Actually, when we looked further at the figures we found this is not such a huge market as you might imagine, with estimates of the total number of European river cruisers standing at about 1.36 million (when I say European, I mean taking river cruises in Europe, rather than being European by nationality). Of that number, not even half come from North America, although there are certain companies which cater primarily to the North American market, so British river cruisers selecting high end product (AmaWaterways, Uniworld, Tauck or Crystal) might be forgiven for thinking only Americans take river cruises.
We would have sworn there were significant numbers of Australians, particularly after travelling on APT or Scenic, but no, the Australians account for less than 7% of the market. In fact, second after the North American market is Germany, with a significant number exploring their own country by river, mainly on German-speaking ships marketed exclusively to the domestic market.
And then the Brits, with 15% of the market, travelling on high profile products such as Riviera Travel and Viking River Cruises, and boasting a boost in numbers of an amazing 21% year on year.
With so many different companies operating on the rivers, and the over-use of so many terms such as 'luxury', 'five star', and 'inclusive', it is hard to differentiate one company from another. We were delighted to have the opportunity to meet Walter Littlejohn from Crystal River Cruises recently. After a lifetime in the river cruise industry, he highlighted a few areas to look out for:
"It's all about the service. Many river vessels have a very low crew-to-passenger ratio and this affects the passenger in various ways: crew members need to be multifunctional, and therefore do not have any specific expertise. They are rushed off their feet, so have little time to personalise your experience. Furthermore, as you can imagine, the huge growth in the number of vessels on the rivers means that recruitment is outsourced by most companies, so they are looking for anyone who, in theory, can do the job, rather than someone who matches the brand values of the company. Amazingly, only three river brands employ all of their own staff.
"As for food - many ships will be using frozen and pre-prepared ingredients. Guests are required to sit down for meals at the same time, so it can be a bit of a bun-fight getting a table, and there is little menu flexibility. Only a few vessels offer room service.
"Look at cabin sizes - some are absolutely tiny! Low cabins can be below the waterline, with duck view windows. Likewise, the 'included' excursions may offer little choice or creativity."
So, having decided you would like to take a river cruise, how do you tell which company is for you? Of course, you need professional advice - the expert Cruise Consultants at Mundy Cruising can guide you through the options and find you the perfect solution.