Just Thinking Outloud: Public Transportation

With record snowfall in Boston, we expect to have public transit bail us out when driving and parking in the city gets challenging, but the MBTA's performance got me thinking about other transit systems around the world and why some of them do it better.

We've recently had record snowfall in Boston, over 8 feet have fallen in January and February. It appears we've absconded with all of the snow meant for Alaska and the Northwest this winter. And our public transit system has ground to a halt at times. 

Sure record snowfall creates sown unique challenges for any public transit system, but Switzerland gets snow and yet their public transit system runs like a fine Swiss watch (that is a hackneyed cliche, and yet, somehow, it works there)  I do not pretend to know the first thing about public transportation systems, but this got me thinking about all the places I've been, and wondering why some in places the public transit works beautifully, while in others, it works so poorly? 

In greater Boston, people love to complain about the MBTA (Mass Bay Transit Authority). They complain about rude behavior on the trains, the condition of the stations and the trains, as well as the schedules and on time performance.  And I have experienced all of these things using the MBTA. But my experience in other places is often quite different. 

The MBTA recently ran an ad campaign to encourage less boorish behavior of passengers. While traveling in Paris once when I was 6 months pregnant during the busy commuter times, not only was a seat made available on the Metro when I boarded, but the sea of humanity literally parted, and I was passed along hand to hand by the other mothers to it.  The only thing missing was the heavenly choir sound and down light shining on the seat.  I had never been treated so respectfully, pregnant or otherwise since.  

In Boston trains and stations are not particularly well maintained or clean, and I always attributed this to the fact the our system is one of the oldest in the world. But then I spent a weekend riding a system built 5 years earlier than the MBTA - in Budapest. The Budapest Metro was scrupulously clean, efficient, easy to use, even in a country where the language is notoriously hard to master. 

The Budapest Metro was built in 1896, more than 125 years later, it's still beautifully maintained, clean and easy to use.

The Budapest Metro was built in 1896, more than 125 years later, it's still beautifully maintained, clean and easy to use.

We took a trip to Washington DC with 2 small children, and were able to safely and easily hop off the plane with our roller bags, and surface at our hotel a 1/2 hour later. I wouldn't dare try to take the train to Logan airport from my own neighborhood, where the local newspaper recently named the line closest to my home the worst performer in the system. I'd be panicked I'd miss the flight!

After growing up in Boston where the stations are hard to find and navigate, it was a big surprise to arrive in our nations's capital and get around so easily on the Washington Metro.

After growing up in Boston where the stations are hard to find and navigate, it was a big surprise to arrive in our nations's capital and get around so easily on the Washington Metro.

Maybe the system in each place takes on the character of its location; in Paris the Metro is elegantly designed,  in Budapest it's clean and efficient, in Washington DC, a city filled with International guests and ambassadors, it's simple to use. Maybe in Boston our transit system has taken on the characteristics of Bostonians, we love to have something to complain about! For a long time, the Red Sox filled that need, (and still do every other year it seems) and the weather often does (especially this year!) so maybe we need a creaky, outdated, inefficient transit system to give us something to complain about!  
 

Boston has recently thrown its hat into the ring as a contender for the 2024 Olympics and the transit system is one of the areas that would have to improve. Many Bostonians are skeptical about running a a successful Olympics here and if you dig, even a little, it turns out most of the concern is about traffic and public transit woes. This winter only reinforced that! 
 

A ride on the Green Line in Boston.

A ride on the Green Line in Boston.

So with all the recent news about our transit woes in Boston I've been thinking hard about what makes some public transit systems great and why some fail to meet standards. And I've concluded (without any actual research, mind you) that public transit generally works well in places where everyone, from all walks of life, uses it. Maybe as the system gets worse, people of means decide to drive their own cars and pay for parking, and without those folks using the system, the public transit systems become the domain of the poorest, most powerless  people in a community, and they have no voice to make it better. As they say the "squeaky wheel get the grease" and clearly if you've ridden the MBTA, you know they have lots of real squeaky wheels, (it's ear splitting at times standing near the tracks!) but maybe not enough people invested in agitating about better service and proper investment. When people from every walk of life use a public transit system there are stake holders in every corner, some very powerful people, and they make their voices heard, so that pressure helps direct attention to the system and demands it be more efficient.  

Understandably, it's much easier to make an efficient national public transit system in a country the size of Hungary than a country the size of the US, but the city systems are pretty equitably sized and populated.  Also, I will grant that some totalitarian regimes have an advantage of unilaterally deciding where to invest resources, but it seems that most places where the trains run on time, everyone uses them, and where they don't, they are largely utilized by the people with few other choices. I can't even say which comes first, the system is poorly run, so people flee it, or it's inefficient so only people who have no choice, use it, it's probably some combination of both. All I know for sure is that I notice when traveling to other places where I can easily use the transit system, even as a guest who doesn't speak the language,  I find myself marveling "wow, I wish we had something like this in Boston!" 

