River Cruising in Europe Part Two

A Cautionary Tale Part Two

Note: See Part One Here

Low & High Water

We just got home from a European river cruise and it didn’t go as we had hoped. Sometimes the rivers experience high water conditions that prevent the long boats from passing under bridges. In our case, Europe has been suffering a long drought in the Danube and Rhine Regions, and the rivers were so low they kept the long boats from sailing in certain areas.

Our Experience

It is not my intent to single out Viking River Cruises but they are the company we cruised with this year. We were also novices to river cruising and were totally unprepared regarding a couple of areas where we experienced serious problems. We offer what has happened to us as a cautionary tale which will hopefully help others in their planning.

To start, we were very surprised at the number of longboats and cruise boats plying these European rivers. There were places where there were as many as six boats tied up three abreast at the docking area. Along one stretch of the Danube River, in the course of a mile, we passed five of these cruise boats headed in the opposite direction. Not that it affected us, but the traffic was almost unbelievable.

There are a few major companies offering river cruises and more than a dozen smaller ones. Avalon Waterways and Viking River Cruises are probably the two largest with the most experience. In addition to these, the list includes AmaWaterways, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, Tauck World Discovery, Crystal River Cruises, Scenic Cruises and a number of newer operators. Generally they have similar policies regarding cancellation, itinerary changes and what is covered in a cruise package.

Getting the cruise you want usually requires making a selection over a year in advance so there is no way of knowing the water conditions ahead of time. Most lines reserve the right to modify the itinerary as conditions warrant. To fulfill the contract, this can include putting you on buses and in hotels instead of on boats. Once you show up to take the cruise, except in the case of a medical emergency, you are in their hands through to the end.

Air Fares

Many lines include airfare and transfers in the package price. In our case with Viking we asked if we could remove the air portion as we were considering taking a trans-Atlantic cruise back to the States. Viking’s policy without exception required us to pay for the air portion even if we weren’t going to use it.

Since this was our first river cruise we didn’t know that there were options in approaching airline ticketing. We were advised of a $100.00 per person deviation fee for Viking to schedule us into Budapest a week early. Apparently there is also a program called Air Plus which costs $50.00 and provides you a bit more flexibility with the airline reservations but can also increase the cost of the airfare.

In our case the reservations booked by Viking were terrible and nothing we would ever have arranged for ourselves. Going to Europe we were routed Florida to Frankfort with a connection to Budapest. We had an impossibly short time between flights so we missed our connection. For the return flight we were booked at 7:00 AM out of Amsterdam to Munich, connecting to a flight to Frankfort to catch our flight back to Florida adding up to a twenty-two hour travel day where a normal trip would be less than 13 hours. When we asked for changes to the schedule, we were advised that any alterations would require a change/upgrade fee of $600.00.

Added Tours

Also included in many itineraries are local tours in the cities visited. While this is normally a good feature, in our case Viking’s insistence on providing these tours ended up adding additional hours on buses getting to many of the tour sites. You could stay on the boat and choose not to participate but that meant you missed one of the places on the original itinerary. Some smaller cruise companies either don’t provide tours or charge extra and that should be a consideration when making plans.

Cabin Types

Most cabins on river boats are small and the options are usually a matter of the window size, having a French balcony or a full balcony. We had booked a French balcony cabin with Viking on this trip and if we return to Europe we will probably down grade our selection. First the cabin was so small that it was uncomfortable to use for just sitting (no chairs either) so we spent most of our onboard time in the lounge (there are also suites with sitting rooms). Additionally because when we were docked we were usually tied up to another boat. To avoid looking into another stateroom we usually kept our curtains closed. The French balcony wasn’t a valuable option.

Trip Insurance

Because of the high price of river cruising, in the future we will select trip insurance that allows us to cancel for any reason and pay much closer attention to river conditions weeks before the trip. It seems that an adjusted itinerary is not justification to cancel for many insurance plans including the one we used for this trip.

