Europe Family River Cruising in 2018

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination Specialist & Europe River Cruise Expert

Among the newest trends in European river cruising is the addition of more family friendly cruises.  There are some great opportunities to provide vacations that are inclusive for families yet allow the adults a great vacation.  A word of warning—these cruises sell out quickly (some are already gone for the 2018 season), so if you are interested, do not hesitate to contact us to get your cruise. 

So, let’s explore the latest offerings. 

AmaWaterways and Adventures by Disney 2018

These awesome companies have partnered together to provide some unique river cruise trips on the two most popular river cruise routes in Europe—the Danube and the Rhine.  Most sailings are during the summer months, but there is also a special Christmas sailing on the Danube departing on December 23, 2018.  The 2018 sailings are now available for booking and we are happy to help you send your family on an adventure they will never forget.

They will offer eight Danube sailings aboard the AmaViola.  Four of these sailings are already sold out! The route is from Vishofen, Germany to Budapest, Hungary, or the reverse.  Along with the chance to visit 4 countries (Austria and Slovakia), the cruise sails through the Wachau Valley, one of the most picturesque parts of the Danube River.

wachau-valley-2012-673-94
Schonbuhl Castle at the start of the Wachau Valley, on the Danube River

A special feature of both of these Ama ships is connecting cabins.

On the Rhine, they will sail eight special Beauty and the Beast” itineraries aboard the AmaKristina in 2018.  One of these eight sailings is already sold out.  This cruise sails from Basel Switzerland to Amsterdam, Netherlands (we just returned in December 2016) on this route and also visits France and Germany—4 great Europe countries.  It also sails in the reverse direction.  The “Beauty and the Beast” theme will dominate the cruise with a special film screening and activities, but the highlight may well be a visit to Riquewihr, the inspiration for Belle’s hometown in the animated film.

stratsbourg
The half-timbered house of Strasbourg are very similar to the village of Riquewihr

For the family oriented cruises, there are only 140 spaces per sailing—Disney extra guides take up some cabins—instead of the normal 170 passengers.

There is a big advantage with the pairing of Disney and Ama—both provide wonderful experiences: Disney on land and sea and now both on the great rivers of Europe.  And with the Disney touches, it isn’t hard to imagine that any Disney aficionado would enjoy these themed cruises!

Disney for Adults

There are also an increased number of adult only adventures.  These special cruises were inspired by the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival.  The special events on these sailings include culinary experiences both onboard and onshore, wine tastings, culinary walking tours and a French patisserie class.  There are 2 sailing on the Rhine (September and October) and one special Octoberfest sailing on the Danube departing on September 30, 2018—you guessed it, it will feature beer!

Tauck Bridges

Tauck offers 3 river cruises that they market as “specially crafted for family fun.”  Their concept is world travel that leads to family discovery.  Tauck started their travel services company by providing guided tours on land only, and the riverboat program is an extension of the Tauck Bridges program that first started on land.  Tauck uses its on board staff called Tauck Directors to conduct all the cruise tours and activities.  Here are the routes they plan to use for 2018:

On the Danube, the route goes from Regensburg, Germany to Budapest, Hungry and is called the Blue Danube Family Riverboat Adventure.  Among the unique features of this cruise is a scavenger hunt and other medieval games at a castle in Bratislava.  The route includes ports at 4 different European countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungry).

258
The Old Stone Bridge Watch Tower, Regensburg, Germany on the Danube River

On the Rhone River in France, the route goes from Lyon to Arles and is called Bon Voyage! France Family River Cruise.  We have sailed this route three times on AmaWaterways, and we would go again—it is a wonderful part of France.

Picture9
Palace of the Popes, Avignon, France

On the Rhine, the route goes from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam, Netherlands and it is called Castles on the Rhine Family Riverboat Cruise.  Along with the visits to 4 Europe countries (France and Germany), sailing the Rhine River Gorge with its 30 castles is a memory of a lifetime. 

Picture30
Katz Castle, Rhine River Gorge, Germany

Uniworld

Uniworld has good family cruises.  They call the cruises Generations and market these cruises as “meticulously planned to keep young travelers engaged, with plenty of free time for adults to relax and recharge.”  They also have more kid friendly menus and cooking experiences such as strudel baking and making mini pizzas.

The Generations program is designed around school breaks and they have the most experience providing family river cruises compared to the other 2 companies in this blog.  A key feature of their program is a half-off the cruise only fare for travelers 4-17 (must be accompanied by an adult).  They also have added 2 dedicated tour hosts for the junior cruisers.

The Generations family program was available on 9 cruises in 2017.  The Generations program is grouped into 6 themes. They are: 1) Art Lovers, 2) Go Active, 3) Mysterious Stuff, 4) Aspiring Foodies, 5) Curious Minds, and 6) Thrill Seekers.  On the nine cruises, most feature 4 or 5 special events for kids based on one or more of the 6 themes. 

Here are the 2017 Routes (please note: the 2018 schedule has not been released yet but we think it will be similar to the 2017 routes):

Paris & Normandy—round trip Paris on the Seine, 8 day trip; Castles on the Rhine—Basel to Amsterdam, 8 day trip; Delightful Danube & Prague—Budapest to Prague, 10 day trip; Danube Discovery & Prague-– Vienna to Prague, 10 day trip; Rhine-Main Discover & Munich—Munich to Cologne, 10 day trip; Classic Christmas Market—Nuremberg to Frankfurt, 8 day trip: Splendors of Italy–Milan to Rome, 15 days; Gems of Northern Italy—Milan to Venice, 10 days; and Grand European Discovery—Cologne to Vienna, 15 days.

Decoding the Routes and Itineraries

In a short blog like this, it may be a little confusing to understand exactly what each trip offers.  Also, it may be confusing to try and evaluate each cruise line and their offers.  This maze is where we excel—we can help you match the best route and company for your specific needs.  We have either sailed the route you are interested in or visited the port town—our first-hand knowledge will help you make wise decisions.

Our Last Thoughts

Europe river cruising is constantly changing and in most cases, the winners are the cruisers.  These new programs have brought the wonders of Europe together in a way that is much more appealing to kids and still allows the entire family to have a wonderful vacation.  The usual benefits of unpack once, see multiple sights, all meals provided and interesting things to do and see, are now more family friendly, and have expanded Europe river cruising to a new level.  As always we want to help you with your travel dreams, whatever they may be, and hope some of you with families or extended families might want to take part of one of these family friendly Europe river cruises.  Please call Hank (713-397-0188) or email him at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com so we can help you: Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

Advertisements

Magnificent Europe 14 Day River Cruise

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

If you could get the absolute best of European Rivers on one cruise, my choice would be the Magnificent Europe 14 day river cruise on AmaWaterways.  This voyage goes from Amsterdam to Budapest along the Rhine to the Main River, then to the Main-Danube Canal, and finishes on the upper Danube.  The cruise combines the best of the two most popular river cruises in Europe—the 7 day upper Danube and the 7 day Rhine.  We have never sailed this exact route but have sailed to every destination on this cruise.  14 day cruises are awesome—we have taken one that we designed ourselves.  We created our own special cruise by combining two back-to-back cruises on the same rivership—we did this in 2015 while escorting two different groups.  The point is that 14 day river cruises are very good and an experience we would highly recommend from personal experience.  So, let’s learn more about the best 14 days on Europe’s rivers—the Magnificent Europe 14 Day River Cruise!

