We debated and procrastinated for about two years before my husband and I signed up for our first European river cruise. It took an invitation to my granddaughter’s college graduation in Frankfurt to finally set us into motion.
We soon learned our four-month lead time was laughably short. Many cruises were already sold out.
As we tried to quickly sort through the variety of trips, we were overwhelmed -- so many companies, so many boats, so many rivers! We read and read and read some more and polled friends who had made similar trips. Soon we decided our top priorities were beautiful landscape, relaxing itinerary, and an opportunity to expand our knowledge.
More research showed us that despite the dizzying array of offerings, most river boats are similar in size and passenger load, carrying about 140 to 150 people. Plus, nearly all the cruise lines ply the same rivers, with similar destinations. The differences are largely in amenities and levels of service. In some cases you must be prepared for extra docking and transportation fees plus tipping the many people who staff the boats. We very much preferred an all-inclusive option. We wanted to relax, not count currency, interpret exchange rates, or calculate gratuities.
With our criteria and firm dates in mind, we checked the few options still open and settled on Emerald Waterways’ week long cruise on the Danube River. We would set sail from Budapest, Hungary, travel through Austria, and end up in Passau in southern Germany -- just a train ride away from Frankfurt and family.
Beauty? Check. History? Check. All-inclusive? Check. It sounded perfect. Lucky us! We booked a cabin with a balcony and reserved tickets for a concert in Vienna (one of the few extra-expense activities.)
Then we purchased our airline tickets, train tickets for within Europe, and found hotel rooms for before and after the cruise and -- whew! -- we were finally ready for our October 13 departure.
Oh -- but not so fast!
My husband, Larry, began watching news of the river levels as obsessively as he monitors the local weather. We had read that flooding and high water sometimes disrupted cruises as boats can no longer get under the bridges or into port. That was usually a spring hazard. However, opposite conditions -- drought and low water -- can also wreak havoc. Larry was on the case. What he read concerned us: record low water levels on the Danube River.
The morning before we were to leave our home in New Mexico, he called Emerald Waterways for a final inquiry about river conditions. He was vaguely assured that “all seemed fine.” We uneasily accepted what seemed like good news.
And then -- less than 24 hours before we needed to leave Santa Fe -- we got the email we had feared. Low water was in fact causing major disruptions to Danube river cruises.
Emerald immediately offered us several options -- credit for a future cruise (no help to us), a truncated cruise with a bus trip to Belgrade (a lovely city, I’m sure, but not what we had in mind), or a refund.
What to do? We had already purchased airline tickets to Budapest and then returning from Frankfurt, and we faced an inflexible schedule. Graduation was not going to wait for the American grandparents!
Once again Larry called Emerald. He explained our predicament and pleasantly but persistently pressed the agent for any other options that might be available.
We were now down to less than a day before we were scheduled to leave. I did my part by pacing the floor and nervously unpacking and repacking our bags.
Larry and the agent exchanged numerous calls and emails over the next few hours. We had to reject an otherwise desirable-sounding trip to Portugal on the Douro river because the dates conflicted with the graduation. Another option simply wasn’t appealing to us. Then the agent asked what we thought of a cruise in southern France, visiting wineries in Bordeaux.
This cruise would be on Scenic, the Australia-based company’s higher-end service. Yes! The timing was good and the destination was intriguing, if not our first choice. As Larry barely drinks, we would not have chosen a tour focused on wine but at this late date we were, shall we say, flexible -- if not desperate.
“All” we had to do as the hours flew by was cancel our hotel rooms in Budapest and Passau, cancel our railroad tickets, find a new hotel room for a couple days after the new cruise, and switch our outgoing U.S. flights from destination Budapest to Paris. Note that this had to be done in less than a day’s time.
It wasn’t pretty -- or cheap. Purchasing flights to Europe with a few hour’s notice is not economical. Emerald stepped up and reimbursed us for the additional travel expense, but with just hours to spare we had to accept some inconveniences. Tired, stressed, and a little numb, we boarded our flight from Albuquerque the next morning.
On the longest leg of our trip (about 9 hours across the Atlantic) we couldn’t get seats together; I ended up next to a pleasant, super-sized man with no sense of personal space, especially as he slept. Larry was in a seat that protruded into the aisle and was bumped by nearly every passenger on their way to and from the loo.
Many hours and three planes later, we arrived at the charming airport in Bordeaux where giant wine bottles decorate the luggage carousels, demonstrating the region’s pride. Our new cruise line, Scenic, sent a driver to transport us to the Intercontinental Hotel for our pre-cruise night. Driving through a pouring rain, he described the attractions of the city and recommended places to visit. All we wanted at that moment, though, was to stay dry, catch our breath, and have a snack.
The next day, the clouds puffed up white, the rain ended, and under auspicious blue skies, we took a taxi to meet our boat, The Sapphire, which was docked a few blocks away on the Garonne River.
With a mixture of relief and excitement, we stepped up to the check-in desk.
They had never heard of us.
It seemed our bad luck was not quite behind us.
My name? Not on the list. Larry’s name? Not on the list. Neither of us was on the ship’s manifest. Fortunately Larry had our email confirmation in hand.
The fabled cruise-line customer service quickly materialized. “Not to worry, madam, monsieur. A little confusion, perhaps? Please have a seat. Would you like some wine?”
It was a phrase we were to hear countless times during the following week. A quick phone call resolved the confusion. We were shown to our cabin and began a delightful week that exceeded all our expectations.
We knew this was a Scenic cruise instead of the Emerald Waterways we had originally scheduled but in all the rush we hadn’t absorbed exactly what this would mean for us. Scenic Cruises is the parent company and runs higher-end cruises under the Scenic name. I didn’t do a dollar-for-dollar comparison, but I’m sure we ended up with a far more luxurious trip than we originally booked.
For instance, our cabin was a higher grade and included the services of a shared butler. Being unaccustomed to such niceties, we didn’t really take advantage of his expertise but Marion, from Romania, was a lovely man.
Over the next few days, excursions introduced us to tiny ancient villages still vibrant with wine culture as well as magnificent chateaus with names like Rothschild and d’Yquem, familiar to wine lovers around the world. We saw intriguing museums and cathedrals, flea markets, and concert halls.
All this while enjoying gourmet meals on board with interesting and pleasant fellow passengers from around the world. We slept soundly on fine linens and a comfortable bed. We watched shore birds and fishermen and misty landscapes roll by as we relaxed on our private balcony or on the expansive upper deck, enjoying the region’s wine offerings all along the way.
In the end, my granddaughter got her degree with proud grandparents looking on and Larry developed a new appreciation for wine and the alchemy of wine making. Returning home, we asked ourselves why it had taken us so long to sign up for a river cruise as we pondered where to go for our next one.
Photo Credit: Scenic