Why Bother With a Local Guide?

Our recent trip to Eastern and Central Europe had me thinking about the advantages of spending money on local guides during our travels.

It seems when we are trying to travel on a budget (and aren't most of us!) we look for ways to economize. In general when Jeff and I travel we prefer small groups or traveling independently. One of the things we won't economize on is good local (and often private) guiding in the destinations where we travel.  One of the things we've learned over the years is that a good local guide is invaluable and usually worth every penny.

Here is why:

1) Some places are not easy to navigate on your own; the language is unfamiliar and it could be easy to get lost in areas that may not be safe for tourists.  Having a local guide ensured we could see the places we wanted to and stay safe while we did it.  This was the case for us in Ecuador at the tourist craft market in Otavalo.  There is great market for the locals just  a few blocks away from the tourist markets.  Our guide offered to take us there.  Unfortunately, when we visited, there were also a couple of never do wells looking for tourists wandering in that area. We were cased for a moment by a pair of them who noticed us, they reversed direction and started following us.  It only took a meaningful look from our guide, Robbie, for them to move on.

With our local guide in Otavalo, we were able to go to the local market safely

With our local guide in Otavalo, we were able to go to the local market safely

Having a local guide helps you stay safely on the tourist path, but also allows you to get OFF the tourist path safely.  If you want to venture into a place where locals live and work and stay safe and have someone who can ease the transition between local and tourist, a local guide can do that.

We had this experience in Istanbul...we were able to stroll in a residential neighborhood and witness an impromptu market for sheep being sold for a national holiday.  Without our guide, we might not have felt safe in the neighborhood, and with our guide, we had the opportunity to take photos of this market because he could ask the people there if taking photographs would be ok.

Impromptu sheep market in Istanbul

Impromptu sheep market in Istanbul

2) Even in places that are "easy" to see and tour on your own, having a local guide adds context to what you are seeing...this was especially important on our most recent trip because so much of the history was recent history and we were touring with people who actually LIVED it. Hearing their thoughts and opinions created a far richer experience than just wandering around and reading about it out of a guide book.

An example of this was our local guide Magdi Pelech in Budapest. One of our interests was learning about life in a communist country, and Magdi had lived in Hungary through the 70's and 80's.  She had stories to share that made the seeing the "sights" far richer than if we had just been touring around using our guide book.  The picture below is what you would see if you visit the Rock Church on Gellert Hill. When we toured with Magdi, we learned that she never knew this church existed! During the Communist regime, the cross was removed, the monks were forced to leave and the entrance was cemented over (you can still see some of the cement around the entrance today) While most of us knew that religion was suppressed as part of communism, hearing about how easily it was literally erased from the consciousness of a local person was very interesting to learn!

Rock Church in Budapest

Rock Church in Budapest

3) We are not retired, time is precious, and we have little time to "get lost" and miss hours of sight seeing time.  Losing oneself in a place is a luxury professional travel writers may have and write poetically about in glossy travel magazines (while someone else is paying for their time and travel!) Most of us are on a shorter holiday with little time to spare.  It's fun for most of us to stumble onto a market or celebration and change touring plans (this happens to us all the time!) but time spent arguing over a transit map, or going in circles for an hour is not the same as whiling away an hour in a cafe, or ditching a tourist site to watch a festival parade.  I like to have a local guide who can maximize our touring time, including finding the perfect place to while away an hour with coffee!

Turkish coffee and tea

Turkish coffee and tea

4) If you want to participate in something unusual (like that festival parade!) or avoid a traffic jam up (due to a strike for instance), or avoid traveling to a closed-for-renovation museum, a local guide is your best bet. They know what is on, what to avoid and how to maximize the tour to your time and interests. For instance, Magdi knew there was a large horse race going on in the City Park on Sunday. While it might have been interesting, it would have impacted our ability to see the other sights in the City Park that day. By going the next day, we avoided the crowds and closures due to the local event. Or if we had decided to go to the local event, having a private guide would allow us to change our itinerary to accommodate that!

5) A local private guide can tailor your tour to your interests and to your pacing in a way that a group tour can't.  Jeff and I like to cover a lot ground, so we like to work with a private guide and not be beholden to bathroom breaks or bus loading for 20 or 50 people. Being a photographer, Jeff often looks for a guide too come out early or stay late when the light is good. If he wants to stop for a longer time to get a shot, the guide is happy to indulge us and we aren't holding up the group. This happened in Istanbul when Jeff wanted to get a shot of the sun setting over the Old Town from the Asian side, we arranged for our guide to stay out late with us to get his shot.