Overview

The route starts in Amsterdam and ends in Budapest or starts from Budapest to Amsterdam.  Cruises start in May and end in August—there are 6 scheduled for 2018 along with a special Christmas cruise starting December 21, 2018.  Here are the ports, highlighted by our photos.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

This capital city is ringed by canals, has famed gabled buildings, there are more bicycles than you can even imagine—it is one unique place.  Combine this with a free spirit of the residents and you will long remember this special town.

picture1
Gabled Roofs, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Cologne, Germany

Cologne has been a town for over 2,000 years (it used to be a Roman outpost), is the 4th largest city in Germany and is famous for its cathedral.  The two 510 foot high spires dominate the skyline of Cologne and it holds the relics of the Magi.  Cologne Cathedral is Germany’s most visited building.  We also liked the town squares, where some of Germany’s best Christmas markets fill the squares during the Advent season. 

sam_3175
Cologne, Germany

Rhine Gorge & Rüdesheim, Germany

The 65 kilometer Middle Rhine Valley on the Rhine River is the best sailing route you will ever find in Europe.  There are 30 or so castles, steep river banks and it is simply breathtaking! 

937
Rhine Gorge Castles

After that most scenic stretch, you will visit Rüdesheim, famed for its coffee drink flavored with Asbach brandy, the winding, narrow, Drosselgasse Lane, its fine Riesling wines and a generally friendly, welcoming village.

SAM_2356
Drosselgasse Lane, Rudesheim, Germany

Miltenberg & Wertheim, Germany

Miltenberg is one of the best preserved medieval cites on the Main River.  The colorful half-timbered houses are magnificent.  A walk to the town square is a wonderful experience. 

595
Miltenberg, Germany

Later that day, you will visit Wertheim, known by its nickname as “Little Heidelberg”, and get to see the narrow lanes of this village.  Wertheim is located at the confluence of the Tauber and Main Rivers.  The two top attractions are the castle and its medieval town square.

591
Wertheim, Germany

Wurzburg, Germany

Wurzburg has several unique architectural buildings, but is most famous for the Residenz Palace.  The gardens of this palace and interiors are magnificent.  This Bavarian town also is a famous wine region.

Picture14
Residenz Palace, Wurzburg, Germany

Bamberg, Germany

Bamberg is a 1,000 year old town with really interesting buildings.  The most famous are the town hall, built in the middle of a river and its beautiful cathedral.  It is built on seven hills and is located where the Regnitz and Main rivers meet.  It is also home to a smoky flavored beer. 

Picture12
Town Hall, Bamberg, Germany

Nuremberg, Germany

The old walled city of Nuremberg is one of my favorite places in all Germany.  It has an impressive castle, is crisscrossed by a river and has some cool old buildings.  The central market square, with its, beautiful fountain, is another great place to see.  It is also famous for its Christmas markets.

Picture7
Walls of Nuremberg, Germany

Regensburg, Germany

The town of Regensburg is located on the northern most point of the Danube River.  It started out as a Roman town, has a medieval bridge the crusaders crossed on their way to the Holy Wars (which is guarded by an impressive watch tower), and has a good old town area.  Anne’s favorite hat maker is here, so we find this one of our favorite Bavarian towns.

258
Watch Tower over the Old Stone Bridge, Regensburg, Germany

Passau, Germany

Built on a tapering peninsula of land, the old town portion of Passau is right on the German and Austrian borders.  Three rivers join here—the Danube, the Inn, and the Ilz.  On the high banks of the Danube, a fortress dating back to the 1400’s, overlooks the old city center.  There are several impressive churches worth a visit.

img_2098
The Veste Oberhaus (bishop’s fortress) overlooking Passau, Germany

 

Melk & Dürnstein, Austria

Melk is famous for its impressive, huge abbey.  It was built in the 11th century. 

IMG_9906
Melk Abbey, Melk, Austria

Later as you cruise through the other great scenic waterway of Europe, the Wachau Valley, you will arrive in the charming village of Durnstein. 

wachau-valley-2012-673-94
Schonbuhel, Castle at the start of the Wachau Valley

The blue tower of the Abbey, the cute little shops and the castle ruins on the hillside, make this a favorite of many river cruisers. 

Picture25
 Durnstein, Austria

Vienna

The capital city of Austria, once the capital city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is a city of impressive palaces, great museums and good food.  It is also known as a town of great composers of classical music and many go to concerts in this city while on their cruise.

schonbrunn-palace-2012-442
Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria

Bratislava

The capital city of Slovakia is a fun place to visit.  Located at the border of Austria and Hungary, this is one of the newer countries of Europe (it declared independence in 1993). For much of its history it was either in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or a part of the Czechoslovakia.  The symbol of Bratislava is the fortress that overlooks the city.  It is also known for its whimsical bronze figures, which delight cruisers in the old town area.

picture21
Man at Work, Bratislava, Slovakia

Budapest

By far the most impressive city on the Danube, Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is a town we love to visit.  It is really two towns—the high town of Buda that overlooks the banks of the Danube and Pest on the flat land.  They are united by several bridges but the Chain Bridge is the most important and is a symbol of the city.  Both have some awesome structures—among them Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion (Buda side) and the Parliament building (Pest side).  Once you visit, you will want to come back.

IMG_2877
Budapest Parliament at Night, Budapest, Hungry 

The Bottom Line

This is a great cruise—it will provide memories of a lifetime.  You will be amazed at how much there is to see in these five countries.  We hope this will inspire you to give us a call (Hank 713-397-0188) or send me an email (hschrader@dreamdestinations.com) so we can help you visit Europe on a river cruise and help you:  Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

 

What is “Luxury” in River Cruising?

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

Recently the Editor-in-Chief of Travel Age West Magazine, a publication for travel professionals, posed this question to his readers and asked for comments from the field.  He basically challenged us to explain how we explain “luxury” river cruising to clients.  He also asked if we have any amenities that we feel are mandatory to classify a river cruise line as “luxury”. 

Before we begin, it is important to decide what luxury is.  The American Heritage Dictionary defines luxury as: “1) Something that is not essential but is conductive to pleasure and comfort. 2) Something that is expensive or hard to obtain. 3) Sumptuous living or surroundings.” 

But, as my lovely wife points out, we all have different ideas of what luxury is.

I’m sure long time readers of this blog know Anne and I are up for this challenge, so here goes!

Section I Are there any “Luxury” River Cruise Lines?

We think we cannot define or segment river cruise lines using the “luxury” classification.  We feel that each client has different ideas of what luxury is, so a label of luxury has little meaning to most of our clients, if it does not include what is luxury to them.  Here are some reasons why:

Most River Cruise Lines are Already in the Premium Oceangoing Category—Defining What is Luxury or Not Luxury is Difficult at Best

A problem, when trying to place a river cruise company in the luxury category and trying explain what is luxury river cruising to clients new to river cruising, is that the starting bar is already very high.  By 2017 all of the eight major lines that market to US clients (AmaWaterways. Avalon, Crystal, Emerald, Scenic, Tauck, Uniworld, and Viking) have good accommodations, Wi-Fi, wine & beer with lunch and dinner, limited entertainment and tours included in their base fare.  I have said over and over again—there is no bad river cruise, all are very good.  Most ocean cruise lines charge extra for many of the included items by all of these river cruise lines.

