Review: Amsterdam to Budapest River Cruise

Executive Summary

FANTASTIC! Just do it.

Ash and Lesley
Ash and Lesley in Melk

Product Review

We (Lesley and Ash) booked our Europe river cruise in January 2013, some 18 months before we sailed on the buttonEmerald Sky on 21 June 2014 from Amsterdam to Budapest. In subsequent months, we added some optional side tours at additional cost. The day-by-day account is documented in the blog pages of this site, so you should also check them out. This page is a review of the product “Splendours of Europe River Cruise“.

review linkThere is a separate review of the ship MS Emerald Sky that focuses on its features rather than the cruise, although there is some overlap with this page.

About Us

Lesley and I are still in the workforce and have no connection with the travel industry. We saved for a long time to do this cruise, which was to celebrate a special milestone for Lesley this year.

Pre-Trip

Working with the tour company was just fine. No issues at all, except that they don’t want email from enquirers, so you need to call their office if you need to know anything. They email you mostly from a no-reply address, so you can’t reply by email. Judging by the average age of the passengers, I would not be surprised if most of them don’t have internet access at home.

18 months out, we were offered a free cabin upgrade from Cat P to Cat S if we paid the $250 deposit by 31/1/2013. That was a nice bonus, but in hindsight we should have booked in Cat R and upgraded to Cat P to save some money. In Cat S we received two free laundry items each day and little snacks three times a day.

snacks
Morning canapes in Cat S and Cat SA rooms
canapes
Afternoon canapes
canapes
Night canapes

We heard no complaints about the accommodation from passengers in the lowest cabins, so it always boils down to one’s budget and the desire to treat oneself to a better cabin.

After paying the deposit, we had to use an online Personaliser to supply assorted details about our passports, arrival/departure and individual needs if any. We were taking the Singapore Airlines flights organised by Evergreen Tours to Paris and return from Budapest, but we added our own side trip to England and a stopover in Singapore.

By April 2013 we had to pay the deposit of $5,500. In December 2013 the outbound/return flights had been booked. In March 2014 we had to pay the final balance of $16,391. In May 2014 the flights were ticketed.

About a week before we left, we received a large parcel containing two backpacks and some paperwork. The latter included health details we needed to fill out and give to the ship staff upon boarding and some luggage tags.

paperwork
Itinerary and forms to fill out
card
Emergency contact card

The backpacks were rather basic and I ditched mine before coming home. Past customers got ones marking them as “Silver” tier customers and one assumes others got “Gold” ones. They are the same design as used by the sister company Scenic Tours but a different colour.

Other cruise lines have much fancier accoutrements for their customers, but you get what you pay for.

backpacks
Backpacks

Flights

Since the original booking, Singapore Airlines had reduced its A380 flights, so we were mostly on a B777-300. The Budapest to Frankfurt leg was on Lufthansa. During the cruise we confirmed that some passengers booked as little as a fortnight before the cruise and made their own way to Amsterdam while others got a free flight for both passengers. We got it only for one of us, as we had taken only the Paris extension, while others had taken the Prague extension as well, which gave them two free flights.

Whether you get free flights or not depends on your luck, timing, negotiating skills and whether you are taking a hard-to-sell cabin in steerage (as happened to a work colleague who sailed with Scenic). There were about 20 empty cabins on our cruise. The Q class flights do not carry full points, but we earned 10,278 miles, which is about half of the full mileage. No complaints there.

Yes, the flight paths were over Ukraine and Afghanistan, but so were many others.

Paris Extension

We took the 3-day Paris extension, which is really one day of organised sight-seeing, mostly from a bus and a river boat; the next day is “free” and the third day is the bus trip via Brussels to Amsterdam. The bulk of our group were housed in the Crowne Plaza at Place de la Republique and a handful in a different hotel. Our guide Bernard was an American who had lived in France for over 25 years and was excellent. The other guide Nadia was also excellent.

Paris
Paris as seen from a bus.
Paris from a boat
Paris as seen from a boat.

The Seine river cruise was not very scenic for us as the boat took on at least 400 people and we were seated in the middle, which was not ideal for taking photos. But it leaves from near the Eiffel Tower, so we were able to see the latter from solid ground.

selfie
Selfie at the Eiffel Tower while waiting for a Seine river cruise.

On the third day, we were put on two buses and we headed for Amsterdam. We had a running commentary from Bernard most of the way and he pointed out interesting things such as a war graves cemetery. There were about four stops, including a lunch break and mini walking tour of Brussels (which is a city worth checking out separately).

bus
Our bus to Amsterdam

Forgotten Passports!

