Samuel Ballard reappraises Riviera Travel – and discovers why they offer such good value – on a short sailing along the Rhine from Cologne to Heidelberg
In 2014 Michael Wright and his wife sold what was reported as being a “significant stake” of Riviera Travel, the company they founded, to private equity firm Phoenix Equity for £130 million. The deal made headlines. For a long time Riviera Travel has been doing very well – from its fleet of river ships to escorted tours and a new solo programme – however, this investment confirmed it. In short: Riviera Travel is very good at what it does.
We were invited to sample the delights of its river cruise product on board the Jane Austen, on a short sailing between Cologne and Heidelberg, a Rhine cruise that would give a real chance to see what the company has to offer. And why it has proved a thorn in the side of so many of its competitors.
Riviera offers exceptionally good value. They have a fare that includes return travel to the UK (flights or Eurostar), as well as transfers, all meals, tea and coffee and shore excursions. However, one of the most distinguishing features of the company is that they don’t include alcohol or gratuities. They make no excuses for it: people want to tip different amounts, they say, and as for booze, well their customers don’t get great value out of it. “Free on board drinks” is a misnomer too, Riviera stresses. If drinks were in fact free then the initial ticket wouldn’t be higher.
One of the other benefits of not including alcohol in the ticket price is that customers are more willing to go out and take in the local nightlife. They don’t feel as committed to the bar on board. And with the ship docking in the heart of a destination, there’s little to stop them going out and drinking in the atmosphere on shore instead.
The 140-guest Jane Austen is extremely well designed. Especially when you consider that prices for a week-long cruise start at just £1,099 per person. A chandelier hangs above the glistening reception area on the Diamond deck, which leads to either the Panorama Lounge or a second bar towards the aft. The Ruby deck below includes the restaurant, which has a great buffet and counters for freshly ordered food. Dinners are table service.
On the Emerald (lowest) deck the company has included a small spa with a steam room and sauna as well as a hairdresser. A nice touch for any one wanting to get dolled up for an evening.
Cabins start at a decent 161 square feet and go up to 242 square feet for the deluxe suite on the Diamond deck. Rooms are well appointed, with dark carpets and cream walls. It has a classy feel, which adds up to the company’s five-star billing.
During our cruise we stop off in Koblenz, Mainz and Heidelberg and also enjoy a morning sailing through the incredible Rhine Gorge. Each day gives us the opportunity to take one of Riviera’s included tours – with an expert guide. We’re led through the winding streets of Koblenz, see the mountainous William I statue at Deutsches Eck and are told the story about Baron Johann von Kobem, a thief who was beheaded in 1536.
An image of his face now decorates a clock, and he has his revenge on the townspeople by sticking his tongue out every half hour. In Mainz we take a tour of the Gutenberg Museum and see copies of the original Gutenberg Bible – probably the most valuable book in the world. In Heidelberg we are given a tour of the town, where a university has stood since 1386. The heritage is rich here with the likes of Albert Einstein and Martin Luther gracing the pages of its history. We are advised to grab a drink in Zum Seppl, one of the town’s old student pubs – with tables covered in the marks and etchings of former academics doing their best to avoid their lectures.
To be honest, I have to admit to being surprised by Riviera. I had judged them on their price point and not necessarily gone any further than that. Lazily I hadn’t really paid heed to the fact that because they do not include alcohol (even with dinner) or gratuities they can afford to pass that saving on. Rivals will charge at least £500 more per person for a week-long cruise and unless you really are a big drinker or the most generous person in the world – how likely is it that you’re going to spend £1,000 as a couple on booze and tips?
While the rest of the industry moves to become more inclusive, Riviera Travel has set its own course – and appears to be reaping the rewards.