 

Do the Bathtub & Dual Sinks on a Suite on the AmaCerto Make the Cruise a Luxury Cruise ? (photos taken on our 2012 Blue Danube Discovery Cruise)

Each river cruise company offers suites on their riverships, so if a suite moves the needle to luxury, so be it.  Does included all alcoholic drinks make it luxury?  Does the quality of wine make it luxury?  Does included gratuities make it luxury?  Does a butler make it luxury?  Does no extra charge for any tour make it luxury?  How about the food?  Does the breakdown of the nationalities make it luxury—does the guest want to be with Americans or other nationals?  Does one factor outweigh the others and make it luxury?  Do you have to have a specific number of these factors to make it luxury?—we just do not presume to guess our clients preferences.

The Seafood Buffet on the Scenic Opal would be luxury to Anne & Hank but would all our clients agree?

There are no true Luxury River Cruise Ships like there are in Ocean Cruise Ships Due to Lack of Luxury Facilities on Riverships

picture46

This is a pretty bold statement, but true.  The biggest reason for this is due to rivership size limitations.  The most common rivership size is 110 m (361 feet) or 135 m (443 feet) longships and they are all 11.58 m (38 feet) wide or so. The size limitations are necessary so riverships can fit into most of the various locks in Europe, especially the Main-Danube Canal.  They also can only be 3 decks tall to fit under some bridges—while there is a roof sun deck 4, all items on the deck, including the navigation cabin can be lowered, so the rivership is only 3 decks in height when passing lower bridges.

Anne & Hank with Kristin Karst (left) and with river cruise pioneer Rudi Schreiner of AmaWatwerways (right)                 

It was completion of the Main-Danube Canal that was the impetus for modern river cruising—pioneers like Rudi Schreiner realized this canal completion could offer a boat tour of unparalleled experience that would be far better than a bus tour along most of the heartland of Europe.  River cruising went from pretty sparse overnight accommodations in the early 1990s to really nice staterooms and riverships in the later 2000s.  Riverships must use the limited amount of space to decide what to include with their onboard facilities.  River cruise ships have smaller suites sizes; are missing many onboard upscale facilities found on oceangoing vessels (casinos, multiple restaurants, multiple shopping areas, huge entertainment areas, several pools and large gyms and large spa facilities) and there are no large entertainment shows.  These luxury items are common are oceangoing vessels, and are lacking on riverships.  This is one reason the luxury designation is not a good term to use when describing river cruising.

Only Crystal has found a way around this by refitting an oversized, older vessel, to get closer to the “Crystal Experience” that their clients have come to expect on their two Crystal oceangoing ships.  The only problem with this approach to improve the onboard facilities, is that now the destinations the ship can visit are limited.  The restricted sailings of the larger vessel makes it a huge negative on the number one reason to go on a river cruise—to see and visit all the great destinations—it cannot go into the Main-Danube Canal area and misses some great ports.  Also, having only one ship in their river cruising line at present is another limiting factor.

Our 2016 River Cruise Company Comparisons

This is so complex a subject that only a complete comparisons like our 73 slide 2016 River Cruise Company Comparison Guide adequately address these questions (there are 17 comparisons charts in the presentation).  HERE IS THE LINK TO OUR GUIDE

One Reasonable Segmentation Method:  More Inclusive vs. less Inclusive River Cruise Companies

There are 4 more inclusive lines (Crystal, Scenic, Tauck, & Uniworld), but even on these lines, there may be extras, especially on Crystal (helicopter rides, speed launches, private tours, and an extra charge for exclusive dining).  There are butlers on Scenic and Crystal, but on Scenic, the butler service increases in relation with cabin category selected.  For example, the Diamond category guests on Deck 3 have better butler services, and a unique dining experience (unfortunately in the same main dining room as the other guests).  Often these lines charge $1500–$2000 per person extra for minor perks and clients would come out ahead pricewise on other lines with as good or even a better cruise experience.  If a butler and room service is luxury, then that may make it a luxury cruise to some and worth the extra price.

Even more inclusive lines may own or lease their ships—again a subtle difference—Tauck leases its ships and their ships just do not match others in the all-inclusive category.

Each river cruise line has its distinct advantages and disadvantages—it all comes down to the perception of value by each client.

We do not classify river cruise lines—we talk about their advantages and disadvantages, but most of all, what will be the experience for our clients.

Section II—How We Manage Consumer Expectations

How we help Our Clients Navigate the Maze of River Cruise Companies

This is part of a blog I wrote earlier about the maze of river cruise companies.  “Here is how we start the process.  Our first step is to match you with the available options.  We first learn who you are, visit with you by asking lot of questions about what you like and do not like and then find the best options.  We have developed a great Europe River cruise questionnaire that will help us learn what you really want on your river cruise.  We spend our time doing the research for you, so you can spend your time dreaming about the memories you are going to make.”  We never address luxury directly, we address the advantages and disadvantages of each line and what is included and how the line will best match their preferences.  Then we discuss value—is the extra price worth the extra perks?

Our European River Cruise Questionnaire

Besides basic contact info, here is the absolute minimum info we need to help our clients get the best possible river cruise—previous cruise experience, days available for the trip, activities (we ask about 14 activities), what you like to see and where you want to go, how many Europe countries previously visited, how important is wine and food, passport data and special meal requirements and any physical mobility problems.  Then we start expanding on these responses until we get the perfect trip described from our clients in their own words.  Then, using our knowledge of all European Rivers, who sails them, and what factors are important to the client, we match them to the right company.  Having written 49 Europe city guides, earning 6 river cruise specialist designation from all of the previous 8 mentioned lines that currently offer specialist programs and personally sailing on 11 river cruises, makes this process easy for us.

Destinations—the Number One thing to Decide on Selecting a River Cruise Company

The primary consideration for taking a river cruise, in my opinion, are the destinations—what you will get to visit and see.  In my blog last week I explained about river cruise tours and emphasized AmaWaterways’ Limited Edition tours but did not really address the luxury concept of included tours.  Most companies use a pool of similar guides—we have seen the exact same guide led a tour from AmaWaterways one day in Nuremberg, Germany and the next day for Viking—pretty hard to miss a 6 foot 8 inch former pro basketball player holding a lollipop Ama sign one day and a Viking sign the next.  The real question boils down to what you will get to see and visit and if there are any exclusive tours or experiences that only the river cruise line you are considering to travel with offers.  At present, only Tauck uses on-board guides, so if that is important, maybe it becomes more in the luxury category.  Does AmaWaterways Late Riser tours or Limited Edition tour make it luxury?  Does Scenic’s Sundowner experience make it luxury?  How about concerts in an exclusive location, like Tauck and Scenic offer or after-hours access to sights offered by Uniworld—are these luxury?

River Cruise Company Cruise Travel Industry Awards and Brochures Make it Difficult for Consumers to Decipher Claims About who is the Best River Cruise Line

When defining luxury cruise line on ocean going ships, the luxury lines usually have smaller ships (less passengers), offer better food and premium service, may include alcoholic beverages and spend more time in port and there is less emphasis on selling extras—there are more inclusions and they command a higher price point.  The problem when trying to apply this to river cruising is that most all river cruise lines already include many of the distinguishing features of luxury cruise lines in their base fare.

Most river cruise lines have won several awards and selected as best in reader polls.  Again, this confusion makes it very hard for the consumer to objectively evaluate the highly competitive Europe River cruise companies.  Adding in world river cruises like the Nile, Amazon, Africa and Asia adds a whole other dimension to trying to segment river cruises into a luxury category—each area of the world is quite different and the experiences they provide are quite different.

Brochures often claim they are the best but the truth is there is no best river cruise for everyone.

The Bottom Line

Using a term like a luxury river cruise line and trying to put them into distinct categories does not translate well to river cruises—it is such a distinct product, that all lines fall into the premium category at least and most really are pretty much luxury in the Europe market, just different degrees of luxury depending upon one’s personal definition.

