Before we continue our Danube ramble, I wanted to add some information that struck me as worth-while, especially for first time cruisers. It really is important to chose a cruise line that is right for you before you take your first cruise.Do your research up-front, read reviews,talk to people who have done this before, etc.
Of course, some folks enjoy trying out the cruises offered by different companies. This can be fun, of course, but just like on ocean cruises, loyalty to a particular line pays off. Admittedly the Ramblers have only taken one river cruise to date, although another is coming up, but here’s the deal. With Uniworld, our choice after much research, once you’ve taken a cruise, you are enrolled in their River Heritage Club. Membership offers some additional perks on board, extra discounts on your next cruise, and sometimes they will even upgrade your cabin to the next level if there is room. Luckily for us, we were absolutely satisfied with our first choice and had no desire to switch to another line, even if it offered a “better” deal. It isn’t a better deal if you keep thinking you should have stayed with your original choice during the second cruise.
I am pretty sure that most of the leading cruise lines offer the same sort of perks for repeat cruisers. So, if you loved river cruising, but weren’t entirely happy with your first cruise, you might well try another company. If so, you will be starting from square one again, without club benefits. Just a thought.
Finally, a word about “all inclusive.” Many cruise lines cay they are all inclusive, but relatively few are so do your homework. On our Uniworld Christmas Markets Cruise, we spent absolutely no money on board or for tours. Everything was truly included, all food and drink, tips, etc. If we hadn’t bought some souvenirs and enjoyed a meal in Salzburg, we would have headed to the airport with our Euro’s unspent.
I had not seriously researched river cruising before my husband agreed to ramble along with me. But as river cruise literature filled our mailbox and spilled over onto our dining room table, I quickly realized that it would not be easy to pick the perfect cruise. And it wasn’t!
River cruising has become amazingly popular in the last decade, mainly I think because it is so comfortable AND because the world’s population is aging. What senior citizen wouldn’t enjoy cruising down a river with mostly awesome views and delightful stops while living in a luxury hotel disguised as a boat. Many river cruise lines also provide bicycles and hiking for the more active cruisers, but since the average age, as I found out, hovers around 60 plus or minus a few years on most river boats, it’s not usually a good trip for children. However some companies have already begun to schedule special family cruises that include activities for young people.
Because of increased demand, a growing number of river boats now sail all the major rivers of Europe during the spring, summer and fall, and even during the winter months. Because of limited dock space in certain parts of the river, the boats are forced to tie up alongside each other and their passengers have to scamper up and over perhaps as many as three river cruisers to reach the shore. Rafting mainly happens during the summer months but is certainly not an usual occurrence.Similar river cruises can also be found in many other parts of the world, where there are navigable rivers, of course.
So which company to choose? I met several folks who had cruised on the Viking line. They all spoke very highly of Viking and certainly their prices are among the best out there. They have the most ships and seem to be constantly launching new ones. My travel agent at AAA, Michelle Shirley, told me that 95% of the river cruises she books are on Viking. So we went on Viking, right? Actually no, ever the contrarian, I decided to chose a smaller company that has been on the river for a long time, Uniworld. This company is part of the Red Carnation Hotel chain and calls itself a “boutique” river cruise line. So what is a” boutique river cruise?” I’m still not sure, but I can tell you that we would thoroughly enjoy all aspects of our cruise on the River Beatrice…except the weather!
Why does one pick one cruise over another. After a while, all the descriptions in the their brochures look the same,. There are variables such as cabin size, all inclusive vs. pay for what you want, the size of the ship, etc. In the end, my gut feeling was to choose the Uniworld Danube Christmas Markets cruise from Budapest Hungary to Passau in southern Germany, and so we did. The cruise we selected also made a stop at Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia where we hoped to meet cousins on my mother’s side of the family.
In the end, almost all of the better river cruise ships are similar, though the size of the cabins varies as does the quality of the food and service, not to mention the cost of the cruise and tours. There are multiple reviews on all the cruise lines, their ships and their cruises on the web. A good place to start is CruiseCritic.com . The Cruise Critic website has reviews not only of all the river cruise lines but of their individual ships. They also separate them into Cruise Critic’s executive reviews, and reviews made by people who sailed on the cruises.
Keep in mind, that one is moved to review something if it was really bad or really good. As a result, the individual reviews range from extremely positive to extremely negative. It is up to the reader to determine which are closest to reality. Some of the best known river cruise companies besides Uniworld and Viking are AMA, Avalon, Scenic and Tauck which features land as well as river cruises.A-Rosa and Croisi-Europe are European lines that cater mainly to Europeans but have good prices and are trying to recruit American passengers.
Finally, unless you are reading this in Europe, you will probably have to fly to your embarkation point. That can be an adventure and an expense in itself.
After a while, all the boats look alike but there are subtle differences, both exterior and especially in the interior.