Just as our bus was about to reach the border of Belgium, our guide came to our seats and broke the bad news that we had left our passports and credit cards in our hotel safe. As the safe is hidden by the same door that covers the mini bar, we missed it when checking out.

safe
The Crowne Plaza safe where we forgot our passports.

This incident helped to appreciate some of the “above and beyond” work done by this guide and the cruise director in Amsterdam, with help from the hotel and unseen others — the hotel sent the passports by FedEx to Wurzburg, where they were reunited with us on the 26th! They had to be sent to one of the bus drivers who was going to take us on a tour. We had photocopies of the passports, so we had no trouble getting on the Emerald Sky (and the passports are not checked at any of the borders during the cruise).

Emerald Sky at Amsterdam

review linkWe reached the Emerald Sky around 5:30 pm and were taken to our cabins with a glass of a refreshing welcome cocktail. We didn’t have to carry our suitcases, which were delivered to us. There is a separate review of the ship, which you may want to check out by clicking the button above.

Emerald Sky
MS Emerald Sky at Wertheim

Our cabin had everything laid out nicely for us. Of interest were two glossy booklets, both marked “Amsterdam to Budapest” (wonder if they have ones marked “Budapest to Amsterdam”?) ­čÖé The 312-page guide book is a detailed, Wikipedia-grade production (with some public-domain pictures taken from it) and well worth reading before arriving at a destination. The other is a folding map of the rivers we traversed. It was handy for identifying the many castles and cathedrals we passed.

booklets
Travel guide and river map
name tags
Name tags

We had received our name tags in Paris, while others who joined in Amsterdam got theirs on the ship. We were frequently reminded not to use them on shore, as it was another giveaway to pickpockets that we were tourists.

Water

There was plenty of drinking water in our rooms at no extra cost – one sparkling and the other still. The only time there were small bottles of water at the ship’s exit was for our day trip to Salzburg. Other companies seemed to have such bottles available at every stop. I’m not much of a bottle carrier, so it didn’t concern me. We just filled up our own bottle on the ship and shared it between two of us.

Coffee

We didn’t use the Nespresso coffee maker as there was no milk or creamer in the room and the excellent coffee maker was just a few metres away in the Horizon Lounge. We didn’t use the mini bar either, as there was unlimited wine and beer with lunch and dinner.

nespresso
Receivers in charger and Nespresso machine

Once underway, we had to participate in a mandatory evacuation drill, which was done with good humour.

evacuation drill
Evacuation drill in progress

Emerald Waterways

Once on the ship, everything was branded “Emerald Waterways”, which is the brand used in the rest of the world. Australia, for some reason has “Evergreen Tours”.

Internet Access

There was free wi-fi internet for all passengers, but as it was obtained through cell towers along the route, it was non-existent in places, upon which the satellite internet link was connected behind the scenes. As there were lots of people using one connection, it was rather slow to unusable at times. In locks, all internet connectivity was lost.

Television

The flat screen TV was nice and there were about four English-language channels and many others in European languages, but movies were broken throughout the trip. It’s a shame more English channels were not available, when most of the customers seem to be English speakers (mostly Aussies). We had to watch a lot of the World Cup matches in German and occasionally we found an English commentary on the internet.

The satellite TV reception was dead while deep in a lock. Since the movies on offer were also mostly the same on the Singapore Airline flights, we didn’t mind this issue.

TV
What movie will we watch tonight?
TV
Movies broken again

The only channel that worked when TV was dead was the Bow Camera. It was a nice way to watch the river while lying in bed.

river lock
Watching the bow camera while approaching a lock.

River Levels

Different ships cope with a given problem differently. In mid-to-late June 2014, there was low water in the Main-Danube Canal. Some Viking and APT ships have a deep draft, so they had to offload passengers at Bamberg and Nuremberg and bus them to a different ship at the other end. Packing/unpacking is always annoying and we could do without it.

Offloading passengers
Viking Alsvin ship crew forms a bucket brigade offloading passenger suitcases at Nuremberg.

Our Emerald Waterways ship Emerald Sky did not have any problem with the canal’s lack of water. Rain fell exactly when it was needed and our captain decided to take the ship all the way to Budapest.

Captain
Captain Laszlo is thanked by passengers for getting us safely through the voyage
Main-Danube Canal
The Main-Danube Canal was about 30-40 cm below the high-water mark.

Daily Routine

Each night, we would receive a programme of events for the following day.

program
Daily programme of activities
news
Daily newspapers.

Every morning a couple of A4 sized “newspapers” and a puzzle sheet was delivered all rolled up on the cabin’s door handle.