We prefer not to segment—we prefer to explain the advantages and disadvantages of each line.

The only thing that works for us is matching client expectations by knowing exactly what they want to experience and having an exceptional knowledge of what each lines offers.  This is where we shine—we know Europe River Cruises better than most travel professionals. 

We hope this will inspire you to give us a call (Hank 713-397-0188) or send me an email (hschrader@dreamdestinations.com) so we can help you visit Europe on a river cruise and help you:  Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

 

AmaWaterways Limited Edition Shore Excursions

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

For me, the prime reason to go on a Europe River cruise is to visit the wonderful destinations on or close to Europe’s Rivers.  Most routes have a good mix of villages and larger cities.  There is a lot to see, many places are unique and a river cruise is an easy way to see a lot of cool places in a limited time using your floating hotel as a base.  To maximize your trip experience, river cruise lines offer shore excursions to help you explore the ports and the surrounding area.  Shore Excursions offered by the different river cruise companies vary by what is included, what you will see and how it is conducted.  So, let’s learn some general facts about river cruise shore excursions, get an overview of the shore excursions offered by AmaWaterways, and see why we think the Limited Edition Shore Excursions from AmaWaterways are one of the best values in all of river cruising.

picture26

Hank on an AmaWaterways tour in Durnstein, Austria looking out over the Wachau Valley–this awesome small village is a true gem!

River Cruise Shore Excursions Overview

All 8 of the major companies that market to the US include tours in their fares.  There is, however, many differences in their excursions.  Most of the time spent in a port will include some type of excursion.  Some companies include all tours, while others have optional tours at an additional charge.  Most use local guides combined with the cruise director but Tauck has dedicated on board staff that guide all their tours.  LEARN MORE ABOUT COMPARING RIVER CRUISE LINES

Sometimes the excursion will be on foot when you are docked in walkable distances of the sights and other times, it will require a coach (bus) ride.  When comparing companies, the quality of the coach tours (comfort, distance required to ride on the coach to reach the desired destination, time on site) are factors you should consider when choosing a river cruise company.

Most companies use some form of a headset device to make it easier to hear the guides and guests do not have to stand clustered around the guide as they do if no audio device is used.  The devices are called Audiovox or Quietvox or Tailormade (a Scenic feature that has a GPS system for independent exploration, as well as a device to listen to a guide).  They all have an ear piece that operates wirelessly—a really excellent feature.

quiet-vox
Quietvox headsets charging in our cabin that we use on tours to hear the guides–they are wireless!

To make the tours even better, companies usually divide the passengers into smaller groups, so the tours are more personalized.  They often also group by walker ability level (fast, normal and gentle) to facilitate a better guest experience.  Some, like AmaWaterways, even offer a late risers tours.  In the competitive environment of European River cruising, if they have bikes onboard, they could have guided bike tours or guided hiking excursions, and even kayaking.

River Cruise Lines Tours Limitations

Here are some possible shore excursion limitations you should be aware about:

  1. Since excursions are already included in the fare, there are no refunds if you miss a regular tour. Their policies on optional tours vary but two questions you should ask if you decide to take an optional tour are: 1) if there is a minimum number of guests needed to take the tour; and 2) what the refund policy is.
  2. Another very important distinction of all lines are the terms “visit” or “see” when they describe the shore excursions in their brochures or on their websites. “Visit” means you will actually go into the place and not drive by or walk by as “see” implies. Even veteran travel professionals often do not realize this distinction, so I’m not surprised that sometimes guests of the cruise lines are very disappointed when they find out they will not get to visit a sight and only drive or walk by the sight.  On a recent webinar held by Viking, the excellent speaker, made this point when explaining that on their Bordeaux cruise, the guests will only get to drive by the Rothschild’s winery, and not to go inside to tour the winemaking operations.  He was pointing out that access to this famous winery is exclusive and not included and that travel professionals need to know this info to properly advise their clients.  This not a knock on Viking, it just points out why you should really use someone like us to plan your river cruise—there are just so many details, that trying to do it yourself just does not make sense to me.  We regularly attend webinars to learn and keep current about vendors to help you get the best trip.  Also, please remember, between both of us, we are certified river cruise specialists of 6 of the 8 companies (only 6 currently have specialist programs) who market to US guests—You can be confident we will match you to the right river cruise!
  3. Tours in the larger cities tend to be overviews. This really is not surprising, since there is a lot to do and see and it is hard to see it all in a short visit.

AmaWaterways Tours Overview

slide-5

I got to visit the Pont du Gard, the Roman Aqueduct on a Gentle Walkers Tour, 2014 on our Provence AmaWaterways Cruise (I was recovering from foot surgery)

AmaWaterways (we often call them just Ama) has a tour in every port and usually has two or more options in each port.  They use the Quietvox on tours and divide passengers who will go on the shore excursion into at least 3 groups–gentle, regular and active walkers.  Their  late risers tour, offered in some ports, is unique–we are unaware of others currently offering a program like this. 

our-tour-guide
Our Tour Guide in Kitzingen during our 2015 Europe’s River & Castles Cruise on an Amawaterways.  This was a Late Risers Tour–she was a great guide!

During your cruise, there may be optional tours that require an extra fee.  They use local guides who are very knowledgeable in the culture and history of the place you are visiting.  Ama also feature active hiking tours and guided bicycle tours, and have even partnered with Back Roads for some really high end tours with special bike tours on some sailings.  Bikes are also available to use on their own.

Each day of the cruise, usually just before dinner, your cruise manager will explain in detail about the tours upcoming and emphasize the walking difficultly of each tour group (they will even cover such details as “there are 50 steps up to…”) and what you will visit and what you will see on the tour—most include a slide show so all guests will have a good understanding of the best fit for their upcoming excursion.  We have been on many, many tours on our various river cruises with AmaWaterways and most are outstanding.

IMG_0252
Cruise Manager Nick briefs us about our next excursions on our AmaWaterways Christmas Market Cruise 2015

One of their signature features are the Limited Edition Tours—so let’s learn more about these awesome tours.

AmaWaterways Limited Edition Tours

picture30

The Belgium Waffle Shop we sampled great waffles at!

Picture31
Our Belgian waffle on a Limited Edition waffle and chocolate tasting in Antwerp, Belgium
picture33
The chocolate shoppe we visited during a Bites & Sites Limited Edition Tour on our Tulip Time Cruise 2013–who wouldn’t want to sample these?

These tours are specially designed to give small groups an opportunity to be even more immersed in the places they are visiting.  Best of all, these tours are included in the cruise fare—there is no extra charge!  Popular options include a Belgian waffle and chocolate tasting in Antwerp, a beer and sausage tour in Nuremberg, or a chance to see Vienna’s hidden treasures, like the romantic Schönlaterngasse.  We have done the waffle tasting and the sausage and beer tour—both were awesome!  They continue to add to these tours and newer options include knotting a bretzel (German for pretzel) in Wertheim, a goulash cooking lesson in Budapest and sampling Bavarian specialties like pralines in Regensburg.

Anne also helped make pierogies in Bratislava—it was a fun experience. Here she is:

Picture15
Anne preparing pierogies in Bratislava, Slovakia on a Limited Edition Tour

We have had clients participate in the Vienna tour and they really liked it (one great benefit for us—we discovered a great schnitzel restaurant which we managed to eat at as a result of their tour—it was the largest schnitzel I’ve ever seen, and just melted in our mouths—a really neat experience!).  Limited Edition Tours are also a great option for a cruiser who is sailing on the same route a second or third time—it provides a new experience that enhances your trip.

