Grand Circle Travel M/S River Rhapsody by Jeff Naumann Danube to the Black Sea September 17, 2008
This is a review of our August 28 – September 9, 2008, Grand Circle Travel (GCT) "Eastern Europe to the Black Sea” cruise/tour on the lower Danube to the Black Sea, sailing from Budapest to Constantan on the Black Sea, on GCT's M/S River Rhapsody. The trip included two days before the cruise in Budapest and two days after in Bucharest, Romania. Most of this review is about the ship, as you will spend over half the time aboard. This was our 9th cruise, including no previous river cruises and eight ocean cruises.
AIRLINES The GCT airline service was as convenient as could be expected, even though our total travel time was more than 15 hours – a 3:40 p.m. (PDT) flight from LAX to London, with a four hour layover, arriving in Budapest at 5:45 PM (Central Europe Daylight Savings Time) the following afternoon. The flight to London was on a British Airways 747 with individual TV screens in the seatbacks; the outside rows were three seats wide, and four seats wide in the center section. The continuation flight was on an Airbus. The return flights were on similar aircraft 13 hours, including the two-hour layover in. Food service was very good; and, all drinks (including beer, wine, and hard stuff) were included, and generous. BA certainly convinced us that they surpass the US counterparts airlines. Check-in at LAX was very professional, and competent (not something we’ve experienced in a few years with US carriers). And, a GCT representative was present at LAX to insure we got into the correct lines for check-in and security. We were already impressed with GCT.
PASSENGERS This line specializes in American passengers. To the best of my knowledge, all of the passengers on this cruise/tour was from the US. I only saw one young person, whom was a young women accompanying who I guessed was her grandmother. We are both 66; and, are typical in age for most of the passengers with GCT. Many were in their 70’s, and probably a few in their early 80’s. If you are looking for the swinging set, this ain’t it. However, as GCT tries to offer “discovery,” you can expect to experience things that you would NOT experience on the large ocean cruises.
SHIP CABIN There was plenty of storage space for large suitcases under the two single beds (there are no larger beds in any cabins). There were two closets about two feet wide for hanging clothes, and two sets of two drawers. However, when the bed was folded down, the two drawers were difficult to reach -- they were deep under the bed and you had to sit on the floor to reach them. The cabin's plastic keycard arrangement worked flawlessly throughout the cruise. Each cabin had its own safe for valuables.
The balcony proved to be a nice feature, even though we had not signed up for or paid additional for that option. Just the luck of the draw for late signup passengers, I guess. Unfortunately, it was not very usable in those port stops where we were tied up alongside other river ships (although we enjoyed a bit of wine there anyway. There were two small chairs on the balcony, and one chair and writing table in the cabin, with a telephone and hair dryer. One smaller round table is between the beds near the sliding glass balcony door. During the daytime, the beds were folded up against the wall and a small half-sized couch was available to sit on (but too small to lie on). After a couple of days, we learned just to open the bed up during the day, since the “couch” was pretty small and not very comfortable.
CABIN TV The TV set was small -- about 14 inches -- and located above one bed. Thus it could only be seen from the opposite couch or bed. It had six TV channels with only two in English (CNN's European edition and BBC, and several in German and other European languages. We did not spend much time watching the TV, but did do a lot of reading. Frankly, it was nice to be somewhat out of touch from what was going on in the US and rest of the world.
BATHROOM The bath was similar to those found in large ocean cruise ships, although the shower had a cloth curtain that was not the greatest for keeping the water inside of the shower area. There was one 110 volt AC receptacle in the bath, and several 220 VAC receptacles in the bedroom area. The provided hair dryer is 220 VAC.
BOARDING PASSES You must go to the front desk every time you leave the ship, and request your paper boarding passes. These are removed from your mailbox behind the counter, and you need to return them when you return, since the front desk personnel count the passes to verify everyone is back on board. They also kept passports, and took care of obtaining visas or stamps as we traveled though the various national borders. In most cases, we did not need our passports when leaving the ship.
SHIP'S LOCATION The cruise director’s office area maintained a wall map, where the approximate location of the ship was marked. Not as fancy as on a typical ocean cruise ship, but just fine.
DINING Everything is open seating - no reserved tables. Since the number of passengers was only about 120 to 140, and the number of crew was perhaps 25 to 30, we soon met lots of both. After a while, one makes good friends with those that seem to have something in common. The quality of the food was good I thought, although not always the choices that are available on a large ship. This ship seemed to have a very good pastry and bread chef.
SHIP'S LOUNGE Since we tend to be budget travelers, we not actually buy any drinks in the lounge. We did splurge for four bottles of wine in Budapest, where we discovered the $1.50 wine was just fine. The ship also uses the lounge for its daily (usually, just before dinner) “port talk” where the cruise directors explain the next day’s schedule. There was sometimes “entertainment,” but nothing like the lavish shows one sees on ocean cruise ships. Just corny stuff, but fun for most passengers. We had a local folk music group in either Croatia or Serbia, for instance.
NEWSPAPER There were several copies of a four-page newspaper, that the ship printed out each day. They were kept in the library.
TOUR ACTIVITIES All of the tours including the optional ones were very good. The trip price includes almost all of the tours, including a meal in a home in Croatia, where we were served a nice meal prepared by local families, including their home-made wine and liquors. All land transport was on very nice buses, although they never had restrooms. However, the tour guides always arranged for frequent rest stops. We had local guides in each country.
TIPPING All crew tipping ($10 U.S. per passenger per day) can be added to your cabin bill. However, for local bus and guide tipping, keep a brunch of one-dollar bills available (for a half day, one dollar per passenger for the bus driver and two for the guide; or double that for a full day). Plus you will need to tip the tour director ($5 per day per passenger) at the end of the cruise in dollars. U.S. currency was widely accepted aboard ship and by the onshore stores, cafes, etc. Of course, you can us your credit card in the stores and cafes; and local money is needed for any local transportation or services (streetcars, subways, coin-operated computers, etc.). The ship’s front desk had American dollars available for exchange for tips or using ashore.
SUMMARY It was a very interesting trip to a part of the world that I had never expected to visit. GCT often drops the price of a trip considerably as the sail date comes near. Our 13-day trip was about $2780, including airfare and all internal transfers and tours, including very nice hotels in Budapest and Bucharest. We each spent about $200 to $300 on additional meals, tips, drinks, etc. I can highly recommend the GCT experience for those that want to actually learn something about other countries and cultures. If you get your kicks from the cruise ship casino, the Las Vegas shows, air auctions, and other stuff on the typical ocean cruise, you may not like GCT tours.