Cruising Without Hassle Part 3: Like Learning Before You Leave

Cruises offer a wide variety of vacation experiences. Some cruises cater to Type A personalities with non-stop excursions. Others offer lazy days at sea, staring at blue water with a book in hand. Here's a guide to finding the best cruise for you.

Ships fascinate spectators. Like poet John Masefield we all want “to go down to the seas again.”

Top image, viewing the Marquesas, Bottom, Columbia Gorge.

Cruise lines would dearly like to know why their passengers chose to make that booking with them. Was it their reputation, their advertising and marketing, their special offers, their follow-up and follow-through with previous passengers, their cuisine and service? Yes to all the above. But was it also their itinerary and ports of call? That’s more difficult to answer because persons vary so much: Some like the serenity, the contentment of a long ocean cruise with many, many days at sea and nothing happening except time to read, be entertained and spoiled by the ship’s crew, whereas others want “action, baby,” things to see and do — and stuff to learn. Passengers for example on a Holland America San Diego to Hawaii round trip cruise have 10 languid days at sea out of 17, whereas guests on a Uniworld 15-day cruise down the Danube from Amsterdam to, say, Budapest, get to stretch their legs at every medieval town or photogenic spot on this river, which, at 1,770 miles long is the second longest in Europe after Russia’s Volga.

Let’s do that. With the help of local travel agent Christy Scannell, let’s compare those two types of cruising, river and ocean, starting with Holland America’s cruise to Hawaii then look at this Uniworld cruise as it introduces many of us to this new exploding travel section: cruising the world’s rivers.

Images, top Maui, middle image Big Island. Bottom. Father Damien Church Molokai

The Holland America (HAL) cruise circling Hawaii has five ports in Hawaii including the four most popular islands and gives you a look at Ensenada in Baja Mexico as well.

Hawaii is a marvelous vacation. It doesn’t “cruise” as well as, say, Alaska—meaning some experienced cruisers will tell you its coastline is not as exciting as Alaska’s and that the patch of ocean between Molokai and Maui is not exactly smooth sailing! Once you reach a Hawaiian destination visitors want to stay put and not move on the next day. On an Alaskan cruise there’s always something special happening tomorrow.

Uniworld, as if to spotlight river cruising, offers Amsterdam first on this Danube cruise, one of Europe’s most convenient airports and a fascinating city to explore early before the cruise begins. After that, Uniworld visits the oldest city in the Rhineland, Cologne; the castles of the Rhine; gives you a chance to see Heidelberg; then the ostentatious grandeur of the Wurzburg Residenz which, to many, merely indicated the rapacious greed of Germany’s prince bishops (but you have free time in Wurzburg and could privately arrange a visit to Roentgen’s X-Ray laboratory there); then the river cruise lets you embrace the magic of medieval old towns like Rudesheim, Bamberg, and Regensburg; then the option of Rothenburg and before you get to Budapest, the chill of Nazi Nuremberg and the majesty of Vienna. If you hunt medical history don’t expect to find much of Semmelweis in Budapest. Even the museum named after him would wish to have more! No one claims to have his famous wash hand basin. The one illustrated in medical history books as being in World Health Organisation headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland is denied by WHO as still being there.

Sometimes passengers come back from Uniworld European river cruises with so many memories and photographs they have to hunt through their images to identify where they were. Many medieval villages in Europe look somewhat alike, but most are gorgeous.

Regensburg, Middle images: Wurzburg left residenz, right Roengten’s own X-Ray, Nuremberg Nazi parade ground where Hitler addressed his political party at a rally (melodramatically from the balcony). Heidelberg pharmacy and emblem (insert) of the 1703 student haunt the Red Ox Inn.

Type A cruisers will find river cruising was designed for them and someone once said, “You can’t get through med school if you are not type A.” But there is serenity, too, in river cruising: in the convenience of being so close to a town center when your boat ties down, in the comfort of the boat’s air-conditioning and all its amenities when you return to it at the end of the day, and how the front desk remembers you when you seek service at any time — after all, the Uniworld boats average only 130 passengers. This is personal travel! That’s why we’ve gone with Uniworld eight times.

Top image Norway. Bottom Russia. Insert Christy Scannell (San Diego travel agent).

River Cruising

Jane Archer, the cruise columnist for the UK Daily Telegraph says the new river cruise companies on European rivers “have spent millions of pounds building new, modern ships … and it has really started to pay off by encouraging more people, and more younger people, to take a holiday that was once seen as very old-fashioned.” She points out that our favorite river, “the Danube has seen a 41 per cent increase in passengers the last year.”

“This surprises no one. I have just received an email from two of my clients on a river cruise, Uniworld’s Enchanting Danube,” says Christy, “and they ended with … we might never do an ocean cruise again!”

