Get the River Cruise Run Down

by Kate Blake, Editor
Senior Travel Advisor- WMPH Vacations

Read more about river cruising on my River Cruise Specialty page

See a list of river cruise companies here on

River cruises are a great way to see a lot of the world that normally you would visit with a land tour- but your hotel goes with you instead of you taking a bus from city to city. This is a great way to see the major cities of Europe at a leisurely pace. Ideal for people interested in history and culture. River cruises offer specialty sailings aimed at food and wine lovers all year. Cruise through France in summer and see the lavendar in Provence. Cruise Paris to Normandy in the spring and see Monet’s gardens at Giverny. Sail into Budapest on the Danube and be awed by one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Visit the Black Forest of Germany and enjoy the wonders of Bavaria. See more fairytale castles than you can imagine. All of these experiences and so much more are available when you take a river cruise.

There are four general categories of river cruise service levels to choose from and a couple of specialty niche options.

1- Discount : this includes locally run and operated tour companies usually servicing people in the same language as the region they operate. You will find discounted options with companies like this provided by bulk tour providers who will offer cheap rates for charter dates usually off season- March, early April and late fall for Europe for example. These are pretty basic,meals are included but you pay extra for anything other than really basic walking tours. CroisiEurope, Gate1Travel, Vanguard are names that come up here. Expect to pay in full at time of booking. Usually these are much older vessels with modest decor built more for function than any kind of luxury experience.

2- Standard: this includes the big name mass market ships you see heavily advertised on television. Viking is the top one here, Emerald Waterways also falls into this category. Plus side- plenty of included tours, wine and beer included with meals. Generous air programs. Gratuities and premium alcohol are extra. Usually the standard vessel will have 180 + passengers at a time. Viking usually has their best rates if you pay in full a year in advance. Emerald allows you to make a deposit then pay final closer to sailing.

Check my Viking page for the best deals with Viking
Value options with Emerald 

3- Premium: this includes Avalon and their panorama rooms as seen on tv, Ama Waterways, and ARosa. Ama Waterways and Avalon are my favorites. Not quite as many people per sailing- usually 160 or less on the same size vessel the standard ships offer. Plenty of tours, really good food, nice wine and beer options. Reasonable rates to upgrade to all inclusive liquor and you can pre-pay gratuities. Pay a deposit and final is due closer to cruising. Usually you pay air as a separate charge- contract flat rates for air are available or you can book your own. AmaWaterways is GREAT for Asia. The AmaDara is a gorgeous vessel calling on Vietnam and Cambodia. I love their itineraries that call on Halong Bay. These premium lines do not overstuff their boats- expect 150- 180 guests on board.

Check my AmaWaterways page for the best deals with AmaWaterways 
Also look for AmaWaterways sailings chartered by Disney for family friendly adventures in Europe.

Avalon often has availability when other lines are full – they have a lot of new ships they are filling and offer aggressive promotions. Plus – they are part of the Globus family of companies and have some of the easist transfer services in the business. This means you can easily fit an Avalon cruise into the middle of a longer European itinerary.   Explore Avalon River Cruises

4- Luxury: All inclusive deluxe river cruise options are some of the most popular. Top four names include long time tour provider Tauck , ocean cruisings top luxury name Crystal is now part of the river cruise market, and finally Uniworld and Scenic which have been the top names in river cruising for decades. All inclusive lines include tours with fewer people per tour, all liquor is included not just beer and wine at dinner and tips are included as well. Air can be added on or you can do it on your own— the luxury providers know that their all inclusive guests often combine a river cruise with additional travel options.
Tipping is all taken care of along with your drinks and tours- so nothing to worry about. Book with a deposit and pay closer to sailing. These book EARLY – a year in advance is normal. Uniworld averages 120 guests on the same size vessels Viking has 180 or more people on.

My special UniWorld page
Read about my personal experience on Uniworld sailing the Danube 

Scenic options 

Crystal River options 

5- Specialty River cruises:
North America is a special case. There are several companies offering all inclusive river cruises on the big rivers and lakes of Norrth America. This includes paddle boats along the Mississipi and adventurous journeys in the steps of Lewis and Clark on the Columbia river in Oregon. Ranging from 4 to 10 nights these are usually booked early- the less expensive rooms book a year in advance.

Another new entry into river cruising is the new U by Uniworld . This line is aimed at younger more active cruisers- less amenities but with the quality Uniworld name. You will find these options in Europe in the summer. Lots of biking and evening activities. Not quite all inclusive to keep costs down.

Some things to keep in mind when booking river cruises:
All river cruises in Egypt and Africa are chartered vessels- none of the big companies own them- they put together packages and charter space on locally flagged and operated vessels. This does not mean you won’t get a great trip just know that sometimes there will be hiccups in service as the cruise line does not have complete control over your ship. Same thing in China. Look for companies that own their own ships like the AmaDara in southeast Asia.
Russia is another destination where this is the situation. ARosa sailings are all chartered from another company as are many of Taucks. Ask your travel agent if your sailing is chartered space or a vessel owned by your cruise and tour provider.

