Family fortunes

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Anthony Pearce reports on the river cruise lines who are finally following their ocean counterparts and embracing the next generation of customers

From white-knuckle water-slides to big-budget theatre productions, Xbox-lined games rooms and top-notch kids’ clubs, the modern cruise ship has redefined the family holiday. These floating theme parks, with dozens of dining venues and spacious cabins, are built with children of six months too teenagers in mind, with plenty for mum and dad to do, too.

The same cannot be said for ships found on the river. With low bridges, shallow waters and narrow locks dictating their size and design, these vessels are a far-cry from the likes of Anthem of the Seas and Carnival Vista. There’s not a robotic bartender in sight on the Rhine.

This may be part of the reason why the river cruise industry has failed to pick up the family as quickly as its ocean cousins. It’s also the reason why it has failed to shake off its image of being exclusively an old person’s holiday the way ocean cruise has.

It’s true that a restless teenager who may have adored the activities and entertainment on the latest mega-ship may find river cruise a culture shock, but its benefits are clear – regardless of age.

SS Antoinette Exterior 1 HiResWith more included than on many ocean-going ships, river cruises are also faster-paced (despite their reputation as being a holiday for the infirm), with less time waiting for tenders or relying on coaches (and often expensive shore excursions) and more time exploring the cultural highlights of the likes of Amsterdam or Vienna. For children – particularly teenagers – who are budding explorers, keen to learn more about the world and experience it for themselves, it actually makes a lot of sense. And with no sea days, there’s less chance for kids to complain that they’re bored. Given the history of the towns and cities that line Europe’s waterways, a river cruise promises to be educational as well as entertaining. The informal atmosphere on board and the smaller ships may also suit families who would prefer to spend a relaxing holiday together, rather than at each end of a 350m long ship.

And it makes sense for the cruise lines, too. “It’s important in the river cruise market to think about our next generation,” says Kristin Karst,co-founder of AmaWaterways, one of the first river lines to embrace the family cruise. “We will welcome AmaChristina in 2017 and AmaLea in 2018, both of which are sister ships to the AmaViola and the AmaStella, the two ships we welcomed this year. They are the first of our ships with a set of connecting doors, and a cabin with a third bed. The suites are even able to accommodate four guests, which is great for families.”

The ships have 12 staterooms that can sleep up to three family members, and six sets of adjoining cabins that can be connected by an internal doorway to accommodate families of up to five, plus four suites have convertible sofa-beds that can be used for families of up to four – all ideas ocean cruise embraced a long time ago. As Karst points out, it’s also great for multi-generational cruise.

The line has also entered into partnership with Adventures by Disney, which promises immersive adventures for families, although these holidays are not currently available to UK travel agents.

A river cruise is a great way to give younger generations an insight into different cultures

Another line that has embraced family cruises is Uniworld, voted by Travel + Leisure readers as number one in the World’s Best River Cruising for Families category for four years in a row. The line has added sailings such as an eight-day Paris and Normandy cruise, an eight-day Basel to Amsterdam itineraries and a ten-day Budapest to Prague trip.

It’s not just about inviting kids on board, but keeping them happy once they are there. The ultra-luxury line provides kid-friendly menus and invites children to join cooking classes – baking strudels or mini-pizzas – as well as a chance to go foraging for mussels. On select itineraries and departures, children aged between four and 18 cruise for half price.

Kathryn Beadle, managing director of Uniworld UK, says that river cruises, with their regular stops, are not only a great way to introduce youngsters to the delights of travel, but also to provide a unique educational experience.

“A river cruise is a great way to give younger generations an insight into different cultures as they travel to new cities, quaint villages and traditional towns on a truly memorable holiday,” says Beadle. “All age groups can enjoy the leisurely pace of a Uniworld river cruise and enjoy the variety of onboard entertainment and onshore excursions which have been specially designed with families in mind.”

shutterstock_165124730Tauck, the American tour operator and river cruise line, offers family itineraries that it promises have “just the right balance of shared activities, downtime, culturally immersive experiences and sheer family fun”.

This year, Tauck will launch a new family river cruise in France. The eight-day Family Fun Along the
Seine trip includes a full-day excursion to Normandy’s D-Day Beaches and a guided visit to artist Claude Monet’s house and gardens in Giverny. It is Tauck’s fourth river cruise designed specifically for families.

One river cruise line that is particularly impressive for families is A-Rosa, which generously lets children under 15 cruise for free (one per paying adult) on all its itineraries, across all dates. The line has five international ships from a fleet of 11.

With most river lines still only operating limited family-friendly itineraries, there is clearly a long way to go. But, a step in the right direction has been made over the last few years, and offerings such as the above could soon become the rule, rather than the exception.

Sam Ballard

Sam Ballard is the publisher of CRUISE ADVISER and has been writing about the cruise industry for a number of years. His CV includes the likes of shipping magazine International Cruise & Ferry Review and the digital publication Cruise News. He can be contacted on:sam@cruise-adviser.com.

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