Everyone has different priorities when they cruise. Some people never set foot in the ship’s casino or in an onboard shop, but race to the front of the line to sign up for specialty dining or a hot stone massage.
If you’re curious to know how others splash the cash at sea, you’ll be as interested as I am in the fun thread started on the forums by Cruise Critic member KatieBug28. And plenty of members clearly are, as it’s already running to 10 pages.
KatieBug28 was chatting with her mother-in-law about a forthcoming family cruise and how they would spend their vacation dollars.
“My MIL, for example, will not cruise without a balcony cabin. I feel like that’s just not worth it and we always book an inside,” she writes. “On the other hand, she would be content if she never did a shore excursion and just camped out on a beach in every port, while [my husband] and I often spend more on excursions than we did on the cruise fare! So, with that in mind, what things do you think are worth scrimping on, and where do you like to splurge? “
Besides excursions, her spending spree list also includes eating out in port; she shuns restaurants that cost extra onboard.
It didn’t take long for the responses come in.
We’d already tossed back several varieties of Russian vodka, each accompanied by pastrami, pickles and expert commentary from Yulia, our maitre’d on Viking Truvor. But the best, a smooth blend of chili pepper and honey, had been saved for last.
“This is our only foreign vodka. From Ukraine,” said Yulia, her chilled glass raised high in a toast.
“Well,” she added with a sly grin, “maybe not foreign anymore.”
It was hard to escape the irony. Amid rising political tensions, economic sanctions and talk of a new Cold War, passengers on Viking River Cruises’ 13-day Waterways of the Tsars journey were creating our own version of detente – one shot at a time.
Bookings of Russian river cruises have slowed considerably since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014, with several companies scuttling their programs entirely. But as I discovered on a mid-August trip, a water-based meander between the Baltic port of St. Petersburg and the capital, Moscow, provides a fascinating – and safe – glimpse of a country that remains an enigma to many Western tourists.
Here are six things you should know about river cruising in Russia right now (and for more, read Russia River Cruise Tips)
River cruises in Russia have been greatly reduced in 2015, and Ukraine has been canceled entirely. Because of the ongoing fighting between Russia and Ukraine, Viking has canceled Dnieper River sailings since 2014 (though a new “Kiev to the Black Sea” route will launch in 2016), and operated only three of its five Waterways of the Tsars ships this summer. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection scaled down to four Russia departures this year, versus a dozen in 2014. Scenic Tours, whose 112-passenger Scenic Tsar is the newest river ship in Russia, also cut back on its 2015 departures and will offer four sailings in 2016.
Look for deals.
Softer demand, coupled with a Russian currency that has lost more than half of its value over the past year, mean good deals: Several of my fellow passengers on Viking Truvor said they were lured to Russia by two-for-one deals that included free airfare. Scenic’s 2016 cruise fares, starting at $6,730 per person, are about 15% lower than 2015.
But don’t count on bargains on shore.
Passenger arrivals to Russia from Western countries are down sharply this year, and the wait to see Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow’s Red Square was less than 10 minutes on a recent weekday. But visitor-laden tour boats still skitter across St. Petersburg’s scenic canals, and on our included Viking excursion to St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, the crowds were shoulder to shoulder by mid-morning.
As for prices, the 600 rubles (about $9) that one St. Petersburg tour company touted for a 24-hour hop on, hop off bus seemed like a great deal – until the ticket salesman told me they charged 300 rubles last summer and had raised rates to adjust for currency devaluation.
Getting a Russia visa is still a hassle.
Americans and Canadians are not required to provide fingerprints and apply in person for a Russian visa under a pilot program announced late last year (British citizens, however, are included under the new Russian rules). But even without fingerprints, landing a visa can be challenging.
If you’re sailing on a ship that calls in St. Petersburg and you plan to take a ship-based tour, you won’t need to pony up for a separate visa. Passengers on river-based cruises, though, must apply for one well in advance (typically four to six weeks before travel) and be prepared to fill out an intricate online application form. Most passengers opt to go through a visa service; Viking-recommended Generations Visa Service charges a minimum of $259 per person plus any expediting fees.
Menus won’t be limited to borscht and potatoes.
Russia has officially banned imported meat, cheese, vegetables, fish, and other foodstuffs from Western countries since last year, in retaliation for sanctions imposed after Russia’s Crimea annexation and the country’s support of pro-separatists in eastern Ukraine. Even so, items favored by Western passengers – from Norwegian salmon to Austrian marmalade – have continued to appear both on shipboard menus and at land-based restaurants. And the Kremlin’s import ban doesn’t include European wines, which are served gratis at lunch and dinner on Viking’s ships.
Ditch the Cold War stereotypes.
According to a recent Moscow-based opinion poll, more than 80% of Russians have an unfavorable view of the United States (about the same percentage that give President Vladimir Putin high marks for his performance). But while smiles from random passers-by may be rare, so are the scowls that were synonymous with the old Soviet Union.
