June 28, 2019

RIVER CRUISE TIPS – PLANNING, WHERE TO BUY TICKETS, SELECTING ROOMS, REVIEWS


AND SO IT BEGINS

You are watching Downton Abby on PBS, and your significant other pokes you in the ribs and says, “we should go on a romantic river cruise”.  

You do a quick search online for departures leaving in a few months, and then you see that all that is available to book are cabins starting at $10,000 per person.  You tell you S.O. how much it costs and watch the sadness creep across their face as you both know you can’t afford it.

Before you know it, it is the last season of Downton Abby and just like every season before, your S.O. has commented about a cruise.   After all, “Next year is our 30th Anniversary they say only half jokingly”!

NOW WHAT?

SUMMARY RECOMMENDATIONS – If you want to cut to the chase.

Do your research (read the reviews), plan 6-12 months ahead of time.
  • We like www.uniworld.com because “tips included” policy and better reviews
  • We chose July to avoid cancelations due to high or low water levels
  • Book a stateroom in the middle of the floorplan to minimize noise and motion
Shop around for best deals that fits your budget
  • We bought our cruise tickets from a travel agent www.affordabletours.com good service, responsive, great price contact cameron@affordabletours.com, Mention “Paul Sent You” (private# 281-269-6679)
  • We bought our plane tickets directly from Delta so we could use our frequent flyer points.
Don’t forget to follow up for last second upgrades
  •  One week before the trip, we contacted the cruise line directly and asked for an upgrade to a suite and got it a very very deep discount.
Expect to be in the range of $3-5K per person per 7 nights of cruising plus additional for airfare
  • For a midrange cabin or even a suite if you get a sweet deal on an upgrade.
  • Payment is due shortly after booking.
  • We paid for optional “Cancel Any Time for Any Reason” insurance through the cruise line.

FULL STORY
If you want to learn how we came to these conclusions, in case your needs are different.

RATIONALIZATION OF THE COST

Depending upon how you travel, it might not be that bad.   Let’s use 10 nights for simple math.  If you normally travel somewhat deluxe, your expenses might look like this for a do it yourself vacation.

$500 Night for Hotel
$200 Day for meals for 2 people
$100 Day for transportation
$100 Day for Guided Tours
$100 Day for drinks and snacks for 2 people (have you been to Disney for example?)
====
$1000 X 10 days = $10,000 (plus flights)

A cruise has the added benefit of not having to re-pack every time you change locations, meals, drinks, outings (excursions) are usually included.

If you book in advance (or last second), you can find a decent stateroom for $5,000 or less per person.  If you are not picky about a room then $2000 or $3000 is possible per person.
So really, it is not that far out of line with “do it yourself” vacations, but potentially a lot less stress.   

My S.O. likes to schedule every single second from first light to last light and beyond.  Whereas, I prefer just to sit and chill and look at the world go by.    A River cruise can offer a good balance between the two, with daily excursions, but also time to relax and watch the scenery from the ship.   At some point you have to be back on the ship (by dinner time I assume) so they can sail to the next port.

OK, so maybe it is not as bad cost wise as we originally thought.  Instead of $20K, maybe it $10K-$15K depending on how much you splurge, what flights you can find and what deals you can make on the tickets.  Still though it is a lot of money.


SAVING, PLANNING, SHOPPING FOR A CRUISE

Depending on how you like to travel, and how flexible your plans are at any given moment, you may need to be thinking about bookings 6-12 months in advance.   In our case, we stopped most of our mini weekend vacations for over a year to save money.   We also had some inheritance income that finally put us over the top and ready to pull the trigger on a river cruise.

In order to hit the right window of personal vacation time, affordable airfare, and advance booking savings, we booked our flights and cruise 7 months in advance.   We paid a little more on airfare to make sure we had only non-stop flights to minimize the risk of “missing our ship”.  We probably could have saved at least $500 by spending more time on connecting flights but we did not want to turn 8-10 hours flights in to 15-20 hours flights.