For those of you who are thinking about a river cruise and have never taken one, it took us several months to zero in on the cruise we wanted. Then there was the matter of price. There are many travel agencies who advertise on the web so price comparison is no problem. All will probably match the price quoted by a competitor at the time.
What is more problematic is when to book. Of course both the cruise companies and the travel agencies want you to book right away. One can’t blame them as competition is fierce. Even though river cruises are extremely popular, the cruise companies have responded by adding more ships and cruises. Viking in particular, added a dozen new ships for river cruising in 2015, while most of its competitors added at least one. Unless you want a particular ship at a particular time and place, it seems to me that it might benefit you to wait, especially if you don’t have to travel during summer vacation. We booked six months ahead, which used to be the optimum time, and I thought I got a good deal. My training as a historian has made researching and finding the best trip and the best price almost a compulsion, and I was lucky the first time. I decided to work with Michelle Shirley, our travel agent at AAA, with an office two miles from home. My reasoning was if there was a problem, she was right there. Many travel agencies seem to be based in states far from Georgia like California and Texas, which is well and good if everything goes according to plan, but it doesn’t always.
Alright, so we had our cruise, our trip insurance, our passports, our carry-on’s; we had decided to go with only our carry-on luggage and one extra checked bag. Now all we needed were our flights. Today there are dozens of sites that offer the cheapest air-fare wherever you want to go. When you check them out, they often have the same information as the airline sites or the cheap flight advertised is no longer available. Then, of course, you can look on the airline sites which often have the same prices. I did all this religiously and could not find a reasonable fare from Atlanta to Budapest. Finally went to AAA for help (remember I really am a good researcher and feel I don’t need help) as I wasn’t getting anywhere and we surely couldn’t drive to Budapest… Michelle Shirleychecked with Uniworld and was able to get a great fare through them, with only one connecting flight on the way out and a direct return. I am not a fan of flying anywhere but there simply aren’t any direct flights from Atlanta to Budapest. So if you are going on a river cruise, it is likely that your cruise company can offer you a better flight deal than you can get yourself. However, I have heard that some cruise lines have arbitrarily changed passenger flights once in a while, but this did not happen to us. What we booked was what we got.
November 8, our departure date finally arrived. I was excited about the cruise but nervous as usual about the plane ride. The weather was clear at Hartsfield airport when we got dropped off by our daughter, Lisa, at the International Terminal. We hadn’t flown anywhere since 1998, so the security lines were all new to us as would be the sardine like conditions inside our plane. Security wasn’t too bad, except that my husband forgot his sunglasses and cigarette case in the basket after going through the detector. We had time and walked back but they were no where to be found. After I had my hips replaced, I received a card from the manufacturer which I was supposed to hand to the TSA folks, but they weren’t interested in it and did a good job patting me down after I set off the machine. The good thing for us was that people over 75 are considered too old to have shoe bombs installed so we were allowed to keep our shoes on as we went through the line. LOL
Our daughter Robin, is a world traveler and she insisted on buying us extended comfort economy seats for our trip. Since I’m retired teaching faculty not a high-up administrator, business class is just out of reach, but economy class without the luxury of extended comfort can be rough as we found out. If you can afford it and it is available, grab it. We flew out Delta and I must say the quality of the food was not good. Extended comfort included drinks and early boarding, but the food was not memorable. However, most important was that we arrived safely in Amsterdam and the flight was smooth.
One thing we didn’t know then was that Schipol airport in Amsterdam is very spread out. It took us about 15 minutes to taxi to our gate. I learned later that we landed in the area called the Polder. And, as you might expect, the KLM gate for the flight to Budapest was on the opposite side of the airport. We hurried as fast as we could, unable to look at the interesting shops on either side, since we didn’t have a lot of time between flights. This had caused me quite a bit of anxiety ahead of time as I wondered what might happen if we missed our flight or were late.
As it turned out, we reached our gate in plenty of time, after going through security yet again, and were wedged into our seats in a fairly old plane. No extended comfort on the connector flight which still boasted red no smoking lights, though they didn’t turn them on. The connecting flight was run by KLM and the service and food was much better than that on Delta. The flight attendants were a very jolly group who seemed to enjoy their work. They happily served us excellent Dutch-style sandwiches and cookies and before we knew it, the plane touched down in Budapest, Hungary. Could the Danube be far away?
After collecting our luggage, we exited the small airport and quickly spotted a smiling Uniworld staff member holding up a sign with the Uniworld logo. There was another group bound for a Viking longship who all sported little red carry-on bags with the Viking logo. With a sigh of relief, we joined a growing group of folks headed for the River Beatrice patiently waiting for all the cruisers to arrive. My husband deemed it time to dash outside, despite the cold rain, to have a long-denied cigarette. I was just happy to have reached the country my mother had left almost 100 years ago, never to return.