Sun sets on the Suleymaniye Mosque

Sun sets on the Suleymaniye Mosque

A good guide will also pace your tour for your group. When my sister in law needed a little break to sit in Budapest, Magdi would provide a safe, comfortable location to rest for a bit or for her to wait while the other 3 of us moved on to saw another sight nearby and then return for her later.

Taking a much needed break after a long touring day with Magdi Pelech in Budapest

Taking a much needed break after a long touring day with Magdi Pelech in Budapest

6) A certified guide often has professional credentials that allow them to skip the lines or use a special guiding entrance with their clients. We had several instances where our private local guides flashed their credential and went to the head of the line while other tourists had to wait.  It may not feel "fair" to our US sensibilities, but I feel like you do business as business is done in the places where I visit, and in many places having a credentialed guide saved us lots of time in lines!

7) Its not as much of a splurge as you think it might be!!  In many places excellent local guides can be found for $100 dollars a day or less.  In some bigger more expensive tourist areas you might pay $100 per person for a 1/2 day, but generally, it's well worth it to assure that your trip includes the the kinds of experiences you want and smooths the way to have them comfortably and safely!

 Tips for Finding Good Local Guides

Use a good destination specialist travel agent

Finding a great travel agent is whole other topic, but it's very important to find an agent who has been to the place you are going, and/or has local resources where they regularly refer clients. They also have to be willing to listen to YOU and what you want. It's not as easy to do as it seems, there are still a lot of generalist agents (whom I refer to as "let me book that for ya" travel agents- they sell what they sell, and usually only do what you could do yourself on line, and don't offer any expertise or advice about your itinerary and local guides to use.) My advice is don't book with an agent until you've had conversations about your destination with them.  If they don't know more than you can learn from a travel brochure, move on.  What you want to find is a travel agent with expertise and contacts for guiding in the destination you are visiting!  

  • Ask friends who have had great trips about their travel agent, I recommend mine (Travel Beyond) to everyone because I meet a lot of other tourists and they want to know how we managed to have the experiences we've arranged! 
  • Research the businesses of the destination experts on Trip Advisor whose advice you respect 
  • Look for Wendy Perrin's WOW list of destination specialists http://www.wendyperrin.com/wow-list/

Ask friends who have had great guides

Nothing made me happier than recommending Michael Kay's excellent Costa Rica Expeditions to friends traveling to Costa Rica for a 25th anniversary and hearing that they had an amazing al fresco surprise anniversary dinner planned for them by CRE. I knew I had had an excellent experience with them, and I knew they would have great experience too!

Read reviews and trip reports on travel review sites

Read reviews on Travel websites for your destination; take notes about guides mentioned who have consistently good reviews.

Book an Organized Small Group Tour

We've taken some smaller group tours that bundle lodging, travel and guiding.  The best of these include excellent local guiding, and the tour company does all the research to find them! Of course you still need to adapt to the needs and pace of a group, but generally, we've found that there is still a very high level of knowledge and quality in the guides.

Adventures By Disney provided excellent local guides for our small group of like minded travelers in the Galapagos and in Andean Highlands in Ecuador

Adventures By Disney provided excellent local guides for our small group of like minded travelers in the Galapagos and in Andean Highlands in Ecuador

On a really tight budget? Troll social media

There are options that may be short of being professional guides, and that's a risk- if you are paying, its always good to check that the guide has the credentials required by their destination.  Without them, you never know what you will get. But if you really can't pay for professional guiding at all you can at least have a "local" experience.

  • You can find friends of friends who live in your destination and might be willing to show you around.
  • Take advantage of "free walks" offered in some cities.
  • You can also use message boards and forums to find others traveling to the same destination on the same days to share the cost of a private local guide. It can be difficult to tailor these tours to your needs, but if there is a set itinerary and everyone agrees and pays directly to the guide, it can work well.  We made some very good real life friends when we chartered a sailboat with online "friends" we connected with on Cruise Critic.
Bonding on Calabaza in St Thomas during a squall with new friends we met "online" and shared a sailboat charter with. (I promise the sun was out for most of it!)

Bonding on Calabaza in St Thomas during a squall with new friends we met "online" and shared a sailboat charter with. (I promise the sun was out for most of it!)

I'd love to hear your ideas too!  Any tips to share for finding great guides?

