What’s left on your Bucket List?
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In the age of steam travel, tunnelling through peaks and descending into valleys by rail became the most sumptuous way to trek across Europe. From the plush dining car of the Orient Express, travelers viewed the majesty of Europe’s countryside, satisfied in the knowledge that they alone had access to the continent’s cultural capitals. But things are changing.
Over the last five years, Europe’s meandering waterways have evolved into luxury routes. While cruising along the mighty Danube or the majestic Seine, travelers in superior vessels are given the unique opportunity to revel in the fresh air of remote valleys – only moments later ducking under the mighty bridges of Paris or Prague. Visitors who opt to float along the Rhine can ramble into quaint medieval towns – long forgotten and unreachable by rail or air. River cruises are the new way to explore Europe’s hidden gems. The splashes of exuberant opulence visitors find aboard each ship are merely an added bonus.
Avoid the circus
A lot of globetrotters are decidedly wary of the term ‘cruise ship’, and they have every right to be. The conventional ocean liner has gained a reputation as a bothersome, floating zoo, which fails to provide cultural encounters and instead distracts tourists with subpar Broadway review shows and dimly lit casinos.
Ships tie up along the chic sidewalk cafés of Paris and Budapest, maximizing sightseeing potential
Yet this does not mean the industry as a whole has nothing to offer. A cruise ship doesn’t have to be 20 times larger than Vatican City or include a minimum of eight Olympic-sized swimming pools to provide a stimulating and enjoyable holiday. In fact, intimate boutique cruise ships are slowly making a comeback, providing culturally starved travelers with the most amorous European adventures.
“If you want Vegas on the high seas, or a ramped-up romp with non-stop entertainment, a river cruise is most likely not going to be your cup of tea,” saysCruise Critic contributor John Deiner. “But if you want a relaxing holiday that lets you take in a number of destinations with a minimum of effort, you really can’t beat it.”
Since 2008, the river cruise industry has grown by 10 percent each year. According to a study by the Travel Leaders Group, European river cruises in particular have surged in popularity – and thus far are 2013’s most-booked luxury holiday.
It’s not hard to see why. Whereas the average number of passengers on a goliath North American cruise liner is 2,300, most of the ships that travel Europe’s waterways can accommodate no more than 150 guests, and often fewer. In part, this cap stems from practicality; several sections of the continent’s great rivers are treacherously narrow, so light and slender ships are required to navigate otherwise desolate waters. Yet keeping the trips relatively small also enhances the deliberately intimate nature of river cruising. On a ship of 79, travellers can get to know one another and even make new friends, if they so choose. They don’t need a GPS locater to find the dining room or reception, and a typical staff ratio of 3:1 ensures a personal relationship with the vessel’s crew.
Your floating hotel
Because the crew on river boats have fewer passengers to care for, total comfort for every guest becomes the priority. Boutique operators such as UniWorld lavish their staterooms with marble bathrooms and private French balconies. The sumptuousness of each ship’s decor is evocative of the golden age of sea travel that accompanied the Titanic to its watery grave. Original works of art hang in each room and suites are packed with products handcrafted in Provence.
Onboard chefs tailor the experience with dishes based on the vessel’s location
At APT, Concerto Class ships provide passengers with twin balconies for a private view of the passing scenery. If any guest happens to grow weary of the architecture and ancient ruins on shore, rooms come equipped with satellite television and there are several lounges and libraries. Exercise facilities and whirlpools are common on most vessels, while discreet staff offer a plethora of dining options.
Whereas chefs aboard Caribbean mega liners are known to dish out assembly-line menus for the ship’s 12 restaurants, the dining experience on board Europe’s river boats is decidedly more exclusive. A certified global master chef heads the kitchen on each UniWorld excursion, accompanied by a wine programme developed by the sommelier of the Relais and Chateaux hotel. The wines provided by operators are improved only by the fact that – unlike on most ocean liners – the all-inclusive rates on river voyages tend to include alcohol.
Onboard chefs tailor the experience with dishes based on the vessel’s location. Bratwurst and craft ales are never in short supply along the Rhine, while French classics, such as buttered escargots, are plentiful along the Seine. There is also often a chance to accompany the head chef to local produce markets. Where possible, ingredients are sourced from local growers. Passengers could hardly ask for a higher standard of European cuisine. That said, guests are by no means encouraged to stay on the ship.
Get out and explore
“I like to say ocean cruising is a drinking man’s cruise. River cruising is a thinking man’s cruise,” says Torstein Hagen, the founder and chairman of Viking River Cruises. “With river cruises, a destination is the destination.”
