Been There, But Never Done That

By David Cogswell

One phrase that grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard is “been there done that.” I’m sure the phrase has appropriate applications, but when people use it to dismiss a destination and cross it off their list of interests because they have been there before, it misses the essential novelty of the travel experience. Every day is a new day and every trip is an opportunity to experience completely new things. I’ve lived in the New York metropolitan area for 30 years, for example, and I have barely scratched the surface of the things to do and see. I could live there a hundred years and never get tired of it.

Today I am in a cabin on AMA Waterways’ new river cruiser, the Amalyra, moored on the Danube River in Budapest. I have been to Budapest before, but that does not diminish the thrill one bit. On the contrary, it heightens it. The view from the ship where we are moored is dazzling, including the chain bridge, the ornate spires of the Hungarian Parliament and the legendary Danube itself, the famous landmarks that are nearly always used to evoke the image of Budapest.

If I were just checking items off a list and blind to the magnificent spectacle of life going on around me, I could say, yes, I have been here before. But when I was here before I was traveling by highway. This time I am on a river cruise. Being here on a river cruise ship is completely different, and the difference underlines a change in the travel industry. Fifteen years ago, river cruises were barely heard of in the U.S. But since then the product has grown from a barely perceptible blip on the horizon to a powerhouse industry of its own and a formidable economic engine for the tour operator segment. According to USTOA President Bob Whitley, river cruising has been the strongest growth market for tour operators for the past several years. Even when overall business slowed down, the river cruise market continued to grow. Operators have poured into the market and yet it has shown no signs of reaching saturation.

It was Serba Illich, the founder of Uniworld, who first saw the potential of river cruising for the U.S. market and adapted the product to accommodate American tastes. Illich saw that river cruising was popular with Europeans, but the ships were not appropriate for Americans, who were used to a certain standard of services, size of cabins, style of cuisine and approach to touring. Europeans might take a river cruise for a day or two, but for Americans the ships needed longer itineraries appropriate to transatlantic travel. Americans needed larger cabins, food that catered to their tastes, shore excursions designed for an American frame of reference. Illich initiated the modifications and spent years proselytizing in the U.S. market until it caught on.

River cruising recombines the elements of touring and cruising in a way that seems to capture most of the best aspects of both. It has the ease of cruising, the advantages of a floating hotel, which allows you the luxury of only having to unpack once until you are preparing to leave. But unlike ocean liners, the ships are smaller, more intimate and can travel right into the heart of the cities of Europe. The ship glides smoothly by the landscape. There is never a lack of scenery and no one gets seasick on a river cruise. Like touring, the river cruising emphasizes the destination more than the recreational activities aboard ship. But unlike traditional motorcoach touring, there are no early morning calls to pack up and get on the road. You can stay in bed while the ship gets underway if you want to. Instead of battling traffic on the highways, you are moving along the waterways that were the arteries of traffic and trade when these cities were built centuries ago. Your ship anchors at the heart of the city and you are free to walk out and take in the city at your own pace.

Illich’s basic model worked, and as other operators got into the market, competition spurred innovation and the product evolved and improved. The enthusiastic response from the market convinced a number of tour operators, including Jimmy Murphy, the founder of Brendan Vacations and now chairman of AMA Waterways, that river cruising was the future of touring, or at least an increasingly significant part of it.

AMA Waterways entered the American market in 2006 as Amadeus Waterways and has rapidly grown its fleet. It has six ships in its regular European river cruise series and three others on specialized itineraries at last count. AMA has made its own contribution to the development of the product, adding its own innovations that spur the competition to raise the level of service, such as on-board bicycles, included wine at dinner and complementary Internet, with keyboards and monitors that double as flat screen TVs in the cabins. AMA has amalgamated not only the most appealing aspects of touring and cruising, but has also incorporated the appeal of all-inclusive resorts.

I have joined the Amalyra’s christening voyage. The ship made only one trip before the christening, so it’s still brand new, sparkling and crisp. The crew is fresh and full of enthusiasm. After we leave Budapest, we will visit Bratislava, Vienna, Durnstein, Melk, Grein and Linz, Austria, and end in Vilshofen, Germany. I know the week will pass all too quickly. I relish it.