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 Itinerary) like 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.
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.
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.