Many of the trips mentioned here are with smaller companies and most river cruises are big ticket travel items. Do not skip travel insurance when you book your trip.  You want to make sure you are covered in case of financial issues where your tour provider may declare bankruptcy. Read up on Cruise West and Renaissance Cruise lines for who can happen when a cruise line goes out of business in the middle of sailings.

By nature of the port intensive, tour intensive itineraries these are not tours designed for people who have a lot of accessibility issues. None of the European or Asian boats offer any ADA rooms. Only some have elevators on them. Most will offer some slow walker tours so folks who need to take it easy can do so. Be sure to mention any physical disabilities with your travel agent so you can get the best tour and river cruise for you!

How do I get a passport?

If you are a US Citizen getting a passport is far easier than you think. Start off with a simple trip online to the State Department website  and head to the page that is all about travel.

You can either get a full passport for travel all over the world that is good for 5 to 10 years or you can get a passport card which will get you around in the northern western hemisphere for 5 years. Read up and decide which works best for you.

Generally for first time issuance you will need to get some documents together, fill out some forms you can download online, get your pictures taken – I usually go to Walgreens as they are fast and easy and cheap and then head to your local post office to get your paperwork verified. Check online for when you can do this- some locations have limited days they are open and you may need an appointment.

In a hurry? Read up on how you can get the process expedited either using over night mail services or going in person to a passport office near you. You will need to already have travel paid and booked to get things expedited in person- so make sure you read through what you need before you head out and wait in a long line.

Source: How do I get a passport?

What is up with exchange rates? How do I plan my travel budget?

I work as a travel agent and have guests from all over the world. Over the past several years a lot of folks have been able to travel in the US very inexpensively thanks to favorable exchange rates. Today as the US economy and the US dollar is rebounding those rates are no longer as favorable for non-US residents.

Examples- the Canadian dollar was very close to equal in value to the US dollar for most of 2010- 2014. This last year with reduced oil costs the US dollar has rebounded- and the Canadian dollar will now only buy 70 cents on the US dollar- the exchange rate is about 1.33 today so it costs 30 percent more to travel in the US than it has for the past 5 years. Historically however the US dollar has always been stronger than the Canadian one- I suspect it will stay around this rate for some time to come so Canadians- sorry- you will be paying more for all things US including your winter holidays in warmer climates.

The Australian dollar has been hit even harder- trading today at about 1.4 to 1.45 AUD per USD. This means that our Aussie friends are paying an additional 15 percent more than Canadians for the same US dollars. The British pound and the Euro are also trading at the lowest rates they have in years.

What does this mean for Americans? Right now you should be planning to travel to Europe and Australia. Rates are lower than they have been in eons and if you can get packages that include as much as possible up front- you will make out very well with your money stretching further than it has in years. If you have a trip planned to Europe or Australia for later this year you may want to go to your bank and buy some foreign currency while rates are low and put it aside to take with you.

If you have ever wanted to travel to Canada on the Canadian railroad or visit Montreal or beautiful Quebec City- this is the time to plan it. Book that Mt Tremblanc ski vacation now and pre-pay everything you can. Ski packages with lift tickets are a great deal when the US dollar is as strong as it is today.

If you are a Canadian or Australian with an American holiday planned- try to pay for as much as you can up front and do it when your exchange rate is the best possible. Make sure any credit cards you are using are offering the lowest exchange and foreign transaction fees to make your purchase as painless as possible as well.

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Source: What is up with exchange rates? How do I plan my travel budget?

When is the best time to buy airline tickets?

As a travel professional I get asked this question often.  The answer is not always very clear but

At the Lihue airport in Kauai, HI

There are several steps to shopping – these are key especially when shopping fares for a route or trip you have not done before.
I am sharing today how I shop fares for my guests as well as for myself so that I can make the best decisions possible for myself and my guests.

1- Know what airports service the place you are going and if there are any alternate ones you can use.  Example- you may be able to fly into Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami for less money – but if you are cruising from Miami this may mean you need to plan extra time to get from the airport to your ship if you fly in the same day.

2- Are there any days of the week that flights are not possible for your route? Some discount airlines like Allegiant only fly into certain cities on certain days of the week. Some long haul destinations like Tahiti have similar restrictions with flights only going on certain days of the week. Keep these things in mind when planning travel to places that are off the beaten path.

3- Remember – flying to Europe is almost always overnight so if you have meetings or a trip that starts on a Saturday- you will want to fly leaving the US on Friday – or even Thursday if you want to make sure you are rested when Saturday comes around. Flights from the South Pacific usually leave late afternoon to middle of the night and get you to the US early in the morning.

Now you can start shopping routes and pricing.

I usually start pricing my fare on a good discount site like I use the results from the searches to see what days of the week are cheaper for flights, what airlines offer more choices and what are my routing options. If you are taking a trip that starts one place and has you flying home from another- you may want to book your air through the discounter which will provide good rates and quick booking tools. Downside- usually you will end up waiting on seat assignments unless you call the airline direct once ticketed. If you forget to do this- you and your travel companion have no guarantee you will be seated together.