Our last day in Moscow, when I asked a young man for directions from Red Square to Gorky Park, he gallantly insisted on taking me to the nearest Metro stop (now equipped with English signs and wifi), paying for my fare and accompanying me to the park. Once a derelict magnet for drunks, the place made famous by a Cold War novel of the same name welcomes locals and tourists with oversized lawn loungers, synchronized fountains and fancy restaurants: yet another surprise in a destination that’s full of them.
Tip: One of the biggest mistakes a cruiser can make is never checking his or her onboard account — where every purchase you make by swiping your key card adds up. It’s easy to spend money on extras such as alcoholic drinks, spa treatments and souvenir photos when you don’t have to carry around cash or a real credit card. But if you don’t keep track of your spending, you may be surprised with a big bill at the end of your cruise. We recommend checking your statement a few times during your cruise.
Full Article: Read 11 more surefire ways to have a miserable cruise.
Want More? Check out our related links below for more info, tips and advice.
– Check out our latest cruise deals
– Sign up for Cruise Critic’s Price Drop. We’ll let you know when fares are dramatically reduced so you can get the best price for your sailing.
Stay tuned for more Cruise Tips of the Week — revealed every Wednesday!
Cruise Ship: Celebrity Xpedition
Itinerary: Galapagos Islands
Background: A welcome bottle of Champagne and two complimentary massages were the perfect start to alldog49 and his wife’s Galapagos adventure. The couple — 66 and 70 years old and both Elite-status members — planned to test their limits in port and recharge on the ship. And they did, with “difficult” excursions and loyalty perks such as the Captain’s cocktail party. Read to find out what they loved most.
Onboard Highlight: Xpedition’s small size, which makes it easy to meet and mingle with new people.
Port Highlight: Walking on the lava fields.
Don’t Miss: Zodiac rides. You’re likely to get wet, but alldog49 says that’s all part of the fun.
Watch Out For: The pillows. Alldog49 thought they were a bit thin and requested more.
Each week, we choose five cruise reviews written by our members, and showcase one as the Member Review of the Week.
Check out more cruise reviews or write your own. Who knows; yours may be featured next!
Get your September 2015 Desktop Calendar Wallpaper! So many places in the world can be accessed through cruising, including some countries that you might not consider as a typical vacation. Case in point? The Danube River, between Serbia and Romania. River ships here float by some stunning scenery, including the Danube River Gorge pictured here (For more, read Cruising Eastern Europe on the Danube River).
Here’s how to put this photo on your computer, tablet or cell phone:
1. Click on the following links to get the size that you want. Each link will open a new window (or tab) displaying the wallpaper, in the appropriate format for your screen size.
2. For the desktop versions, right-click on the image, and choose the option that says, “Set as Desktop Background”, “Use as Desktop Picture,” or something similar. The wording depends on your browser. Mac users should ctrl-click and save the photo on their computer in the “Pictures” folder.
3. If the image does not fit your desktop background neatly, you may have to go to your preference panel (on a Mac: System Preferences > Desktop & Screen Saver > Desktop; on Windows: Control Panel > Display > Desktop) and choose”Fit to screen” as the display mode of your background image.
4. For phone and tablet, open the link and center the photo on your phone so it fills the screen. Take a photo and save it on your device. Then go to your Settings and find your Wallpaper (on an iPhone, this is under “Wallpapers & Brightness.” Set the saved calendar photo as your wallpaper.
Check back on September 30 for the October 2015 calendar.
The old adage goes that you should breakfast like a king, and nutrition experts always say it’s the most important meal of the day. However, it seems quite a few members are getting bigger breakfasts than they bargained for.
Apparently, it’s not unheard of for nocturnal practical jokers to go around and alter room service breakfast tags. And while some members see it as a harmless prank, others wonder what can be done to stop the culprits in their tracks.
Members Pete and Judy started a thread on the forums following an unexpected breakfast banquet on Holland America Line’s Oosterdam.
One of them reports: “Someone tampered with our order by marking three extra omelets, bananas, yogurt and extra juices. I was surprised when I opened the door and saw the room service waiter struggling with this giant tray. He showed me the tag and I could see where someone ordered me extra stuff. The waiter said it happened five times the previous week. In the future I am considering using a red pen or something to mark my stuff. But, it has only happened once to me in over 100 days cruising. Any thoughts or ideas? Has anyone else had this happen?”
Fellow member family man 57 says: “How spooky! Just thought I’d check in the Holland America message boards having just returned from a week-long trip on the Ryndam (fabulous BTW), where on the morning of disembarkation eight omelets with bacon and sausage were delivered to our room. Upon phoning room service in case another family was waiting for their order, the waiter came along with the room card which had clearly been altered. I hate waste, and to see the mound of food being discarded made me very annoyed.”