Ama Certo Christmas Markets - Danube River Cruise (November 2013)
This was our first river cruise on AMA and it won’t be our last! We really lucked out choosing AMA. The cruise was basically faultless and we had a wonderful Christmas Cruise with 156 other passengers (ages 6 to 80) traveling from Budapest to Nuremberg with about 45 staff members. We met lots of great people (Peggy and Jim (Canada), Billy and Ruth-Ann (Canada/Florida), Bart and Carolyn (Virginia), Fred and Terry (Edith) (California), and Mervin and Judy (Canada)) are just a few of the great couples we met. Open dining with tables from 4 to 8 or 10 means you can be as sociable as you wish at mealtimes. The food is top quality. In particular, the dinners were superb. Afterwards we could relax in the lounge to piano music and other entertainment until about 10.30.
Our cabin was really well designed with ample space. Linen and towels are changed after each use and like the entire ship it is kept immaculately clean. Our cabin was quiet and the heating worked well. Full height French doors, and full-size patio doors, and mirrors make it feel larger and it would be lovely to open the doors in the summer.
The majority of passengers were from the USA and Canada, all spoke English. There were about 40 or so travel agents on the ship. Most seemed to well-travelled and interesting crowd and we all mixed and made new friends.
The cruise was not cheap but so much was included in the price (including most of the shore excursions, quality wines with dinner and teas and coffees all day) that we spent little extra while we were away. Prices at the bar seemed fair to me; 6 euros for a good sized Martini.
Embarkation could not have been easier. We flew from Boston on Lufthansa via Frankfurt into Budapest 2 days early and stayed a short cab ride away from the ship. We checked out of our boutique hotel(http://www.gerloczy.hu/?Lang=en) at 11 and were quickly delivered to the ship. The taxi stopped a short distance away from the gangway (he could have been ticketed 100 Euros if he parked right at the gangway) and there were AMA staff there to take the luggage on board. We just walked on board and felt like royalty .We were able to board, give them our bags to hold, and then spent a bit of time in the lounge. We met the cruise director Monika before we headed out to see one of the local markets. We each purchased new hats in the markets as we quickly realized we had come un-prepared for the cold weather ahead of us.
We returned to the ship around 2:15 and had to wait in the lounge until 3 at which time they call you in groups by cabin #’s. I think it took less than 15minutes to service everyone. They have you leave your passports (so they could make copies for immigration purposes) at the front desk, give you your room key and then escort you (white gloves) to your room. They asked that you pick up your passports the next day. They also ask for a credit card swipe if you plan to settle your on-board account with that card.
To unlock your room door, all you need to do is hold the card next to the door lock and it unlocks. This is slightly different than most hotel cards in that you do not need to put it in a slot etc. This is great because you could keep it in your walled and just hold the wallet up to the door and it unlocked. ALWAYS remember to take your key.
The Room (AA310)
The AMA Certo is new (only about 1.5 years old) so the rooms and public areas were immaculate. We booked a large cabin which was about 235 square feet. That being said, the room was spacious and our outside balcony was big enough for two chairs, and a small table. We did not use the balcony as much as we would have if the sailing had been in the summer but it was still nice to have for those evening times to enjoy the sights before bed. Our room also had a small 2 chair sitting area in front of the French balcony with a small round table.
The bed was comfortable but on the semi-hard side. There is a box on casters under one of the beds to store things which we didn’t use. There was plenty of room under the other bed for two full-size suit cases.
There were small nightstands on either side of the bed both each with 2 drawer and lamp. There were small LED lamps for reading and not bothering your spouse/partner. There was a small alarm travel clock for your use. Overhead lighting and cornice lighting and the full wall of windows during the day allowed for a bright experience.
Our cabin had one TV which is connected to a mouse and keyboard and worked well as a PC but can be used as a television. The television offerings were good with regular TV being CNN International, Sky News, BBC 1 as English stations. They also had a channel that showed the camera feed from the front of the ship. Made for great viewing, especially through the 28 or so locks!! This channel also transmitted the PA of the ship. You were not disturbed in your room by the general PA system. They also offered movies on-demand with 10-15 newer movies as well as a handful of classics. They also had music available through the TV.