Many cruise operators in Europe share Hagen’s conviction and it has driven providers to dish up culturally exquisite itineraries. Most ships will dock in the centre of a towering European capital or a picture-perfect medieval village at least once every day. As with food and drink, the all-inclusive deal usually includes a tour of each destination. In Italy, for example, guests can spend an entire day in Bologna learning how to make fresh pasta in a quaint Italian kitchen. In Hungary, passengers step back in time as they’re wowed by the renowned skill of rural csikos (the country’s answer to American cowboys). With Avalon or AmaWaterways, guests are taken to one of Vienna’s revered concert halls for a night of candlelit waltzing to the timeless masterpieces of Mozart.
Even the shortest adventure will expose guests to a diverse array of alien European customs and luxuries. Those who wish to explore at their own pace will be equally engaged by the castles and amphitheatres that scatter each city. Unlike ocean liners, these vessels dock in the heart of their destination. Ships tie up along the chic sidewalk cafés of Paris and Budapest, maximising sightseeing potential. What’s more, guests aren’t stifled by the restrictive schedules ocean liners tend to impose upon their passengers. Larger destinations often merit multiple days at port, and voyagers can explore at their leisure.
For those who believe they’ve ‘been there, done that’, themed cruises make niche interests accessible. Noble Catalonia, for example, sponsors several journeys that are musically inspired. On voyages such as the ‘Magic of Mozart’, guests are taken to idyllic locations where they enjoy private chamber concertos. Avalon offers trips down the Seine based upon notable impressionist paintings, giving guests the chance to be part of the backdrops that inspired Monet. Tours informed by Europe’s longstanding horticultural specialties are also a popular choice.
For history fans, Saga organises tours focusing on the Rhine’s medieval heritage, while Avalon escorts guests around some of World War II’s most hard-fought areas of Normandy. AmaWaterways sponsors several ‘Jewish heritage’ tours down the Danube, allowing travellers to reconnect with their rich European ancestry. If you’re passionate about Europe’s gastric traditions, several operators provide river tours stopping at wineries or chocolatiers. In Portugal, guests can even live like royalty as they float along the Douro in the same prolific barge that hosted the Queen during her diamond jubilee flotilla in London.
Because there’s such a wide array of destinations and itineraries, there isn’t a right or wrong time to take a cruise through Europe. Most lines operate their standard voyages from March to November. However, the possibilities don’t end with winter’s first snow. Providers like Noble Caledonia offer tours of Europe’s renowned Christmas fairs – sprawling German markets filled with unique holiday crafts – and ships whisk guests from fair to fair, mulled wine in hand. New Year’s cruises are also gaining popularity, allowing visitors to take in the architectural majesty of Prague and Venice during the quietest parts of the year. All-inclusive cruises tend to cost between £1,500 and £5000 per person, depending upon the depth of the itinerary and the level of luxury guests seek. This price is in the same region and often less than that of an ocean cruise, but without the thick crowds and hollow pageantry. As their popularity continues to grow, it’s worth booking well in advance to secure preferred dates or to bag a journey with your favoured theme.
Exploring Europe by river isn’t for everyone; many ships aren’t fully handicapped-accessible, and even the most exciting itinerary still means sticking to a schedule. Yet for many, river cruises are emerging as the best way to take on diverse slices of Europe, in bite-sized chunks. They provide the freedom of fresh air and exploration that a nostalgic rail journey could never match. The masterful boutique ships that float up and down the Seine and the Douro epitomise decadence, privacy and comfort. There’s no better way to explore the European countryside – and with popularity surging, there’s no better time to book.
The author essentially made up each of the points she wrote about. There was virtually no shred of truth in what she wrote–total fantasy on her part. (Had she just had a “bad” experience with an agent or had she never even used one?)
There has been so much backlash that the rag is now going to do two articles, one online and one in print, on the value of travel agents. (We’ll see if I still think it’s a rag after the new articles come out.)
I won’t give credence to the original article by reprinting it, but I do want to share the rebuttal that a travel supplier, Apple Vacations, wrote to the editor. It covers each point, so you’ll get an idea of what the original accusations were.
A recent article came out. “9 things Travel Agents won’t tell you”. It was not a supportive article for the Travel Agent community and suggests “buyer beware”. I am here to say to the writer, Anne Roderique-Jones, you got it wrong!!! I’ll address your 9 points.
#1 – They’re making commission. Well, yes this is true. That is how they are compensated for their expertise. Do you expect them to book your trip, provide first-hand experience, check flights, research, put you in the right resort for your wishes, work with your budget, walk you through the details, procure your tickets, and make dining recommendations and reservations for free? A Travel Agency is a business and they do get compensated for their services. I think that is a “no brainer”. Any reputable agency will NOT sell you a vacation they do not truly think you will enjoy – no matter what the incentive is out there for them. They want you to be happy, so that you and your friends and family use them again and again. They make a living on repeat business. I challenge you to take the commission an agent makes, and divide it by the time they put into planning your vacation. Would you work for that hourly rate?
