Why Your Best Europe Trip Might Be A Cruise

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In the face of record hotel rates that continue to grow, coupled with sustained high airline fares, some travelers feel they can no longer take a luxury European vacation. They are wrong.

After being locked down at home during the pandemic, it’s understandable that people got antsy and wanted to travel, and that pent up demand manifested itself with record airline bookings and an explosion in international travel. But it was the end of 2022 when adults started receiving vaccines, and more than two years after travel returned to somewhat normal, the frenetic pace shows no sign of abetting. The “new normal” in travel is here, and it’s more expensive. Especially in Europe.

I have been speaking to some of the nation’s best and most experienced luxury travel advisors -they don’t like to be called travel agents anymore – about this, and when it comes to hotel rates in popular European cities, the most common adjective I heard was “insane.”

I recently returned from Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas, the nation’s premier industry conference for the luxury travel market. Virtuoso is the nation’s (and now that they have expanded into virtually every major market from South America to Australia, arguably the world’s) leading consortium of luxury travel advisors. I’ve written here at Forbes several times over the years about why you should use a travel agent/advisor, and anyone who cares about their luxury travel experience is kidding themselves if they go the DIY route. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how savvy you are at the keyboard or how much you think you know about travel, going without profession help is almost always a mistake, period, and besides not having as good a trip, it can cost you money, leave you stranded or simply ruin a vacation. You can read more about why you should use a travel advisor here.

In any case, many of the very best advisors in the country belong to Virtuoso, and while they represent hundreds of independent agencies, by pooling their massive buying clout they have been able to negotiate serious extra benefits from hotels, cruise lines, tour companies and other travel operators, and these include practically all the big names in luxury travel (in 2022 Virtuoso said its members did $25-$30 billion in travel sales, and the first half of 2023 was 37% ahead of 2022, which was the best year ever). What that means is that by booking a hotel room through a travel advisor who belongs to Virtuoso, you might well pay exactly the same rate as if you book yourself, but get extras like late checkout, free breakfast, room upgrades, food or spa credits and so on. Those taking cruises can get even bigger freebies by booking through an advisor, such as multiple cabin class upgrades and free shore excursions.

There are even some experiences so exclusive you simply cannot book them at all except through a Virtuoso member, such as the remaining seats on Virgin Galactic space flights, for which they are the exclusive vendor. That’s all in addition to deep knowledge and expertise.

This massive number of bookings by Virtuoso’s agents also creates an enormous amount of data, and some of the numbers shared in Las Vegas are scary if you love travel but are not extremely wealthy.

For instance, I recently wrote a piece here at Forbes about a group of hidden gem luxury boutique hotels in Paris that offered much lower rates than the big names. In that article I describe that when I visited earlier this year, I checked room rates at three luxury hotels I had previously stayed in, and they ranged from $1200 to $1800 to over $3000 a night – for the cheapest room, and this was not high season. For most travelers, even well to do travelers, that’s a non-starter. Likewise, I write a lot on skiing and have looked deeply at European ski vacation prices for the coming season, and to me they appear to be running about double what they were last year when I skied in Europe, and that’s way more than just inflation. In the past year or two, I’ve had the sense that travel prices, including plane tickets but especially hotels, have made an unprecedented jump.

Virtuoso’s data shows this is true. Compared to the last full pre-pandemic year, 2019, average daily rates for luxury hotels outside the US are up a staggering 58% – to an average of over $1,400 a night – and that includes many less expensive countries where money goes much further than in Paris, Rome or here at home. By December, this daily rate is forecast to hit nearly $1,800 a night – average! Europe is particularly rough, and three of five most popular destinations for fall travel by Americans are there: Italy (number one), France and the UK. The top four cities for fall travel are all in Europe, Paris, London, Florence and Rome, with hotel rates up 11-37% over 2022’s previous record highs.

As a result, many travelers feel they can no longer take a luxury European vacation. They are wrong. They can take a cruise.

To the surprise of many in the travel industry, including myself, cruises, which were especially hard hit by the pandemic, have bounced back much faster than most pundits expected. But there are still a lot of cruise ships, most of which are much bigger than the biggest hotels (outside of Las Vegas, at least). In some places, cruises are a trip of their own, especially in destinations such as the Caribbean, where guests might go because they want to stay on the ship and enjoy the amenities. But in Europe they function as floating, moveable, luxury hotels that allow you to visit ultra-desirable spots such as Venice without paying the exorbitant hotel rates, visit multiple cities or countries without the logistics or extra costs of trains, flights or ground transfers, and take a full-blown European luxury vacating while only packing and unpacking once, with no potential for flight delays or rail strikes along the way.

In terms of the price for this level of luxury lodging, service and food, top cruise lines represent an excellent value proposition for a European vacation, and one that is increasingly being snapped up by people who have not taken a cruise before and are not especially interested in cruising. Rather they are choosing it as a turnkey, simple alternative to land-based prices and crowds. I spoke to several of the top cruise lines about this.

