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I Took a Budget River Cruise That Went WRONG

Normally when you’re driving to a cruise port you’ll see the ship appear over the horizon and it is such an exciting feeling. That isn’t what happened on my last cruise though. 

When we arrived at the TUI Skyla in Germany we were in a completely different place to where we were originally meant to be boarding the ship.

Check out TUI river cruises here, mine was called Festive Flavours and it’s available next year too! (affiliate)

Cologne Christmas Markets
Cologne Christmas Markets

It was pitch black, freezing cold and our flight had to be diverted to a different city to get us this far – all because the water levels in the river were too high. 

I booked this cruise because I wanted to go to the German Christmas markets and I thought that a river cruise would be the best way to do it.

TUI are very much a budget river cruise line and this cruise was around half the price of the other big river cruise companies which meant that I could give it a go. It certainly wasn’t a cheap option but more about that later.  

I’d heard so many horror stories about river cruises and water levels where people have to spend their entire trip on a bus instead of a boat – so I was a little nervous. 

Despite the less-than-ideal start, I was more excited than ever to get on board.

Our transfer bus dropped us off just before 10 pm, and having not eaten for most of the day I was hoping that dinner was still being served. 

The cruise was onboard TUI’s Skyla, she looked beautifully lit up and I could see the Christmas decorations on the ship through the windows.

We walked into the beautiful Central Atrium, and it only took us a few minutes to check in – even though there was a whole busload of passengers arriving at once.

Tui Skyla Atrium decorated for Christmas
Tui Skyla’s Atrium decorated for Christmas

The plane that we came on had passengers for three Tui river ships. We all flew to Germany together, and then got on the right buses to bring us to the different ports. 

The organisation certainly was encouraging, and it was a relief to be onboard after all the delays and changes with our flight. 

We were told that our cabins were ready for us ( I really would hope they would by 10 pm!)

If they weren’t I would be very concerned but more importantly, they told us that dinner was being served in the main dining room.

Normally dinner ended at 9 but TUI clearly knew that we had to be fed and fed guests are happy guests.

After very quickly dropping my bag in my cabin we headed to dinner, our cabin was the closest one to the restaurant so that was very easy and we were taken down to an area at the back called the Bistro.

The restaurant looked beautiful with Christmas decorations on all sides and even though TUI are on the more budget end of river cruising this definitely didn’t feel budget to me.

The tables were beautifully laid out and everything was spotlessly clean. I was keen to find out where the costs were being cut.

A couple of years ago I took a cruise onboard this same ship, we sailed on the first sailing of 2021 and definitely found a few issues that we hoped would be ironed out.

We had problems with our cabin, the air conditioning, a few little things like food and the included drinks – and the dreaded bathroom door. 

Despite those things, we still had a great time but I knew that this trip would be very different.

One of the things that I noticed on my first TUI river cruise was that the food portions were really quite inconsistent, sometimes they would be a good size and sometimes really small.

In my original video, I said ‘It was clear that TUI were being kept on a budget with their food’ and I’m happy to say that the portion sizes were great at this first meal. That was a good sign. 

Watch the video of my original river cruise on this ship here:

We had three courses, plus lots of bread. I suppose you could say that TUI are a budget line because the bread was so small – but that doesn’t bother me – I just ate more pieces and they would always come to restock the basket. 

Beer, wine and soft drinks are always included with lunch and dinner on TUI cruises, so we had a couple of glasses and all in all the meal took a little less than an hour and a half which was great.

We were so tired by this point but still had no idea if we would be sailing away tonight and if we would be, where we would be going.

Our cruise was meant to start in Mainz but our flight was diverted from Frankfurt to Dusseldorf – so that we could board the ship in Cologne.

Cologne was meant to be on our itinerary, but not for a couple of days. Would we come back here later in the cruise? I wasn’t sure at all...

It’s very rare for me to get to sleep on a cruise having not explored the ship, but it was late and I knew that we had 5 days to explore.

I was also more excited about my cabin than the rest of the ship. I booked what was technically a suite on this cruise because I booked last minute and it was the cheapest cabin available on the ship.

That automatically solved the problem I had with the bathroom doors last time and it was worth the upgrade just to get a solid bathroom door.

I laid in bed, read through the welcome onboard paperwork which was very helpful and logged onto TUI’s app which is really just a web page.

The WiFi is free onboard, as it is on most river cruises and here I found a page called “Itinerary.” 

I thought to myself “Aha, a clue..” I didn’t know if it would be right of course, but figured it was worth a look. 

Clicking on that I saw that we had a place called Andernach on the schedule for tomorrow. This wasn’t where we were meant to go but I was happy that we would be visiting anywhere.

The crew had told us that this schedule could change at any time depending on the water levels, but that is all part of the risk of river cruising in winter – or anytime.

Later on, I would see the reality of the high water levels and it blew my mind a little bit. 

High water levels, Tui River Cruise

Waking up in this cabin was fantastic. This was my Christmas present to myself, but I almost didn’t book this cruise.

