel solo. If guests are interested in traveling on our land program, we also have an exciting thing that we’re doing for 2020 and beyond, which is solo-only land adventures. You’re traveling in a group of seven to 13 other independent travelers. You have this small group already. It’s zero single supplements. You’re not paying an extra cost. You have this built in camaraderie right there and your group, because everyone is a solo traveler as well. That’s really fun. And then when you are on a river cruise as a solo traveler, you’re not alone. The cruise director brings all the solo travelers together on what we call a solo connection mixer. It’s really just like a fun little meet and greet. It’s very casual and low-key. It gets everyone together to meet and introduce each other and form friendships right off the bat, if that’s what you’re looking for. Monetarily, we’re focused on making solo travel affordable for independent travelers, but we also want to make it enriching as well. So, we have several initiatives to bring solo travelers together and make it as comfortable as possible, because it really is fun and it really is rewarding.
B: It is one of the most rewarding experiences. And whenever I talk about solo travel, I always say that, especially with us as young women, going off on her own and doing these things, it’s very liberating, I think.
SS: One thing that I always thought was that women who are on river cruises must be widowed, but really they’ve just left their husbands behind because they’re having more fun without them! I love those women. I think that’s awesome.
B: It is, for sure. We talked a little bit about 2020 and the Nile. What else do you have coming up?
SS: For 2020, we’ve got the new Nebu on the Nile. We’ve got these solo-only land adventures, but we are very much looking forward to 2021, which sounds crazy because 2020 is almost here, and we’re already into the future. We are also launching an oceangoing expedition vessel called the Ocean Explorer that is going to set sail from Asia to Antarctica in 2021 with a roster of amazing itineraries that take people to these small ports that a larger ship can’t access. And again, you’re getting an intimate experience on the world with Vantage. This ship, the new Ocean Explorer, only accommodates 170 guests as well. Again, you’re not getting that larger than life ocean liner experience: You’re really getting a cultural, hands-on, immersive, and intimate experience onboard the ship. So, that’s what we’re looking forward to in 2021. And then, in 2022, we’re launching the Ocean Explorer‘s sister ship, the Ocean Odyssey. There’s a lot of stuff happening. And if people are interested in cruising with Vantage on one of these ocean expeditions, we also have zero single supplements for solo travelers as well, and accommodations for couples and groups. It’s going to be an amazing experience and we are so excited.
B: Looking forward. That sounds great. And especially, to have such a wide range at the beginning. You mentioned Antarctica. That’s incredible.
SS: It’s going to be awesome.
B: I want to end this talking a little bit more about the Vantage experience. I know we didn’t talk about this, but would you give a highlight of your Christmas cruise? What was the best part for you?
SS: Man, what was the best part?
B: So hard to pick. There are so many best parts.
SS: I loved meeting the locals. Our cruise director was Austrian. Our Concierge on board was Bulgarian. So, when I wasn’t hobnobbing with them because they’re amazing people and hobnobbing with our guests, I really made connections with some of the local guides. We had this amazing man leading our walking tour in Bamberg on Christmas day and he was just full of knowledge, full of insight, full of enthusiasm, and it’s Christmas. The streets are kind of empty. But he led us around this wonderful small town. And then, I found a little bar to duck into cause the town is renowned for its smoked beer, so it’s a smokey tasting beer. I got some of that and I got Christmas schnitzel at 10 in the morning because why not? Treat yourself. That was the highlight of my Christmas cruise, meeting all sorts of different people. I fell in love with Germany. Germany was just so wonderful. That was a little bit unexpected as well. I loved Bavaria and I just loved the sense of humor that the Germans have. It was great, great fun. I can’t recommend it enough, just the Christmas markets alone, but I would say really the people made that trip for me.
B: And I think that they always do.
B: No matter what. Is there anything else that you want to add, anything that you feel like we didn’t touch on?
SS: I feel like we touched on a lot. I don’t think I have anything else.
B: Thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it and thank you for telling me about Vantage. That was incredible.
SS: Thanks so much for having me, Britton.