Few know River Cruising better than the Avid Cruiser himself. Ralph Grizzle wrote this article for our parent site, The Avid Cruiser, back in 2008. It may be three years old, but it’s still chocked full of useful information for those who are planning or considering a river cruise through Europe.
Considering a River Cruise through Europe? This “know before you go” guide, prepared aboard Uniworld’s River Empress,will enhance your journey and perhaps help you avoid making costly mistakes. It goes without saying that you should check your documents before departing home, but some people miss the fine details even after combing over them a few times.
For example, I met a couple in the reception of River Empress who had made one big mistake: They arrived a day early. Fortunately, River Empress staff helped them by giving them a room on the ship. The passenger documents clearly stated that their cruise began not today, but tomorrow.
For tips on what to expect and how to prepare for your cruise, read on.
- Break your Coke habit. If you’ve been thinking of cutting down on Coke, now is a good time. In Europe, Coca Cola can cost more than wine, beer or bottled water. On Uniworld’s River Empress, a Coke or Coke Light (the European name for Diet Coke) cost €3 (euros). That’s about US$4.50. Have a Grolsch beer instead for the same price or a martini for €3.50. Iced tea is free. Self-serve specialty coffees, tea and hot chocolate are available free of charge.
- Be prepared to pay in Euros, designated by the symbol €. Many of the river cruise companies that cater to Americans have switched from dollars to Euros as the official on-board currency. Of course, you can charge shipboard purchases to your stateroom and settle your charges on your credit card, never needing a single Euro note on board.
- Except in Hungary. Although merchants will typically accept the Euro, it is not Hungary’s official currency.
- Keep some change in local currency in your pocket. At Budapest’s city market, where the charge to “use the toilet facilities” was 150 forints, I handed over the only currency I had in my pocket: a €5 note. The clerk took it, put some Hungarian change on the table, which I swept in my hand and walked away. “No,” she said, indicating she had more for me. She began handing me bills. I was impressed not only by her honesty but by the fact that I left with two pocketfuls of Hungarian currency. You can often use the toilet facilities for free, but just know that it’s not unusual to have to pay.
- Phoning home? The ship relies on expensive-to-operate satellite to keep it — and you — connected with shoreside communications. Before you pick up your stateroom phone to dial home, consider the costs: €2.50 per minute for calls within Europe and €3.50 per minute for overseas calls. That’s about US$5 per minute.
- Bring your mobile phone. My U.S. T-mobile plan charges 99 cents per minute for calls from Europe to the U.S. and vice versa. Just be sure to enable international service for your phone before leaving home. Also, ask if there is a support phone number you may call at no charge when abroad. T-Mobile’s is 1-800-937-8997. Note that you may have to dial a + symbol in front of the phone number to connect internationally.
- Or find a calling center. You’ll typically find calling centers in the internet cafés ashore. Just ask a crewmember where to find one. It’s much cheaper to call from a calling center than from the boat or your mobile phone, and calling centers typically are easier to use than calling cards.
- Consume in your stateroom. If you purchase wine or spirits ashore and bring it on board to consume in the ship’s public areas, be prepared to pay the standard corkage fee that most cruise companies charge: €12 euros.
- Reward those who served you with Euros. Gratuities, typically not included in your cruise fare, are €10 per day for the cruise staff, and €3 per day for the cruise manager.
- Washing day. River Empress features a launderette, which you can use free of charge. You’ll need detergent, which you can purchase at the ship’s reception: €2.5 for two detergent tabs. River Empress also offers laundry service: Shirt or blouse €3.50; T-shirt €1.50; Skirt, trousers or jeans €4. Pressing only: Ladies or men’s suit €5; blouse/shirt €2. Laundry is returned within 24 hours, usually sooner.
- How to dress. Jackets aren’t required at dinner aboard River Empress, but they are indeed appropriate and look nice. Europeans dress up during the evening, so if you want to “fit in,” bring along some nice clothes.
- Up in smoke. Smoking is allowed only on the outside decks.
- Before leaving the ship to go ashore. Take your passenger boarding card and if you have one, your mobile phone. The ship’s phone number is printed on the boarding card should you require it.
- Don’t buy stamps. That is, until you’re ready to send your postcards. Stamps purchased in Hungary or Slovakia won’t work in Austria and vice versa. The reception desk will mail your postcards for you.
- Bring business cards. Or cards with your contact information. You’ll meet fellow passengers who you’ll want to stay in touch with. Handing over a card is easier — and much more elegant — than scribbling out your contact information on a cocktail napkin.
- Be prepared to wait. Internet on River Empress is often pokey and slow, with only two computers and no WiFi or no way to plug in your laptop should you bring it along. Rates are 30 euro cents per minute. Better to find internet cafés ashore.
- Pack less. I pack my suitcase with everything I think I’ll need for my cruise, then remove half of it. Using this strategy, I’ve never been short of clothes. And of course, I can always have a shirt or two laundered should I need it. In most stateroom configurations, River Empress features one large double closet and five drawers. Suitcases will fit under bed. If they don’t, you’ve overpacked.
- Get your ticket BEFORE boarding public transport. Two Australian passengers were fined 12,000 forints (about US$80) in Budapest, because they failed to purchase a ticket before boarding the tram. But it wasn’t because they hadn’t tried. They could not find a ticket kiosk, so they boarded the tram and asked someone where they might purchase a ticket on board. The person they asked, however, was an undercover agent for public transport. Instead of being helpful, he fined them. Welcome to Budapest! In some destinations, you can buy tickets for public transport at the ship’s reception. Ask.
- Hop on a bike. River Empress makes bicycles available free of charge to guests.
- Overcast skies? Get an umbrella. You’ll find one in your stateroom.
- Too late to transfer? Transfers between the airport and the ship are often included, but if you miss your transfer in Budapest, here’s a tip. Pay only €11 to get from the airport to the ship on the Airport Shuttle. Purchase a ticket at the Airport Shuttle Information Desk in the arrivals and departures hall. Oh, and remember, the Danube is the Duna in Hungarian, the Donau in German and the Dunaj in Slovakian. So if you’re screaming “Danube” and your driver doesn’t understand, try pronouncing it in his or her language.
Most importantly, Go Now! Yes, the dollar is weak against the Euro, but unless you’re a mass consumer and need to make a purchase in every village where the ship docks, you won’t spend much after you’ve paid your cruise fare. That’s not to say that you’ll live a life of deprivation ashore either. On River Empress, at least one tour is offered free of charge in each destination. Wine is included with dinner.