Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: Viking River Cruises Tulips and Windmills on the Viking Pride

This was our third river cruise. Our first was with Uniworld on the Douro River in Portugal and our second was with Viking to China.

Overall, our experience was what we expected from Viking and we would not hesitate to sail with Viking again. Everything was well organized, the staff was friendly and helpful, the ship was clean, and food (for the most part…more on this later) was very good and plentiful.

But be aware that this is not a relaxing trip. This itinerary is very port intensive. We had (included) tours every day and there were 4 additional (optional) tours. And which some passengers were on the much longer paid optional tours, shorter included tours were available for those remaining behind….such as walking to a herring factory in Hoorn. Other than the canal boat ride in Amsterdam, part, if not all, of the tours are 1 ½ hour walking tours. Don’t expect to come home rested from this trip. And be prepared to do a lot of walking over cobblestone streets.

The Viking Pride has a capacity of 150 passengers. It is not a new ship and is showing signs of its age. It is well maintained and nothing is torn or stained but simply ‘tired’ looking, like the bedspread and curtains in the cabins. Other than that, I have two comments about the layout of the ship.

The first is that it does have a library but it is open ‘loft-like’ by the reception area. I like a quiet place to read and that means no noise, including no elevator music. Other than our cabin, the only other option is the sun deck, not suitable with temperatures hovering around 50.

Second comment is about the size of the shady area on the sun deck. In my opinion, it would have been totally inadequate if we had hot and sunny weather. And while all of the deck chairs, which were wood and fabric, had a small ‘roof’ that could be used to shade one’s face and/or upper body, it would not have worked if one wanted to sit totally in the shade. (We docked, one day, next to the Viking Legend, their new ship. It had a much larger portion of the sun deck shaded.)

Starting from the beginning, the meet and greet went well. We were at the ship by 9:15 AM and our cabin was ready, a very pleasant surprise. Coffee and pastries were set out and there was an announcement that a light lunch would be served in the lounge later in the afternoon. Check in went quickly and efficiently. And, at the reception desk, was a sign up sheet for anyone who wanted to go to the Anne Frank Haus that afternoon. Cost was 15 Euros per person for bus and admittance.

Our cabin was quite comfortable. Windows on the 2nd and 3rd deck opened and we made use of that feature. There was no shortage of shelf/drawer storage. The closet area, for us, was also more than adequate. We had about 10 hangers. My only complaint was that there were no hooks on the walls. So I was very glad I brought my Command Wall Hooks, which worked perfectly. (We were port side and most dockings were truly port side. If you want to look out at the water, be sure to book a starboard cabin.)

The bathroom is a typical ship sized room but it had a large medicine cabinet so no problem with storage.

Service could vary in the dining room. Sometimes I had to practically beg for morning coffee. Other times multiple wait staff was walking around with coffeepots in their hands. In general, though, service was satisfactory.

There were tables for 4 and 6. I think they could have used more tables for 6 as we and others, of course, developed friends during the cruise. At one point, upon our entering the dining room, there was only one table for 6 remaining. After that, I would leave the next-day briefing a minute early to get to the dining room to ‘reserve’ our table.

Breakfast and lunch were served, mostly, as a buffet. For breakfast, there was always a hot chafing dish with bacon and scrambled eggs and a second chafing dish that changed daily. The buffet had various breads, juices, cheeses, meats, lox (excellent!), cereals, dried fruits, yogurt and fresh fruit. And there was a small menu of items that could be ordered from the kitchen, such as omelets, poached eggs, pancakes and French toast.

Lunch was a similar setup except one chafing dish with the hot-buffet-item of the day. Lots of salad items were available. And, on the table, was a menu that listed soup, two hot choices from the kitchen and desserts.

Dinner was totally sit down. Viking now serves wine with dinner and we all found the wines to be more than adequate. There was a choice of appetizers, soup, main dish and dessert. All main dish offerings were either some kind of meat, a fish, and a vegetarian option. There was also a vegetarian menu that specified which items were vegetarian and a healthy menu, pointing out the ‘healthier’ items from the main menu.

One thing that surprised us was that, when dessert was served, we were not asked if we wanted coffee. We thought it wasn’t available until later in the cruise when we learned that coffee or tea would be served upon request.

In general the food was very good except for one consistent item and that was the soup. In my personal opinion they were awful….bland and tasteless, with no body. Except for one night, everyone who ordered the fish options were very pleased. On several nights, nothing on the menu appealed to me and I ordered the ‘always available’ grilled sirloin. Every time I had it, it was excellent. (Also ‘always available’ were grilled chicken, poached salmon and Caesar salad.)

Coffee was available 24/7 from a machine by the reception. I had the cappuccino and mochacino several times. There was a tea time where pastries were served, an early morning breakfast with pastries available and a light lunch (the buffet part of the lunch menu) was served in the lounge.

