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Top travel consultant Richard Turen makes a living steering people to vacations they'll love. The owner and managing director of Churchill & Turen Ltd. recently sat down with AARP The Magazine editor-in-chief Robert Love to discuss the ins and outs of the river cruise industry.
Q: Which rivers in Europe would you recommend for first-time cruisers?
A: There are terrific itineraries in France, and the Douro in Portugal is absolutely wonderful. But the Danube is the most popular choice, and for good reason: It's really the Paris of rivers. It can give you Prague and Budapest, and take you smack into the middle of Vienna—it just doesn't get better than that. I love the Rhine, too, but it's a little more industrial. For a first-timer, the Danube is superior.
Q: What can people expect to pay per day for one of these cruises?
A: Our rule of thumb is $300 to $500 per day, not including airfare. But you have to be careful; this is an industry that's willing to totally confuse the consumer on pricing. The best way to compare prices is to take the least expensive cabin with a French balcony, without airfare, and divide it by the number of nights on the trip on a per-person basis. Then you get a true per diem, and you can look at the value of whatever airfare or other extras [the cruise line is] offering separately. If people do that, they will be looking at real deals rather than imaginary ones.
Q: What kinds of extras might be offered separately? Alcoholic beverages? Shore excursions?
A: Some riverboat companies include wine with meals, but if you order cocktails, you pay for them, and they're not inexpensive. The gratuity is usually not included. On riverboats, shore excursions are included, even on the least expensive riverboat line. These are basically walking tours or bus tours into town. There are cooking schools, special events and concerts that some riverboat companies charge extra for.
Q: Any other caveats you'd offer someone considering river cruising?
A: Know that the food on a riverboat is not going to be gourmet. They're cooking in very small quarters, sometimes for 120 passengers as well as maybe 90 crew. So they can't offer the range of options you might have on a luxury ocean cruise on lines such as Silversea and Seven Seas.
Q: On my cruise, we were up at 6 a.m. for breakfast and off the boat by 8 or 8:30 for shore excursions on most mornings. It wasn't very relaxing. Is that pace common on riverboats?
A: Yes. The riverboat industry has expanded incredibly in the past few years, but the rivers haven't, and neither have the little towns along the rivers. Some cruise lines are getting passengers up earlier to get ahead of the crowds. To get your money's worth, you need to take advantage of shore excursions, but that means you're off the boat every day, all day. Much of the touring involves walking, and it's often on cobblestoned streets, so good walking skills are important. Some companies schedule walking tours based on skill level, so there are tours for slower walkers. A river cruise is for people who want to see these beautiful old European towns close up. It's not for people who want to unwind.