If you've been following me on Instagram, you know that I just returned from an amazing trip to Europe with my family. I've had several people ask me if we were with a group and how we planned such a great itinerary. Here's the answer:
We took a river cruise on the Rhine and Moselle rivers with Viking. I'm not going to lie - it was expensive. But not as expensive as you might think and everything except the airfare was included. Here's the lowdown on why we chose this way to travel and how we did it.
- This was a BIG trip for us. We only have two children and we decided long ago that we would do some sort of awesome trip for all of us when each child graduated from high school. For my son, it was a trip to Washington D.C. and New York City back in 2012. My daughter (who graduates in a little over a month) had her sights set on something international. We've definitely been planning on this trip for years.
- Because we were planning so far ahead, we got a great deal on the cruise. We actually got a 2 for 1 deal and I've seen Viking advertise that from time to time. It really helps to get a vacation for 4 for the price of 2. We booked our trip last September and paid for it in full at that time. We also saved a fair amount on our airline tickets by booking advance, but they were still very pricey. It just takes a lot of moolah to fly four people to Europe.
- After taking the trip. we are convinced that we would not have been able to do it on our own for much less. Our rooms were included. Transportation along 381 miles of scenic rivers was included. All of our meals (fabulous meals and snacks) were included. Guided tours (from expert local guides) for each city were included as well as transportation to those tours. It was not like the experiences we've had on ocean cruises where they are trying to get your money for every excursion and every photo. The only thing extra we paid for was tipping staff members at the end of the trip and for 1 optional excursion to the Mercedes Benz factory in Rastatt (only 19 euros per person). Oh, and we did buy a USB full of pictures for 18 Euros that the staff had taken of excursions and guests throughout the week.
- Traveling with a person with autism, (even though he is very high-functioning) is difficult. It's hard for him to have a different routine every day, yet alone go to a new country each day. We knew this would be tough. We still wanted him to be a part of it. We don't have much longer to travel together as a small family of four before my daughter goes off into the world. We wanted to see a lot of places in Europe, but we needed a home base to come home to at the end of each day. That was so important for Alex and it was actually very helpful for all of us. I'm not sure it would have worked any other way for him. Even with our luxurious circumstances, he was pushed to his limit many days.
- We did not want to take an ocean cruise. We've been on two cruises before and my husband gets pretty stir crazy on those days at sea. We liked the idea of going to at least one port per day and it worked out great. It was just the right balance of scenic cruising and incredible ports. River cruising is just right for us! Turns out it's also just right for a lot of people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Our kids were definitely the youngest guests on the entire ship. Jeff and I might have been the next youngest. lol! We didn't mind though. We met some wonderful people and everyone was super nice to us and several took a genuine interest in both Alex and Riley. Several people told us they had waited their whole life to take a trip like this one and that we were so lucky to be able to do this at our age. We totally agree. We felt really blessed to be there and so grateful we could share it with our children.
I do realize that not everyone is able to afford to take this exact trip and that not everybody would even want to travel this way. If you are young and/or adventurous you could certainly do this by hopping trains and staying in low cost lodgings. When I was in college, I saw a lot of the UK that way. It was a blast! It would not have been fun with my kids though.
Here's a list of the places we visited and what I thought about each one of them. Maybe this will come in handy if any of my readers are planning a trip to Europe any time soon. It will also be useful as I begin to scrapbook this adventure!
Basel, Switzerland - This is where we started our journey and it's beautiful city. I do wish we would have had a little more time there because we mostly visited Basel on a Sunday when nothing was open. Most of Europe really does close down on Sundays. Most towns are pretty much closed up about 6 p.m. as well (except the bars and a few restaurants). I do admire that they take time off instead of working around the clock.
We enjoyed seeing the architecture, bridges, and cobblestone streets. The town hall was very picturesque. The whole city had a nice and comfortable feeling. One of the neat things about Basel is that there it is so close to both Germany and France. There is an area where all 3 countries meet (Switzerland, France, and Germany) so there are a lot of neighboring influences on the culture.
