Tag Archives: Hungary

Budapest's Chain Bridge

Is a River Cruise the Easiest Way to See Europe?

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).




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.

View over Belgrade Serbia and Danube river from above in Zemun

How to Make a Low-Season European River Cruise Awesome

European river cruises have grown so popular that often the only time you can get a cabin is low season. But is a low-season cruise worth doing? I’ve taken six European river cruises now—at different times of the year—so I thought I’d lay out for you the pros and cons of low season; how to choose the right ship, cabin, and week; and how to transform a low-season cruise from average to extraordinary. The photos are from my extraordinary Danube cruise from Budapest to Passau aboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Alsvin in November 2014. The seven-day itinerary hit four countries: Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany.

The Pros and Cons of Low Season

Three Pros:

1. You pay less.
A cruise can cost $1,000 per person less in March, April, November, or December than in July or August. Airfare is lower too. Also, when the weather is cold, there’s no pressure to splurge on a balcony, since you won’t spend much time sitting on it. (I recommend a cabin with a “French balcony.” See below.)

Schonbuhel Castle, Melk

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

2. River towns are less crowded.
In high season, river towns can be packed with cruisegoers. In low season, they’re delightfully empty.

Melk Abbey Library

In low season you needn’t fight crowds at famous sites—such as inside Melk Abbey’s famed library of 16,000 ancient books.

3. Holiday markets
Festive Christmas markets, which tend to run circa November 22 – December 24, make every port more charming and fun. I’ve now gone Christmas-market-hopping in Central Europe via rental car, train, and boat, and the latter is by far the easiest. (For the reasons why, plus photos and tips, see Europe’s Christmas Markets: How to Plan the Perfect Trip.)

Bratislava Christmas Market

Bratislava, Slovakia, is charming both with a Christmas market and without one—but it’s better with one.

Three Cons:

1. It’s nippy up on that observation deck.
My favorite place on a river ship is the top deck, where I can watch history glide by and try to sneak into the wheelhouse to chat up the captain. But it’s chilly and windy up there in March and December, with temps in the 30s and 40s. Then again, that’s nothing that the right outerwear won’t solve. Of course, you can always descend one deck to the indoor glass-walled observation lounge and enjoy the neverending free supply of hot chocolate and cappuccinos.

Hungarian Parliament Building, Budapest

Passengers were bundled up as we passed the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest.

2. Your river photos will be grayer.
Compare the photos in this post—all shot on a Danube cruise in November—with those from my July 2014 cruise on the same stretch of river.

Dürnstein, Austria

Dürnstein, Austria, November 2014: Misty but delightfully uncrowded.

3. Darkness falls early.
Fewer hours of daylight mean fewer hours for sightseeing. In November and December, it’s dark by 4:30 p.m. That’s no problem on a Christmas markets cruise, though; it’s a plus, in fact, since nighttime is when the markets light up and are at their most festive.

Bratislava Christmas Market Ice Skating

Here’s an example of the fun things you can do at night at a Christmas market. That’s my 10-year-old in Bratislava.

How to Choose the Right Ship, Cabin, and Week

Time it right.
I’m convinced I chose a great week of the year for my Viking cruise on the Danube: Thanksgiving. The Christmas Markets had just opened, the weather wasn’t too cold yet, the kids didn’t have to miss too many days of school, and the cruise fare was the lowest of the year. Fares for late-November 2015 start at about $1,760 per person for Viking, $1,900 for AmaWaterways, $2,500 for Uniworld, and $2,600 for Tauck. If you’re not going for Christmas markets, look for value in late April or early October.

Vienna Christmas Market

Vienna’s holiday market at Michaelerplatz two days before Thanksgiving 2014.

Ask yourself what shipboard décor, ambience, and indoor creature comforts you’ll want.
Given the cold weather, you’ll be spending almost all your time on the ship indoors. Do you want to live in a plush palace? That’s the ambience you’ll find on Uniworld’s splendidly furnished ships. The S.S. Antoinette, for instance, is the Versailles of river ships and has an indoor cinema and an indoor pool. When it’s freezing outside, splurging on such cold-weather niceties may make sense. If your goal is to spend as much time as possible off the ship exploring, however, you may prefer to spend your money on experiences in port, rather than on shipboard bells and whistles you may never utilize. On my six European river cruises, I have never once watched a movie in my cabin, let alone in a cinema; I’ve been too busy watching the river.

Viking Alsvin Veranda Stateroom

This was my veranda stateroom on the Viking Alsvin—a little tight, but comfy, warm, and efficient.