“The price gap between hotels and cruises in Europe has never been bigger than it is right now,” said Katina Athanasiou, Senior Vice President of Sales for Celebrity Cruises. “Our trips are averaging $2,500 per person for 7-nights, including alcohol, Wi-Fi, everything. We’ve seen a lot of first-time cruisers because of Europe. Why go to Italy or France or Spain when you can go to Italy and France and Spain, for much less.” She’s being modest – it’s much, much less.

[Many less luxurious cruise lines are “all-inclusive” but still charge for surprising things such as drinks – even water, coffee and soda – and things you’d expect to be free, like Wi-Fi. On luxury lines there is much less in the way of hidden fees].

It’s never been easier to spend $2,500 for a single night in a hotel in Europe than it is right now, but on the ship, you get a full week -with all the food and drink. Sadly, while most European hotels routinely include breakfast, it’s the ones in this price range that often do not. In many cases you’re lucky if that $2,500 includes a cup of coffee.

“We just did an apples-to-apples price comparison for 10-days in European cities with food, lodging and entertainment using the same cities and level of luxury lodging in hotels and cuisine versus Regent Seven Seas,” said Shawn Tubman, Vice President for the line, one of the top tier luxury brands at sea. “Our cruises represented a 40% savings, and we are the most inclusive luxury line out there, all wine and spirits, all gratuities, the only thing you can spend money on are the gift shop, spa and casino. We even include business class air, which we subsidize, on all international cruises. If you try to break the air out on your own, it’s always more expensive. Because we’ve seen big growth in longer itineraries post pandemic, we’ve even added free laundry on our cruises so you can pack less.”

For instance, a 12-night Mediterranean cruise this fall from Athens to Jerusalem runs $1,794 per night – for two – with business class air, and includes unlimited shore excursions, open bar with premium spirits and wines, including in your cabin, all restaurants, laundry and airport transfers, in addition to things like Wi-Fi. That’s in a suite with a private outside balcony. Its prices are higher than most lines, but Regent Seven Seas is known in the industry for inclusion of shore excursions, which almost everyone else charges for, and this can be another significant savings versus tour guides while staying at hotels. Anyone going to Athens or Rome for the first time wants to see the Acropolis or Coliseum, but these cruise passengers don’t have to pay extra for it.

In the middle of the cruise market, beside things like non-alcoholic beverages and Wi-Fi, many lines charge extra for exercise classes or dining at “premium” venues, or limit the number of visits to better restaurants, have rigid time and reservation schemes, and almost always charge for shore excursions, which can really add up. But the best luxury lines allow open dining whenever you want in any restaurant, and may offer room service as a free option. Some let you pick and choose which of these features you want included, like Princess.

“I’m in my 40th year in the cruise business, and the value proposition has always been there, but it’s literally never been better than it is right now,” said Cal Almaguer, Senior Vice President of Sales for Princess Cruises. “At Princess we do good, better, best. Good, you get a fantastic cruise and great value, Better is called Princess Plus, you pay an extra $60 per person per day and get the drinks package, with adult beverages priced at up to $15 each, coffee, water and soft drinks, Wi-Fi and gratuities. Best is Princess Premier, which adds another $20 per person per day and gives you all the specialty restaurants, exercise classes, and luxury spirits. You can decide what you want and whether to pay for it, and it’s a great value at every level. We’ve also changed to a plan that guarantees that early booking for 2024 will be the lowest prices ever offered. Some people wait for the last minute and think prices will drop but that is not going to happen, it’s the best right now.”

But big cruise ships are not the only option for a great value in luxury travel.

In Europe, for years river cruising has been growing even faster than regular cruising, and river cruises tend to be more inclusive, have larger rooms, far fewer other passengers, eliminate the issues of seasickness and visit desirable cities ocean vessels cannot, such as Paris.

Unlike ocean cruises, most of the top luxury river cruise lines include free shore excursions in the rates. River cruises are also more adept at catering to active travelers, and almost all have free bikes available, some offered guided bike tours and hikes in ports, many have yoga, pilates and other fitness offerings included. Ama Waterways recently unveiled the first Pickle Ball court on a European river cruise ship. Other well-known luxury river cruise options for Europe include Viking, Tauck and Uniworld, which has a reputation for offering some of the best and most elaborate shore excursions, including everything from VIP wine tastings to golf.

Both top tier ocean and river cruises tend to be mostly all-inclusive, yet are often cheaper than just the rooms at a hotel would be for the same cities and length of trip in Europe. When you think about paying extra for all the things that are included, food, drink, entertainment, excursions and extras, the price difference can be immense. Finally, many river and ocean cruises also include ground transfers to and from the ship, something hotels almost never do.

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