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.