When these tours were introduced by AmaWaterways, they were often called by the nickname “Bites and Sights” and I still call them this even though it is no longer used by the company.  Why?—most tours involve food, or drinks or both and this makes them perfect for us. 

Picture16
Hank on Beer & Sausage Limited Edition Tour Nuremberg, Germany

An important tip if you want to go on one of these tours—sign up early as they often are limited to only 20 cruisers.

More immersion in a destination and included in the fare (FREE), equate to one of the best values in river cruise excursions available to you when you travel on a river cruise.  We urge you to consider AmaWaterways when you are deciding which company to select for your Europe River cruise.

These Limited Edition Tours are just one of the reasons we like AMA so much—they are constantly improving their product.  We hope this will inspire you to give us a call (Hank 713-397-0188) or send me an email (hschrader@dreamdestinations.com) so we can help you visit Europe on a river cruise and help you:  Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

 

River Cruise Balcony Comparisons–What View Do You Want?

by Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

“What type of balcony is best for my river cruise?”  We are often ask this question.  It can be very confusing trying to figure out the different approaches to balconies by various river cruise lines.  Balconies or lack of balconies, is often one of the key defining differences between river cruise lines in cabin accommodations.  This blog should help you understand each line’s approach to balconies and should help you evaluate whether a balcony, and what type of balcony, would be best for your river cruise.

On river cruise ships, there are 6 possible views from your river cruise cabin stateroom.  They are: 1) a small window, 2) a large window, 3) a French balcony (a vertical sliding glass door), 4) a balcony with a window that opens half way, 5) an outside balcony, and 6) a twin balcony. 

Deck Designs of a River Cruise Ship

River cruise ships have 4 decks, but the upper deck, often called the sun or sky deck, is just a roof.  There are guest cabins on the remaining 3 decks.  Deck 1 (the lowest deck) is for crew and guests and may have some public areas.  Decks 2 and 3 have guest cabins and other public areas.  Balcony cabins are only allowed on the upper two decks (2 & 3) of a river cruise ship.  Balcony cabins are always more expensive than window cabins. On the first deck, nearest to the river line, all cabins only have small or large windows, but most only have the small windows.  There is a very good safety reason that only windows are allowed on Deck 1, as the windows are just a few feet from the water line.  The cabins with only a small windows are usually the least expensive cabins on each ship.  So, with that background, let’s explore river cruise cabin balconies on the upper two decks.

What are the 8 Major River Cruise Companies that Market to US Travelers?

There are currently 8 companies who are the primary suppliers of river cruises to the US market.  They are 1) AmaWaterways, 2) Avalon, 3) Crystal, 4) Emerald, 5) Scenic, 6) Tauck, 7) Uniworld, and 8) Viking.  Each of these companies usually have different approaches to balconies on their river cruise ships.  Although beyond the scope of this blog, if you would like a detailed comparison of these 8 river cruise lines, PLEASE CLICK HERE

AmaWaterways

Since 2009, when we took our first cruise on AmaWaterways, we have watched balcony cabins evolve on our favorite river cruise line.  At first, they only had French balconies on all cabins in the upper two decks.  However in 2010, starting with the AmaBella, they introduced the concept of twin balconies—½French balcony inside and ½ balcony outside.  Since that time, all 135 m river ships on AmaWaterways use the twin balcony concept.  No other river cruise line at present uses this concept for a majority of their upper deck cabins, however, Viking does use twin balconies on a limited number of their suites.  Twin balconies really are the best of both worlds—outside when the weather is good or inside with the sliding glass doors of the French balcony at other times.  While there are a few French balconies on the upper two decks of their 135 m longships (they call them Cat C cabins), all of the remaining 49 have the twin balconies.  65 of the 82 cabins on the 135 m long ships have balconies.  Here are some pictures of the twin balconies and French balconies we have taken on various cruises:

 

AmaWaterways Twin Balcony

Picture1

A French Balcony Cabin on AmaWaterways

Avalon

Avalon uses French Balconies only.  They call their concept an Open-Air Balcony.  This concept is that the whole stateroom is the balcony, with the bed facing the window and it has larger windows of 11 feet in the Panorama suites.  They heavily promote the “wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling” windows of their staterooms.  68 of the 84 cabins on their longships have the Open-Air Balcony concept. 

Crystal

Crystal only has one ship at present and there are only French balconies on the ship.  It is called the Crystal Mozart.  37 cabins have French balconies and 41 have only windows. 

Emerald

All Emerald ships on the 2 upper levels have balconies.  They call their balconies an open-air system and it uses a button to lower the window horizontally half way down from the closed position.  72 of their 90 cabins on their 135 m longships have the open-air system.  Here is a picture of the Emerald Sun balconies from a ship inspection we did in 2015:

IMG_9799

Emerald Open-Air-System Balcony

Scenic

Scenic features a balcony they call the Sun Lounge—at a push of a button, the glass enclosed lounge converts to an open air balcony by going horizontally down half way—it is awesome!  All cabin categories on the upper two decks have full balconies with the Sun Lounge.  68 of the 81 cabins on their 135 m longships have the Sun Lounge.  Here is a picture of the Sun Lounge from our 2015 Scenic Opal cruise:

IMG_9625
Scenic Sun Lounge

Tauck

Tauck river cruise ships have only French Balconies.  55 of the 67 cabins on their 135 m long ships have balconies.  Tauck is unique in its approach to some of their river line cabins.  It has 8 cabins that are called loft cabins—they have a sitting area loft that is raised up from the rest of the cabin area and extends from the first deck to the second deck. 

Uniworld

Uniworld’s brochure has the least information about its cabins than any other river cruise lines.  Other lines reported in this blog, have diagrams of each category of staterooms, but Uniworld, with its elaborately decorated boutique river ships, offers the fewest details.  Generally speaking, the larger 135 m longships have French balconies on the second deck and outside cabins on the upper deck. On their 135 m ships 62 of the 77 staterooms have balconies.

Viking

Viking on its 50 longships at present, use a patented off center deck on their upper two decks.  This allows for one side of the ship to have verandas (outside balconies) and the opposite side has French balconies.  There are 2 large suites (445 sq ft) at the aft end of the ship that have wrap around balconies and 7 veranda suites (225 sq ft) with an outside balcony and a French balcony.  39 state rooms (205 sq ft) have outside verandas.  22 staterooms (135 sq ft) have French balconies.  69 of the 94 staterooms have balconies.  The outside balconies have 2 mesh chairs and a small drink table.

How To Decide If a Balcony is Important for your Cruise Experience.

Most river cruise guests spend most of their waking hours outside their cabins either in the main lounge or on the top deck, when they are not eating, or on tour.  While a private balcony of any type is cool and really great, we have seldom spent more than an hour on any of our balconies during any cruising day (12 river cruises).  I will admit, though, it is tough to beat having a bottle of wine together on your private balcony—a great escape and some quality together time.  That alone, makes a balcony important to us—it really doesn’t matter if it is a French Balcony or an outside veranda or a twin balcony—it all is good!  However, it is important to realize due to limited docking space, river ships often raft, or tie up next to each other, so you wonderful view now becomes a view into someone else’s cabin.  Also, in some ports, the docking location has walls to obscure views.  There is also no view during time in a lock except to look at the concrete lock walls.  A final point to consider is that sailing often is done at night, so tours can take advantage of daylight hours, and this limits what you are able to see from your balcony during some sailing times.  Even with these limitations, we always prefer a balcony of some type. 

