It's Day 3 of a week-long cruise down Europe's second-longest river, and the River Beatrice is gliding leisurely through the verdant Slovakian countryside into the tiny capital of Bratislava.
Lauren and Gary Snyder prepare to stroll into town, conveniently just steps from the pier where Uniworld's new 160-passenger vessel will dock. "It's been a surprise," says Lauren of the ease of exploring the ports along the route from Budapest, Hungary, to Passau, Germany.
"The most stressed I've been so far is playing Name That Tune," says Gary, a cardiologist from Jacksonville.
The relaxed pace and easy access to city centers are just two reasons why river cruising is on a roll. Indeed, it's one of the fastest-growing segments of travel with up to 60% annual growth for some lines in the past five years — nearly 10 times the rate of ocean cruising. Even with the recession, Uniworld competitors Viking River Cruises and AMA Waterways are growing at double-digit rates this year.
Why the surge? With fewer than 200 passengers per ship, river cruising is more laid-back and intimate than most ocean cruising, without lines to embark, debark or wait for meals or crowds to overwhelm ports. On ocean cruises, "there's too much herding around and standing in line," says Paula Wagner of the Travel Square One/Alltour agency in Denver.
It can also be more sociable. "You meet more people than on ocean cruises, because of the open-seating in the dining room," says the ship's hotel director Siegfried Penzenleitner. "The average for a river cruise is 20 people."
Because river ships dock right in the center of town, cruising the inland waterways offers far easier entree to a region's heartland — whether small medieval villages or grand historic capitals. Unlike on many ocean voyages, you can walk right off the ship into town — whenever you like. No tendering ashore. No long drives to your destination.
Furthermore, the size and configuration of river vessels guarantees that every cabin is "outside" with a coveted river view. And calm, shallow waters prevent any motion sickness of being at sea.
Compared with bus touring, it's much easier. "All the major cities of Europe are on a river, so why not unpack just once?" says Joy Whitney, 45, a researcher from Princeton, N.J, who has taken five Uniworld cruises.
Ian Dash, 48, an audio engineer from Sydney, agrees. "On a bus trip, most of the time you're on motorways, going from city to city. The nice thing about a boat is you can sleep in the same bed, and you travel slowly and can see the scenery rolling by."
Finally, river cruising — unlike most ocean liners — often includes excursions and wine with meals, as does the River Beatrice. That's a particularly good value in Europe, where you pay upfront in dollars and avoid the unfavorable currency exchange.
"Economically, you can't beat it. You aren't nickel-and-dimed to death," says travel agent Wagner. "People say 'I can't afford Europe,' but with this, I say 'yes, you can.' River cruising is under-promised and over-delivered."
A rising tide of cruises
Indeed, no fewer than nine new river ships are launching worldwide just this year: two from Avalon Waterways, one from Viking River Cruises, three from AMA Waterways, one from Tauck, and two from Uniworld. Avalon and AMA are rolling out three more in Europe next year, reflecting bullishness about a product that appeals mainly to Baby Boomers, retirees and experienced travelers.