If I see a stand out rate with a single airline or a route I like but don’t see it at the price I want through the discounters- I will then start the second part of my airfare hunt and go to the airline’s website to book the flights direct. The advantage here is you can pick your seats from the get go and pick your specific routing and even upgrade one leg or another to premium coach or any other class of service online and direct. I like booking direct because if you run into any issues on scheduling- you will get priority service over guests who booked elsewhere.

For big trips being made well in advance I like to go through the exercise of shopping a pricing a few times to get a feel for the range of fares available to me. I have a trip to Europe in the fall that I planned last December and bought airline tickets for in May. I bought my tickets at what I felt was a good fare and had the fewest connections and shortest actual flight time without any extra long layovers. I did not get the lowest fare but it was the best fare for my schedule and since I booked direct with the airline, my travel partner and myself are seated together for the entire trip.

Last year we did a cruise out of Florida in December. I had been shopping airfare for a few months and in early July a big tropical storm came up and the news was filled with reports that it might turn into a hurricane for Florida. I hopped online that night and was able to book my air for $200 less per person than I had been seeing for my December flight thanks to temporary market panic. I had this experience previously when I bought tickets to New Orleans from Phoenix when a hurricane was raging in the gulf. My airfare dropped by over $150 per person during the storm and then popped back up the next morning when the storm blew over.

For Hawaii- know that late August- mid-November is off peak season and flights will always cost less than travel at holidays or during kids summer vacation. For Europe- flights leaving after Oct 1 and before May 30 are always less than during peak summer travel months.

For domestic flights- 14-21 days in advance will offer you the best fares for non-peak travel times. Flights that include a Saturday night stay will always be less too. Remember to include baggage fees in your flight budgets. That discount airline is not such a good deal when you are paying for bringing a carry on on the plane along with paying to check a suitcase. Southwest is my favorite for domestic flights whenever possible since you get to bring free bags and they offer great senior rates for my friends and guests ( I am not quite there yet). I will never fly Spirit again after having a terrible experience with them two years ago and Allegiant here in Mesa, AZ is known for taking off when the plane is full even when people are still in line with fully purchased tickets. I am going to Hawaii in two weeks on American/ US Air who I used for Hawaii two years ago. I anticipate no problems. I bought my non-stop tickets 8 weeks out and got a great rate – right in line with what I expected based on how much air runs during this off peak time frame.

There is no magic best time for booking air but if you do a little research you feel confident in your flight purchase. If you need help- reach out to a travel professional or you friend who travels for business. We are always happy to assist our friends and family who don’t travel as often as we do.

Source: When is the best time to buy airline tickets?

Attention all flyers – It is Ok to Lock Your Bags again with new TSA Locks

By Kate Blake – Editor

For the past ten years since our world was torn upside by terror in the skies travelers have had to make one adjustment after another when flying with commercial carriers. Personally I think the whole take off your shoes thing is just yucky- I seldom wear socks and really dislike standing on a dirty airport floor. If you have ever had your luggage hand inspected – at the end of a long trip you know that the job of the TSA screener is no picnic either. I actually warned one when she pulled me aside pre-boarding to go through my suitcase that had been with me for two weeks and was packed full of smelly dirty undies and clothes I had been wearing to work out in every night.

Inconveniences aside the toughest thing many of us have had to adjust to is the loss of any feeling of security about what we pack in our luggage. Until recently you could not under any circumstances lock your checked bags. Finally the luggage manufacturers and the TSA have changed that. There are new locks that come standard on new luggage and you can get little zipper locks that have the new TSA mechanisms. This is how they work. You have a combination lock – you set your lock to your combination and pack and lock your bags as always. If the TSA needs to get into your bags- they have master keys to do so. How will you know if they have opened your bags? This is the brilliant part- if a TSA key has opened your bag then you will have a little red button that will indicate the bag has been unlocked. When you then unlock the bag using your combination the TSA indicator will reset.

Why did it take 10 years to come up with something like this? I don’t know but I am pleased as punch as it means that I can lock my bags again. Locking them may not deter a hard core thief but it usually manages to help keep my bag together in one piece during the rough and tumble handling processes and it allows me to lock things up inside my bags when I am staying at a hotel that does not have a safe.

Samsonite Fashionaire Hard Side Suitcase- Purple

For a great source for TSA locks that work with all kinds of luggage including oversized sports bags along with new suitcases with built in locks – Shop at eBags! I treated myself recently to two new ultra-light hard side bags which work great for keeping my luggage weight under the 50 pound limit and are tougher than soft side bags. I really like the Samsonite and Heys bags – lots of bright colors to stand out in line and nice wheels to make rolling them a breeze. The built in locks add a nice layer of security.



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Source: Attention all flyers – It is Ok to Lock Your Bags again with new TSA Locks