Should you get a Stateroom with a Balcony?

In my opinion yes!  One of the best things about river cruising is the constant views along the banks of the river and the more you get to see, the better!  We always recommend a cabin on the upper 2 decks for that reason. Another point to consider is that cabins on the river line deck with small windows often only are accessible by stairs and can feel cramped with the limited light from the small window. 

We hope this has helped understand more about balconies that are offered on the various river cruise lines.  With these great views, it is easy to see what a great way a river cruise is to explore Europe!  We also hope this will inspire you to try river cruising–we will be glad to help.  Please give Hank a call at 713-397-0188 or email me at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com so we can help you Savor life . . .make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

How We Navigate the Maze of River Cruise Companies to Get the Best Trip for You!

by Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

I often wonder why folks are determined to book travel and river cruises on their own.  Maybe it is a control issue, maybe they like going to a website alone, but the truth is I’m not sure.  What I do know is that they just do not know what we know.  So, here goes—do you know more about Europe River Cruises than we do?

OK, Test Your Knowledge

Here is quick quiz!  1) What are the major river cruise companies that sell to the US (hint if you can’t name 8, you may not get this one right)? 

2) What is one new feature on these major lines? 

3) What are the rivers that river cruise boats sail on in Europe (hint looking for 8 or 9)?

Answers

1) AmaWaterways, Avalon, Crystal, Emerald, Scenic, Tauck, Uniworld & Viking. 

2) AmaWaterways—has reinvented its Chef’s Table Menu—more a tasting menu paired with excellent regional wines; Avalon added a healthy, locally sourced vegetarian food items to their menus; Crystal debuted its 154 guest Crystal Mozart—suites range from 204 sq feet to 750 square feet & feature apple iPads & 40 inch HDTVs; Emerald has added guided bike tours and hikes on 6 itineraries; Scenic added Scenic Culinaire on 3 ships—it is an onboard cooking school; Tauck christened 2 new ships with twenty-two 300 sq feet cabins, with floor to ceiling twin French balconies, a walk in closet and spacious marble bathroom; Uniworld will launch the Joie de Vivre (Joy of Living) in March 2017 to sail on the Seine River and continue its boutique signature decorating style in the cabins; Viking has decided to enter the US river cruise market and has started to cruise on ocean going ships—has it decided to stop adding to its huge river cruise fleet in Europe? 

 

Emerald Sun 2015

3) The 9 rivers are: Douro, Dordogne, Danube, Elbe, Po, Rhone, Rhine, Seine, & Volga.

 

Scenes from the Iron Gates on the lower Danube 2014

How did you do?  This is just the tip of the iceberg—there is so much to know and learn.  We help folks find the right river cruise every day.  Maybe we could help you!

5 Factors to Consider before you Navigate the River Cruise Maze on your own

We do not provide “price quotes”

If the only thing you want to do is to press a couple of buttons to find your trip– go for it.  We hope you selected the right buttons, the right cruise and the right cruise line.  We, on the other hand, do professional research to match you to the right cruise.

We do not provide instant results

Our first step is to match you with the available options.  We first learn who you are, ask a lot of questions and then find the best options.  We have developed a great Europe River cruise questionnaire that will help us learn what you really want on your river cruise.  We spend our time doing the research for you, so you can spend your time dreaming about the memories you are going to make.

If there is a great deal, we will find it

Everyone wants the best value for their money.  Note I did not say the least expensive price.  Our goal is to find you the best vacation that will exceed your expectations.  Now, that’s money well spent!

We can help you with benefits you might not be able to get on your own

After 20 + years in the travel business, we have made some great industry contacts.  We can often solve problems, get an upgrade, or enhance your experience through our contacts.  We are with you every step of the way.

We are travel professionals with outstanding credentials and experience

First, we have sailed on 12 European River cruises since 2009 and are going on our 13th this December.  We have sailed on Europe’s river in all 4 seasons.  We try to visit Europe 3-4 times a year.  Along with our personal experience, we have sent clients on almost all the river itineraries you might want to try.  We have personally escorted 4 groups on European river Cruises.

Second, both of us are certified Western Europe Destination Specialists and Accredited Cruise Counselors.  Between the both of us, we have earned river cruise specialist designations from AmaWaterways, Emerald, Scenic, Uniworld and Viking (Crystal and Tauck presently do not have specialist programs).  We have written 49 guides on European Cities.  We have visited 35 European Countries.  We were recently selected as the 2016 Living Magazine Reader’s Choice for the Best Travel Agency (Pearland and Friendswood edition).

Maybe it’s time to stop trying to navigate the river cruise maze on your own.  We certainly think so!  We hope this will inspire you to consider a Europe River cruise for your next vacation and let our expertise help you find the right one for you.  Please give Hank a call at 713-397-0188 or email me at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com so we can help you:

Savor life . . . make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

Our AmaWaterways River Cruise Groups for 2017

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

We have two great groups sailing on AmaWaterways in Europe in 2017.  Both are 7 night cruises.  Group sailings offer some good discounts for early bookings and these two both have $750.00 discounts per person until July 31. 2016!

As with all AmaWaterways River cruises, it is truly cruising in comfort and style—we should know, as we have been on 11 AmaWaterways river cruises and will be on our 12th in December on a Christmas Market Cruise from December 14-21 2106 (if you are interested, there is still space available on both our 2016 group cruises).  Here are some great included features:

  • Spacious outside staterooms, most with a French or twin balcony
  • Fine dining with all meals included on-board
  • Chef’s Table fine dining experience for 28 guests nightly at no extra charge
  • Complimentary local wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner
  • On-board local entertainment
  • Complimentary Wi-Fi and in-room internet access
  • Fitness room and whirlpool or sun deck swim-up bar
  • Bicycles for guest use
  • Variety of shore excursions in every port
  • Services of a professional Cruise Manager
  • Great service by a crew that really cares about you
  • Small ship experience with no more than 164 passengers

I would really not telling you the full story if I did not inform you about how really good the food and wine is on these cruises.  It is the only river cruise line member of one of the world’s most prestigious gastronomic societies, La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs.  The chefs are highly trained in the art of food and they pair each dish with regional wines and use locally sourced produce, meats and cheeses.  Here are some pictures of what you can expect at dinner:

Chef’s Table

Paris & Normandy—October 26—November 2. 2017

This cruise is on the Seine River and starts and ends in Paris.  It is on the AmaLyra, a 110 meter ship.  The AmaLyra has French balconies and a whirlpool on the sun deck.  Here are some pictures of the AmaLyra:

On this cruise, you will visit Giverny, where Claude Monet lived and worked for over 40 years, and get to see his stunning gardens which are often in his most famous paintings.  It also will visit the historic capital of Normandy, Rouen, famous as the site where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.  The old town and its half-timbered buildings are fascinating!  Another great stop is the seaside town of Honfleur, a favorite painting site of the Impressionists.  It has a square harbor old port (Vieux Bassin in French) lined with skinny houses and outdoor cafes and sailing and fishing boats bobbing in the water.

The highlight of this cruise is the beaches of Normandy, where on June 6, 1944, the Allies established a second front against Germany in World War II.  Having visited these beaches and led a D-Day Tour on the 70th Anniversary of the invasion, it is a visit you will never forget—I do not know how anyone survived that awful day.

