This is a review of our May 28-June 18, 2005 Grand Circle Travel (GCT) "Great Rivers of Europe" cruise/tour on the Rhine, Main, and Danube, sailing from Amsterdam to Vienna on GCT's M/S River Melody. The trip included three days before the cruise in Brussels and three days after in Vienna. Most of this review is about the ship, as you will spend over half the time aboard. The ship's features and services shouldn't be compared to an ocean liner, but are more similar to a Mississippi River cruise on the Delta Queen. This is our 14th cruise, including two river cruises and the two GCT trips.
AIRLINES The GCT airline service was not convenient; our total travel time was more than 16 hours a 6 a.m. (PDT) flight from LAX to Washington D.C. with a five hour layover, arriving in Brussels at 7:30 a.m. (Central Europe Daylight Savings Time) the following morning. (Brussels is nine hours ahead of Los Angeles.) The flight to Brussels was on a United 767 with individual TV screens in the seatbacks; the outside rows were two seats wide. The return flight was on a Lufthansa 747 taking only 14 hours -- but we were jammed in like sardines, with no individual TV screens, and the outside rows were three across. And there were no pre-assigned seats from LAX to Washington D.C. or from Vienna to Frankfurt. Our previous GCT flights to Europe were on Delta and very good - non-stops LAX to London and Paris to LAX, with individual TV screens, and two seats wide. In the future, we will arrange our own flights and not use GCT.
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 mechanical key locks were recently removed, leaving a one-inch open hole in the door. The old locks were replaced by a plastic keycard arrangement located above the holes.
The balcony proved to be a good investment and we used it often. The only problem: Because of the balcony, your bathroom was two feet smaller than in the non-balcony cabins. 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).
CABIN TV The TV set was very small -- about 10 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 SkyView, a British news channel) and several in German. It was very difficult to get a daily or even a weekly weather forecast for Europe where our ship was. Frequently, the TV would go out of service when we passed under a bridge, into a lock, etc., as the satellite signal was blocked. One TV channel shows a view forward from the bow; another provides photos of the crew. Public announcements are piped into the cabin's loudspeaker; often late-evening, unimportant announcements would disturb the early sleepers. There were no music channels.
BATHROOM The toilet is high. Two large mirrors over the sink provide a reverse image. Everyone uses the smaller round mirror instead. There's very little sink counter space, and a shower (no bath).
E-MAIL SERVICE The ship has a single computer in the lobby for passengers, but without access to the Internet. Passengers can use the computer to compose and save outgoing e-mail messages on a 3½-inch diskette, and give it to the ship's front desk personnel, who will send your messages the next time the ship is docked. Your best bet is to use Internet cafes in each port, where the cost is at least half what the ship charges.
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.
SHIP'S LOCATION It was always difficult to determine where you were on the river, since no map was provided in the lobby or on your cabin's TV set. Nor were there any weather forecasts or narrations of the scenes we were passing - castles on the hilltops, small towns on the river's edge, etc.
DINING Everything is open seating - no reserved tables. Thus some passengers lined up early and rushed into the dining room to get a window or large table. Tables typically seated four or six persons; the tables in the rear of the room away from the windows have benches and chairs instead of all chairs, and appeared to be larger. The morning orange juice always tasted watered-down. Two small glasses of wine (red or white) were served per passenger at dinnertime. Mealtimes were 6-9 a.m. for breakfast, lunch at 12:30 p.m., and dinner at 7 p.m. (lunch and dinner have just one seating). The quality of the food was fair; for the heavy eaters, more was always available.
SHIP'S LOUNGE The drinks tasted watered-down. All drinks were small and expensive, and the service was slow. In fact, many passengers began to buy wine in the ports to drink in their cabins, and stopped using the lounge. The ship charged a $5 (U.S.) corking fee to open your wine. There is a 24-hour instant coffee dispenser in the lobby area. The lounge is poorly designed for the evening entertainment or tour talks.
NEWSPAPER There were one or two copies of a faxed two- or three-page newspaper, but they always disappeared quickly from the front desk.
BRUSSELS, BRUGES AND AMSTERDAM PRECRUISE TOURS The optional tours were good, with good meals, good canal boat rides, and very good hotel breakfast service. But there were not enough photo stops and no museum tours. We only visited one church. There was no Internet service in the GCT-provided hotel. The chocolate and porcelain factories we toured were very small operations -- almost like backyard garage operations.
VIENNA POST CRUISE TOURS The optional tours were good, with good meals. The same comments apply as in Belgium about photo stops, museum tours, church visits, etc. This hotel had Internet service in the lobby, but the cost was as high as on the ship. Only two blocks away was an Internet café with more than 10 computers available at half the cost.
TOUR ACTIVITIES All of the tours including the optional ones were very good. However, the sights to be seen or visited did not follow the GCT catalog or web schedule. Some sights were eliminated and others changed without any notice. Be sure to plan your cruise around the fact that all stores are closed on Sundays and all museums are closed on Mondays. Be sure and take the optional tour to have coffee and cake at a local resident's home. Each group is limited to six to eight passengers, and it was very interesting to visit the home and talk one-on-one to the housewife.
UNUSUAL ACTIVITIES One day, the tour director gave each of us one euro and asked us all to buy some sweet rolls while ashore, to be pooled together for breakfast the following morning aboard the ship.
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 another 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 euros are need for any local transportation or services (streetcars, subways, coin-operated computers, etc.).
SUMMARY It was a most interesting cruise, and we saw many interesting sites including the Gothic cathedral in Cologne, the Heidelberg University and castle, the baroque palace of the Prince-Bishop in Wertheim, the Nuremberg museum, the Main-Danube canal, etc. The negative side: It's a long cruise with lots of walking on cobblestone streets.