As for internet access, you need to keep in mind the technology for ground level moving vehicles can be difficult. There were many times when there were obstructions where the satellites are that prevented internet access and TV reception. This was especially true in locks and when going under bridges. There were a few times when everyone was getting frustrated by the lack of connectivity. We then remembered we were all on vacation and all needed to relax!! Additionally, the WiFi seemed to work better in the lounge and the restaurant than in our room. And in our room, it seemed to work better closer to the front of the ship than the back. Again, having appropriate expectations is the key. If you absolutely have to have access, your best bet is to make sure you have your own hot spot or some other arrangement. Otherwise, if you are a casual user that just checks e-mail and the weather, etc., what they have is fine. We were able to use our iPhones to access the web if we wanted to but we didn’t. Just remember to set up your calling plan so you can make/receive calls/texts overseas and turn off cellular data on your phone. If you are a casual user, you really shouldn’t need a separate international data plan because you can use the ships WiFi. Not turning your cellular data off and not having a data plan is where you could cost yourself hundreds of dollars in fees that you will not see until you get your next bill.
The bathroom in our cabin was beautiful (and spotless) with granite and white marble everywhere with a good sized shower (the shower floor was a bit slippery and they didn’t have rubber mats (due to health cleanliness reasons)). Lighting was perfect! It did have both a rain shower head and a regular European shower head that you can take off the hook. It had a good sized sink and good counter/storage space. The toilet is actually like one on a plane. It flushes mostly using air compression. Also, the venting seemed to work real well so that steam and smells dissipated quickly. The amenities were first-class and always quickly restocked with shampoo, conditioner, body gel, lotion, soap, bath salts, shower caps, nail files, Q-tips and cotton etc. There was also hair dryer. There is this window between the bathroom and the bedroom/sitting area that is clear (you can look right into the bathroom) but we quickly found the switch that fogged up the window so you couldn’t see in.
The room is tended to at least 2 times a day with fresh towels, bed made, cleaning and bottled water replenished (6 bottles come standard and I am sure you could get more if you really wanted!). There is a mini-fridge in the room that is for your use. You are free to bring your own alcohol on board (not like the big companies who confiscate it if you try to do so!). We hardly ever saw our cabin stewardess in our room as she almost magically knew when you had left our room for breakfast and dinner and we always came back to a clean room. They also are masters at the art of folding towels into animals and other things. It was always fun to see what new creature would be in our room on our return!! The hotel staff was incredible and did everything you asked and were always friendly.
Just some additional notes about the room: There was plenty of closet space with two good sized closets, one with rods, both low and high and a top shelf and the other with shelves and the safe. The safe is a standard hotel type safe where you type in a four digit code. It is big enough for your jewelry and several small laptops etc. The desk was a good size work area and had an outlet for recharging items. Don’t forget to bring your adapters and converters if you need one. There were also several plugs near the bed, one near the French patio and one in the bathroom. The room comes with two large umbrellas, two robes and two sets of slippers. The laundry service is reasonably priced ($2 for washing a pair of jeans). Depending on the when you get the laundry in, you will either get it back the same day or the next day. We put the jeans in at 1 and they were back before dinner! You just bag it up, fill out the form and leave it in your room so the steward can see it. They will take care of the rest.
AMA Certo Common Areas
The lobby is very nice and the desk is staffed 24 hours a day. There is an elevator that goes from the Violin (300 Level) Deck, pass the Cello (200 Level) Deck to the restaurant. It does not go to the Piano (100 Level) deck and this is because the elevator shaft cannot go from the waterline to the roof, in case of flooding. Just forward of the lobby on the port (left) side of the ship is a small library area with books & magazines as well as games. On the starboard (right) side of the ship is the small shop. It has some AMA logo items as well as gift items from the areas that you are traveling through. The inventory seemed to change throughout the cruise as we sailed through different areas. They stocked some generic toiletry items as well as batteries, memory cards etc. They had a small selection of over-the-counter medicines for minor allergy/cold issues. However, the product descriptions were mostly in other languages so you may want to make sure you bring what you need, especially if you allergies. The staff can usually help translate, however.
In the rear portion of the lounge as you enter, you see a push button coffee machine that makes great coffee drinks and is available 24/7. Tea and hot chocolate are also available. There is a full bar as well and is usually staffed after noon until well into the evening. You do have to pay for all alcoholic drinks, including soft drinks, at times other than lunch and dinner. At the very front of the ship, there is a small sitting area that is fronted by glass that is great for viewing in the outdoors.