Information On River Conditions

For more information on river conditions see Ralph Grizzle’s information at River Cruise Advisor, a site that tracks water levels as does River Cruise Information. We will also pay for the air upgrade option (in the case of Viking that’s another $50.00 per person) and become more involved in selecting flights.

On the positive side Viking has recognized that they didn’t deliver what we were expecting and have provided some compensation for all of the problems we experienced, which makes for a slightly better ending to this story.

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Sydney Australia and the Opal Card

Getting Around Sydney

An Update

If you are planning a trip Down Under with some time in Sydney, you need to build your plans around their great public transportation. Like most large cities, buses are plentiful but Sydney also boasts a metro rail system called “Light Rail” that connects most major parts of the metropolitan area along with a regional conventional rail network and a large ferry system. The light rail boasts frequent service and cars that are modern, clean and comfortable.

The entire system is based on the Opal Card which is a  “tap on – tap off” system. You can buy a one trip card or a card that can be loaded with specific amounts. so each time you board, you tap your Opal against the sensor pad and again when you exit. From ferry terminals and metro stations the “tap sensor” usually is a turnstile and on buses and light rail  the tap post is usually at the car entrance.

We stayed near China Town and there was a surface light rail street stop just a block from our hotel. From there we could get to Darling Harbour, Bondi Junction and Circular Quay all in less than a half hour. In addition, the massive Sydney harbor is crisscrossed with dozens of ferries which all seem to converge on Circular Quay between The Rocks and the famous Sydney Opera House.

Even if you don’t have a destination, taking a ferry is a great way to see the sights around the harbor and the city skyline. Ferries from the Quay take you out to Watson’s Bay (be sure and have fish ‘n chips at Doyle’s on the Beach), Manley Beach (a popular ocean front beach town noted for good surfing) and across to Luna Park, aSydney’s classic amusement park.

The Famous Bondi Beach

If all this wasn’t enough, there is also a multi-day fare system based on the Opal Card. You buy the card with your choice of an amount loaded (you can also reload) and than tap on and tap off on all of the above systems as well as the regional rail lines. But here’s the best part. As you use the card there is a maximum daily fare of A$15 (A$7.50 for children) with Sundays capped at A$2.50.

We took a train to the Blue Mountains (over an hour and a half from Sydney), spent the day and returned, then went to Darling Harbour for dinner and back to the hotel all for A$2.50 each. There is also a weekly cap of A$60 with the card as well and, after eight paid journeys with Opal, you can travel for the rest of the week for half-price fare.  Always be sure to tap on because staff wanders through the cars from time to time checking.

Three Sisters in the Blue Mountai

 

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney is a very walkable city. The focus of the downtown area (CBD) is the Circular Quay and The Rocks. Facing the water at the Quay, the Opera House is to your right with a number of restaurants and shops nearby and the ferries straight ahead. Off to the left is The Rocks, the location of the original English settlement at the harbor with a number of shops, restaurants, galleries and museums. Some of the museums offer free or reduced entry admissions so be sure to check this out if you plan to visit.

Sydney Metro Rail System

A short walk From The Rocks is the approach to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which is worth the climb up to its walkway for the view. If you are really adventurous and aren’t afraid of heights you can book a climbing tour up the suspension cables to the very top. A dozen blocks west and south is the Kings Street Wharf and Darling Harbour area with a great waterside walk lined with restaurants and tourist attractions including a wildlife center, an extension of the Sydney zoo and the aquarium.

A light rail trip out to the town of Bondi with a bus connection at the station to the famous Bondi Beach will take about forty minutes from the central train station area.

Often getting around a large city as a tourist can get costly but not Sydney with a Opal Card.

 


Save While Roaming Internationally

Cell Phone Services and International Roaming

Over the years we have done a lot of searching for cell services that provide good international service without costing an arm and a leg. Our main service at home has been Verizon for a lot of years and we have used several international services for traveling out of the country like One Sim Card. We gave Verizon any number of opportunities to work overseas and have more often than not been frustrated. Last Spring while visiting Ireland and Iceland we kept asking people that seemed to be making frequent use of their phones what service they used and everyone said T-Mobile. Well that was enough for us, we have now switched. Our first trial last month was while in Bermuda and Grand Turk. Now we are off to Europe with what we think is the best option for American cell service while traveling.