#2 – They can’t book all Airlines. WRONG. An agent can book anything. They do not get commission on most airlines, but most agents either book that part as a courtesy since you are booking the rest of the trip with them, or charge an up-front service fee to get you the airline you want.
#3 – They lie about their experience? Most agents I know love to travel. That is why they are in fact an agent. FAM trips are an essential part of the business. Agents jump at the chance to go. Apple Vacations runs them all the time, and they always fill up quickly. Good agents have been to the destinations they sell, multiple times. Agents are also a close community, and if one agent in an office has not been to a location or resort, someone in the office or their network most likely has. They share information (good and bad), details, photos and tips. They also take webinars, go to tradeshows, attend seminars and trainings. To question the integrity of “ALL” Travel Agents is unfair when I continually see so many agents continually traveling and educating themselves mostly on their own dime and time.
#4 – I am not sure why you think agents are inflexible. Call an agency … standard protocol is … what can I help you with, location, dates and are you flexible? Yes, an agent may recommend different departures to save you money, or get you better flights. The bottom line is agents present options. If you are flexible, and the best rate is what you want, let them know. Again, they are a service industry and if they know a day later may give you a better flight time or price, then take advantage of that knowledge.
#5 – Insurance may not be necessary? I find this to be an irresponsible statement. Trip protection is ALWAYS recommended. We never get complaints from Travel Agents or vacationers that took trip protection and had to cancel for an emergency or unforeseen reason, and got their money back or were able to rebook at a later date. Really, we never received one. However, we have heard from vacationers when something unforeseen did occur and they could not travel. We never want to see anyone lose their hard earned money and we certainly don’t like when customers are unhappy when a trip cannot be changed. Therefore, we always recommend trip protection. Also, trip protection has numerous benefits in addition to cancellation. It covers you in resort, medical, baggage, trip interruption and unforeseen circumstances. The statement you made would better be phrased “What trip protection is right for this vacation?” as there are many plans available. Any good agent WILL and SHOULD recommend trip protection and will walk you through your options. A vacation is an investment, and like any investment it should be protected.
#6 – Only use an agent for a special occasion trip? Isn’t every vacation a special occasion? If you are spending your hard earned money and taking the time away from work or responsibilities, don’t you deserve the best your money can buy? Please, don’t lower expectations before you even book. A vacation is an event, an experience, and we hope to always not only meet but exceed all of your expectations on every vacation.
#7 – On – Line sites now offer refunds and cancellation policies. This is correct, new DOT rules that came out last year, allow all customers to cancel any flight booked within 24 hours of booking (if the flight was booked more than 7 days prior to departure date). This is a new industry standard no matter where – or how – you book. I also think this is one of the #1 reasons to USE a Travel Agent. They have relationships with airlines, resorts and wholesale companies such as Apple Vacations. Because of this, they understand the fare classes, room categories and terms & conditions when booking. They are EXPERTS. Lean on their expertise, don’t criticize it.
#8 – They won’t find the best price? Go ahead, challenge them! What do you have to lose?
#9 – Sign up and use a travel rewards club. It’s a good idea to use credit card points, Apple Vacations has a card. But one club or card most likely can’t take care of all your travel needs. I suggest you find a travel agent you like. Get to know them, and let them know you. They will learn your preferences and expectations. If an agent knows what you like, what you don’t, who you typically travel with, when you like to go and what is important to you; they will know what you are looking for in a vacation. When you are ready to travel, they will know what vacation is just right for you!
There are also so many key reasons you SHOULD book with an agency.
There are sometimes unforeseen circumstances that affect your trip. Let’s say you book your trip yourself. You are enjoying this amazing vacation, but in the days before you are about to come home, you find out your home airport is closed due to weather (snow, bad winds, tropical storms) and your flight is cancelled, do you want to enjoy your last days of vacation or do you want to be on hold with an airline for hours and negotiating a last minute rate with the hotel? Travel Agents don’t get a rain or snow day! They are working long into the night, placing calls, researching flights, waiting on hold to assist their clients and get their travel plans back on track.