The Sun Deck can be accessed through stairs on either side of the lobby or stairs on the port side of the outdoor sitting area in front of the lounge. At the very front is a sitting area with great outdoor couches, chairs and tables. This area is low enough that even if the rest of the Sun Deck is closed due to low bridges, it is open. Just aft of this sitting area is the Captain’s bridge which raises and lowers as needed. They did several tours one day where the young Captain (his father is also a Captain for AMA) showed how the ship works which was fun. Right behind the Captain’s bridge is the pool. It is small but has several fun extras. There are stools to sit on, kind of like a swim-up bar. There is also a jetted system that can be used to swim laps against a current. It would be nice in warmer weather! The entire rest of the Sun Deck is devoted to lounge chairs, a walking track and a large chess board game for those so inclined. Some of the chairs are covered by overhangs to keep you out of the sun if you prefer. Finally, the back portion of the Sun Deck is the smoking area and has some tables and chairs. This is the only smoking area on the ship. On our cruise, most of the Sun Deck was unavailable for about 2 days or so as we were on the Main/Danube canal. This was not because of high water; it is just that the bridges and locks are lower than on the Danube. They actually take down all of the safety railings and any other tall stuff. Finally, as our room was on the deck just below the Sun Deck, you could hear people walking over our room. The staff supposedly tries to discourage use of the area by passengers between 10:00 pm and 8:00 am but it can be used by staff if they are helping doc the boat and in locks so just know that ear plugs can be a good thing. It is not bad but for a light sleeper, ear plugs might become your friend!!
The exercise room had 2 bikes, a treadmill and a universal machine as well as some other items. We did not use it because we were getting plenty of exercise on the included tours. We did not use the beauty shop or the message either but we did talk to some folks that did and they seemed to like the results.
You will NOT go hungry on the AMA Certo. I can’t say enough good things about the kitchen and wait staff. The sense we got was that you could basically order anything and they would try to accommodate you, regardless of the menu. The dress is casual. Some dress up a little for dinner but we also saw jeans and they did not seem out of place. The only two meals where folks dressed-up more was the Captains Dinner toward the end of the cruise and our night at the Erlebnis Restaurant (our first night, the Restaurant Manager recruited us while we were waiting in the lounge to be escorted to our cabin). Overall, the food was excellent and there are almost too many choices at every meal. In the main dining room, for all meals, seating is open and there is a range of times when you can come down. Breakfast was usually 7:30 to 9:30, lunch usually started around 1:00 and dinner was normally at 7:00. The dining room has many different seating options with 2 semi-enclosed small rooms at the front that can seat 10-12 each. In the main dining room, there are booths (4 persons), round tables (6 people), booth/table combos (4 persons) and a large table near the front that seated 10-12. There is a Captain’s table (4 persons) but it is really for the captain and senior staff to eat. The last night the Captain and the Cruise Manager Monika did use one of the big tables and I assume the guests were returning AMA guests.
For breakfast there is a large self-serve buffet with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, hash-browns, omelet bar, several different breakfast meats, cereals, fruit, yogurt, bagels, etc. They also have a traditional European breakfast of lunch meats, cheeses and a huge bread and pastry table. The bread is baked freshly on the ship. There is also a menu you can order from that was the same throughout the cruise and had things like eggs benedict, waffles etc. The funny thing was that there were passengers that did not know that there was a menu for breakfast until well into the cruise because the buffet was so good!!
For lunch, again there was an extensive buffet of salads and small lunch items but don’t fill up on this because it is only the first course. There is a more extensive menu for lunch that includes 2-3 soup choices, 2-3 regional entree choices as well as offering hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and another specialty burger every day. Beer, wine and soda are free (ok, not free but you don’t pay extra for it!) at lunch and they will keep pouring wine, often when you are not looking so beware of the bottomless glass!!
For dinner in the main ding room, it is an all menu affair with a 4 course meal. Again, you will have 2-3 choices of appetizers, salad/soup, main course and dessert which changes daily. They also have steak, chicken and fish (plus French Fries) every day as well as a Caesar salad option and a dinner salad option that changes. Assorted cheese and crackers are also always available. Again, beer and wine (both red and white) is free at dinner and the wine selection changes daily as they try and bring different wines in based on the region they are sailing through. We did not have a bad wine the entire cruise. One of the friends we met had a nut allergy and the staff always tried to meet his needs. Supposedly the kitchen knew about the nut allergy, but it is my opinion that this didn’t get relayed to the serving staff.
