Scenes from the eastern Danube

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To read about sailing on the eastern Danube from Bucharest to Budapest, click here:

For tips on how to choose the river cruise that’s right for you, click here:

Scenes from the journey:

Budapest

Budapest

Danube

Horse farm near Kalocsa, Hungary

Danube river cruise

Horse farm near Kalocsa, Hungary

Danube

Horse farm near Kalosca, Hungary

Danube

Horse farm near Kalosca, Hungary

School in a Bulgarian village

School in a Bulgarian village

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Dancing in a Bulgarian village

Hungary Danube cruise

Painting eggs in Hungary

Danube cruise

Traditional embroidery in Hungary

Danube cruise

Szechenyi Bath in Budapest

Danube cruise

Bulgaria

Danube cruise

Budapest

How to choose a European river cruise

DSC_0007As with any vacation, when it comes to river cruises, there’s more to getting the best value than meets the eye.

Nearly all European river cruises include Wi-Fi, meals, coffee and tea throughout the day, and some excursions. But some include only the most basic city tours in groups as large as 40 or 50 people, charging extra for experiences that are unique; others include a wide range of excursions in the fare. Some lines charge extra for dinner wines and gratuities, while others include them. Cabin designs and menus also vary.

What matters, of course, is what matters to you.

Our group of 12 decided on the river less traveled — the eastern Danube, then traveled overland on our own to the easily reached cities of Vienna and Salzburg.

Once we decided on a destination, we made a list of all lines that sailed that route. Then we created a group spreadsheet on Google Docs to ensure that we were comparing features correctly. Each couple was assigned a line; some called the company directly, while others consulted with cruise travel agents recommended by national magazines.

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Our categories:

  • Number of cabins onboard
  • Range of cabin costs (low to high)
  • Total number of nights included (some included hotel nights)
  • Driving time from embarkation city to ship (in our case, one to five hours)
  • Cabin design (some open to provide balconies, others don’t)
  • Types of excursions included in fare
  • Maximum number of guests per excursion
  • Sample menus
  • Wine included?
  • Cocktails included?
  • Airport transfers included? (yes, or if not, average cost)
  • Bicycles on board?
  • Pool?
  • Tips included? (yes, or if not, the amount recommended)
  • Any special features
  • Potential extra costs

Once we had narrowed to a handful of lines, we consulted our favorite of the river-cruise specialist travel agents we’d spoken with. She served as a reality check against our own research, so we felt confident.

More importantly, she alerted us to a special airfare that was far cheaper than anything we could book on our own, and another promotion that allowed us to book into a higher cabin level at a small premium. She also arranged a group discount and handled the air bookings and payments — no small matter with this group.

Everyone in our group agreed we would recommend her: Angelica Berwick at Fine Voyages.

When we added up inclusions and promotions, we found the value of upscale Scenic Cruises outweighed lines with lower base fares. Included were all tips, house liquors and wines, butler service, a wide range of small-group tours and electric bicycles. Because we booked on the “Diamond deck,” a rave-worthy degustation dinner and laundry were included.

Where to go in 2017?

In Israel's Negev Desert, November 2016. Photo by Jane Wooldridge.

In Israel’s Negev Desert, November 2016. Photo by Jane Wooldridge.

Each December / January, travel magazines put our their lists of the year’s best, hottest, most undiscovered (but food-worthy) places to go. I’ve personally written a few of these, so I know that the lists are derived from a variety of inputs, including travel agent bookings, destinations that have recently added flights or facilities, and a general avoidance of world trouble spots.

In this year unlike any other, the trouble spots have yet to be determined. Europe is still suffering from last year’s attacks — not that that would stop me from traveling to France, England, or any place else on the continent, especially while the dollar is strong. But with our foreign policy still unclear, places that we once considered friendly may not be in the coming year.

My view for 2017? Go the places you’ve most longed to go, but leave time and money for unexpected invitations and unforeseen airfare sales.

The first took me on a return last fall to Israel, a place I love more and more each time I visit. Surprisingly good food, spectacular views, and an everyday life where the friendly interactions between Christians, Jews and Muslims give me hope — all are part of my Israel experience.

https://www.mapcustomizer.com/map/Uruguay2017mapuruguaymap

This year: Uruguay, thanks to interest from travel-savvy friends. We’ll have a few days in Montevideo before moving on to the wine country of Carmelo and historic Colonia. (No Punta del Este for us; hey, I live in Miami!)

And then it’s on to Africa. On our way to a safari (purchased at a charity auction at a budget price), we’ll stop off in Dubai (thanks to a great airfare sale on Emirates in early January) and then to Uganda for gorilla trekking. (While Rwanda usually gets top billing, there technically are more gorillas in Uganda, provided the gorillas have paid attention at the border crossing.)

Courtesy of Bwindi National Park, Uganda

Courtesy of Bwindi National Park, Uganda

On my wish list: Asia — I’m thinking of the Pitcairns — and a polar bear quest in the Arctic.