DECISION #1: LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

The first thing that caught us by surprise is that there are luxury river cruises seemingly everywhere in the world.    What quickly narrowed down our choice was the cost to get to Embarkation points around the world (airfare).   We also are very comfortable with Europe and wanted to stay someplace “comfortable” to us and not “totally foreign”.   Finally, many of the more exotic locations, were for cruises of longer duration than we could afford.  In our case, we decided on the Central European river of Danube.   We have been around the Rhine for short day trips over the past 10-15 years, and we wanted something a little different.  In this case Budapest, Vienna, and Passau.


DECISION #2:  HOW LONG OF A TRIP

For us, this was pure economics.  8 days, 7 nights was the maximum we could afford.  There are cruises of a month of more if you so desire and can afford it.   We also had to arrange for an adult caregiver to be at our home while we are away, which also limited the amount of time we could be away from home.


DECISION #3: WHICH CRUISE LINE

Wow, this was tough to research.   After reading dozens or even hundreds of reviews over several weeks (https://www.rivercruiseadvisor.com/river-cruise-reviews/, or https://www.cruisecritic.com/river/) we came away with the opinion that Uniworld https://www.uniworld.com was the one for us. What led us here was the following (based on a non-scientific sampling of reviews).
  • Newer Ships
  • Usually better food reviews
  • Usually better staff encounters reviews
  • Usually better excursions reviews
  • All Inclusive Everything, Tips Included, Premium beverages (vs house brand on other lines)
For us, comparing 1:1 costs, overall the costs were about the same for example between Viking vs Uniworld.  I glanced at the other ships out there Avalon, Emerald, Crystal and so on.   But the overwhelming weight of positive reviews kept us coming back to Uniworld.

It was not easy to compare 1:1 costs, I would suggest you make a list and check it often.   On Viking, the airfare was included (that was their special offer at the time we were looking).   At Uniworld, they had included AirFare on some itineraries and dates, while on others they had a 30% discount (generally it was a wash either way).    It is also hard to compare apples to apples as far as room types.   Full Balcony Vs French Balcony Vs Veranda, and so on (see picking a stateroom). In “absolute” cash out of pocket Viking would have won in a fair fight and was about 10% less expensive overall than Uniworld.  But I had a few tricks up my sleeve.  

I was able to use enough frequent flyer points on Delta to pay for 1 round trip air ticket.   That ended up making Uniworld just under the cost of the Viking cruise.  I also shopped for travel agents willing to kick in extra unpublished discounts to lower the overall price.

A major factor for us was included tips at Uniworld.  We hate it when the staff has to beg for money at the end of a cruise.  There is much criticism online with Viking on how uncomfortable this is for guests.   One reviewer said they basically gather everyone on the ship for a mandatory “farewell” event, which is just multiple hours of begging for tips.  With Uniworld, there is no tipping, it is already included in the price.  It may not sound like much, but this could be $200-$500 per couple if you follow the tipping guidelines.   When we took a Disney cruise 20 some years ago, it wiped out all of our cash reserves at the end of the trip and really impacted the second part of our land vacation.  We were literally dumping loose change into envelops and left the cruise without a penny on us.


DECISION #4: WHEN TO SAIL

This was a lot harder than I expected.  If you are doing bookings on your own, you have to keep in mind flight schedules and cruise schedules and which direction you are cruising (up or down the river).   Then you have to book them at about the same time, otherwise your cruise could sell out, or your flight could sell out, then you are out of luck.   I kept getting dates and Embarkation / Dismbarking points confused.  Were we traveling Passau (Munich Airport) to Budapest, or Budapest to Passau?  We did not care which way, but you when checking multiple airlines it was a lot of information to keep track of. If you are comparing for example 2 or 3 dates from 2 or 3 cruise lines, that is a lot of number crunching.

I had a week of panic because when I went to book flights (after booking the cruise) Delta would not take frequently flyer points for international dates that leave from one city and return from another.  Instead, I used my points to purchase Delta Gift Cards (same as cash on Delta so no restrictions).   But then found out after checkout that it takes over a week for them to issue the “e-gift cards”.   I had just pulled the trigger on the tickets for the cruise, when I ran into this SNAFU.  I was on pins and needles for a week waiting for Delta to issue the gift cards.  It all turned out OK.