Every evening there was live music….a gentleman played a type of electric keyboard and the music was suitable for dancing. One evening there was a wooden shoe making demonstration, which we really enjoyed. Another evening had Dutch clog dancing (we passed on that). There was a lecture on tulips and another on the European Union.

Most of the sailing was done at night and we sailed on several rivers that had high commercial traffic. We went through 17 locks, something I always find very interesting.

I have to admit that most people dressed more casually on this trip than I expected. It was not uncommon for both men and women to wear nice jeans and sweaters to dinner. I think I saw two skirts the whole trip and no dresses. And while some men did wear a jacket and tie for the Captain’s Final Dinner, most did not. Most of the time it was casual slacks for both men and women, with a sweater, shirt or blouse.

The only thing missing from our trip were fields of tulips. The long cold winter they had delayed the blooming. While we did see tulips at the Keukenhof Gardens, if seeing them growing in the fields is important to you, try to schedule your trip mid April. Because according to one of our guides, last year was so hot, that the tulips were over by the end of April.

Lastly, don’t expect the ship to be docked within easy walking distance of Amsterdam (see my Tips For Amsterdam post). When we started, our ship was docked at Ruijterkade West, west of the Central Station. It was a good 15-20 minute just to get to the first streets of the city. Upon our final arrival, I don’t think we could have been docked further away. We were at a pier that is opposite the main cruise terminal. However, a 5-10 minute walk away was a bus that went into Amsterdam and several passengers took advantage of it.

All in all we had a very nice trip. For us, now used to 3 weeks and longer trips, it was a very short one. But we thoroughly enjoyed it, seeing and learning a lot.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions. Over the next couple of days, I plan on putting up posts about each of the cities that we visited. Be sure to subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss them.

Belgium and Chip and Pin Cards

I recently did a post on the Chip and Pin cards versus our U.S. magnetic strip cards.......Belgium is a problem!!!! And this is from personal experience, in Belgium, just last week.

Traveling with another couple, we tried our ATM cards at three bank ATMs. They only worked at one, KBC Banking. At ING Bank I went inside and spoke with a teller who specifically told me my card wouldn't work because I didn't have the chip.

Also, at a small shop, our traveling friends tried to make a purchase with a credit card. They had four different cards with them but none with a chip. All of the cards were refused by the shop owner.

Needing some cash, at one point I used an exchange bureau. With a bank rate of $1 to $1.33 Euros and the exchange bureau changing at $1.48, I changed a minimum of funds. Obviously, that's not the way to go if it can be avoided.

So what to do for future travels? At this point, I'm not sure. With fees the cost of buying Euros in the U.S. is probably not much better than using the exchange bureau. Plus I don't want to travel with a ton of cash. We could start using traveler's checks again. But that could mean a necessary visit to a bank. This is going to take some thought.

If anyone has any ideas, other than all travelers in the U.S. ganging up on MasterCard and Visa (maybe that's the best idea???), I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Chip and Pin Credit Cards Making U.S. Cards Obsolete

In preparing for an upcoming trip, I've been doing a lot of reading about European credit cards that have an embedded computer chip and are used with a PIN.

Currently European ATMs work fine with just the magnetic strip (the cards we get in the U.S.). However, more and more automatic machines (like for train tickets) are only accepting cards that have the chip. And also there are more and more shops that are only accepting cards with the chip.

While, currently, this is not an issue for purchases with major sellers to travelers, such as hotels, I think all international travelers should have an alternative to using their U.S. credit card. Whether it is taking more cash, or bringing travelers checks, or simply having more cash available through an ATM, a backup plan to credit card use might be a good thing to think about.

U.S. credit cards becoming outdated, less usable abroad

Friday, March 19, 2010

Stay on top of your air reservations

I sometimes make air reservations several months out....like 11 months out since I use frequent flyer miles whenever I can.

I was recently reviewing the paperwork I have on an upcoming trip when I realized I had a question. I called the airlines, which in this case was American.

Good thing I called. Part of our itinerary is on their partner Iberia airlines. Iberia made a change in their schedule and our Sunday flight no longer exists. Iberia rescheduled us to the day before. And when was someone going to tell us?

As it is, our Sunday flight was really one day earlier than I had originally wanted but, at 11 months out, there were no frequent flyer seats on Monday. The last thing I wanted now was to go out Saturday.

Thanks to the effort of a kind agent, we are now able to fly out on Monday, with exactly the routing I wanted. So that worked out for the better.

But then I had to change our private airport transfer AND our hotel res. Everything went smoothly, but again, when were they going to tell us....didn't anyone think other arrangements might have to be changed with a change in departure date?????

Friday, March 12, 2010

More Packing List Essentials

Duct Tape - Many travelers swear they would never leave home without their travel sized rolls of duct tape. Think 'torn luggage', for one.



