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Criterion Travel opens highly curated group trips to independent travelers

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Steve Ridgway leads Criterion Travel, a tour operator specialized in educational trips for alumni groups and museums, some of which are now open to independent travelers
Criterion Travel, a tour operator specializing in expert-led trips with a strong educational focus, has prestigious clients including Ivy League alumni groups and museum members.

Among them are Harvard Alumni Association, Yale Alumni Academy, Princeton Journeys, Smithsonian Journeys, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Archaeological Institute of America.

Now, for the first time, Criterion is opening some of the affinity trips it curates on small ships to individual travelers who can benefit from the lectures and interaction with noted authorities along with carefully crafted shore excursions themed on topics like art history, archaeology or political science.

Exceptional educational content

'The small ship cruises we operate are exceptional programs in terms of educational content,' said Steve Ridgway, president of Criterion Travel. 'These trips draw travelers who are interested in learning about the destination. We set up programs that provide access they wouldn't get on their own or with another tour operator with a broader reach.'

Criterion either charters vessels or blocks space to create programs it offers to affinity group sponsors, or the clients come to Ridgway's team to design a customized trip.

These are aboard truly small ships — some with just 14 cabins, but typically none larger than 120 berths. Since Criterion often charters the vessels, it can customize the itinerary to provide exclusive port content.

The result is one-of-a-kind programs not available to the general public.

Greek and Roman history on Emerald Sakara

For example, Criterion has a seven-night Athens to Rome charter of Emerald Sakara — which Ridgway likened to a billionaire's yacht — in September with a strong focus on Greek and Roman history and excursions to archaeological sites.

A dozen cabins are open to individual travelers who'll be privy to lectures and informal discussions with luminaries like Tom Moriarity, an authority on architecture and historic preservation; Laetitia La Follette, archaeologist and immediate past resident of the Archaeological Institute of America; and Gordon Teskey, Francis Lee Higginson professor of English at Harvard University.

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Steve Ridgway likened Emerald Sakara to a billionaire's yacht

The program begins with a special visit to the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, and includes a cruise through the Corinth Canal, a visit to Olympia and a call at 2,700-year-old Siracusa, rich with Greek and Roman history, where a late departure allows an evening stroll or sightseeing excursion. Travelers can marvel at the 3rd-century BC Greco-Roman amphitheater at Taormina and the Greek Temple of Neptune at Paestum before visiting Pompeii.

Affinity groups don't usually open their trips to independent travelers but for ship charters that represent a big financial outlay, some group sponsors let Criterion top off trips with independent travelers. Independents may book via a travel advisor (trips are commissionable) or directly with Criterion Travel.

'One big happy family' on board

'On board, it's one big happy family,' Ridgway said. 'There's no separation. Everyone can get on any bus for shore excursions.' While an affinity group may host a members-only cocktail party, 'In terms of dining room tables, lectures and shore excursions, they're open to everyone on board.'

As well, everyone pays the same fare. Pricing includes all meals; wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner; port fees, taxes and gratuities to ship personnel and tour managers.

'Most of our travelers are older, well educated, well traveled and have the wherewithal to spend $5,000 to $8,000 on a land tour and $10,000 to $12,000 on a cruise,' Ridgway said.

The weeklong Emerald Sakara trip is priced starting at $7,990 per person, not including airfare.

Japan cruise-tour with geisha, kabuki, taiko drumming

For 2026, Criterion will likely reprise a very successful cruise-tour of Japan, which it's operated 25 or 30 times. The company uses small ships like Noble Caledonia's Island Sky or Hebridean Sky (from the original Renaissance Cruises of the early 1990s) or Heritage Expeditions' Heritage Adventurer (a prior incarnation was Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' Hanseatic).

The trip begins with three nights in Kyoto to delve into the history of the ancient capital and may include special programs like meeting a geisha, seeing a kabuki actor get dressed and made up and visiting artisans' private workshops. The cruise may stop at Sado Island to see taiko drummers practice. Criterion always sets aside some cabins for Japanese national guides it knows well to maintain consistency and a high level of delivery on all excursions. 

For such a trip, 'we have to work to keep the lead-in price under $10,000 per person,' Ridgway said.

Croatia like a local on an 18-cabin yacht

Another popular trip, Croatia on an 18-cabin yacht launched in 2018, lets travelers feel like they're on their own boat.

Ridgway said the beauty of this little vessel, versus bigger ships on Adriatic cruises, is that it's not limited to the major ports and can pull right into the center of town in small islands or the mainland alongside the local boats.

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Steve Ridgway, at left, in Greece with his son Andy Ridgway, Criterion Travel's marketing director, and grandson

'People can eat dinner with the locals because we stay overnight. In the morning, they can have coffee on the pier and watch the place come to life ...  People have told us this is one of the best trips they've every had. Not only is it a very interesting part of the world, with a lot of archaeology and history, people feel like they're on holiday by themselves but with the advantage of the group, the lecturers, the guides.'

Yet another full-ship charter planned in 2026 is on Sea Cloud Spirit, which Ridgway called a 'fantastic' ship. The trip will begin with a land program in Morocco before the cruise sails from Casablanca to the Canary Islands.

Criterion's origin story

Having grown up in a family of teachers in a university town, Ridgway loves travel with an educational focus as opposed to simply leisure travel. 

After stints with the giants Maupintour and Olsen Travel World (where he worked in the AARP travel service division that ran trips as a benefit of AARP membership) then the boutique firm High Country Passage, Ridgway founded Criterion Travel 15 years ago.

Small by design, with veteran staff

'We've stayed small by design,' he said. 'We want to focus on the clients we have ... A key strength is our staff,' 18 people who've worked together for decades and are experts in designing educational travel.

'We love what we do,' Ridgway said. He's also proud of keeping most employess during the pandemic so Criterion Travel emerged with its seasoned team intact and ready to deliver at the same high standard.