Decide how important it is to you to have a second shipboard restaurant for gourmet dinners.
Uniworld and AmaWaterways ships have two restaurants: the main dining room, and an alternative small restaurant featuring special creations of the chef. If sitting down to a two-hour, four- or five-course dinner each night is your idea of Nirvana, those ships are for you. If you’re like me, though, you’re snacking on so many delicious local specialties onshore throughout the day (especially if you’re at Christmas markets) that when you get back to the ship, there’s barely room in your belly for one course, let alone five. What I and my family loved about our Viking longship was that we could skip the two-hour dinner in the main dining room and instead grab a quick, easy meal upstairs on the indoor/outdoor terrace—an express-dinner option that exists on few other river ships.


Viking Alsvin Dining Room

Here’s the dining room on the Viking Alsvin.

Think about whether you’ll want a heated indoor pool, a hot tub, a sauna, or spa treatments.
After traipsing around in the cold all day, such things can be nice. Some ships have them, some don’t. The Viking Alsvin has none of them. Which was fine with me because I’d rather spend my money, and my precious time in Europe, getting my pool-and-spa fix off the ship. So my family went to the legendary Gellert Baths in Budapest—which had all the local atmosphere we could have wanted.

Gellert Baths, Budapest

The Gellert Baths in Budapest have a ton of local atmosphere.

Gellert Baths' Pool, Budapest

The Gellert Baths’ pools beat a tiny river cruise ship’s any day.

Consider a cabin with a “French balcony.”

On ocean ships I’ve got to have a balcony—I spend a ton of my time out there—but on river ships I find I don’t use one. That’s because only one side of the river is visible from your balcony, whereas if you’re up on the observation deck or in the indoor lounge, you can see both sides at once. My personal preference, no matter what time of year, is a “French balcony.” A French balcony is basically either a floor-to-ceiling glass door or an enormous picture window that you can open—for fresh air and photos—without paying for outdoor sitting space that you’re not going to use. (You can enjoy your open-air view while sitting indoors.)

How to Transform a Low-Season European River Cruise From Average to Extraordinary

Dress up your cruise with special insider experiences in port.
On our Viking cruise, we made some unusual advance requests of our shipboard concierge. As a result, we ended up with unique local experiences that we will never forget.

The first was in Bratislava, where my goal was for the kids to visit a Slovak school. The ship arranged for a guide—a mom with a child at a local school—to pick us up at the ship and give us a tour.

Bratislava School

Here’s our lovely guide showing us her son’s school in Bratislava.

Bratislava Schoolkids

Kids are the same in all countries.

Bratislava School Soccer

My children played soccer in the schoolyard with new friends.

The best surprise was yet to come.  

Our guide walked us back to Bratislava’s Old Town and to its 13th-century Franciscan Church, where an organist would be giving a concert.

Bratislava Franciscan Church Door

Doug got handed the key to the church.

Bratislava Franciscan Church

Bratislava’s Franciscan Church features a Baroque organ.

We got to sit upstairs with the organist while she played the concert, and then she let the kids try.  They got to play the organ and hear their notes resound through Bratislava’s oldest church.

Bratislava Franciscan Church Organist

The kids got such a thrill out of playing the famous pipe organ (as did their parents).

My other unusual request to the Viking concierge was for our stop in Melk, Austria. I had been to Melk Abbey twice before and wanted to do something new this time. The ship arranged for a guide to take us inside the Abbey’s Minerals Collection—a “library” of semi-precious stones housed in the former private library of the abbot. It’s not on the regular Abbey tour; it’s usually closed to the public, and you need a special key and guide to gain access. It’s an exquisite collection of at least 1,000 stones from around the world. Melk Abbey collected great rocks for the same reason it collected great books for its world-renowned library: Its goal was to capture the finest wisdom from around the world—both literary and scientific. Here’s a list of the minerals on display.


Melk Abbey’s Minerals Collection

Melk Abbey’s Minerals Collection

Melk Abbey Minerals

Cool minerals

Melk Abbey Minerals

More cool minerals

Melk Abbey Minerals Collection

The boys were fascinated. They took dozens of photos.

The good news is that Viking says it can replicate these special-access experiences for other interested travelers. In fact, Viking plans to roll out a pre-trip concierge service in 2015, so that booked passengers can make unusual requests like this well in advance of their cruise.

Book through the right Trusted Travel Expert.
The Trusted Travel Experts on my WOW List create similar WOW experiences in cruise ports worldwide. As an example, on my AmaWaterways cruise on the Danube last July, Gwen Kozlowski, my Trusted Travel Expert for Central Europe, had me making Habsburg-era strudel from scratch with a renowned chef in Budapest; touring the normally-off-limits Bergl Rooms at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna; and getting inside historic private wineries in Austria’s Wachau Valley with a local wine aficionado.

If you’re seeking the right travel agent to match you to the right cruise ship and cabin, reach out to Tom Baker, my Trusted Travel Expert for European River Cruises, but contact him via this trip-request form so he knows you’re a WendyPerrin.com traveler.

