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Is a River Cruise the Easiest Way to See Europe?

by Timothy Baker | February 13, 2023

Note from Wendy: My husband, Tim Baker, has been to all seven continents and more than 100 countries. He’s run with the bulls in Pamplona and bungee-jumped 225 feet. He’s lived on a yacht off Fiji and in a tent in Antarctica—as an expedition photographer for Greenpeace. He was living in Germany and traveling for work all over Europe, as director of photography for a newspaper, when I met him. So you wouldn’t think a cruise on the Danube—a river route he has driven countless times and whose cities he can navigate blindfolded—would hold much appeal. Yet he loved it. Here’s Tim on why his first river cruise, aboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Alsvin, was what the doctor ordered: 

Schonbuhel Castle, Melk

These are the colors of low season. That’s Schönbühel Castle, in Austria’s Wachau Valley, near Melk.

When I lived in Germany—for nearly five years—a lot of friends came to visit, and I always took them to see the castles along the Rhine and the Danube. I used to look at the passengers on the river boats, sitting on the top deck sipping wine, and think to myself: That’s got to be a great way to travel. Fast forward a decade, and I finally got to do it myself. It’s the easiest way I can think of to see Europe. Here’s why:

1. There are no logistics to worry about.

When we travel on land as a family, I’m the one who does the heavy lifting. As the dad, I’m the driver, the pilot, the baggage handler, the activity director, the concierge. On the cruise, I didn’t have to do a thing. I didn’t have to worry about where to park, or a rental-car fender-bender in some tight European parking garage, or hauling our bags from train station to hotel to train station to hotel. We unpacked in Budapest and repacked again seven days later in Passau, Germany. In each city on our route, when we got off the ship, the only logistical detail we had to worry about was what time the ship was leaving, to make sure we got back in time.

Viking Alsvin, Budapest

Our ship, docked in Budapest.

2. The ship drops you off in the middle of town.

You get off the ship and walk right to the main squares and sights. How cool is that? The ship is close enough that you can go back several times during the day; if you’ve bought something heavy or bulky, you can walk back to the ship and drop it off, then soldier on back to sightseeing. In Budapest we were docked right under the Chain Bridge. There isn’t a more convenient address in the city.

Thanksgiving dinner, Viking Alsvin

Our family’s Thanksgiving dinner on the Aquavit Terrace aboard the Viking Alsvin

3. There were no lines or waits.

When we arrived at the airport in Budapest, Viking representatives met us. A bus took us to the ship, and we just walked right onboard. There was no wait to board the ship, no wait for our cabin to be ready. Wherever we were on the ship, there was never more than a 30-second walk to get off. The only lines we encountered were at dinner time, when passengers start arriving at the dining room at 6:45 pm for a 7:00 pm dinner. If you arrive at 7:10 pm, it may be hard to seat four people together. That happened to us on Thanksgiving. But Viking offers a pub menu on the observation terrace, where you don’t have to sit through a long, drawn-out, multi-course dinner. We were more than happy to eat there—and were always served within just a few minutes of sitting down.

The lobby of the 190-passenger Viking Alsvin

The lobby of the 190-passenger Viking Alsvin. Wherever you are on the ship, you’re never more than a 30-second walk away.

4. Docked at cities, there often is free transportation to and from the ship.

In ports, Viking offers a handful of “included tours” that are featured as part of your fare. These are usually history-focused walking tours around towns and cities (there are more options for more extensive touring that incur a fee). Compare that with the cost of renting a car and driving a family of four. We actually did that, at the end of our cruise—we rented a car to drive back to Salzburg—and the rental car cost us $225 per day (not including the cost of parking in Salzburg).

View of Salzburg from its castle, Fortress Hohensalzburg

View of Salzburg from its castle, Fortress Hohensalzburg

5. There’s no nickel-and-diming, and you’re not stuck paying for things you don’t need or want.

Our Viking ship had just what we needed, with no frou-frou or myriad ways of trying to extract more money from me. I’ve taken ten ocean cruises with Wendy and the kids, and those big ships are chock full of stuff we never use. We don’t need a casino, a spa, nightly shows, a beauty salon, or 12 bars to choose from. On our river cruise, there was one bar—and when the bartender saw me, he automatically prepared my favorite drink. I was surprised to find they had a putting green and a shuffleboard court—those came in handy for the kids. The only thing I wished they’d had, but they didn’t, was a hot tub or a sauna—some place to get super-warm after walking around town all day in the European winter cold (some river cruise lines do offer hot tubs and saunas).

 

START PLANNING A RIVER CRUISE

 

Playing golf on the Viking Alsvin

Our boys playing golf on the Viking Alsvin, below the Chain Bridge in Budapest, November 2014

Note from Wendy: The cruise I chose for my family was a Christmas Markets cruise over Thanksgiving. Full disclosure: Viking River Cruises gave us two complimentary cabins. In keeping with my standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Viking’s part, nor was anything promised on mine. The complimentary accommodations did not influence Tim’s opinions in the least. (Trust me, Tim is non-influenceable. I’ve tried for years.)

This trip originally took place in 2014. The story has been updated and fact-checked in February 2023. 

Christmas Market in Passau, Germany

The Christmas Market in Passau, Germany, where our cruise ended. It was an easy ten-minute walk from our ship to the market square.

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