I spotted that this was the only cabin available, but there was a discount code on TUI’s site that actually made this suite cheaper than the standard balcony cabin that I had last time.

There are three types of cabins on this ship, the Oceanview cabins at the bottom (which my parents had last time) the standard ‘Balcony’ cabins with see-through bathroom doors – and this suite which was basically a large balcony cabin with the bathroom tucked around the corner.

I say “Balcony” – I mean Juliette balconies. None of the cabins have actual outside space just big windows. That’s pretty common on river ships. 

Balcony Suite, Tui Skyla

I could not believe how much storage space we had in this cabin, we were only onboard for a few days so I didn’t have a lot of clothes but there was far more storage than I have in my entire house.

I do use packing cubes too which makes unpacking really easy – under 5 mins I’m sure.

Find out all about packing cubes, why I use them and which are the best here:

I our cabin we had a kettle, a fridge, a safe and the bed was so comfortable.

I did use our mascot Captain Hudson to measure the bathroom and I think the shower area was bigger than some other entire bathrooms I’d had on other ocean cruise ships in the past.

Check out TUI river cruises here, mine was called Festive Flavours and it’s available next year too! (affiliate)

There was lots of storage and mirrors that went on forever. By the end of this cruise,I knew what I looked like from every angle – which I don’t think I needed to know to be honest!

This cabin made me so excited to get out to explore the rest of the ship. Heading down the corridor from our room we found a coffee machine with cookies. Cookies so close to my cabin did seem risky – but it definitely was something I could get used to.

There were a few seats too and people would often sit there to read a book or to chat. A big staircase in the middle went down to the reception area and here was the cruise director’s desk and the little spa.

We headed out to explore and It was here that I saw the first evidence of just how high the water level were, they really were not kidding.

There were paths and trees underwater that normally wouldn’t be, and although we didn’t find anything particularly Christmassy here it was a nice place for a wander around. I love Germany it’s one of my favourite places to visit. 

Heading back to the ship we went into the big lounge which was decorated beautifully. There was a fake fireplace at one end with Christmas trees and decorations on all of the windows.

The ship is actually over 10 years old, but she was refurbished by TUI in 2020 and I think they did a great job. I did have a quick look at the ship before the refurbishment and I definitely prefer it now.  

Having a look on the App I saw that there would be live music in the lounge later in the day and there would be some Christmas activities like crafts and movies playing.

This space really was the heart of the ship and it would get busier than I expected in the evenings.

When I took my last TUI cruise in 2021 the ship was still at reduced capacity due to Covid so I hoped that it being full wouldn’t make it feel overwhelming. It’s not much fun when you can’t get a seat anywhere and I’m not a massive fan of table sharing in restaurants and I would rather not.

Small lounge towards the back of Tui Skyla
Lounge area near the back of the ship

Heading to lunch we walked through to a little lounge at the back, this is a nice addition as it isn’t uncommon for river ships to just have one big lounge.

At this point, I still hadn’t explored the top deck but I wasn’t expecting to find any sort of lounge up there that’s for sure – maybe in the sunshine but we didn’t have a lot of that. 

Many river ships do have swimming pools, either on the top or inside the ship but TUI river ships don’t have any.

They do have a nice little spa area which is cute but that is it. It’s differences like this that make TUI a budget river cruise ship, swimming pools take up a lot of space and need a lot of upkeep.

Without them, they can fit more people on the ship and keep the prices lower. If that means they can make it cheaper, I’m all for it.

In the restaurant, we were asked if we wanted to do the normal sit-down menu for lunch or if we wanted to go to the Bistro at the back. We decided to do the Bistro this time and the sit-down lunch the next day. 

The food was good at both restaurants and one thing that I loved is that we would often see the head chef chatting with people about their intolerances or dietary requirements if they had any.

Tui Skyla dining room

It’s much easier to do that on a little ship like this which only has 150 guests compared to an ocean ship that might have 5000.

The chef then prepared special menus and meals for those people based on the things that they liked or didn’t like.

For some reason, each table only gets one menu, which is odd – but hey if that is what makes TUI river cruises half the prices of the others I think that is a good trade – half the price, half the menus! 

It would have been good if the menus were on the App, but that’s more of an ocean cruise thing. 

I made myself an odd combination of sandwiches and fruit for lunch and was very happy with that.

The food wasn’t really German-themed, but I hoped that we would be out and about eating things in the Christmas markets anyway, if we found any that was. 

Lunch was usually open from 12.30-2 and dinner was open from 7-9 pm. There were no fixed dining times at all and you just show up within that time. 

We usually were there as soon as it opened, but when we did come later one night they asked us if we would mind table sharing.

I didn’t say no but just stared blankly until the waiter said “Or we could sit you in the Bistro?” So that’s what we did, and it was no problem. We had a table for two for every meal. 

Outside of these dining times, there wasn’t any other food available – apart from those cookies of course. The wonderful thing about a river cruise is that you can just wander off the ship – and if you want to go to Lidl to fill up your bag with Pepsi, you can do exactly that!

