My wife and I (both mid 50s) took our first cruise of any kind on board Avalon's MS Tranquility. We took the Blue Danube Discovery cruise that began in Budapest and ended in Prague. Globus, Avalon's parent company, wanted to route our air travel through Frankfurt but we did some advance research and found that we could get direct flights from NY JFK to Budapest and return direct from Prague to JFK. We asked our travel agent to see if Globus would honor the online price (they did) and we flew non-stop both ways.
An Avalon representative met us in Budapest as we exited customs. As soon as the other 5 couples that were on our flight arrived we walked a short distance to the next terminal where we waited about 30 minutes for passengers arriving from Frankfurt. A brief bus ride transported us to the InterContinental Hotel in Budapest where check-in could not have been better. We arrived with about 15-20 couples but were in our room in less than 10 minutes. The process was very well organized. The luggage was delivered to the room about 30 minutes later.
Service at the InterContinenal was absolutely first rate and every hotel employee that we encountered spoke perfect English. Prior to arrival we arranged for a room upgrade so that we would have a view of Castle Hill, the Chain Bridge and Fisherman's Bastion. It was well worth the money. The view from our 5th floor, Danube facing room was spectacular. The hotel had a wonderful buffet breakfast each morning and we never left the hotel hungry. All of the staff we met seemed more than happy to take care of any need we had. The room was made up early unless we put up a do not disturb sign in which case we were not disturbed. Twice we left a tip for the cleaning staff where it would be very obvious that it was a tip and not just money we left out. Both times the money was still there after the room had been made up. We left an extra large tip the last day when it would be very obvious that the room had been vacated. The location of the hotel was perfect and very easy walking distance to a number of Budapest's best sights. The restaurant and sidewalk café offered good food. We felt the prices were a bit on the high side but not outrageous. The pedestrian walkway adjacent to the café made people watching a fun way to enjoy our meal and linger. We were never rushed as would happen in most American restaurants.
One day we inquired about getting out to the Statue Park, which is outside the city, and the front desk quickly arranged a cab to take us out there and then wait for an hour while we toured the site before bring us back to the hotel. The cost was very reasonable. Our experience with the Budapest InterContinental was enjoyable and we would certainly recommend this hotel to friends visiting Budapest.
On Sunday we transferred to the MS Tranquility. Again, this was a smooth, effortless transition. We left our bags outside of our hotel room before we left for breakfast and they were gone when we got back. Our bags were waiting for us in our cabin when we arrived as they had been transferred before we left the hotel. Avalon had four large motor coaches that delivered approximately 150 travelers to the Tranquility's doorstep and we were checked in as fast as they could say, "Good afternoon, welcome to the Tranquility, may I have your passport please". We had about 30 couples in front of us but it took no more than 15 minutes for us to arrive at our room where our bags were waiting for us. Also in our room were two bottles of wines local to the regions we would be visiting, a present from our travel agents Betty and Bill Houston of Cardinal Tours who took care of all our arrangements.
The ship itself is long and narrow; it has to be to fit in the locks on the river. Despite its dimensions we never felt closed in, the builders made very good use of mirrors, polished metal and windows. I am 6 foot 3 inches tall and had about 3 inches of head clearance so if you are much taller than this you might find the ceilings uncomfortably close. Everything was immaculate and the crew was always working to keep it that way. Being a river boat it was very stable and there was no real sensation of movement. If you are prone to seasickness, this is the way to travel. There is absolutely no engine noise or exhaust and our cabin was very near the back of the ship.
Our cabin (#331) was well laid out and comfortable. The beds are high enough so that once we unpacked we simply slid our bags under the bed and didn't think about them again until it was time to disembark one week later. There was ample closet and drawer space (and hangers!) for everything we brought and then some. A safe was provided in our room so we could lock up valuables and retrieve them quickly as needed. All cabins on the top two decks had French balconies which are basically floor to ceiling sliding glass doors with a railing on the outside high enough to make sure you stayed on board. You could open them for air and many times we would lean on the railing just watching the scenery go by. The minimum upgrade that all passengers should consider is to a room with a French balcony, we felt it was worth the money. The room had wireless Internet access available at various rates. We chose €15 for a cumulative 24 hour period. The connection was slow but we were easily able to keep in touch with our kids via e-mail and still had about 12 hours left on the clock when the 7 day cruise ended. This was a bargain and spared us from having to search for Internet cafes to send e-mail or wait for one of the two shipboard computers to become available. The last day of cruising was on a section of the river with many low bridges so the Sky Deck was closed. It was a beautiful day so it would have been nice to sit outside but some things cannot be avoided.
