Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Crash Course in Russian River Cruising

St Petersburg, Russia

One of the perils of being a travel writer is that sometimes you unwillingly morph into a travel agent. Family members, neighbors, friends from third grade---all  call upon me to plan their vacations for them. But in helping them, I add to my knowledge bank.

 My most frequent "client" is my mother, a chronic late decider who never starts thinking about what to do on her summer vacation until August. As a teacher, she only has specific periods she can travel; this year its September 3-19. She decided she'd like to head to either Turkey or Russia, but after seeing how strenuous a Turkey tour might be, she settled on a Russian river cruise. The idea of sailing from Moscow to St. Petersburg captured her imagination (and she also liked the prospect of unpacking only once).

So I got to work, looking at the offerings of all the usual suspects in the river cruising field--AMA Waterways, Avalon, Viking River Cruises, Uniworld. Three out of four of all the cruises I found were completely sold out, and of those with space left, only the deluxe (read: exorbitant) cabins were available.
Knowledge bank item #1: Most people book river cruises six months in advance, and September is one of the most popular months for this activity. Waiting too long for that month or the summer months and you may be out of luck. However, the rest of the fall seems more lightly booked so waiting may yield a discount. In surfing through the river cruise sites, I found a lot of great offers for October and November.

After checking all the alternatives we realized that only one Viking cruise was doable for Mom. But because she'd have to book a deluxe cabin, the cost when totalled up was going to come to nearly $9000. Back to the internet!

I decided to head to RiverCruises.com, a discounter site (its a division of VacationsToGo.com) that listed a number of possible-looking sailings. I got on the phone, and spoke with an agent who said he'd send me a list of options. But when his list came through, half an hour later, every cruise was marked as "sold out". Whoops, was the reply when I shot back a questioning email to the agent. Then I noticed a Colette Tour that might work, though getting Mom to the port in time would be tricky due to her teaching schedule. I rang the agent again, got his voice mail and then waited for an hour and 15 minutes for a response. Alas, Colette was now closed and he couldn't give me details until the morning. (When he did, he told me that we'd have to put a credit card down to find out availability, and it would be automatically charged if there was availability. He wrote all this to me without revealing the price. Um, I don't think so!)
Knowledge bank item #2: RiverCruises.com seems to be understaffed and its agents a bit, um, flighty. Another agency might be a better choice in the future.

Then I had an epiphany: call a Russian specialist! I quickly found the phone number for East-West Tours and within one minute I was talking with a knowledgable Russian ex-pat about a cruise that would cost Mom half as much as Viking. "Why so cheap?" I grilled the agent, and she cheerfully admitted that the boat would be older and less amenity-laden. But Mom's not picky and with $4000 to be saved, well, she'd take the older boat.
Knowledge bank item #3: Go to the specialists first! They know all the ins and outs of the destinations they cover and will often be able to get better deals than the generalists.

Knowledge bank item #4: While talking with the agent, I asked about shore excursions, worried that that important part of the trip wouldn't be as good on the Russian boat. She told me that every boat the plies the Volga uses the same local guides for their tours. So Viking's shore excursions would be identical--same scope, same methods of travel, same guides--to the cheaper cruise's offerings. This shouldn't have surprised me, as this is the practice with many land-tour operators as well.

I'll let you know, in late-September, how the cruise went!

1 comment:

  1. When I started reading, my first thought was: "Pauline, why don't you call a Russian cruise company directly?" Which you soon did (pretty much). Congratulations on finding a good deal!