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My Favourite Bags – Mia Tui

I bought my first Mia Tui bag in 2017 and I've not used another brand since. They come with me on every cruise and are FANTASTIC. They are beautiful, almost indestructible and have so many pockets and useful parts.

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At this point, I still hadn’t seen any Christmas markets and wasn’t entirely sure where we would be going next. I wasn’t sure if they had fixed things like the air conditioning and toilets from last time, or if we just hadn’t encountered the problems yet. 

On river ships there is no security, no bag searches, no terminals or queuing – it’s so easy to get on and off, and I love it.

Sometimes you do have to walk over or through another ship like we did later in the cruise, but that is about it.

It’s so easy it is to walk on or off a river ship. You do take a little card so they know who’s on land -don’t forget this or they might not know that you’re on land and river ships do actually sail away early sometimes if everybody is onboard – so don’t risk that. 

Emma Cruises Tui Skyla Christmas markets river cruise

Every day on the schedule was a port talk about the next day. This was always very helpful, and I was happy to learn that we would be spending the entire day in Cologne and then go to Dusseldorf where some of the best Christmas markets are.

We would be docking way before I got up and not sailing away until around 11 pm -which is very important when it’s Christmas markets and lights you’ve gone to see. 

Some of my personal favourite lights I saw on this cruise were the ones I watched from my bed as we sailed away.

There’s something so relaxed about river cruising because you can hear the water below you, you can see the view and the lights and shapes just come and go as you’re falling asleep, it’s the best.

The bed that faced the window certainly helped with that and if you are worried about sea sickness on the big ships a river cruise is a great alternative.

There’s no rocking on river ships, you will feel some vibrations when the ship sets sail or when it’s docking – but apart from that it’s very very still.

Unfortunately, there is a group of people who can’t recommend river cruising like this to – as much as I’d like to and that is people who need a wheelchair.

On many river ships there are no lifts/elevators at all, no disabled cabins and it’s quite normal to have to go across or through other ships to get to the land.

We discovered this when we docked in Koblenz and we were parked right up against a Uniworld ship.

When this happened on my last TUI river cruise I had a another cabin right against mine and I did see a lady naked in that situation, she didn’t see me thankfully and thank goodness!

This time the ship was on the other side and I got to walk through the Uniworld ship.

They are a very very luxurious cruise line, and it did make me laugh how they had a little path set up for us to follow through their ship.

I’m sure it was just so we didn’t traipse mud through – but if felt like they were saying “TUI PEOPLE STAY ON THE PATH, don’t touch our ship with your budget cruise hands!”

I do have a Uniworld cruise booked for next year which I can’t wait to show you, so please check that you are subscribed so that you don’t miss that. 

Cologne and Dusseldorf were both beautiful, often rainy and the trickiest part was not getting hit in the eyes with other people’s umbrellas.

There were stalls and stalls selling food and crafts and in Cologne alone there are 6 Christmas Markets with this biggest one here having over 100 stalls.

I like that Cologne Alone, it’s like Home Alone. it’s seriously big business in Germany and most people drink mulled wine and beer. 

My top tip for markets like this would be to always bring coins because a lot of the public toilets cost 50 Cents or a Euro and you don’t want to be caught short after drinking too much beer or wine or Pepsi.

There are free ones around too, but don’t risk it just keep some emergency toilet coins with you, or you could go back to the ship a lot of the time as they dock right in the middle of town so you can just pop back to our own private floating toilet. 

I’m happy to say we never encountered any problems with the toilets onboard like we had last time. On my first TUI cruise we had a haunted cabin door that kept opening too – but that didn’t happen this time.

The one thing that was still a bit broken was the air conditioning, it was just really pathetic – like an old man blowing into the room. – It was cold on this cruise anyway, so opening the doors would cool down the room way faster than any air conditioning could. 

When I cruise on the ocean I usually like to stick to a £100 ($130) per person per night budget but that isn’t really realistic for river cruising.

Usually, it’s 3 or 4 times that and it’s very rare to get a river cruise under £200 per person per night, that’s what I count as a bargain.

In total for this cruise – including all the flights, transfers, drinks with meals and the very fancy cabin I paid £899 ($1146.) This is well under my budget and I was very happy with that.

I booked only a couple of weeks before the cruise and that is based on two people sharing a cabin – so that’s my half.  I travelled in December 2023.

High river water levels, Tui Skyla, Emma Cruises

Check out TUI river cruises here, mine was called Festive Flavours and it’s available next year too! (affiliate)

Before You Go

Find out all about the eventful, rocky Christmas Christmas ocean cruise on P&O’s Ventura here:

P&O Ventura – Christmas Cruise Review, (Entertainment, Ship, Food & More)

Most river cruises aren’t budget-friendly. Most cost hundreds of pounds/dollars per night. Find out what it is like to cruise on a more luxurious river cruise ship here:

Emerald River Cruises – Daily Diary, Virtual Cruise

Taking a Cruise: Recommendations and Resources

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