The Enchanting Rhine—a Wine Cruise Hosted by Nice Winery November 11-18 2017

This cruise is on the Rhine River on the AmaSonata, a 135 meter ship.  The AmaSonata has twin balconies and the pool with the swim-up bar.  Here are some pictures of the AmaCerto, a sister ship of the AmaSonata, so you can get an idea of what the ship is like:

 

Twin Balconies on 135 meter ships

The Rhine flows through four countries (Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and Germany) and this exciting cruise starts from Basel, Switzerland and ends in Amsterdam.  Some of the other towns visited on this cruise include Breisach, Strasbourg (France) Mannheim, Speyer, Rüdesheim, Koblenz, and Cologne.  Here are some pictures of some of the ports on this cruise:

Basel Switerland 2012 (45)
Basel, Switzerland

Castles on the Rhine River Gorge

Rüdesheim, Germany

Winemakers, Ryan Levy and Ian Eastveld, will be the hosts on this 7 night cruise.  They both are certified sommeliers, wine educators and Le Cordon Bleu trained chefs.  They make a variety of good wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc.  They are co-owners of Nice Winery, located in Houston, Texas and they have other operational locations in California and Argentina.

Wine cruises are quite an experience—the two wine makers will bring some of their hand-selected bottles on board to be served at meals and tastings during this cruise.  They will discuss their wines during the tastings.  There is a certain educational component within wine tasting that helps you to fully appreciate what wine is all about.  We have been on 3 wine cruises and learning more about all aspects of wine making always is an added bonus for me, but the best part is enjoying the great wine the wine makers bring—I have no doubt Ryan and Ian will provide some memorable wines for this voyage.  Be prepared for some great wine drinking on this cruise—these wine tastings are in addition to the other great wines already stocked for a normal cruise.

We hope this has helped understand what a great way these river cruises are to explore different parts of Europe.  We also hope this will inspire you to try river cruising with one of these group sailings–we will be glad to help.  Please give Hank a call at 713-397-0188 or email me at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com so we can help you

Savor life . . . make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

Europe’s Christmas Market River Cruises—The Best Kept Secret in River Cruising

by Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

If you love Christmas and want to celebrate the magic of this special holiday season in Europe, there is no better place than on a river cruise.  We have been on 3 river cruises during the Christmas Market season and they are fabulous!  There are two main routes in Europe that offer the best experiences to celebrate the season where most of our Christmas traditions originated.  The two rivers to visit the most Christmas Markets are the Rhine and the Upper Danube.  So, let’s explore these two routes together and learn about Christmas Markets.

What are Christmas Markets?

In Europe, many squares are used for various street markets.  At Christmas time, these squares are transformed into a unique blaze of color, seasonal goods and foods that are offered from small vendors in their booths.  It is a social gathering of Europeans enjoying hot mulled wine, beer, music,  and street food as they browse the various vendors.  All seem to get along wonderfully doing their Christmas shoppingHere is a colorful stall at Schonbrunn Palace Vienna Austria:

Christmas Market Schonbrunn Palace 2012 467

Christmas markets date back to 1300 or so and started in Germany, Austria and the eastern portion of France along the Rhine River.  The Christmas Market season usually starts about November 25 and lasts until 23 or 24 December, roughly following the 4 week Advent season.  Even for a person like me who does not really like shopping, this is so much fun that everyone should try this at least once.  Unlike American Malls, this is not combat shopping and crowds of hassled folks; this is a gathering of folks socializing with food and drink, music, and buying gifts at a much gentler pace.  Seeing the decorations alone is worth the trip but many booths have handmade items that are unique and priceless–the shopping is also great! 

Most vendors sell only with cash, so make sure you have enough local currency to get your purchases.  And, as we have learned though our own mistakes, if you see something you like, buy it or you will often miss out.  Most markets open around 10:00 AM and close around 9:00 PM but it varies a lot.  It is not uncommon for booths to close down for short periods to take a break or get something to eat or an owner to take a day off and not open their booth.

As long as you dress warmly, these markets offer a cultural experience second to none—it is an European experience not to be missed!

The Two Rhine River Routes

Although the Rhine flows through four countries (Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and Germany) most of the river is in Germany and Germany has hundreds of Christmas markets.  The most popular route is from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam.  Some of the other towns visited on this cruise include Breisach, Strasbourg (France) Mannheim, Speyer, Rüdesheim, Koblenz, and Cologne. 

We have a group going on AmaWaterways’ The Enchanting Rhine Christmas Market cruise from 14-21 December 2016 starting in Basel and ending in Amsterdam and we would love to have you join us! LEARN MORE

Let’s start in Basel and see some of their Christmas Markets

The other route starts in Nuremberg and continues up to Amsterdam.  Stops on the Nuremberg to Amsterdam route include Bamberg, Kitzingen, Wurzburg, Wertheim, Rüdesheim, and Cologne.

The Upper Danube Route

This route is the most popular river cruise in all Europe.  We have done 3 Christmas Market cruises on this route.  It starts in Nuremberg and ends in Budapest, Hungary.  Ports of call include Regensburg, Passau, Melk, and Vienna.  Many folks start their trip with a stay in Prague in a pre-cruise for a couple of nights, then enjoy the cruise and stay a couple of extra nights in Budapest.  Here are some pictures of the Christmas Market on the Danube:

Prague

Nuremberg

Regensburg

Castle Thurn and Taxi Christmas Market Regensburg (our favorite Christmas Market)

Melk

Vienna

Budapest

We hope this has helped understand what a great way a river cruise is to explore the Christmas Markets.  We also hope this will inspire you to try river cruising–we will be glad to help.  Please give Hank a call at 713-397-0188 or email me at hschrader@dreamdestinations.com so we can help you Savor life . . .make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

Gems of the Danube on the Scenic Opal

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

All Photos except one by Anne Schrader

We have been on 12 river cruises in Europe and our 11th was in December 2015 on the Scenic Opal.  We sailed from Nuremberg, Germany to Budapest Hungary on a 7 day cruise from December 1st to December 7th.  Although we have sailed on this part of the Main River, the Main-Danube Canal and the upper portion of the Danube 5 times now, there is always something exciting and new to see and do on perhaps the most popular river cruising route in all Europe.  So, let’s learn more about Scenic, the Scenic Opal and the Gems of the Danube sailing route.

Scenic

Scenic is an Australian tour company (founded in 1986 by Glen Moroney) that started Europe River cruising in 2008.  They have 2 brands—Scenic (an all-inclusive luxury line) and Emerald Waterways (their deluxe river cruise line).

The Scenic line features your own butler (services vary by stateroom category); complimentary beverages all day, every day; six dining options; the Tailormade GPS device (more on this feature in the Gems of the Danube section); balcony suites on the 2 upper decks; electronically assisted bikes; complimentary Wi-Fi; laundry and airport transfers.  There are no extra charges for tours or gratuities but massages and the hairdresser are extra charges.  The long ships (135 meters or 443 feet) carry 167 passengers.

IMG_9737
The Scenic Opal docked in Melk

The Emerald Waterways line includes complimentary beverages at lunch and dinner; all on board meals; balcony cabins on the upper 2 decks; bikes (without electronic assisted feature); and complimentary Wi-Fi.  As with most river cruise lines, there are included tours in every sailing.  They also have an EmeraldPLUS no addition cost tours to enhance the standard offerings.  There are also Discover More tour options that cost extra and require a minimum number of passengers.  Gratuities are included in the basic cruise fare.  The long ships (135 meters or 443 feet) carry 182 passengers.