On our ship, the also have a second option for dinner at the Erlebnis Restaurant which is on the Violin Deck at the rear of the ship. This is a glass enclosed area that can seat about 28 people. Most tables are 4 people with one big 10-12 person table. For our cruise, you could sign up once per week. I would highly recommend reviewing your detailed itinerary and try and select evenings when the ship is sailing. It makes for a great view. I would also recommend you sign up as soon as you can because times fill up fast! Like the main dining room, the menu is a four/five course meal that is fixed except you usually have 2 choices for the main course. The menu is the same every night of the week the cruise. This dining room at the stern of the ship was also a quiet place to go to during the day to read and relax, seeing the activity on the River Danube.
Finally, the lounge serves food throughout the day. They have an early-risers continental breakfast buffet usually starting at 6:30. They also serve what they call a light lunch buffet that has many of the same things as the restaurant, just not as much variety. The rest of the day, the lounge has iced tea, water, and an assortment of cookies and brownies. These are all at no extra cost and are in addition to the coffee/tea available 24/7. One morning around 11 we had a break where they served assorted sausages and rolls (with very good mustard) and keg beer. Monika, the cruise manager was dressed in festive German attire. For lunch that day we ate much less than normal.
As you might expect, because of the small size of the ship, all of the entertainment is basically in the lounge area. They have an on-board piano player/singer (he really didn’t sing) who did a great job of entertaining us in the afternoons and evenings. AMA also brought on several local entertainers about 3 times during our cruise. One night it was a singer with songs of Europe, another night it was three entertainers who sang songs of Austria. Near the beginning of the trip St. Nicolas came to visit and gave all the passengers a free gift. Another night, we left our shoes outside our cabin and we received 2 large hollow-chocolate figures the next morning. The second night we received a plate of candy/fruit which we were able to enjoy for a few days. There was always a small chocolate on your pillow after you returned from dinner/entertainment.
Daily, usually before dinner, the Cruise Manager will host a briefing in the lounge to inform the passengers on the next day’s port and any other important information. I really found them useful for planning what we would do the next day. It also gave us a great excuse to come to the lounge and have a pre-dinner drink with some of our new friends. Also, every evening when they make up your room during dinner, they leave on your bed the next day’s printed schedule with contact information as well as information about the ports/towns/tours. You should take this with you as it has all the pertinent phone numbers just in case you need to contact the ship. Your cruise director will give you her card. It is suggested you program her cell # and the ship’s phone # into your cell phone.
I will not specifically review the individual tours. However, I do want to let you know about the process and comments in general. Suffice it to say, you will have plenty to do and your toughest decision may be to not do all of it!! Overall, the tours were informative and educational. It really depended on the tour guide. In your cabin there are two audio devices that will be used on almost every tour. It is a 4 inch by 6 inch by Â½ inch thick and has an earpiece for one ear (left only! It doesn’t take regular earpieces. It has a cord to put over your neck but also fits easily into a front shirt pocket. It is up to you to bring the device and to plug it back into the charger after the tours to get recharged.
Daily, you will go to the reception desk and be assigned a group and they will give you a corresponding colored card. This card corresponds to the group you will be with and helps determine which bus or walking group you should be with. Also, every time you leave the ship, you should get your boarding cards from the reception desk that has your cabin number. It is very important to take your boarding cards out when you leave and return them when you come back to the ship because it helps the staff know that everyone is back on board. There were several times where the Cruise Director announced over the PA if cabin so-in-so was aboard because they wanted to leave the port and had not yet received all of the cards. There was one time when the ship had to leave and the 4 missing passengers caught up with the ship about 4 hours later up the Danube.
When you are with your group, the tour guide will turn on their transmitter and it should automatically sync with your receiver. You need to stand as close to the guide as possible otherwise you may get synced to another group’s receiver. They have a range of 100 or so feet so once you are synced, you should be fine. However, there was one time when our guide needed to go get some tickets for a tour and we somehow got hooked to a Viking tour on the same frequency and did not realize it for several minutes. And yes, most of the other companies use the same technology so it can happen but there are many frequencies so it seemed rare.
For almost all town tours you had a slow walkers group, several normal walkers groups and a quick walkers group. You are able to start off on the tour and found something if you liked you could leave the tour. Please let your guide know when you wish to leave the group, especially if the tour is ending with a bus ride back to the ship, so they do not think they lost somebody. Just know that if you do go off on your own, know when you need to be back to the ship. Every time you returned to the ship from a day tour you were warmly welcomed by the staff and then given warm towels and warm gluhwine (mulled wine).