"It's Not An Adventure Until Peril Is Involved"

When I travel I do a lot of research. Did I say "a lot"? I may have exaggerated, actually, I research and plan obsessively before a trip.  I usually go on the web to whatever forum has threads related to the trip I'm taking. In the case of this cruise, I spent quite a bit of time on the River Cruise Boards of Cruise Critic. I ask questions...I ask a LOT of questions. Did I say a lot? I meant I ask questions obsessively! 

One of the things I like to learn about is logistics; how to get from here to there, where to stay, what's the procedure for this or that. When I get a sense for the logistics, then I don't have to spend vacation and touring time on them, I can move through the "business of travel" (how to get to the hotel, changing money, where to buy tickets for the metro etc) and enjoy the fun of travel (sitting in a cafe with a glass of wine, biking through the streets, touring a museum) So my sources on Cruise Critic all assured me I could easily walk from the Marriott in Budapest to the dock where the AMAPrima usually docks. I took them at the their word, but apparently I didn't ask quite ENOUGH questions.  

We could see the AMAPrima from our room, it wasn't more than 1/2 mile away. Sure we had 4 bags, but they all rolled and we can manage them easily, and frankly, if we did a little work getting them there; we could use it after all the rich food we'd been enjoying in Budapest! 

So we rolled out of the Marirott with high hopes and our sights set on arriving at the river ship with little trouble, I'd done the research, I'd asked the questions, maybe I was even a little obsessive...I was confident!

 

Jeff leaving the Marriott towing our large roller bags, hopeful, confident with a big wide sidewalk to walk on, just mere steps from the Marriott to the AMAPrima! 

Jeff leaving the Marriott towing our large roller bags, hopeful, confident with a big wide sidewalk to walk on, just mere steps from the Marriott to the AMAPrima! 

Maybe we were a bit over confident, we started out on a big wide perfectly paved boulevard sidewalk, but to make it to the ship we had to cross 4 lanes of highway and tram tracks. No problem really, traffic control was good in Budapest, with pedestrian walks and lights. We found a pedestrian light and crossed over to the river. There was a sidewalk there, maybe not as wide and spacious as the boulevard sidewalk across the way, but certainly passable and we continued along past several small day cruisers.  

 

Then something happened...to channel Shel Silverstein- "Where the Sidewalk Ends".  We were faced with a chasm; a few granite cobble blocks barely wider than the lane marking stripes in the road, with traffic whizzing by just inches away with the merest of guard rails on one side and a set of steep stone stairs leading to the Danube river some 20 feet below on the other side. Imagine a tightrope walk, now imagine it with 4 roller bags, one of which contains all of Jeffs camera gear (and I'll remind you, dear reader, so you also feel the peril, that without this gear, there will be no pictures! Or maybe that's what you have been rooting for all along! ) 

We came to a dead stop "Where the Sidewalk Ends" to assess our options.

1- go back a 1/4 mile, and try to find a way on the surface streets and hope for another crossing closer to the ships dock (ding, ding ding! This was the correct answer!)

Or 

2- carefully shuttle the weighty and unstable rolling bags across the perilous tightrope of cobble stones, taking care not to let go or trip, lest both we and the bags end up in the Danube below. The only way to do this practically is to take one at a time until all four are at the other side where the side walk begins again. (This was the WRONG choice and of course the one we chose!)

 

Lest you think we exaggerate, here is "where the sidewalk ends" and our rather weighty bags wating to cross.

Lest you think we exaggerate, here is "where the sidewalk ends" and our rather weighty bags wating to cross.

Having committed to the perilous journey on uneven cobbles mere inches from either certain death by vehicular homicide or drowning, Jeff starts across with the largest and most unstable bag, (figuring heck, if it's not going to work we may as well figure it out early in the process) Amazingly, he makes it across successfully leaving the bag alone on the other side (this is a travel no no, and we worried for a moment that someone might steal it, but it was abundantly clear that absolutely no one else was foolish enough to take this route on foot, even without 4 roller bags!)

So Jeff returns, carefully picking his way back for another bag. His real worry is sitting in his carryon bag- thousands of dollars worth of camera gear that is not terribly compatible with even a slight mist, much less getting completely submerged in a foreign river and floating out to the Black Sea. (we are pretty sure this was not what AMA had in mind when they advertised the "Black Sea Voyage"!) By this time, I want to speed up the process and had decide that I could manage both carry roll aboard bags if I take one in each hand and walk across the cobble path to the other side (really, won't I just be BETTER balanced with 2 ?) 

Jeff of course is panicked, imagining me and the camera gear tumbling into the Danube (the camera gear is his biggest worry, of course; I can swim). So I start out with his camera bag in my Danube side hand and my carry on bag in the whizzing-truck-street side hand. Jeff's panic escalates, so to reassure him I do a tricky mid transverse "switch" of the bags, balancing over the Danube (thank God for yoga, this works!!) and he seems calmer with the camera gear on the street side, where it's only at risk to be smashed to bits by a passing bus.