In my world view, travel is life.

Follow me on Instagram and Twitter @janewooldridge. 

 

 

Tired of 2017 already? Here’s a trip to chase away the demons

bali4seasonsRegardless of your political stance, you may be feeling a bit like Jon Stewart at his recent Stephen Colbert show appearance:  Tired and bedeviled by the pace of 2017.

The island of Bali — one of my personal favorite places, once you get off the tourist track — may have the antidote. On the eve of the Hindu New Year, villages island-wide parade through the streets hoisting giant effigies of mythical monsters. The New Year’s Eve pageantry — this year, March 27 — is meant to draw out the demons. The next day, the island goes silent in an attempt to trick the evil spirits into thinking the place is moribund so they’ll go away.

This bit of news arrived in my in-box this morning courtesy of a press release from a

five-star Balinese resort. I’ve been in Bali during other festivals — including a glorious midnight march up a cliff in moonlight, followed by a mock battle to chase away hostilities. But I’ve never been to Nyepi, as the new year is called. Maybe this should be the year.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Bali Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran Bay

 

Great vacation tip: You better shop around

Yesterday’s Miami Herald published a truncated version of the Great Vacation Tips for 2016. Here on the blog, we’re going into more detail.

So this tip might seem obvious: You better shop around. Especially when it comes to expensive trips.

But that doesn’t just mean going to Trivago or Kayak or Expedia. It means getting on a phone. And it means comparing more than just price.

Sing-sing in Papua New Guinea.

Sing-sing in Papua New Guinea.

A friend who is planning a trip to Papua New Guinea — far away and yes, pricey — got a quote from several top-end travel arranger. Because she wants to visit during the August tribal gathering called the Sing-Sing, she’s required to travel with a group, at least for that part of the trip. She cares passionately about great guides. As for hotels, well, as someone who has been to PNG, let’s just say that there’s little choice. One company gave her a great itinerary — and an equally lofty price. A second company gave her an itinerary that was virtually identical, right down to the hotels — at half the price.

Another example: A group that’s traveling on the Danube this summer. A half-dozen cruise lines offer similar itineraries. Each couple in the group was given a list of details to investigate and assigned a company. On the check-out list were items including price, dates, travel time between the tour’s city of origin — Bucharest or Istanbul — and the ship, costs, inclusions and touring options. When the chart came together, it was clear that the trip that looked to be the least expensive didn’t include as much and involved larger tour groups with fewer land excursion options. For nearly the same price, the group could get a trip with smaller day touring groups and significantly more excursion options. And the cabin configuration was more appealing.

The lesson: Do enough research to figure out what you want, then compare options from well-regarded companies and suppliers. If this is a once-in-a lifetime experience, focus on the one thing that is most important to you — A great guide? The best hotel? — and let the rest fall where it may. If it’s a nice trip but not an important anniversary, you might be more mindful of cost than luxuries.

 

 

Great vacation tip No. 5: Join the hotel loyalty program

My latest value trick is an old-but-good one: Join the hotel loyalty club.moscowriver

I rarely manage enough points with any one hotel brand to get a free stay. But hotels often offer discounts for members and include extras, like Wifi, for members. Twice recently I found discounts far deeper than what I could get via AAA, AARP or online sites by joining the hotel chain loyalty club and booking directly on its website. And let’s face it: Who doesn’t like a deal?

There is a trade-off: Your information and a flood of new emails in your box. My information is already in the giant universal meta database, just by virtue of the fact that I exist. Handing my address and email to one more company isn’t going to make much difference, I figure. (I never allow them to store my credit card info, just to be extra safe.) As for the extra emails…that’s where Unroll.me comes in. (Check previous posts for details.)

If you travel a lot on business, of course, those hotel points can quickly add up to free stays. But even if you’re an occasional roadside motel / family traveler, take a look at loyalty programs. Choice Hotels include 11 familiar brands – including Clarion and Comfort Inn; most years they run summer specials where a handful of stays will earn you a free night. At Hotels.com, 10 nights in any hotel booked on the site will earn you a free night. Other chains and booking sites have similar programs.

So what’s that free night worth? Maybe not so much if you’re roadtripping to Georgia. But if you’re heading to the other Georgia, that could be a free night at a Tbilisi hotel like the Radisson or Marriott that normally charges around $275.

On my last trip to Copenhagen, my free night was worth more than $250 in high season. Not a bad deal.

Great vacation tip No. 4: Track deals

Now that you know when you can take off, and where you want to go, you know which destination deals you want to track.mooringsbeach

There seem to be a grillion (and possibly more) websites out there that will help you. Here are a few worth checking. (Please share you faves, too!)

Smartertravel.com. Subscribe to this website for a daily email on the latest airfare and package deals, along with articles written some of the consumer travel industry’s most knowledgeable experts. (If you find the daily newsletter more irritating than entertaining, you can subscribe to Unroll.me and have it put into your daily email roll up.) . You can also sign up for alerts by city of origin, so you can track all the cheap flights from your local airport.

