6 more cruise lines hope to restart sailings in coming weeks — but there’s a catch

Jun 16, 2020

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Several more cruise lines in Europe plan to resume departures in the next few weeks. But if you’re a cruise fan living in North America, you shouldn’t get too excited. The trips aren’t really meant for you.

In the wake of last week’s successful resumption of river cruising in Germany by German line Nicko Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club, Ponant and at least four other river and ocean cruise operators are planning to resume sailings in and around Europe as soon as next week.

Like Nicko Cruises, many of the lines are German companies that only cater to German-speaking travellers. But a few are cruise companies that offer trips in English and traditionally draw Americans.

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What they all have in common is that they operate small vessels that either will sail on rivers within Europe or in waters close to the European coast.

For now, the big cruise lines that operate big-ship cruises around Europe such as Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line are not starting back up in Europe or anywhere else — and they might not return to operations for many months.

The lines planning a restart in Europe include:

A-Rosa

The German cruise line, which operates trips in German, plans to resume river cruises on Portugal’s Douro River on 17 June, and on Central Europe’s Rhine and Danube rivers on 19 and 20 June, respectively. It plans to restart river cruises in France in early July.

SeaDream Yacht Club

The small-ship specialist’s two 112-passenger luxury yachts have moved to Norway to offer 21 sailings along the country’s coast starting on 20 June.

Phoenix Reisen

This is another German cruise seller that operates trips in German. It plans a comeback starting on 26 June with river cruising on German rivers only.

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Plantours

Also a German line catering to Germans, Plantours plans to resume river cruises on the Elbe and Rhine rivers in Germany on 24 and 25 June, respectively.

Ponant

The small-ship and expedition cruise specialist, which is based in France but draws an international clientele, plans a series of French coast cruises starting on 5 July.

Hurtigruten

Also planning a restart to passenger operations in the coming days is Hurtigruten, the Norwegian cruise and ferry company. On 16 June, Hurtigruten will relaunch its famed ferry service along the Norwegian coast, which often draws traditional cruisers as well as locals travelling between towns. Initially, the company only will operate four vessels on the route, far fewer than normal. The Hurtigruten ferry route stretches from Bergen in the southern part of Norway to Kirkenes at the very north of the country, with stops at nearly three dozen towns.

While several of these lines — most notably Ponant and SeaDream — traditionally draw a significant number of Americans, these initial trips in Europe are mostly aimed at a local crowd that, in many cases, can reach the vessels by car. In that sense, they are catering to what is expected to be increased demand this summer for close-to-home trips instead of trips to far-off destinations.

SeaDream Yacht Club operates two 112-passenger vessels that have a yacht-like feel. (Photo courtesy of SeaDream Yacht Club).
SeaDream Yacht Club operates two 112-passenger vessels that have a yacht-like feel. (Photo courtesy of SeaDream Yacht Club).

The resumption of cruise operations by the lines comes as a number of European countries open their borders to visitors from other European countries as of 15 June.

The restart at Hurtigruten, for instance, comes as Norway and Denmark prepare to allow citizens to visit each other’s countries starting on 15 June as part of a new “travel bubble” agreement. Initial Hurtigruten sailings along the coast are expected to just draw passengers from the two countries.

Taken together, the openings on 15 June will make it much easier for river lines to operate voyages for Europeans on rivers such as the Rhine.

The reopening planned by France will be particularly significant to Ponant, which specifically has said its new French coastal trips aren’t just for local French travellers. The line is moving five of its vessels to the French coast, all of which will operate on a bilingual basis with both French and English spoken on board. Still, the sailings are likely to draw mostly local travellers initially, including many who arrive by car. The line is arranging parking space at departure ports.

The new Ponant trips along the French coast are unusual for the line, which normally deploys its vessels on far-flung itineraries around the world. The line plans five itineraries that are hyper-local. One will focus on the small towns around the Bordeaux area, for instance. Another will explore the Ponant Islands off northwestern France that inspired the line’s name.

The resumption of small-ship and river cruising in Europe comes as several small-ship and river cruise operators in the U.S. gear up for a restart, too. Most notably, small-ship specialist American Cruise Lines plans to resume river sailings in the Pacific Northwest on 20 June. It’s also eyeing a resumption of cruises on the Mississippi River and in Alaska.

The American Cruise Lines trips will take place on American Song, a small vessel designed for river and coastal cruising that has just 90 cabins.

The 180-passenger American Song. (Photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines)
The 90-cabin American Song. (Photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines)

Small vessels such as American Song aren’t covered under a 100-day “no-sail” order for cruise ships issued in April by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The order only applies to cruise vessels that carry more than 250 passengers and crew.

There is a growing consensus in the cruise industry that river ships and small vessels that sail coastal routings will be able to resume semiregular operations this year far earlier than bigger ships that offer long-distance ocean trips.

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In part, this is because small vessels offer a sort of small-group travel that’s easier to manage in an era of social distancing than the mass tourism of big ships. The typical river ship in Europe, for instance, has fewer than 100 cabins. It essentially operates as a small boutique hotel — albeit one that happens to move from town to town. Touring always is in small groups or on an individual basis. Onboard spaces rarely are crowded.

River cruise ships and small coastal vessels also often sail within the borders of a single country. That’s less complex from a logistical point of view than operating the sort of multi-country itineraries typical of big-ship lines. Small ships operating single country itineraries don’t have to worry about another country turning them away at a whim.

The lines restarting operations promise new medical screening measures for passengers, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of ships and other measures designed to reduce the chance of the spread of illness.

Feature image courtesy of SeaDream Yacht Club.

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