 

 

To up the degree of difficulty, every so often one of the cobbles is just ...missing.

To up the degree of difficulty, every so often one of the cobbles is just ...missing.

Luckily, we did make it all the way across with all four bags, none of them made an "unscheduled water landing" and we found the wider side walk, and of course the much easier crossing just a few feet from the dock, where we should have gone in the first place! So if you are going on this journey and want to try walking, the advice is correct, it can be done...just don't follow us! 

Here our our bags, safely secured on the AMA ship awaiting a more relaxing journey! 

Here our our bags, safely secured on the AMA ship awaiting a more relaxing journey! 

 

We have a family travel motto, that's "it's not an adventure until peril is involved". So it's officially an adventure now!

Postcards From Budapest

Our Cruise on the AMAPrima begins with a narrated sail up and then back down the Danube.  Budapest is beautifully lit at night and seeing it from the river is beautiful! Jeffs strategy when traveling to a new place, is always get the "postcard view" first; then try to see the sight from a different perspective. We decided to share a few postcards from our evening sail along the Danube. 

Correction: Parliment Building on the Pest side

Correction: Parliment Building on the Pest side

 

Matayas Church and Fishermans Bastion

Matayas Church and Fishermans Bastion

Chain Bridge and Buda Palace

Chain Bridge and Buda Palace

Statue of Liberty 

Statue of Liberty 

 

Goodbye to the Goulash City

 

 

 

After making our way (yes, we cheated and bought the lift passes) to the St Stephen Basilica Dome, I took in the varied architecture around the city. Our guide Magdi pointed out to us on many of our walks, that the city is a mish mash of architectural styles, some Art Nouveau, next to Barouque with a Communist style concrete building squeezed between. From the top of St Stephens, this cacophony of styles is quite noticeable as are all the red roofs. I mentioned that the mixture along with the red colors reminded me of the goulash and and other local foods made with the ever-present paprika and my brother in law, N said "it's the Goulash City!"

After hoofing around the city for 2 days, it was fun to come up and have a birds eye view; indentifying landmarks and buildings we had visited.

Here is a traditional Hungarian Goulash we enjoyed at a restaurant called Pest-Buda, (Fortuna Utca 3) in Buda's Old Town on our first day in Budapest. All of the food we enjoyed that day was described as "Grandmas home style Hungarian kitchen", and all of it was orange or red! I think of warmth, when I see red and orange, like the hot paprika peppers used in the cuisine, but when I look across the city's red roofs, I also saw warmth and hospitality we experienced here. And that is the feeling I leave with after visiting this "goulash city".  A feeling of hospitable local people, laughing as we mangled their language, helping us find our way on the public transit, and especially when serving us the wonderful food and drink we enjoyed in the city.  

(And to be sure the food is not all paprika based or red! We found many wonderful restaurants and cafes representing every ethnic possibility as well as traditional food!)

 

A Monumental Day In Budapest

We had a "monumental" day in Budapest,  Hungary, we toured with Magdi Pelech, a private guide we hired to take us to see the city and Momento Park. At every turn we saw monuments. In a country that has had a long history of changes in rulers and governments, there are lots of monuments to wars, uprisings, liberations and commemorations of people who have died during the horrors of all these changes. We even saw old monuments from the communist era that have been removed and warehoused in their own park where they can be seen with a wry eye to the propaganda they represented. 

Today I'll share a few of the monuments we saw and what we were told by our guide Magdi about them. 

Liberation Monument

Liberation Monument

This is the Liberation monument on Gellert Hillin Buda; which was sculpted by Strobol and was set up to commemorate the liberation of Hungary by the Russian Army in 1945. Of course this is the same country that at the turn of the next century rejected Communism, and put the statue of a Russian soldier that was on the lower pedestal away in a separate park out of town.  If this was a Face Book relationship status it would read : "it's complicated". 

At Momento Park, Communist monuments usually depict unidentifiable "workers"; always happy and moving forward quickly. 

At Momento Park, Communist monuments usually depict unidentifiable "workers"; always happy and moving forward quickly. 

Just outside of town is Momento Park. I had read about this and had the sense it was just warehouse for all the Communist statues that were removed from around the city after the fall of Communism. But in reality, it's a very well designed park, set up to give one the feeling of the hopelessness and paranoia that exsisted  under Communist rule. The paths are infinity loops, the park ends in a brick wall, and statues are redeployed in a rueful way, such as one with Lenin, put aside, and his Communist Soldiers, who once stood guard at the base of his monument finally getting to lie down on the job. 