Cruising on the Tranquility was a very relaxing and laid back experience. There were no "formal nights" unless you want to call the next to last night formal when the Captain greeted each of the passengers as we arrived for dinner. On that night many men (but not all) wore jackets and ties (or a turtle neck) and the ladies wore dresses of various styles and lengths but this was certainly not required. At breakfast and lunch you could see people dressed in all manner of attire based on where they were heading off to or in the case of lunch, where they returned from. At dinner most people dressed in what could be called business casual; men in open necked shirts and dress pants or Dockers. Women dressed equally casually.
What can I say about our fellow travelers? Let me start by saying that they were a very friendly bunch. By my estimates the passengers seemed to be approximately 60% from the USA, 30% from Australia and New Zealand and the remaining 10% were from Canada and various locations around the British Isles. At age 55 and 56 respectively my wife and I felt we were the youngest couple on board as most other couples seemed to be in their 60s, 70s or beyond. That is not to say we were the youngest passengers on board, we were not. There were a number of people traveling with a parent so there were a group that were anywhere from their late 20s to 50s traveling that way. I don't believe any passenger was less than 25 years of age. What I found amazing was that age was no barrier; everyone of every age mixed with others of every other age group. River cruising may just attract a type of person who can easily mix with other people who may not be a cookie cutter copy of themselves - very refreshing.
Seating at all meals is open; you sit where you want, with whomever you want. We found that for many meals we ate with two other couples we quickly became friends with and with whoever joined us at the remaining seats. Since there is only one seating for dinner I had fully expected people lining up in advance and dashing to favorite tables that they would then reserve. It didn't happen that way. Andrzej would make an announcement that the dining room was open and people would start to wander in; some from their rooms, some from the lounge and others from the sky deck or other common areas. If there were open seats at a table people would ask if they could sit there and invariably they made good dining companions. There were times we arrived a little late and didn't get a seat with our normal tablemates and we enjoyed eating and chatting with the new people this gave us an opportunity to meet. The food was well prepared and great attention was given to presentation. I would have preferred to see more steaks on the menu but that's me. I didn't hear anyone complain about food. Desserts were varied and excellent. If you didn't find something it is probably because you were too full from dinner to really want anything. Unlimited local wine was available with dinner, at no charge. This gave us an opportunity to sample local wines risk free. If you don't like the white simply ask for a glass of the red.
Avalon did a fantastic job of excursions. An each stop (I hate to call places with a population of 500 or so ports) there was an included excursion. Typically there were 3 or 4 different groups all leaving at the same time with a guide dedicated to that group and controlled by color coded tags on the bus and the cards the guides would hold aloft. Although I heard on one or two occasions that some people were dissatisfied with their guide every guide my wife and I encountered was knowledgeable, friendly, very well versed in English and extremely open to questions. Avalon uses radio like devices that each passenger wore around his/her neck or stuck into a pocket. We were issued little headphones in our cabin upon arrival and each day we would take them with us as we headed to the bus and Andrzej would hand us the appropriately colored receiver for our group. You could be in a small area with 4 Avalon guides talking and you would only hear the one talking to your group. The units worked well and allowed each passenger to adjust the volume level to meet his/her needs. Some of the passengers on our cruise had mobility issues and in some places a special bus was provided so they could join us in town for the walking part of the tour.
In addition to the included excursions, there were additional excursions available at some stops for a modest additional cost. The quality of these varied although the quality of the guides did not; they were all up to the same high standards that the included excursion guides demonstrated. At most stops the free excursions would have been enough with an occasional added cost excursion to fit a particular need. The optional Nuremburg excursion was not worth the time or cost to me although my wife, who is not as much of a history buff as I am, and therefore not as well versed on WWII thought the Nuremberg excursion was very informative and she did think it was worthwhile. I enjoyed the all day excursion to Salzburg but my wife was disappointed. The weather wasn't great and that reduced our enjoyment to some extent because of the obscured views along the way. We both agreed that the Schonbrunn Palace excursion was informative and we would both do that one again.
