There's only one thing you can be sure of on a river cruise, and that is that few passengers have paid the same price for their shared float in a boat. As long as the customer is happy that might not matter – at least until passengers start comparing costs over afternoon tea in the ship's lounge. You can bet that someone will soon choke on their scones at the realisation that they've paid 25 and sometimes up to 50 per cent more for the same experience.
So how do you know you're getting the best price for your river cruise? Sometimes it feels as if you might as well consult astrology charts or your tea leaves. Fares can be difficult to compare. Different passengers may indeed pay differing amounts, but they might be in a superior cabin, have added on a pre-cruise stopover, or have organised their own flights.
Start comparing fares on different ships and you have even bigger headaches. Some ships have open bars, others don't. Some include airport transfers, declare additional port taxes only in the small print, or charge you for certain shore excursions.
The good news, though, is that some general rules of thumb should help you save money, and river cruise companies – unlike their ocean counterparts – are including more and more in their overall fares, making them easier to compare. Most, at least at the luxury end, now include shore excursions, mealtime drinks, Wi-Fi and gratuities, so there are few surprises when it comes to paying the final bill.
River cruising is a booming business, with 10 new ships launched in 2018 and another eight due in 2019. You might think that would offer the chance of a bargain, but new ships barely keep up with demand. Last year saw a big increase in the number of Australian, British and German river cruisers in particular, and there was burgeoning interest among Asian travellers.
As a result, few deals exist unless you book well in advance. If you haven't already booked your European summer cruise, do it now – or better yet, think about the summer after. Six to 12 months prior to your journey, or even up to two years, has become the norm for what the industry calls preview campaigns, which offer those really attractive prices with between 25 and 50 per cent off. You can also bag other bargains with advance bookings, such as complimentary flights or two-for-one fares.
"The best time to book a river cruise is as soon as the dates are released," says Lubica Sibikova, operations manager at Viking Cruises. 'Viking always launches with a selection of special offers, plus guests can secure their preferred date, cabin category and even cabin number."
Steve Reynolds, chief executive of APT, agrees. "I recommend booking early to ensure you get the best choice of departure dates, cabin type, price, promotion and flight availability. Plus, you can also normally take advantage of pre-release super deals, which are often held at the previous year's prices."
The best way to keep abreast of early bird discounts, or indeed any other special deal, is to sign up for cruise company emails and newsletters, or register your interest with a local travel agent. Keep an eye on newspaper advertisements and cruise company Facebook and Twitter accounts as well for the most up-to-date offerings.
Beyond simple early bird deals, cruise lines sometimes offer special promotions such as spot sales or inclusive offers that will save you money on such things as flights, airport transfers or pre- and post-cruise city stays. Single supplements might be waived, which means big savings for solo travellers.
If you hold your nerve and have the ability to hop on a river ship at a few weeks' notice, you might get a last-minute deal. Uniworld, for example, posts occasional last-minute promotions on its website. Don't bank on it, however. Though ships would rather sell cabins at a discount than not at all, such deals are becoming far less common than they once were. And because mid-range cabins are always first to sell out, you're unlikely to get your choice, and maybe not even the destination.
You might also want to consider the currency markets, though this strays into the realm of many unknowns. River cruise companies' expenses are generally paid in euros or American dollars, so if the value of the Australian dollar falls, cruises will become more expensive when purchased here. If you think the Aussie dollar is going to keep weakening, you may be better off booking in advance, since most cruise companies guarantee current prices once you've paid a deposit.
CONSULT YOUR CALENDAR
A general rule – and one that applies to ocean cruising and almost all travel – is to avoid peak seasons unless you want to pay top dollar. That's true of river cruising too, but the peak seasons aren't what you might expect.
School holidays don't affect river cruises as only two companies (Tauck and Uniworld) have family-themed itineraries and even then, only a few. Hardly any river cruise passengers are children. Most are retirees who are free to travel any time. And few passengers – though that has been changing somewhat – are European so the European summer isn't peak cruising season, either. The most in-demand months for river cruising in Europe are May, June and September, when you'll pay the highest cruise fares. Any savings in July and August will be undercut by higher prices on land if you're extending your holiday beyond the river.
The lowest fares, in short, apply to the start of the season (March to April) and its tail end (October to November), though you have to gamble with the weather, especially in northern and eastern Europe.
On the Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers it's the cool season (November to February) that costs the most. The May to October hot season saves you money. Aqua Expeditions, for example, has 30 per cent off the usual rate during the summer months. Meanwhile on the Nile, peak season is October to January, with prices dropping at least 25 per cent during the May to September hot season.
In the United States, little of the above applies, since most river cruises only operate during peak season, which is between mid-June and late September, with trivial monthly fluctuations in pricing.
CHOOSE YOUR CABIN
The cheapest cabins on river ships are on the lower decks, where you might be almost at water level and have just a porthole to let in daylight. When docked you might end up with no natural light at all, as ships often tie up against quay walls. Still, you might find the savings worthwhile, especially if you intend to spend most of your day off the ship, or don't mind the sociable environment that comes with lingering in lounges.
Higher decks cost more, and you'll pay most for cabins with balconies. While many passengers appreciate balconies, you should assess whether they're worth the added cost. Sometimes cabins without balconies give you more internal space. Viking's best-value category E and F cabins, for example, have more internal space than the higher-priced category C and D cabins, where room is sacrificed for balconies that you might only use on brief occasions.
Brian Johnston has travelled courtesy of numerous river cruise companies.
Amadeus River Cruises, see amadeus-rivercruises.com.au
APT, see aptouring.com.au
Avalon Waterways, see avalonwaterways.com.au
Evergreen Cruises, see evergreentours.com.au
Tauck, see tauck.com.au
Travelmarvel, see travelmarvel.com.au
Uniworld, see uniworld.com
Viking River Cruises, see vikingcruises.com.au