When did you last take a cruise with a Hungarian musician playing his violin six feet from your seat? Or view Budapest from a Uniworld lounge chair? Serenity!

Yet Serenity may not happen on river boats if you come with children. Many kids would be bored stiff with the tranquility which is why big cruise lines have created big ships. Mariner of the Seas, for example, is a teenager’s dream, albeit an expensive vision for whomever carries the credit card.

The new big ships like Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas do, however, have a grandeur, a majesty that you don’t get on rivers. Whether this is important depends on why you are cruising and what you want or need from a cruise

Most photographers don’t care whether they are on a shore excursion or on their own except, more and more, others on excursions are holding up iPads or taking selfies, mercifully not here on the Marquesas or in Portoferrario on the island of Elba where Napoleon was imprisoned.

River cruisers need to do the same self-qualifying they have to do with ocean cruising. The river boat companies are all different. Viking spends $50 million a year on marketing. It was extraordinarily clever of them to buy the Sunday night TV time on Masterpiece Theatre’s Downton Abbey. ”New river boat customers call me,” says Christy,”and tell me, ‘I want a Viking cruise.’ They don’t say ‘I want a river boat cruise.’ They want a Viking cruise.”

Uniworld’s take on this marketing is, “We spend our money on our clients!”

We believe that, we have sailed with both. Uniworld is more expensive and gives a better service and better value. Viking and Uniworld boats are comparable in size but the passenger load is about 170 on Viking and 130 on Uniworld, so Viking can be busier and not so relaxing. We went with Viking when it was introducing Americans to Russia and we had a great experience. But Uniworld is the only truly all-inclusive river boat cruise line. We find that two members of our family have chosen Uniworld’s Danube Amsterdam to Budapest on their own evaluations and we did not know they had booked for 2016 till it was done. Yes, you should book early on European rivers.

People cruising on European river boats need to understand what they are getting. It will not be like what it is for some on ocean cruising, says Christy: “Party, party, party and non-stop shopping.” The entertainment is usually enrichment lectures and performances by local musicians. But who needs fancy entertainment when service is so personal and comfortable? “And here’s something to know,” says Christy. “There’s nothing wrong with taking a low deck cabin if you are economizing. On a river boat you can be up on top in two seconds and on an ocean interior cabin you will sleep well because it is dark!” Interestingly enough, the first cabins to sell out are the biggest, most expensive suites and the cheapest cabins. But you are not in your cabin all that much on cruise ships, river or ocean.

Christy’s 10 Considerations on Cruises

  • Booking direct with any provider is a mistake. Use a travel agent, says Christy. An agent can get you a better deal. Actually the cruise lines want you to book through a travel agent because the agent absorbs some of the difficulties that might otherwise be cruise line issues. And the agent may solve them more expeditiously. Cruise lines have an employee (at a vice president level) just to make things work well with the travel agent. A travel agent would notice if your cabin was situated under the pool deck, for example. And ask for it to be changed.
  • The best deals are NOT gotten at the last minute. Sometimes excitement and interest at that time finds a cruise is sold out.
  • The cruise lines led by Royal Caribbean are planning to cooperate on a policy that they will NOT have last-minute price drops.
  • Evaluate a cruise on value not price. Christy said that more than once. Consider this: Whereas an agent may get you a good price on booking it’s still up to passengers to watch out for their expenses once on board. It is believed that some cruises ultimately cost passengers 40% more than originally expected.
  • It is NOT correct to believe that one cruise fits all. Clarify your interests.
  • Try to arrive at the embarkation port one day early. (We’ve made the mistake of not doing that and regretted it.
  • Understand there may be bargains on cruises that have lots of days at sea. Because the cruise line is avoiding the costs of putting into a port and even days of sailing and burning fuel are less expensive than port charges. Do the math: a 30-day round trip from San Diego may in fact offer a favorable cost per day for that very reason.
  • It’s usually important to carry insurance for long or expensive cruises. And to know what is and is not covered.
  • Not planning ahead is a mistake. You don’t need to plan every little detail, says Christy, but some things should have been thought through.
  • Going to the cruise line website, completing requested details and reading any forum details that give advice for that particular ship is worth it. If it’s all new to you, you may discover someone on the forum with similar issues or needs as yours and you may even find a friend onboard before even reaching the ship.

We ask Christy to mention three things she always takes on a cruise. She gazes over downtown San Diego for a moment then says: “Zip-lock bags, duct tape, and my husband—although the last two are not related!” She has other hints here.

Whether in a port or on a river, your floating hotel is waiting for you. And once you check-in you may find it difficult to leave. It is almost painful to realize your cruise is over!

Photography by Authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.