Switching to T-Mobile has already saved us about $70 a month on service for three active phones. The new plan we have includes unlimited voice, text and data and the service seems to work just fine. Traveling internationally we still get unlimited data and text with calls costing an average of 25¢ per minute. Our “One Sim Card” service was averaging 20¢ a minute and required some steps in making a call.

Our home phone service has been with MagicJack which has been working fine for almost 8 years. By adding their app to one of our cell phones our MagicJack  home calls will ring on that phone using the cell phones cellular data service. In Bermuda, Grand Turk and at home the app has worked every time (the ringer is too load compared to the phones normal ring and I am still trying to adjust that).

While in Bermuda the T-Mobile service worked great. We used data for internet and navigation and at one point someone asked what service we were on because it seemed we were much faster than theirs. That’s never happened before. Texting worked great and the MagicJack app worked well for making voice calls. The only awkward part of the MagicJack app was opening the app to answer incoming calls required three steps. Over three whole days of international usage everything worked just fine and the best part is there were no additional costs involved.

We are now off for a month in European a couple of days and are very hopeful that we now have the best international roaming service. With cell service that is always subject to change but we are working for the time being at least.

International Cell Phone Service

Current cell phones are one of modern life’s miracles, but they also present multiple issues in international travel especially for Americans. U.S. based cell service is usually a costly option when traveling outside of America and, from experience, we’ve found it is often not the most reliable option. Before you leave on a trip, contact your carrier to find out what your options are and the potential costs and apply a bit of skepticism.

CDMA vs. GSM, Prepaid vs. Contract Service.

There are three U.S. based CDMA providers: Verizon, Sprint and U.S. Cellular. While these companies offer international roaming, there may be countries where the service doesn’t work or is unreliable, primarily because most countries are based on GSM service. It is also dependent on your specific phone (i.e. These companies international service do not work with iPhone 4 and older iPhones). These CDMI providers offer special international plans but they are limited to specific countries and vary by cost. Again, we recommend that you find out your specific options before traveling.

All the rest of the U.S. service providers use GSM. Because of this, phones from these providers are more likely to work reliably while traveling internationally. Their service costs can still be high so, again, we recommend that you find out your specific options and costs before traveling.

Buying Sim Cards While Traveling

We would also strongly suggest that you find out if your GSM phone is unlocked or if it can be so you can buy a sim chip from a local provider in a country you are visiting. Often this can provide really inexpensive service for using data, calling locally as well as home. (See information on our Australia trips for an example of this).

A word of caution when buying a sim card while traveling outside your home country; make sure that the provider shows you how to call back home because many countries and providers have different ways of accessing international service and entering country codes. On one long trip we wasted much of our loaded credits not making calls properly and even when going back to the outlet where we purchased the sim they had difficulty placing an international call using the procedure they recommended. The only thing we recommend is to make sure they and you know what to do and a demonstration is highly recommended.

If you currently use one of America’s GSM companies our recommendation is to buy an inexpensive dual-sim GSM phone so you can subscribe to one of the international service companies or buy sim cards while traveling. There are dozens of options in phones for less than $100 and this would allow you to use your U.S. GSM service along with a foreign sim card in the same phone. We purchased a Blu 5.5” phone for about $80 several years ago and it still provides good service while overseas. We use a OneSimCard chip in the phone and can leave it for months without using it at no additional cost. We do have to use the phone once every six months to prevent losing loaded credits.

If you use one of the popular discount service providers (i.e. Citizen, Straight Talk, Metro PCS) or use a prepaid phone plan, you really need to look into you options for using these services for international roaming. With a majority of these, international service is just not available. Often when they advertise international calling it is only referring to calling from inside the United States.