Not sure which which Trusted Travel Expert to contact—or which cruise line to choose? Click to Ask Wendy and shoot me your question.


Viking Alsvin, Melk

Returning to our floating home after our day in Melk, Austria.

Stay tuned for my 12-year-old son Charlie’s article about how to transform a normally non-kid-friendly type of travel—a river cruise—into a super-kid-friendly experience. Meanwhile, you may find these other articles helpful:

The Easiest Way to See Europe: A River Cruise
Which European River is Most Interesting for a River Cruise?
Europe’s Christmas Markets: How to Plan the Perfect Trip


Full disclosure: Viking River Cruises gave my family 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 other river cruise lines I’ve sailed on—so you know what I’m comparing Viking with—are AmaWaterways, A-Rosa, Grand Circle, and Uniworld.

Be a smarter traveler: Use Wendy’s WOW List to plan your next trip. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyperrin, and sign up for her weekly newsletter to stay in the know.

Pool at the Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, Peru

How To Book The World’s Best Hotels

TripAdvisor recently announced its 2015 list of the best hotels in the world, and #1 is Gili Lankanfushi, the Maldives resort with the “No News No Shoes” philosophy. A tiny coral island with 45 overwater villas, it’s apparently the ultimate barefoot paradise. I’d love to go. So I reached out to Lindsey Wallace, my Trusted Travel Expert for the Maldives, who—like other Trusted Travel Experts on The WOW List—negotiates special pricing and perks. Lindsey’s rates at Gili Lankanfushi save travelers up to 38% off the best rates on the hotel’s website. Say you went to the hotel’s website and booked an 8-night stay from May 16-24. A Villa Suite would cost you $8,528. Lindsey’s rate is $6,000 and includes round-trip speedboat transfers from the airport and daily breakfast and dinner. Lindsey has blocked off villas in the best locations for his guests, of course. And you get even more VIP perks ($100 dining credit, free spa treatment, free upgrade on arrival, and early check-in/late check-out) if Lindsey knows you’re a WendyPerrin.com traveler (which he’ll know if you use my trip-request form).

The best way to book a five-star or four-star hotel depends on the type of trip you’re taking. If what you want above all is the lowest rate, book it online. You can now even book hotels on TripAdvisor, which compares prices across hundreds of sites to find you the lowest rate. But if you’re staying three nights or more and what you care most about is the best overall experience, from room selection to VIP amenities to enhancements such as private car transportation and an introduction to the location’s hidden gems via an English-speaking local insider, that’s when it makes sense to reach out to a Trusted Travel Expert. I’ll give you an example:

Say you’re headed to Budapest. The Four Seasons Gresham Palace is #4 on TripAdvisor’s list of the world’s top hotels. If all you need is a room, book it online. But say you’re planning to stay three nights. My Trusted Travel Expert for Hungary, Gwen Kozlowski of Exeter International, can get you three nights (including the hotel’s 22% tax), gourmet hotel breakfast daily, roundtrip private car transfers from/to the airport, and—if you use my trip-request form so she knows you’re a WendyPerrin.com traveler—an expert private guide for a three-hour overview walking tour of Budapest, starting at $516 per night (the price depends on your month of travel). If you were to book those components separately through separate sources, the quality would be inconsistent and probably inferior. (I say that because I have personally road-tested Gwen and her Budapest arrangements twice within the past year, and they are superlative.)

Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, Cusco, Peru

Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, Cusco, Peru. Photo courtesy Belmond Hotels.

Here’s another example: Say you’re headed to Peru. The Belmond Palacio Nazarenas in Cusco is #5 on TripAdvisor’s list of the world’s top hotels. My Trusted Travel Expert for Peru, Tom Damon of Southwind Adventures, has negotiated a 10% discount for his travelers who stay there two nights and a 15% discount for those who stay three nights. If all you want is the hotel, book it on your own. If you want the hotel combined with additional arrangements that will add up to a transformative experience of Machu Picchu, reach out to Tom. (To indicate to Tom that you’re a WendyPerrin.com traveler, contact him here.)

If you’ve got a trip in mind that uses five- or four-star hotels and you’re not sure the best way of booking them, just ask. And I’d love to ask you: What’s your favorite way to book hotels online, and why?

Europe’s Christmas Markets: How to Plan the Perfect Trip

When you’re looking for festive Old World holiday charm, you can’t beat Central Europe. Cities and villages decorate and light up their medieval town squares until they look like something out of a fairytale. Stalls sell unique handmade gifts and delicious regional specialties to eat. Locals gather after work to drink glühwein (hot mulled wine with sweet Christmas spices), socialize, and enjoy concerts al fresco. These Christmas Markets are great for holiday shopping too: Most of the merchandise is affordable handicrafts that you can’t find in the U.S. or in any catalog—and notably absent from the experience is the crass commercialism surrounding Christmas that you find in the States.