Plastic Wire Ties - If you can't fix it with the duct tape, you might be able to fix it with the wire ties. I also use mine to lock my suitcase when it is left in a hotel room during the day. (Just make sure you have something to cut the ties open with.) I have found packages containing multiple sizes at the dollar stores.

Travel Scissors - And speaking of something to cut with, I would never travel without my folding scissors. I have carried these through security and NEVER been stopped because of the scissors. I 'lock' my luggage with the plastic ties and store the scissors in an outside pocket of my suitcase.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Another Cruise Packing Essential

One of the things that can frustrate me the most about cruising is not enough hooks in the room. I want a place to hang my bathing suit to dry. A couple of hooks to string a clothesline between would be nice too. My husband likes a hook to hang up his hat.

Enter 3M Command Wall Hooks! They are perfect for your cruise cabin as they can be removed without damaging the walls. With the package containing two sets of adhesives, they are an easy an inexpensive way to add hooks to your cabin.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

JFK Runway Construction

Be prepared for big delays at JFK. A 4 month project is starting this month.

The longest and most heavily used runway, Runway 13R-31L, will be closed. Airlines have been required to reduce their number of flights. With this major runway not in use, wind and weather conditions could end up causing significant delays.

You can read the full story at

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/nyregion/08runway.html

Friday, March 5, 2010

International Dining Etiquette

Friend of mine forwarded this link to me for a Dining Etiquette Quiz.

I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about international dining etiquette but boy was I wrong. I got a lousy 4 out of 10!

Can you do better? Click on the link above and find out.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

How to find a good travel agent

A good travel agent is worth their weight in gold. I've been working with mine for 15 years. I sure hope my traveling days end before she decides to retire because I don't know what I'd do without her.

I was fortunate to find her through the recommendation of a very good friend. Over the years she has always been there for me, advising me on trips, tour companies, handling things when the tour/cruise company messes up and, yes, providing perks as a Thank You.

Would my TA work for everyone? Probably not. Some people feel the best TA is the one that gives them the biggest discount and gets them the best price. That's fine. And there are TAs out there that will meet those needs. Just not my TA.

My TA knows that she provides a valuable service. She has gotten certified as an ACC (Accredited Cruise Counselor), spends time and money to tour ships and attend trade shows. She belongs to a consortium (which also costs money) because it gives her access to out-of-the-norm industry information and also gives her special perks that she can pass along to her clients. She knows what her expertise is worth and won't compete with the online discount sites.

Want to work with an online discount TA? That's fine. Just be sure to ask them a few questions like how long have they been in the business, where have they traveled to, do they have any certifications (like the ACC), do they belong to a consortium?

Set your expectations for your TA. Make sure they meet them. And then when you've found one that does, stick with them. It will pay off in the end.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Child Directing Traffic at JFK

Did you read the report about the air traffic controller who brought his son to work and let the son give directions to the pilots?

I heard the tape. It's all on the internet and the story can be found here. The controller and his supervisor have been suspended.

The child was supervised, was very professional, and the pilots certainly had no problem with this. I have no idea what the outcome of this will be but, if the pilots were comfortable with the transmissions, would you be upset? The FAA obviously is.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review: Blue Lagoon, Iceland

A question to me on a travel forum I participate in reminded me that I never got around to post a review of the Blue Lagoon.

Our last night in Iceland we stayed at Northern Light Inn. It is a relatively new hotel and it is definitely the most modern hotel we stayed at....huge room with king sized bed and flat screen TV.

Our flight the next day wasn't until late afternoon. Our plan was Blue Lagoon in the AM, and then off to the airport.

So...what can I say about the Blue Lagoon? I got there when it opened at 9 AM. Compared to the public pool I went to in Akureyri, the Blue Lagoon is expensive! Actually, I think it's expensive no matter what you compare it to. It was 25 Euros and that got me nothing except admittance to the pool...not even a towel. (I knew this and had brought towels from the hotel.)

Protocol for the locker room was the same as I found in Akureyri. When I entered the pool it was relatively empty. It is as turquoise blue as it appears in the pictures. As I walked from spot to spot, the water temperature changed from comfortable to a spot where it was actually too hot to stay.

The bottom of the pool is a bit rough...like a paved over rocky bottom. The Blue Lagoon is famous for its healing treatments, including the mud that collects at the bottom of the pool. You can feel the mud as you walk but I didn't find it too weird squishy. The mud is collected and put in pots around the pool, making it available to give yourself a skin treatment.

I was at the pool about an hour. Afterall, how long can you sit there???? I returned with my husband for him to see it as there is a huge window overlooking the pool that is accessible without paying. And when we got back there close to noon, it was CROWDED!

Was it worth it? Not in my opinion. But I did have the opportunity to compare it to the pools in Akureyri, which cost me all of about $3.50 US.