International Cell Service Providers

International cut rate cell service providers are also an option. They all work on GSM phones and most provide plans that don’t expire and only charge for actual usage*. Some of the providers are World Travel Sim Card, Mobal, OneSimCard, National Geographic Travel Cellular and Cellular Abroad. While all advertise free incoming calls in a large number of countries, they all require the person calling you to call you on a foreign registered phone number. This shifts the cost to the person calling you. We have used One Sim Card service for a number of years and they offer the option of opting for a U.S. based second phone number ($10 year) and than your account is charged, usually about 20¢ a minute for incoming calls. (See our article on our Asia trip for a review on this service as well as using Verizon.)

Most of these services use VOIP (Voice Over Internet) to place calls. Often this process requires a two step method of placing a call. You call and it hangs up and reconnects when it has connected to the called number. Apps for smart phones often simplify these steps.

World Travel Sim Card. They supply a sim card for $10 that allows Voice, Text and Data service with airtime credit that never expire. Includes a U.K. number and extra U.S. number and works in the USA and in over 200 countries. Voice rates start at $0.25 per min and Text rates start at $0.19 each with data rates that start at 10c per MB

One Sim Card Service. Service similar to World Travel Sim Card. It offers a sim card package for $40 that includes $10 worth of service. You can travel internationally on their pre-paid service with charges as little as 20¢ a minute outbound calling.

National Geographic Travel Cellular. This is also a similar service but the provider is actually Cellular Abroad Service which offers their own plans as well.

All of these services offer toll free support along with packages of additional services.

T-Mobile service may be the one U.S. provider with the best international roaming service. This is probably because of T-Mobile’s international roots and the structure of their network. If you are a T-Mobile customer (check your plan) you can use your phone in a large number of countries at no additional cost for text and data. Phone calls average about 24¢ a minute and they have an additional voice discount option.

U.S. Provider International Cellular Rates

As of Early 2018

AT&T and Verizon offer a service where each day of international travel costs $10 (24 hours) from first use. Data, text and calls are used against your monthly service plan. The down side of this service is a two-week trip would cost an $140 for full usage.

Verizon has a 30 day plan that works in 140 countries for $40 for 100 minutes talk and 100 outbound text messages. Incoming text is free.

T-Mobile has some of the best international roaming services. One plan allows you to use text and data internationally at no extra cost with most calls billed at 25¢ max per minute.

Sprint also has a plan that allows you to use text and data internationally at no extra cost with most calls billed at 20¢ per minute. They also offer new discounted international roaming with Canada & Mexico at $2/day or $10/week and most other countries at $5/day or $25/week.

Coming Soon – Updated and New articles on:

Travel Electronics (Update September 2018)

What We Travel With

Technology changes rapidly and services that worked well or were inexpensive yesterday may not be available or work the same way today.

Our travel electronics collection now includes a couple of small Macintosh Air laptops, an iPad, an Android tablet, two iPhones and a Blu phone, a compact digital camera and a waterproof digital camera (both Nikon).

This sounds like a lot but it all takes up about a half cubic foot of space and weighs less than 6 or 7 pounds.

Entertainment

While traveling we often find ourselves in media and internet impoverished areas but I will admit it gets better all the time*. We use two primary approaches as we travel. I download shows in my tablet mostly with Google Play or Netflix (many free) and I convert from our movie collection to MP4 and load a travel hard drive. One thing we have found essential is a small plug-in battery operated speaker. The current one is 2”x2”x1.5” and produces great sound (EWA Soundelf $10). Comes in handy when watching shows in bed in the evening on a laptop. We both have tablets and between us we carry a few dozen books in various apps (mostly Amazon and Google books [their apps] and B&N Nook). We do not use Apple Books as they are too difficult to share or use on non-Apple devices.

Computers

Most everyone these days are addicted to the internet and people find it strange when we try and prepare for long stretches not having internet. I have been in a couple of discussions with computer companies about back-up system software in case of an emergency (no longer are CD drives included). Apple once agreed and sold me a system on a thumb drive – just in case. Six months later I needed it and it would not load without being able to confirm the purchase on the internet!! Now falling back on a second device is always part of our plan. I carry a travel hard drive (about the size of a cell phone) with 2 Tb of storage and back up data only from both laptops to partitions on the drive regularly. I avoid backup schemes because they can be a problem if switching laptops.