BE AWARE OF RIVER WATER LEVELS

Virtually all of the reviews for 2018 were negative because of low water levels in all the rivers from June through October.   This could turn a $10,000 luxury river boat cruise into a $10,000 landlocked bus tour.   I also would be really upset if I spent $10,000 on a bus tour.  As long as the cruise lines get to you the city, they have met their obligation.  With dozens or more ships all “canceled” at one time, it seems that quality hotels and quality buses were hard to come by.   Imagine being changed from a luxury room on a ship to little more than a youth hostel.   This freaked us out so much that we timed our trip based on historical water level averages, and bought optional no questions asked cancelation insurance policies.  (Uniworld was the only one that offered this type of policy that we found).   In spring, the water levels can be too high for ships to pass under the bridges.  In late summer the water levels can be too low.  So we looked at historical water levels http://www.hydroinfo.hu/en/hidinfo/mercek.php?all=342211_EN and in reviews and decided that July had the lowest risk for cancelations.  (remember we are booking 7 months in advance, so it is all a toss up if this is a dry year or a wet year)


DECISION #5: PICKING A STATEROOM

Not as clear cut as you would think.  There are two schools of thought.   Get as cheap of a room as you can, the ship and all the rooms go to the same place.   The food is all the same.  The excursions are all the same.    You will be so tired from daily excursions you will only sleep in your room.   My S.O. tends to be in this group.   While I am in firmly in the “you only go around once” group.    At this price we will probably never do this again.  So, this becomes a once in a lifetime experience, let’s live it up.   Like most things we settled somewhere in the middle.   At first, I was concerned that most of the staterooms on Uniworld did not have open air external balconies.   But the more I researched I realized the following;

Why you might not want a balcony
  • Balcony space comes out of your usable room space making for small cramped room.
  •  In many cases when you are docked, you are parallel parked right against another ship.  Your view is the ship next to you.
  •  If you get a mid-grade or above stateroom, then it has a giant picture window that you can open to make your own impromptu balcony.  (the best of both worlds).
Why not the cheapest (lower level)
  • Windows don’t open
  • Generally, but I don’t know if this is the case on Uniworld, the lower you are the more noise there is from water, engines, locks, crew quarters, etc.
  •  If you cruise in winter half of your room is below water and the water is at freezing temperatures.  This means, so are your walls and floors.
We opted for the middle level, with a giant window we can open.
  • I have mild claustrophobia
  • It was on sales and in our budget
Next was the question, “where on the floorplan, what exact room”?  We could go closer to the front, or closer to the back, or somewhere in the middle.    We selected the middle back.  My thought process was there were fewer public areas, but still somewhat far from the engine room.   My hope was this would reduce noise (I am a light sleeper).


DECISION #6: WHERE TO BOOK (Company website or Travel Agent)

We contacted 3 travel agents, 2 responded.   We compared those prices to the prices directly on the Uniworld and Viking Websites.    We picked nearly identical cruises (Enchanting Danube) on Viking and Emerald and Uniworld.  And let the bidding unfold.   Agent one was extremely helpful but almost 100% focused on Viking and would only begrudgingly give us rates for Uniworld.   Agent two never responded.   Agent three had good prices across the board, but highly recommended Uniworld.   We did all of this by email and only spoke to Agent “one” live because we had some questions that were not addressed in email.

We tried to be respectful of the agents time, by;
  • Have your preferred stateroom type and location identified
  • Have 1 or 2 travel dates worked out
  • Let them know in advance this is a competitive situation and that you are talking to other agents.


I don’t think we took up more than 1 hour of time for each agent with questions and options.  Most of our questions dealt with topics covered previously in this blog.