An old statue of Lenin and the frescos of soldiers lying down on the job.

An old statue of Lenin and the frescos of soldiers lying down on the job.

There are also monuments to terrible times before that. We stopped at the banks of the Danube on the Pest side just west of the Chain Bridge to see this heartbreaking memorial  sculpture, called the Shoes on the Danube Memorial. During Nazi rule in Hungary, Jews were made to remove their shoes and coats and stand at the rivers edge, where they were shot. It's sober and horrifying to imagine the bronze shoes lining the banks of the Danube representing real people who were killed simply because of who they were. 

A detail of the Shoes on the Danube  Memorial on the banks of the Danube

A detail of the Shoes on the Danube  Memorial on the banks of the Danube

Jumping forward to one of the newest monuments, we also saw one of the most controversial. This monument was erected by the current governing party in Hungary over the objections of many local activists and descendants of Jews killed or interned during WWII by the Nazis.  The objection to this monument, which was just installed just weeks ago, is that it claims to honor the dead, while picturing a huge eagle (a known symbol of the Nazis) and other language that activists feel does not properly respect the feelings of the people's for which it was designed to honor. Citizen activists are staging an ongoing protest of the monument, and many people have created an ad hoc memorial made up of stories and symbols of their family's real story in hopes to counter act what they see as a flawed attempt to memorialize their loved ones. 

The new memorial and the ad hoc memorial displayed by protesters near the Parliment building. 

The new memorial and the ad hoc memorial displayed by protesters near the Parliment building. 

So at the end of the day, we learned a lot about Hungary's complicated history, and even more about man's ability to brutalize eachother. Interesting and sobering at the same time, but I have a strong belief that remembering this difficult history helps us to stand firm in preventing it in the future. 

Arrival in Budapest

View from the Marriott concierge lounge towards of the Chain Bridge over the Danube and St Matthias (on Castle Hill on the Buda Side) 

View from the Marriott concierge lounge towards of the Chain Bridge over the Danube and St Matthias (on Castle Hill on the Buda Side) 

We made it to Budapest - I'll have more details on our guide and driver on my more comprehensive "after" blog, but we had arranged with our Budapest Guide Magdi Pelech to have her driver pick us up at the airport at 7:15 PM (that's 19:15 for the military types and folks in Europe!)  At 35 euros for the transfer, it's more costly than a group transfer or the local bus, but possibly less than a taxi, because you could get one that doesn't treat you right. And after a long day in the unfriendly skies, there is nothing like seeing someone waiting for you at the airport with your name on a placard! Arranging a transfer for our first night in a place is one of those splurges well worth it. 

Our trip from the airport, along the Pest side of the Danube at night was a beautiful introduction to Budapest, and we could see the river cruise ships heading out of port and doing their "drive-bys" of the monuments at night. We saw ARosa, Viking, Grand Circle River Ships, and we weren't even looking that hard! We also saw the party cruises and night site seeing cruises traveling up and down the river. One can see why the river ship lines start or end many of their cruises here, it is really lovely and scenic!

A view to Elizabeth Bridge from our room at the Marriott

A view to Elizabeth Bridge from our room at the Marriott

Our room is on the top floor concierge level (making all those stays in anonymous Residence Inns in college towns all over the New England and NY worth the effort for the free upgrade and access to the concierge lounge with included breakfast and snacks! We stopped in tonight for a late snack and a quick look at the panoramic view from the lounge. 

Tomorrow we meet Jeff's sister and BIL, K&N for a full day of touring with Magdi Pelech and the driver we met this evening! 

Pre Trip Planning and Packing 9/19/2014

Our itinerary for this trip:
We worked with Jenny Mikkelson and Kayla Torgeson at Travel Beyond in Wayzata MN to plan this trip. How, you may ask does a couple from the Boston area (and we always have been) get hooked up with a travel agency in Minnesota? Welcome to the web my friends! It's a very good question with a very long answer! Click here to see how we found Travel Beyond.

When we decided we wanted to see this area of the world, a part of Europe that is just a little harder to get around on your own than Western Europe, we knew that river or ocean cruising is a good way to see places where tourist infra structure isn't as developed, since you've got your hotel floating with you.  The convenience of not packing and unpacking every day leaves more time for enjoying your destination. While cruising usually isn't a great way to explore a place in depth, it's a great way to "sample" places and firm up plans to return to favorite places.  