AMA also offers Culinary Delights and Bike Tours. These tours are capacity controlled and you can actually sign up on-line on the AMA website under the Already Booked menu and select Explorer Tours. Our tour was a sausage tasting beer tasting. The local tour guide was a bit of a flake (we never did get to the chocolate store promised). It is no problem to change at the last minute if you decide you don't want to bike in the rain etc. The Cruise Director just asks that as soon as you know; let him/her know so they can offer your spot to those on the wait list.
On our cruise, they did have several optional tours that were extra cost. We did several, like a concert in Vienna and a full-day trip to Salzburg. For the day in Salzburg, the ship kept moving after dropping us off and we met up with it at the next port. As with their other tours, AMA does a great job of coordinating these so if you are so inclined, I would not hesitate to spend the extra money. Just know that 90% of your tours are included in the price you paid.
In advance through our TA, we made arrangements to use AMA’s transportation from Nuremberg to Prague. The morning involved a more detailed tour of Nuremberg than we received the day before, more time at Nuremberg’s Christmas Market and the afternoon involved a 4 hour bus trip from Germany into the Czech Republic and eventually to Prague. The morning local tour guide was great but the tour guide that was with us from Nuremberg to Prague was basically useless. We learned basically nothing during this part of the trip. We heard that the other 3 busses had good experience during their time from Nuremberg to Prague. Collecting our bags in Nuremberg at the hotel with the other passengers were staying was very disjointed.
As for docking, most of the time we docked directly next to the dock either using the ships gangway or a gangway on the dock. Only 1 time did we dock next to another ship that we had to go through and/or over. This will probably only get worse as more and more river ships are launched but it was not that big a deal. Just follow the Cruise Manager's advice and that is when you open your curtains in the morning, you might become shocked looking into another cabin on the next ship. Most of the time we docked close enough to town to be able to walk to the main part of town. However, there were several times where we docked a ways a way and they always offered some motorized transportation to get us to the start of the tour and then back to the ship.
This was very easy. The day before, there is a briefing that AMA asks to be attended by at least one person per cabin. They explain the disembarkation process including explaining the process for those with AMA transfers, those needing a cab, and those on their own. If you need a taxi, the Cruise Director will schedule it for you, including ordering a larger cab if several groups are going to the same place at the same time and don't mind traveling together.
The day before disembarkation, you are given a summary to-date of your on-board charges. The bill is in Euros and you can pay either by cash or credit card. You are also given tip envelopes for the crew and Cruise Manager. Tips are not automatically added to your bill so you must put cash in the envelopes or fill out the credit card form of what you want to pay and it will be added to your final bill. The cruise line recommends 20 Euros (3 for the Cruise Director and 17 for the other crew members) per passenger per day. Tips may be paid in any currency, including US $’s, foreign currency you wish to dispose of, etc. Obviously, everyone has their own tipping philosophy. We also gave an additional tip directly to the Cabin Stewardess for their special attention to detail. I heard from one staff member that 70% of their earnings come from tips.
Depending on when and how you are leaving you are asked to pick up the appropriate corresponding colored luggage tags. They ask that you put your large luggage in the hallway an hour before you are to leave but no later than 9:00 am since you are supposed to be out of your room by then so they can clean the room for the next cruise. The do serve a normal breakfast and it is OK to stay later in the common areas as long as the boat is still in port.
During the last evening on the ship I found out that the only AMA employee on the ship is the Cruise Manager. At first I thought this was a bit strange, but then realized this is quite smart of AMA. Subcontract the needed services and get the best you can and not have the headaches of being an employer.
When we first started looking for a river cruise, we knew nothing and we decided to depend on a TA that specializes in river cruises. I had done some research and found that the timing and the reviews of AMA was the way I wanted to go. I contacted AMA who put me in contact with a TA for Avoya Travel. Bart specializes in cruises and in fact he was on our ship. We were leaning toward Viking because of their marketing. After listening to our wants and needs, our TA suggested AMA and we are very happy he did. It is often the little things that make the difference and this cruise was no exception. On almost any itinerary, you will be touring with and around the other major companies. (Viking, Tauck, Avalon, Uniworld, Grand Circle etc.) It seemed like the AMA tour groups were smaller allowing for better access to the guide.
Overall, we could not be happier with AMA and highly recommend them to anyone. You could see from observing the other cruise lines that they offered a high value for the price. I also believe the AMA Certo is the best ship out there right now and if you add the service and attention to detail of the AMA staff, the combination is among the best, if not the best in the industry. Monika worked very hard for us all and she is a real credit to AMA. Everyone will have different experiences but ours could not have been better and I would not hesitate to recommend the AMA Certo. Bruce and Betsy (baby boomers from Boston)