I had bragged a year ago about a Windows, 2 in 1 laptop that I thought was perfect for travel. It could be used both as a laptop and a tablet. Well it self-destructed because the onboard memory (32 Gb) was taken over by Microsoft upgrades, ran out of room and stopped working because there wasn’t a complete operating system. I had installed a 132 Gb SD card to provide enough storage but MS wouldn’t allow their system to load to the SD card. My son is a computer engineer and programmer and has been unable to revive this device. Please avoid those minimum dive space laptops – there is no way to add a drive…

Cell Service

As mentioned in previous posts we have used Verizon as our primary cell service but we have given up after numerous international travel problems. I can’t even count the number of places we have been where service wasn’t available. The one thing we discovered was that most of the Americans that seemed to be using their cell phones when we couldn’t were T-Mobile customers. Verizon has sold us international phones that wouldn’t even work in London (actually almost everywhere and the battery would die because it never stopped searching for service). Our Verizon iPhones stopped a few years ago because there was a change in GSM services (we had to upgrade phones).

We now have two newer iPhones on T-Mobile and have three trips between now and December (two cruises and an extended Europe) and will let you know what happens. I still keep my Blu phone on OneSimCard service.

Cruising and Text Messaging

One issue we discover last April with a trans-Atlantic cruise involved texting onboard using iPhones and iMessage. Because of the cost of placing phone calls at see our preferred method of contact is texting. We have several family members that also use iPhones and texting with them completely failed. It seems that iMessage uses cellular data exclusively to send and receive messages and generally cellular service on ship is very expensive and data doesn’t work at all – so no texting.

The answer is to turn iMessage off and make sure SMS is active (also I would recommend turning MMS off as big photos and videos will get costly). This will solve most issues but there can be some problems if the person ashore is an iPhone user with iMessage turned on. If you believe this is causing a problem the other person must also turn iMessage off to exchange text with you.

We are always looking for tips on travel electronics and are looking into Movavi software for downloading video after another blog suggested it. Any ideas or tricks? Please let us know.

The State Department Has Some Advice For You

DC Snow

Extra Protection While Traveling

The United States State Department has a program to help you while you travel internationally. Travelers are urged to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive security messages and make it easier to locate you in an emergency. The State Department uses security messages to convey information to you about terrorist threats, security incidents, planned demonstrations, along with information about natural disasters.

Enrollment is free and it creates an account that includes your contact information along with how to get in touch with your emergency contacts should something happen. You use the account online to update your travel information before and while you travel, which is automatically transferred to embassies and consulates near your travel locations.

Sometimes having Big Brother watch you might be a good thing…

Travel, Credit Cards & Identity Theft

Credit Cards for International Travel

These are interesting times we live in when it comes to financially protecting ourselves. Just the simple pastimes of shopping and travel can expose us to financial fraud and it does seem to be getting worse. A couple of years ago our son and a friend where cruising with is and the ship stopped in Mexico. On the pier they took advantage of  telephones advertising ten minute calls to the U.S. for $5. When they got home they were each notified that they had gone on a shopping spree in Romania and when  the charges for the phone came thru they were for over $30 instead of the advertised $5.

Over the years we have been notified a number of times about unauthorized use of our credit cards along with one an incident of identity theft. Once someone bought gold coins online shortly after we left the country (several days before that a rental car agent had everything needed, the card information, a copy of my drivers license and she knew we were leaving the country – maybe??). Another time we were notified that we had purchased several bicycles in Rome while we were traveling in Europe (I think that information was supplied from checking into a hotel in Italy). Another time someone bought a batch of train tickets in Germany shortly after we booked a hotel in Europe thru booking.com. The one case of real of identity theft was quickly caught by our identity theft protection service. Fortunately most credit card companies do not hold you libel for unauthorized charges.