AirfareWatchdog, a sister company to Smartertravel (both are owned by the same people as Cruise Critic and TripAdvisor) offers terrific alerts on air deals. Unlike most sites that lean entirely on computer algorithms, AirfareWatchdog has actual humans who test the deals before sending out alerts. The site also allows you to watch specific route pairings.

Online booking sites Travelocity and Expedia also offer deal alerts. Travelocity’s Destination Watcher lets you designate whether you’re looking for air, hotel or car deals.

When it comes to getting a deal on a business-class fare, TravelZoo is one of the few sites that regularly highlights these; you can find them on their own tab under airfares. Better yet, sign up for their alerts. Skyluxtravel.com also highlights business class sales.

Luxury travel is a different conversation — one we’ll get to. So are cruises, hotels, packages and tours. We’ll get to those another day.

Farewell to faithful friends: Our rolling backpacks

You have carried us around the globe more times than we can reckon,

You were our perfect bags: Lightweight, rollable, presentable enough for a decent hotel, equipped with sturdy backpack straps that allowed us to haul you up the stairs of a Santorini cave house on our honeymoon and into a raw wood hut on our trek through Cameroon. When flights were delayed, you served as backrests, card tables, pillows. Your dusty exterior belied your value, thwarting theft.

From Irian Jaya to India, Mali to Mongolia, Uzbekistan to Alaska, you were our unfailing companions. In your caring folds you hauled eaglecreekbagstrekking boots and little black dresses, underwear and socks, dry sacks and charging chords, carpets and ceremonial crowns from Tibet and and Ethiopia. The handicraft gifts so carefully chosen from far away places came home in your canvas holds; you kept them safe despite the knowledge that the relatives who would receive them would scratch their heads and wonder, why?

Airlines did their best to rend your wheels, your straps, your handles. You held steadfast, with the aid of rare visits to the Eagle Creek infirmary. When Eagle Creek declared that your lifetime guarantee was not a warranty for our lifetimes but some arbitrary “lifetime of the bag,”  we were forced to relegate you to storage. There,  humidity and mildew wreaked the irreparable damage that no chicken plane or baggage conveyor belt ever delivered.

Today you go to rest, For decades of dreams and miles of memories, you have our enduring thanks. Fare thee well.

Great vacation Tip No. 3: Get ready to pounce

January generally brings a new round of sales: Travel sales.

The last-minute deals of years past are largely gone, swept away in the desire by businesses to book as much business as they can early in the year. For cruise lines, hoteliers, packagers, tour operators — and even airlines — this often means January deals.

Some of those special prices will apply only through spring. But others might be good far later in the year. Since you’ve already identified your free-travel spaces, you already know what works for you time-wise.

Now, you just need to prioritize your wish-list.

If you don’t have one, it’s time to make one. If you do, it’s probably time for an update.

I keep two lists, one for once-in-a-life trips (polar bear watching in the High Arctic) and other for that-could-be-fun places and return visits. (Colorado’s Broadmoor, Brussels). As you move places up and down your list, you’ll want to consider the following:

  • Jerusalem, Israel.

    Jerusalem, Israel.

    How much time do you need for a reasonable visit? (Five days in Paris or London is a decent little trip, but anything less than two weeks in China isn’t really worth it.)

  • Are any of the places on your list at risk? The glaciers of Alaska are receding. Relations with Russia have been dicey; now might be the time for that visit to St. Petersburg. Is Myanmar becoming too popular, making it a  now or never trip? Are you longing to go to Cuba during this historic change?
  • What’s in recovery? During the Ebola crisis, even unaffected destinations far from the disease suffered tourism losses…meaning this could be a year for great deals.
  • Are your traveling companions aging or, alternatively, about thinking about getting pregnant in the next few years? You might want to book that trekking trip while you know you can.

When the deals appear, you’re ready to pounce!

 

 

Getting the 2016 vacation you want: Tip No. 2

Tip No. 2: Identify free time.

When you factor in work schedules, school commitments, parents and spousal priorities, getting away for a trip might seem like an impossibility.

Jaipur, India, 2011, during the Holi festival.

Jaipur, India, 2011, during the Holi festival.

Alex V., a busy executive married to another busy professional, suggests matching schedules the old fashioned way: On paper. On a paper calendar, she wrote in all her out-of-town and committed dates in one color, then did the same  with her husband’s schedule in a different color. They quickly were able to spot a few weeks when neither was booked, and reserved that time for travel.

And don’t just depend on what’s written in the calendar. Check with your partner and other critical parties to be sure there aren’t any floating issues out there, like that college reunion my husband said he was hosting “sometime this July.”  Even though the dates aren’t set, I know not to get my heart set on going to some out-of-town festival that month — at least not with him.