After sending us a pile of brochures for various river cruises (based on Travel Beyond's knowledge of our wants and needs) we selected AMA cruise lines because of their focus on meeting the needs of more active, independent travelers. With on board bicycles, active walker, biking and gentle walker touring groups, and on board gyms, they seemed geared to meet the needs of active travelers like ourselves. All of the river cruise companies offered similar itineraries, and prices are similar with small differences in ship's age, cabin styles, food quality levels or alcohol inclusions at meals. We are brand new to river cruising, so we won't be able to compare lines, but I hope to give a comprehensive review of how we are treated on our AMA cruise. So far, service has been top notch, and as you will see below, we've been impressed with the information we have received pre trip.

Here is the map of the itinerary we will sail.

AMAPrima Black Sea Voyage Itinerary

AMAPrima Black Sea Voyage Itinerary

As you can see from the map, our trip will embark in Budapest, Hungary and travel down the lower Danube River through Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Once in Romania, we will fly to Istanbul Turkey for 4 nights.  Although the river cruise lines offer packages to include pre and post hotel stays, we decided to make our own way to Budapest and spend 3 nights there, on our own, and join AMA when the river ship embarks on Sept 23rd. 

Since we made our plans, my husband's sister and her husband (K&N) decided to join us in Budapest from their home in Great Britain. This is wonderful since we don't get to see as much of them since they moved to Europe! After our stay in Budapest, they will travel on West via train to Vienna and Prague (countries that are often included in the river cruise itineraries as pre or post stays, but we chose to save them for another trip) while we will embark the river ship and sail East! 

After we return I will include more details such as our planning process and packing lists, details about tours and guides...but for now we will try to live blog a few interesting details, thoughts or impressions along with some of Jeff's photographs. In the interest of enjoying the trip while we are on it, the daily blog may be less robust than the review after the trip, but I promise to include all the details and ephemera that I'm well known for including in other review sites! Also when we return, I'll be happy to answer questions or give advice based on our experiences, but due to limited internet access while on the trip, I may not get a chance to respond to each comment or question during the trip! (If I'm lucky enough to have any of you respond!) 

 

Pre Departure Documents we received from AMAWaterways

Pre Departure Documents

Pre Departure Documents

 Our docs from AMA came a couple of weeks ago, and I've had time to go through them completely this past weekend. 

I'm very impressed with the quality of info included in the docs; of course there is the usual vouchers, contracts, booklet  (Welcome Aboard) about what to expect on board (tips, services etc)  and luggage tags. There is also a day by day itinerary (Your Detailed Itinerarylike we've received for other high end expedition trips. I like AMA's piece because it also lists in the same doc all of the excursions available at each stop and the descriptions are very thorough including the amount of time on a bus and the amount of time walking on each tour as well as an "difficulty rating". This is succinct and allowed us to make our choices right now, so we won't need to spend time on our vacation with our noses in a book; we will know what we want to book when we board! 

The other piece included that I was impressed with is the Lower Danube Destination Guide. This is specific to the section of the river we are sailing. In addition to Km by Km maps and descriptions of the sights along the shore and brief history of each area, there is also a graphic and double pull out map with Km by Km sights and which side of the ship they are on, as well as info about which area, and country where it's located and what type of sight it is (business, bridge, ruins, nature area, etc) Near the back there are destination guides for the major embarkation and disembarkation cities. In our case, Budapest and Istanbul.

It's tiny so it could be tucked easily into a pocket or camera bag, and it's jam packed with good info. I spent easily more than 100 dollars on guide books and some of them were good...but this little book is specific to our trip, and so compact, and helpful. 

The only guide book I could find that came close to describing the trip Km by Km including the "off river" major sights we planned to tour was "The Danube A River Guide" by Rod Heikell. It was written in 1991 well before the changes and Balkan war and still references Yugoslavia. Heikell travelled down the Danube from North to South (Black Sea) on a small sail boat, shortly after the Danube became more navigable after the damming. It's no longer in print, but I bought a used copy, and found it the most useful in terms of describing what we would see along the way, even though it's dated in describing the names of the countries. 
 

Other guide books and my opinions of them: 

Rick Steves Budapest 
Rick Steves Istanbul

Both of these are useful for organizing independent or private touring. I like Rick's approach about knowing your destination, accepting the culture one is visiting cheerfully and with an open mind!  I generally don't take Rick's guides with me, though his downloadable guide could easily be toted along on a phone or tablet

DK Istanbul 
DK Budapest

I like of both of these for planning touring and to use the maps in the destination. They are richly illustrated city guides with a "just the facts, m'am" approach. But looking through the photos really helps us identify what sights and experiences we'd like to see and have. One reason I do like to bring DK guides- especially in areas where I don't speak or can't easily translate the signs, is because they have wonderful illustrations of the major sights, with inset photos or drawings and descriptions of each. These can serve as museum guides in places where you can't find an English guide, and the maps are sometimes easier to read in English than in the local language! 