Even considering the above, with the wide international acceptance of credit cards there is no reason to not make them your primary resource for paying while you travel. Often it can save you money  over making several currency exchanges. One important thing to understand is that the best card for your everyday needs at home may not be the best card for international travel. You need to shop wisely.

For years our preferred domestic card has been the Discover Card because of its points program. It also advertises that they don’t charge international processing fees, which made it seem a good choice for traveling. Unfortunately this card doesn’t often work internationally. We’ve had repeated conversations with customer service and while they claim that it is accepted anywhere that takes the Diners Club Card we’ve learned that this is far from true. Its been rejected at so many shops and restaurants that we don’t even ask any more. We have used it while traveling but only when dealing with large corporations like hotels and airlines.

We have also experienced frequent problems trying to use the American Express Card. It seems that there are whole regions where businesses won’t accept it. On a recent trip to Barbados we couldn’t find anyone that would take American Express. We also had them shut down our card while overseas even though we told them we would be traveling and I still can’t believe why that happened.

The good news is that Visa and Mastercard are accepted almost everywhere, which makes either one a good choice for the American traveler. There are some additional considerations in choosing a credit card for international travel.

  • Wide Acceptance – As already mentioned some cards can be a problem internationally and our experience is that you cannot trust their claims. At this time the only two cards available in America we will use is Visa and Mastercard.
  • Transaction Fees – Early on we learned that international transaction fees could add up quickly and you should select a card that doesn’t charge these fees. Of course there are exchange rates but you will pay those regardless of what card or exchange service you use.
  • Travel, Credit Cards & Purchase Protection – The best example of this feature is insurance protection if you use a card to rent a car. All cards have a catalog of these benefits from extended merchandise warranty to travel life insurance and some cards can better than others.
  • Earned Points and Rewards – This is a common feature of most cards today and are an important benefit for us. At home we select a card for payment that provides the greatest number of points for each use but internationally there are different priorities.
  • Security Policies –Fortunately the transition of most cards to imbedded chips has greatly improved security but there are still potential problems. Just to be safe we set up all our cards with notifications on all internet and phone charges. If possible we also prefer that notifications come by text message because often data isn’t available or affordable while traveling. We also notify the card companies of our travel plans but lately that doesn’t seem to be necessary –because of the chip  most aren’t interested.

Identity Protection

A number of years ago we weren’t concerned about identity theft – just didn’t think it was a high-risk problem. Over the past five or six years we have been victims more than once and now believe the protection is well worth the expense. Each recent attack was caught by our ID theft service quickly but we also take some additional steps to protect us.

We have used a couple of different services and our experience is they are very similar. We were however with Equifax and overseas when their data breach occurred and trying to deal with them was not a pleasant experience*.

For a good review on these services check out this article on  Reviews.com.

I think one of the best things we do to protect ourselves is to freeze our credit reports on a regular basis. All three agencies allow for you to do this and some identity theft protection services make this an easy process. while reporting agencies claim that you have to have a suspicion of a problem to use this service nobody will challenge you about doing this. The result is someone else cannot successfully apply for a card or loan in your name if you credit report is frozen.

Your credit report contains information about your payment history that all creditors and lenders use to make credit decisions about issuing you credit. When you freeze your credit report, creditors and lenders can’t pull your credit report or credit score**. Since most banks require a credit check, an application for credit would likely be denied. You can freeze your credit report at all three major credit bureaus, but it must usually be done individually.

To freeze your report go online to Equifax, or call 1-800-349-9960.

To freeze your report go online to Experian, or call 1-888-397-3742.

To freeze your report go online to TransUnion, or call 1-888-909-8872.

Also these freezes automatically expire after 90 days so it must be repeated. One additional advantage is the warnings that you get from your ID theft company will greatly diminish.

*Equifax’s web site wasn’t functioning and if we got a call thru to their switchboard  we spent almost an hour before giving up. We did send emails but they were never answered.

** This does work as I went to apply for a credit card that offered additional travel benefits and was turned down. They did send an email telling me my credit was frozen and if I would remove the freeze they would process the application again.