I’ve now gone Christkindlemarkt-hopping through Central Europe several times (by car, train, and river ship), as well as in several ways (on my own, with my husband, and, just last week, with children in tow), so I thought I’d share my hard-earned tips for how to plan an extraordinary Christmas Markets trip, illustrated with Instagram pics from last week.

1. Hit a mix of big cities and small towns—and more than one country.

It’s surprising how different the markets are in different cities—and how different the handicrafts and foods are. You might see something for sale and think, “I can get that at the next place,” but there are many unique items you won’t find again. The markets vary most by country, which is why country-hopping makes the experience even more interesting. Particularly lovely markets are in Vienna, Salzburg, Nuremberg, Passau, Heidelberg, Regensburg (specifically the Romantischer Weihnachtsmarkt there), Strasbourg, and Dusseldorf, as well as in many small German towns. If you can choose only one city, make it one with several different markets; my recommendation would be Vienna.

Here’s the Christmas Market at Maria-Theresien-Platz. #Vienna #ChristmasMarkets A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


2. Time your trip right.

Each market has different start and end dates. In Central Europe many start in late November and last till December 24, with a few even lasting into the first days of January. Your itinerary will likely be dictated by the dates of the Christmas markets in the cities that most interest you. You’ll find those dates on each country’s or city’s tourism information website.

#Bratislava #ChristmasMarkets in front of the Slovak National Theatre. A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


3. Focus your Christmas-market visits on weekdays.

Factor into your itinerary that the markets are best visited on weekdays rather than weekends, when they can be extremely crowded. Morning is the best time for actual shopping (that’s when crowds are lightest), whereas the best time for photos is at about 4:30 p.m. (the sky turns from overcast to blue at dusk), and the concerts tend to happen in the evenings. Beware Friday and Saturday nights at the markets in big cities.

#Lights, #lanterns, and things that glow at the #ChristmasMarkets at Michaelerplatz, #Vienna A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


4. Don’t rent a car.

Driving between cities with Christmas markets is a logistical pain. Snow conditions can make it difficult, you can’t drive close to the markets because they’re usually in pedestrian-only areas in the old city, and parking is really hard to find. Getting around by train or river-cruise ship is much easier. Train stations are usually within easy walking distance of the old city (where the market is). A river cruise is easy in that you don’t have to worry about the logistics of getting between cities (the ship drops you off in town), and you don’t have to pack things from hotel to hotel. A river cruise is, in fact, what I did last week—aboard Viking River Cruises.

All aboard! Next stop: Bratislava. #VikingCruises A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


5. Forget restaurant reservations.

You’ll be snacking your way through Europe—it’s impossible to resist trying the many intriguing local specialties—and there won’t be space left in your belly for a sit-down meal. Much of the food at Christmas markets you can’t find in restaurants anyway—giant donut pretzels, for instance, or chimney cake. You needn’t even try speaking the local language because at each stand you can point to the food you want.

Have you ever seen a bigger #pretzel? #Salzburg #Christkindlemarkt #gobigorgohome A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere. A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


6. Consider going over Thanksgiving weekend.

Thanksgiving is low season in Christmas-market cities (it’s not a holiday that’s celebrated in Europe), and some of the markets kick off the weekend before Thanksgiving. Last week, on our Danube cruise over Thanksgiving, we managed to hit 12 holiday markets in 6 different cities. If you’ve got kids, depending on their school schedule, Thanksgiving might be the only break that works for your itinerary, timing-wise.


7. See if there are low-season offers.

Some hotels run promotions throughout the period of the holiday markets (with the exception of New Year’s Eve, which is generally expensive).  Sometimes those offers are available only through a destination trip-planning specialist with clout. I booked my pre-cruise hotel stay in Budapest and my post-cruise hotel stay in Salzburg through my Trusted Travel Expert for Central Europe because she negotiates reduced rates that include tax, breakfast, and benefits (e.g., free upgrades based on availability). In Budapest, for instance, she had winter promo rates at the four-star Le Meridien (where I stayed, as one of the Christmas Markets is right downstairs). In Salzburg (a very expensive city), she put me in the five-star Hotel Sacher, where midweek rates in November and December start at $350 (again, that includes tax, breakfast, and certain amenities).

Aerial view of the @hotelsacher’s front desk. I’m not sure hotels get any more polished than this. #LHWtraveler A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on

Look what you can expect in your room at @hotelsacher in #Salzburg. #seriouschocolate #INeedToTakeHomeASacherTorte

A photo posted by Wendy Perrin (@wendyperrin) on


Stay tuned for my advice for choosing the right Christmas Markets river cruise, based on last week’s Danube trip on Viking River Cruises (and the five other European river ships I’ve sailed on).

And if you’ve got any questions about travel to Europe during the holiday season, by all means ask below!