We went with Agent Three (www.affordabletours.com / cameron@affordabletours.com)  They beat all the other prices. They included extras in terms of Shipboard Credits, and waving certain fees. Cameron was great, made us comfortable spending big $ online with someone we never met.  He quickly responded to questions, quote changes and more.  I highly recommend him. Mention “Paul Sent You” for a great price. His private number is 281-269-6679.

 There was a small mistake in the quote vs final price, they quickly fixed the problem and absorbed the difference.   I also “forced” them to sell me the Uniworld insurance vs. their own insurance since the Uniworld Policy had the “no questions asked” cancelation policy. They warned it would cost a little more, but for me this peace of mind was worth it.   If you read the insurance policies from other carriers most of them were very restrictive, and only provided you partial credit and only if the cruise line had to cancel or you had a medical emergency.  (Think in terms of a $200 coupon for your next cruise vs $10,000 refund or $10,000 credit on your next cruise).  Our final price for insurance was $499 per person.  By they way, it also includes emergency medical etc, which most people suggest you have anyway.   Again, with other cruise lines, the policy only covered the person who was sick. So, if you and your S.O. booked a trip and your S.O. had a medical emergency your only option was to go on the cruise without them, or forfeit you entire ticket.   This was not the case with the Uniworld Policy.   As always, read the fine print, don’t take my word for anything.

DECISION #7: WHAT EXCURSIONS TO SELECT

So, you are all booked and now you simply have to wait for the big date, right?   Nope, one more round of decisions.   What excursions to select.   Most days have 2-3 excursions (day trips / tours) to choose from.  This is where me and my S.O. differ greatly.  As mentioned, I prefer to chill, while my S.O. wants to see everything possible.   So the let the negotiations begin.   I’ll give you the Saffron farming tour, if you let us skip the full day in Salzburg in favor of the half day in Linz, and so on.
Most of the excursions clearly state Moderate to Active, so be honest with each other what you can keep up with, depending upon your age, and health.  Keeping in mind possible 90-100 degree summer weather in a city.

Overall, there are plenty of choices to satisfy everyone.

CONCLUSION

We are watching the forecast closely, as our trip has not yet occurred.  We will let you know how our planning worked out.

June 27, 2019

Hello World!

THIS IS AN EXPERIMENT FOR ME

I like to write reviews for products and give advice to anyone who asks for it on topics like Travel, Tech Gadgets, Home Improvement, Etc.

My intent is to let you know how I approached solving my particular needs.  What worked, as well as what did not work, or even went horribly wrong.    I make no claim to be an expert on any particular subject, just to share with you what I did, warts and all.

I am very frugal and always looking for bargains.  Sometimes that works, but as often as not it backfires and I end up spending more than expected due to unforeseen circumstances.

My hope is to provide a little more context than a particular stand alone product review.   Just because a product was good or bad, does not mean that you would use it the same way or have the same results.   Chances are you can do it better, as I am just a hack at everything.   A topic like reducing your cable bill by "cutting the cord" on cable TV, covers a dozen products, and is more about trial and error than recommending a specific product.

I do hope to figure out how to monetize these reviews and suggestions with affiliate referral links, but I will only write about products, services, and vendors, that I have really utilized in real life.   Use them or don't use them as you see fit.   In general it should not impact your price or your experience, but might help gain a little extra to support my family or an extra night out once in a while.  Hopefully in return, you gained some ideas and maybe cost or time saving that you can use for you and your family.

GENERAL DISCLAIMER:  As mentioned, my use of a product may not be what the mfg had in mind, and could have disastrous results for you, thus I accept no responsibility for your use or misuse of a particulate product, service or vendor.   FOLLOW MY ADVICE AT YOUR OWN RISK!

Finally, I hope to learn from you as well, so feel free to post positive criticism, different ideas, and the like.  I reserve the right to delete or block anything at any time for any reason.  Let's be nice or at least polite with each other.

My Moniker "I Don't Speak Monkey" is from a children's book "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and refers a main character's inability to try to understand children.  It has no other connotations.   I just like the phrase. https://www.lemonysnicket.com/

Enjoy (or Don't), but I wish you a nice day anyway!