IMG_9776
The Emerald Sun docked in Durnstein

The Scenic Opal Space Ship

The ship is very sleek and modern.  The ship was built in 2015 and is well designed.  There are 4 decks:  the Jewel Deck (at the river line), the Sapphire Deck, the Diamond Deck and the Sun Deck.  Facilities on board include Portobellos Restaurant, the River Café, the lounge & bar, a gift shop, the Crystal Dining Room, Table La Rive (only for Diamond deck guests, limited to 10 guests and serves a 6-course meal paired with fine wines), a massage parlor, a hairdresser salon, and  a fitness center. On the Sun Deck (top level) there is a pool and walking track.  The lounge & bar area is very large and open for a river cruise ship.

The Crystal Dining room serves most of the meals you will eat on board this river ship.  Meals were generally very good.  Breakfast and lunch are buffet style (although there are some items you can order off the menu) and most dinners are served at your table at night.  The best dining experience in the Crystal Dining room was the seafood buffet—it is the best seafood buffet we have tasted on any cruise ship period!  Other dining venues include the River Café (a casual all-day dining place), Portobellos and the Table La Rive.  Portobellos Restaurant is for 32 guests at one nightly seating, and reservations are necessary, but each guest is given at least one chance to dine there during a 7 day cruise.  We thought the five course Italian meal that was paired with Tuscan wines was excellent and a special feature of the cruise.  You can also get room service from your butler, certainly not a standard feature on most river cruise lines.  During good weather there sometimes are special meals served on the Sun Deck area.

The Seafood Buffet

There are 85 guest cabins on this riverboat and 73 have balconies.  The Jewel Deck, the Sapphire Deck and the Diamond Deck comprise the guest cabins.

Our Stateroom Suite

Our balcony cabin was 205 square feet, a good size for a river cruise ship.  It had a comfortable bed, 32 inch flat screen TV, a well-designed bathroom (shower only) a good size closet with a stocked bar (no extra charge!), but the highlight was the Scenic Sun Lounge—at a push of a button, the glass enclosed lounge converts to an open air balcony—it was awesome!.  We had a butler, who escorted us to our cabin and explained his duties and made sure we knew how everything in the cabin was and how it worked.  We really liked the room but only had 2 minor complaints—the lounge area had a railing that we stubbed our toes on (but we quickly got over that) and our butler forgot to tell us about the do not disturb button that lets the crew know if we wanted maid service or not.

Our Stateroom

Gems of the Danube

Our cruise started in Nuremberg and we visited Regensburg, Passau, Linz, Melk, Durnstein, Vienna and Budapest.  We have sailed this route, in this direction 4 times, so we really know this portion of the Danube.  It was an exciting cruise in the heart of Europe that had some unique features included with this itinerary.  These unique tour features are called Freechoice, Sundowners and Enrich.

All tours are included—they call them Freechoice At each port, there are at least 2 choices of escorted tours.  Freechoice tours are divided into Active, Moderate and Relaxed, to allow you to choose the pace which best suits the tempo you desire for your vacation.  They also have a great hand-held GPS device, Tailormade, which allows you to use it for both self-guided touring in ports and on board highlights of sights while you are sailing.  The devices are very good but occasionally ours did not work properly during the sailing sights—the folks from Scenic told me they are working to improve the devices.  It worked well on land.  The ear piece was especially comfortable and well designed. 

The other two unique features when sailing with Scenic are the Sundowners and Enrich Our Sundowners experience was in a great little wine stubbe in Durnstein.  Although we have visited the small village of Durnstein multiple times, we had never been inside this wine stubbe and the wine/beer/food party with a band was really awesome.  It truly was a great end to the day!

Sundowner in Durnstein

Our Enrich visit was an evening concert featuring the music of Strauss and Mozart in Palais Liechtenstein during our visit to Vienna.  We started off the evening with a couple of glasses of excellent Austrian Sekt (sparkling wine).  The concert hall had great acoustics, was lavish beyond belief and was really a memorable experience.

Our Enrich visit to Palais Liechtenstein

You might imagine that having sailed this route as often as we have, we had seen all the major sights.  Not so!  For me, I got the chance to visit Cesky Krumlov, the medieval Czech town, a place I had wanted to see for quite some time.  This place is great—a cool castle and a great charming village—and, for me, the highlight of the entire cruise.

Picture36

Cesky Krumlov, the medieval Czech town

IMG_2877

Budapest Parliament at night–this was our view on the final night of the cruise!

Overall, we really like Scenic.  Matched with the right folks, this will really provide a great experience for most river cruisers.  These are just a few of the reasons we like river cruising on Scenic so much—they are constantly improving their product.  We hope this will inspire you to give me a call at 713-397-0188 or send me an email (hschrader@dreamdestinations.com) so I can help you visit Europe on a river cruise and help you:

Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!

3 Reasons Why You Should River Cruise in Europe

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert

We have been on 11 river cruises in Europe and will return in December to take our 12th cruise.  There are many reasons why we like to river cruise so much, but one key reason is there is so much value in the trip that it makes it a great vacation for most folks.  So here are 3 great reasons you should consider taking a river cruise in Europe:

  1. You will see so much in so little time. River cruising is all about the destinations.  Even though I have been traveling to Europe for almost 45 years and led several group tours, I could not do what the river cruise companies do in one week—these folks are experts in showing you the best sights in the least amount of time.  It is truly a unique way to see the interior of a country.  It is different from a land based tour and different from an ocean cruise.  One of the best advantages is that most often your riverboat will dock near or in the center of the city, town or village you are about to explore.  In five minutes all guest are off the boat and seeing the sights.  Most lines also offer different groups during the tours—regular, active walkers or gentle walkers, so your desired way to see the destination is matched with your tour.  Even while on board there is always something to see on the banks, as you cruise along to the next destination.
  2. Almost all is included in your trip. On river cruise lines, your food, meals with wine or beer at lunch and dinner, your cabin and even occasional entertainment is included in the fare.  The clear, upfront pricing helps make it easier to budget for your vacation.  River boats are small (only 100 to 190 passengers) friendly and comfortable.  Food is generally good but some lines are better than others.  Some cruise lines (Scenic, Uniworld, Tauck and newcomer Crystal) are completely inclusive (all liquor, gratuities and even optional tours) but cost more than other companies.  Viking, Emerald and Avalon offer more optional choices, but usually have lower starting prices.  Our favorite river cruise company, AmaWaterways does not include gratuities, liquor outside of meals, and there may be an extra charge for some optional tours although there is at least one tour included at every port at no charge (many times there are 2 or more at no charge).  There are a lot of differences between lines (I have written a blog about this and we have a great comparison PowerPoint on our website) but the bottom line is clear:  RIVER CRUISING IS A GREAT VALUE!  Learn More
  3. There are so many great routes and even repeating the same itinerary again is fun. We have seen a lot of Europe (11 countries) while on river cruises.  Your floating luxury hotel is an awesome way to see some of the great sights of Europe.  There are many themed cruises that could add to your trip and make the cruise even better for you.   Most lines offer 2 tours at each port stop, so even taking the same route twice or more is not boring—it is fun and each trip is different.  We have been 5 times on the Danube and 3 times on the Rhine and 3 times on the Rhone and would not hesitate to go on any of these routes again.  There is so much to see in Europe on or near the rivers that repeat trips are not a waste of time or money. 

These are just a few of the reasons we like river cruising so much—they are constantly improving their product.  We hope this will inspire you to give me a call at 713-397-0188 or send me an email (hschrader@dreamdestinations.com) so I can help you visit Europe on a river cruise and help you:

Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations!  Your journey begins here!