Why European river cruises are the perfect way for Britons to get back on water

·6 min read
A river cruise on Douro may be an option for Britons this year - istock
A river cruise on Douro may be an option for Britons this year - istock

Is there good news on the horizon for travellers eager to get back sailing?

Other than a coastal route starting in Norway, ocean cruising remains all at sea with Canada, the Cayman Islands, Australia, New Zealand and Spain extending their cruise ship bans until later this year, a voluntary extension by major cruise lines in the US until at least September, and the Seychelles turning away ships until 2022 .

In this space of uncertainty, river cruise lines are quietly making their comeback, with the promise of air bridges raising hopes that British cruisers might be back on board before too long.

German river cruise company, Nicko Cruises, made waves when it became the first cruise line to set sail along the Danube and Rhine earlier this month. 

The red-and-white riverboat NickoVision featured an onboard doctor and spaced-out dining – and required passengers and crew to have their temperatures taken before boarding and to wear face masks at all times. Meanwhile amenities including lifts, public toilets and services such as massages and hairdressing were closed. 

NickoVision was the first of 34 river ships that the German cruise line will be reintroducing over the next few weeks. 

Rupert Thomson, managing director of Light Blue Travel, which sells Nicko Cruises in the UK, struck an optimistic note: “European river journeys will be the perfect way for British travellers to slowly get back to cruising. The Nicko boats will have reduced capacity and stringent health and safety measures on board and there are also options for non-fly travel to the continent, either self-drive or rail, so I think this will be a USP.”

NickoVision was the first ship to set sail in Europe since the industry's global suspension of operations in March
NickoVision was the first ship to set sail in Europe since the industry's global suspension of operations in March

Nicko Cruises isn’t the only river cruise operator ready to return to the water. 

Another German company, A-Rosa, resumed cruises on the Douro on June 17, along the Rhine on June 19 – with the departure from Cologne of its 10 day ‘Experience the Northern Rhine and Moselle’ sailing – and on the Danube on June 20. 

In further good news, A-Rosa’s itineraries in France on the Seine and Rhône are slated to restart on July 11 – with social distancing protocols and health and hygiene concepts in place, as well as a fleet doctor. Excursions by bike, bus or on foot will go ahead as planned but in smaller groups than usual. 

Jörg Eichler, the chief executive of A-Rosa, told Telegraph Travel: “We are so pleased that our ships can once again set sail on some of Europe’s most beautiful rivers. The initial feedback from our guests who are currently sailing on the Douro has been very positive.

River cruises will begin soon in America as the majority of ocean cruising will be delayed until at least September
River cruises will begin soon in America as the majority of ocean cruising will be delayed until at least September

“We have worked tirelessly to ensure the smooth implementation of our new health and hygiene concept so that our guests have a relaxing and enjoyable holiday, safe in the knowledge that we have their health, safety and well-being at the very heart of all we are doing.”

Strasbourg-based CroisiEurope is also gearing up for a return to European action. John Fair, CroisiEurope’s UK sales director, said: “We are aiming to see a gradual return to operations post July 16. This will be on a range of rivers and ships.”

CroisiEurope passengers will, of course, be subject to stringent guidelines and safety measures: all guests will be required to complete health screening prior to embarkation, face masks will be readily available onboard – and cabins and communal areas will be rigorously cleaned with a focus on hard surfaces such as door handles, tables and counters.

“For ourselves, and for the industry in general, the new protocols will be vital to ensure our customers and crew's safety. That is, and will continue to be, our number one priority,” said Fair. 

He added: “That said, it is our firm belief that we will still be able to provide the first class service, food, excursions and general ambience that we are renowned for. The return of river cruising is a positive step to show that cruising, in whatever format, is a viable, safe and hugely enjoyable holiday.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines (ACL) is preparing to sail the Mississippi River on an eight-day cruise from Memphis to New Orleans aboard American Harmony, departing July 12. 

Hurtigruten is the only cruise line in the world to have resumed ocean cruising
Hurtigruten is the only cruise line in the world to have resumed ocean cruising

ACL river ships are able to set sail as they carry around 100-180 passengers, meaning they are exempt from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s no-sail order which applies to cruise ships carrying more than 250 passengers and crew.

All of the ships in ACL’s fleet offer 350sqft of space per passenger on board at full capacity (and 450sqft at reduced capacity), independent HVAC Air systems in each cabin and interior space with no shared ductwork, plus private balconies. Elsewhere buffets are on pause making the cruise line “well designed for the post-Covid realities and social distancing preferences,” an ACL spokesperson told Telegraph Travel.

American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) is planning to resume sailing next month too. American Empress, which sails the Columbia and Snake rivers, will resume service on July 19 while American Duchess will recommence sailing on July 20. Meanwhile The American Countess and American Queen are scheduled to start sailing on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers on August 8, with strict new protocols in place.

John Waggoner, the founder and CEO of AQSC, said: “We are working with Ochsner Health to address concerns regarding COVID-19 by using Ochsner’s Safe to Return Employer Solutions.

“In order to keep guests, crew and the communities it visits safe in the face of COVID-19, Ochsner has agreed to take on crew-testing and passenger-screening for the Mississippi River itineraries, in addition to providing AQSC medical consultation services and telehealth capabilities to guests on any of our vessels. 

“We've also implemented multiple processes to identify and combat the risk of COVID-19 on our boats. These include new steps in pre-cruise screening, crew screening and boarding processes. Both onboard and ground operations will feature enhanced cleaning procedures.”

As for Australia, river cruising has resumed Down Under on the country’s most famous waterway, the Murray River.

Captain Cook Cruises embarked on its first post-pandemic cruise aboard the Murray Princess yesterday carrying 40 passengers (the ship can accommodate 120 people), due to social distancing requirements. The classic paddlewheeler is currently sailing between Renmark and Mannum in South Australia, a state that has successfully eliminated the coronavirus.

There still remains a major barrier for those hoping to reach America and Australia. With strict border restrictions in place, even if the Foreign and Commonwealth Office lifted its advice against all but essential international travel Britons would be unable to easily get into those countries.

There remains a note of optimism. Andy Harmer, Cruise Lines International Association UK & Ireland director, said: “We are seeing river cruises in some markets start in a gradual, phased-in manner. Cruise lines are working with ports and destinations so that cruise itineraries are designed with public health considerations as a priority.”

The message? For those ready to set sail this summer, river cruises are very much on the cards.