All of the crewmembers that a passenger would normally come in contact with spoke English; were always smiling and willing to address any little issue that may have come up. To be honest, this is what I expected on a cruise like this. What I did not expect was to find a very similar attitude by members of the crew the passengers normally never get to see, namely deck hands or engineers. Very early one morning I was up on the sheltered portion of the Sapphire deck when we were entering a lock. One of the deck crew who are normally out of sight appeared on deck next to me and quickly climbed down a ladder to a portion of the foredeck filled with line handling equipment that is clearly off limits to the passengers for safety sake but is within very comfortable conversation distance. Not knowing if he spoke English and being on board a German flagged vessel I gave him a "Gutten morgen, wie geht es dir?" (good morning, how are you) to which he promptly replied, in English, good morning sir, I'm fine, how are you? During a lull in the action I asked him a technical question about the winches (I spent 4 years as an engineer in the US Navy) and he happily answered it. This quickly evolved into a 30-35 minute conversation about all things nautical, including home (something near and dear to any seaman's heart). I learned more about the intricacies of maneuvering, shore leave, crew living conditions and Avalon's treatment of crew (he had very sincere admiration for the company and his fellow crewmembers). Most if not all of the crew you meet on a ship are there in a capacity where they are expected to come into contact with passengers and therefore are screened (I assume) for their ability to interact in a way that will leave the passenger with a pleasant memory of the exchange. Engineers and deck crew rarely come in contact with passengers and I found it particularly telling that even a man who for the most part is expected to be invisible to the passengers went above and beyond what would normally be expected. Learning about his family, working conditions (very good in his opinion) and how he spends his off time was something I will remember. Avalon can be proud that the Tranquility crew, at all levels, is not only professional but also friendly. It is just one more reason why I would consider sailing with Avalon again in the future.
Finally, and I saved the best for last; it would be difficult indeed to say enough good things about our cruise director, Andrzej. He was always available, had every situation under control and generally made sure everyone had a great time. He has a great sense of humor and was very approachable. Andrzej spoke a number of languages and communicated well with everyone, those onboard as well as those ashore. The cruise director can make or break a cruise because they are responsible for making sure everyone (passengers, buses, drivers and guides) are all where they need to be when they need to be there. He lines up guest speakers on board, for example on our cruise we had a wine tasting with someone who owns a vineyard in the Wachau Valley. We also had a talk by a gentleman who explained the extensive lock system used on the Danube that allows ships like the Tranquility to sail where previously a ship this size could not go. Andrzej did it all and did it with style.
The final leg of our trip was overland to Prague where we spent our last several days. Prague is a city that I've visited in the past and liked and this trip just reinforced that impression. We stayed at the Prague Hilton and just as in Budapest, check in was extremely well organized and was as painless as anyone can make it when 150 guests all show up at the door at the same time. One word about eating at this hotel, it is very expensive. A simple hamburger with fries, a club sandwich and two tiny .2 liter Cokes (in glass bottles) came to $50 USD, not counting tip. This seemed excessive to me. The hotel is huge but impressive (at least from the inside) to look at. An enormous atrium is the focus of the interior and more than a few people were taking photos of the inside of the hotel, yes, it is that beautiful. The staff all spoke English and we encountered no problems. The concierge was always available and always able to get us what we needed. They maintain a fleet of Skoda Superbs that are ready on a moments notice to whisk you to any part of the city you needed to go to, albeit at a cost. I do not trust Prague taxi drivers so it was worth it to me to spend the extra few dollars to have reliable transportation. The Prague Hilton is within walking distance of Old Town (20 minutes or so) and after our first evening we did not hire a car, we walked everywhere we wanted to go. There are a number of very good restaurants within walking distance of the hotel; the Imperial Café and Hybernia Restaurant both have great food and service at a very reasonable price.
While in Prague, I would suggest that instead of taking the "Secrets of Prague" optional excursion you try and find a guide that will walk you through the Old Town. The "Secrets of Prague" tour spent much of the time on the other side of the river and although it is interesting, most people would enjoy a walking tour of the Old Town more.
Check out and transfer to the airport was painless. On the morning of our departure we left our luggage outside of our door before we left for breakfast. After breakfast we headed to the lobby and after identifying our luggage and seeing it loaded into the cargo section we boarded the bus for the trip to the airport.
My overall opinion of this cruise can be summed up like this. When I got home I tried to think of things that I would improve and came up with nothing. The ship and crew were all top notch. There was ample time to just relax and enjoy the never ending and always changing scenery. The hotels on both ends left nothing to be desired. The ports were varied and interesting and the guides knowledgeable. Our fellow passengers were a delight to be with. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.