We also looked through general travel guides for all the countries we plan to visit; Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, as well as some regional guides (Central Europe, Eastern Europe, etc) What we found was the areas we planned to visit on a river cruise were only mentioned in at most with a paragraph or two.  And we would have had to purchase several books to cover the area we were touring. This did not seem worth it to us. 

But the AMA provided Destination Guide is a wonderful (and easily packable) resource specific to our trip, and I'm delighted to have it! (The guide we got would also cover a cruise from Vienna to Budapest, as well as our Black Sea Budapest to Bucharest cruise) One warning: it's so tiny that I bought a magnifying bookmark to carry with it!

My one nitpick- I think it should be sent out at least 2-3 months (or in my case 6 or more months!!) before sailing rather than 4 weeks (minus shipping time to my TA, minus a day shipping time from my TA to me) In other words, it's one of the best resources about the region specific to the itinerary, and I would like to have had it much earlier to make my plans for pre and post tours as well as any private tours I might choose to do on our own. In our case, a guide we tried to hire in Budapest was booked 9 months in advance, so having a plan in place for touring several months before sailing is not unusual and my best resource for deciding what I might like to see and do where didn't arrive in my home until about a month before the trip. I understand that specific itinerary information or tickets cannot be issued much earlier, but I would like to see this general Destination Guide provided after booking rather than with the final documents. 

Packing

So before we can go anywhere, we need to pack! Jeff and I very different packing styles. I pack weeks (ok, months!) in advance; I stage clothing I'll need for the trip somewhere and shop if I need additional items. Usually about 2-4 weeks before the trip, I will have more or less everything I need set aside in the bag and ready to go! Jeff tends to pack a few days before we leave. His rule is pack with just enough time to order anything missing from Amazon with free 2 day shipping before he leaves. Two different styles; but we both usually have what we need packed in a very organized way!

Usually, we are both pretty light packers, having discovered during an Alaska trip the pitfalls of over packing (that's another long tale, which I can share one day when we aren't traveling and I haven't got anything more interesting to write about!) Oftentimes, we will simply use a carry on roller bag and I carry my favorite backpack (another topic for a slow day!) for a trip to a warm destination or one where we can reasonably expect to do laundry.

My favorite travel back pack...it was a freebie from Jeff's former employer, but its loaded with pockets!

My favorite travel back pack...it was a freebie from Jeff's former employer, but its loaded with pockets!

Jeff carries a brief case style Tenba camera bag which holds almost all of his equipment and whatever he needs on board the plane to be comfortable.  He has occasionally taken 2-3 business trips with simply the brief case bag and nothing else.

 

The Tenba bag that has worked for a 3 day business trip!!

The Tenba bag that has worked for a 3 day business trip!!

For this trip, we decided to each pack a checked bag. We are flying Istanbul Air and are allowed one checked bag each. Give the interesting markets on our itinerary in Istanbul and Budapest, we felt we did not want to be packed so tightly that we could not bring home some treasures if we find any!  Sometimes we will check just one bag for two of us, but the splurge is taking two checked bags. Since both bags roll, we are hoping we can still easily manage to walk to the ship in Budapest from our hotel. 

Kathy's carry on bag

Kathy's carry on bag

Kathy's suitcase...with the Eagle Creek cubes

Kathy's suitcase...with the Eagle Creek cubes

We recently discovered the Eagle Creek packing system.  I resisted this for years thinking I could pack much more cheaply in large plastic zip bags. I bought some cubes for our daughter to take on a two week trip to Europe and since we've started using them, we are sold on them! The plastic bags helped organize things, but they were slippery and things tended to get rounded in the middle, making them hard to stack.  The cubes work beautifully because you can layer, and with the clothing rolled, you can fit quite a bit in even the littlest cubes! Using the packing cubes is one of those tips I've read for years on Cruise Critic and just dismissed as a waste of money...until I tried it! 

...with an extra pocket left empty in case we find any treasures in the markets!

...with an extra pocket left empty in case we find any treasures in the markets!

So we are packed and ready to go! Jeff will post a little about his camera "kit" for this trip, for people interested in photography and then our next post will be from the road. We have complimentary internet at all our hotels and on the AMAPrima, so I'm hopeful we can continue adding to the blog as we travel!

Independence: no one we mention in this blog has paid or provided product or services to us to mention them (in the case of the camera gear- I wish!!) ...at this point we are completely independent, with no sponsors asking us to promote products...we buy all our own travel and stuff and our opinions are based on our own experiences.