If you were keen, you might want to use the tiny gym or go for a swim in the ship’s pool, which converts to a movie lounge on some days.

gym
Gym

We could have a light breakfast in the Horizon Lounge or the heavy one in the Reflections Restaurant. The heavy one had cold meats, bread, pastries, cereals, eggs to order, bacon, potatoes and so on.

breakfast
Light breakfast
breakfast
Hot breakfast corner

We always had to collect a security card when leaving the ship and return it when we came on board. This enabled the crew to know if someone was still on shore. We did not lose any passengers.

pass
Security pass

The reception desk also had a map of the local town with important points highlighted by pen, such as the location of the ship and bus stop.

maps
Town maps

After breakfast, we would board a bus with a local guide (roughly five groups of 30 people each) and there was usually one group for “gentle walkers”. After about an hour of walking around, we would be given another hour or two to wander around on our own and then go back to the ship for lunch. Sometimes we would return to the same town after lunch or sometimes move to another port for another little tour.

We had a receiver with earphones to use most days and the guide had a transmitter. On 3-4 days the guide’s transmitter did not work, which was annoying, as 30 people could not crowd around him/her to listen to the commentary. Changing the battery did not fix it. This should have been tested the previous evening.

guide
A guide corrals some passengers before setting off.
strawberries
Special strawberry themed buffet dessert
salads
Healthier options
pudding
Temptations

Once we had a tour of the kitchen led by the chef.

chef
(A clip from a video) Chef Mihai says that only eight people are needed to feed the ship.

Each evening there was always a “Port Talk” session where the cruise director would brief us about any potential issues (such as the river levels) and about the next day’s programme. There would also be a daily joke or two and a lucky draw whose prize was usually a specialty of the next town.

Daniela
Cruise director Daniela
beer
Smoky beer from Bamberg (a nightly prize)

Except for three days, dinner was usually a la carte. The menus are pre-set by management, so personal requests were not possible. A lady kept asking for bread pudding but was disappointed. If you didn’t want the fancy main courses, there was always a steak, chicken breast or fish selection every day (and I used this option a lot).

menu
Typical dinner menu

Not enough regular fruit muesli was available for my liking – often there were two containers both filled with chocolate chip muesli! (Others also commented on this abomination).

I would have liked to see the occasional curried dish – I am sure the Indonesian crew were getting some interesting dishes — perhaps a Rijsttafel would be appropriate in Amsterdam?

The wines served at dinner were varied and from many continents (other than Australia). I mostly stuck to the reds and was not disappointed.

wine
Some more wine, madame?
cheese
Pickled feta cheese in bacon coat
soup
Soup
fish
A fish main
steak
My staple steak
cheese
Cheese platter
dessert
Dessert

After dinner there might be a guest presenter from the local town. One evening the crew put on a variety revue (lots of talent there) and another night it was the turn of the passengers.

crew
Crew performance
band
Gypsy band in Budapest

The Sights

Without doubt, the castles, houses and cathedrals were fascinating. The scenery was amazing.

Yes, after a week some of us were in a daze and could not recall what we had seen a few days earlier. There was a bit of steep walking, but mainly in the do-it-yourself activities. Each place had the usual souvenir shops but there were no annoying pickpockets or beggars (except in Paris).

Passengers

The average age of the passengers was “retired for a while” – pretty close to 70. Fewer than 10% were from the workforce, including us. The slower walkers did not cause us any hold-ups and there was usually a separate, “gentle” walking group for them. One or two couples were perpetual whingers, but most were fine. Some kept to their groups while most were happy to mingle and sit with new people. There were one or two entertaining characters, whose presence actually helped to make the cruise more enjoyable.

The Crew

The senior crew were mostly East European from Hungary or Romania. The hotel crew were mostly from Indonesia/Philippines and all parts of Eastern Europe. On the rivers, the bridge communicates with land in German and further east (not our cruise) the language is Russian. This rules out English speakers in the bridge.

The hotel staff were very professional and impressed us. They were well trained and cohesive. We did not see any frayed tempers or grumpiness on their part. Overall, the captain had a well-run ship.

Our Conclusion

In a word, the trip was fantastic!

The meals were 5-Star; the cruise director Daniela was fantastic; the crew were great; housekeeping was fine; the ship was comfortable. Couldn’t fault it at all. It is important to note that this product is more of a cruise and less of a sight-seeing excursion. You can’t see any town in an hour or two of guided walks or bus tours, or in the subsequent hour or two of “free time”. For detailed sight-seeing, you need to travel on your own and stay as long as you need in each place.

June-July seems to be a good time to travel, at least it was for us. You can’t predict if there will be floods or a drought in Europe, but be prepared for some unexpected changes. We were lucky and hope you are too.

The buttons below will take you to the day-by-day reports from each port and a review of the ship itself.

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