Do you want to be the first to know about a sale or promo code? Many times Travel Agents get a “sneak peak” to these. Do you want inside tips and personal reviews? Do you want a professional looking out for you and taking care of you? Using their “pull” to get you free upgrades and perks. Making sure you don’t get bumped from a reservation due to a hotel or airline or car overbooking. Making sure you don’t book an impossible connection. Making sure you get proper compensation when vacations do not go as planned. I could go on and on. The bottom line is Anne; I think you placed an unfair stereotype on an industry that does not warrant it. I am sorry if you had a bad experience. I personally know many, many, many, many, many agents who are all hard working, ethical, knowledgeable and professional. They are a true resource when booking your vacation. I’d be happy to recommend one for your next vacation. I am proud to know them, be in the industry with them, and call many of them both colleagues and friends. Go ahead and Ask An Agent when booking your next trip. I know I will!
by Ned Levi on July 8, 2013
Saturday, every airplane passenger’s worst nightmare occurred in San Francisco. An Asiana Airlines’ Boeing 777, on a flight (214) from Seoul, South Korea, with 307 people on board, crashed at San Francisco International Airport, and the cabin was quickly engulfed with flames, with the tail of the plane sheared off.
Remarkably, 305 passengers and crew survived the crash. A few passengers remain in critical condition at San Francisco area hospitals, but so far, only two passengers and no crew have died.
According to passenger Eugene Rah, a regular on the Seoul–San Francisco route, the flight attendants helped everyone off the plane as smoke filled the cabin, and that soon after, flames spread throughout it.
Airplane crashes are survivable. For example, National Transportation Safety Board statistics of airplane accidents which occurred between 1983 and 2000, report that 53,487 passengers were involved and 51,207 passengers survived. That’s a 95.7 percent survival rate.
I have fifteen tips for air passengers to help you survive an airplane accident:
• Choose your seat to be within five rows of any exit. A British safety expert concluded that five rows is the cut-off for getting out of a burning plane. Beyond that range, survival chances drop off quickly. In addition, passengers in aisle seats have higher survival rates than passengers in other seats.
• Wear shoes or leather sneakers, never high heels, sandals or flip-flops, which make it hard to move quickly and safely within wreckage. Loose or elaborate clothing can snag on obstacles in a plane’s tight quarters, especially when damaged. Long pants and long sleeved shirts made with natural fibers (synthetics or high synthetic content blends can melt on your skin in a fire, causing serious and even fatal wounds) are the safest, and help protect passengers when sliding down a wing or emergency slide. I learned that going down an emergency slide myself, when I suffered friction burn.
• If you’re flying to or from a cold area, dress appropriately, and consider keeping a jacket on your lap during takeoff and landing. In cold weather, crash survival may depend on your staying warm.
• Read the safety information card and pay attention to the preflight safety speech. Every plane is a bit different, so it’s a good idea to refresh your memory.
• Devise a safety plan. Count the rows from your seat to the two closest exits, fore and aft, so you know precisely where they are in case smoke fills the plane, obscuring your sight, and fire blocks your exit in one direction.
• Stay especially alert during and just after takeoff, and from about 10 minutes before and during landing. About 80 percent of accidents occur during those times. Keep your shoes on, don’t put on a face mask, earplugs, or earphones during those times.
• Put your seat belt on and fasten it as tightly as comfortable throughout your flight, not just at takeoff and landing.
If you’re alerted to prepare for a crash, stay calm. After all, the odds are with you.
• Double check your safety plan. Tighten your seat belt as much as possible. Take pencils, pens and sharp objects out of your clothes and remove dentures, high-heeled shoes and eyeglasses. If you have some water, moisten a handkerchief, headrest cover or shirttail, to use if there’s smoke after impact, to hold over your mouth.
• If you’ve got time, and it’s cold outside, put on your sweater or coat. Put any medicines you might need in your pockets. Cover your head if you can, and brace yourself in your seat as per your flight crew’s instructions.
Once down, after the plane comes to a stop, get out as fast as you can.
• Don’t wait to be told what to do by the flight attendants. They might be dazed or injured and can’t give directions for a while, if at all. As soon as the plane comes to a stop move quickly to the exit.
• Don’t take anything with you. Keep your hands free to maintain your balance as you step over debris and luggage, or are being pushed by other passengers, some of whom might be panicking.
• If the aisle is blocked, go over the seat backs.
Under no circumstances crawl on the floor to avoid smoke, as you might be trampled by other passengers.
If there is smoke, keep your head down and follow the white lights to the exit. Use your hands to count rows by feeling seats, but remain on your feet. You’ll know you’ve arrived at the door by your count and/or when the floor lights are red.
• Don’t push passengers. It might incite a hysterical passenger to go berserk, which will delay your exit.
• At the exit door, if it’s not open, before you open it, look out its window to see if there’s fire. If there is, go to the other side of the plane and check the door there.
• Once out of the plane, get as far from the crash as you can. The fuel left in the plane’s tanks could ignite and cause an explosion. If you see something to shield you, get behind it as long as it’s not to close to the plane. When planes explode thousands of fragments can fly in all directions and be fatal.