Strasbourg, France - This was one of our very favorite stops. I was not expecting to see storks nests in most of the trees around town. When you walk down the quaint town streets, you run right into an incredible huge cathedral all of a sudden. It's Notre-Dame de Strasbourg and it's the highest structure built during the Middle Ages. The area around the cathedral is very touristy, but still fun. We stopped in a biscuit shop that was filled with all sorts of cookies and treats and I still dream about having such a thing here in Utah.
There is so much interesting history about this area as it was part of France and part of Germany during different times, depending on who was in charge at the moment. Within a century, it changed nationality four different times!
Heidelberg, Germany - This was probably my very favorite stop (although it's hard to pick just one). I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what a beautiful country Germany is. This whole town looked like something out of a storybook. Picturesque seems like an understatement. The town of Heidelberg was fun to visit and we had some of the most delicious pastries we've ever tried. European pastries don't seem to be as sweet as American treats and I think they taste better because of that.
Heidelberg Castle was so interesting and beautiful. It's mostly in ruins because of wars with the French, but you can still appreciate the magnitude and beauty of it all and it had an incredible view of the town below. Our guide gave us a lot of interesting information about Frederick V and his time there. She also showed us a lot of beautiful buildings in town and pointed out the Jewish cemetery on the hill. She told us that the school children in that area take care of the graves in that cemetery so that the horrors of World War II will never happen again. It was really very touching to hear her talk about it.
Koblenz, Germany - Another beautiful place to stop. I love all the tulips they had planted in town and there was a neat tram that went over the river to the top of a hill. This is the area where the Rhine and Moselle rivers meet.
In nearby Marksburg, there is an incredible castle that was built in the middle ages and has never been destroyed. It is very well preserved and it was so neat to tour a place with that much history. My daughter absolutely loved it and we all really enjoyed this stop.
Rüdesheim, Germany - This is the only port that didn't really thrill us. It was still a beautiful town, but everything was closed except for about 3 restaurants (that 6 o'clock thing is real). I loved seeing the architecture, but there wasn't much else to do and we were all pretty tired this evening. I think the main attraction of this town was a wine tasting tour that many guests went on. We don't drink alcohol and most people thought we were out of our minds to be touring the Rhine without sampling the wine. It's a big area for viticulture and we did love seeing the vineyards, even if we weren't interested in the wine itself.
Cochem, Germany - This was one of the most scenic areas of the Rhine and we spent several hours on the top deck of the ship just watching the towns and castles go by before we arrived in Cochem.
We really enjoyed this town and loved seeing the Reichsburg Castle which is believed to have been built in the year 1000. We had the most interesting (and somewhat terrifying) castle historian guide us through the place. During our free time in town, we decided to head into a seedy looking spot for some schnitzel which was delicious. There was a definite language barrier so we just pointed and tried a few things. It was a fun adventure!
Bernkastel, Germany - I've neglected to mention that we had the absolute best weather up to this point in our trip. Every tour guide told us how lucky we were and that it was the best weather they had experienced so far this year. Every day was sunny and cool in the morning and warm in the afternoon and evening. Our morning in Bernkastel was our only bad weather. It rained while we were there, but we grabbed our umbrellas and explored the town anyway. We found a cafe that sold crepes and we went in to order one and the owner said she wasn't making anything right then. We don't know if it's because we were drenched Americans or if she had another reason for not serving us in a place that was marked open. That was really the only strange interaction we had with anyone in Germany.
We bought a few souvenirs in this town. We didn't do a lot of shopping on the trip. There wasn't a lot of time and we also weren't interested in bringing back a lot of chotskies. We wanted to buy things with meaning. Funnily enough, we bought a German beer stein (even though we don't drink beer) because it had a lot of neat carvings on it that reminded us of the places we had visited).
Trier, Germany - Another favorite for us. It was the biggest city we visited in Germany and quite filled with a lot of tourists. The buildings were amazing though and it was interesting to see two very big cathedrals built right next to each other. The most fascinating thing about Trier is that it is filled with Roman ruins. They say it's the oldest town in Germany because the Romans founded a town there in 16 AD under the emperor Augustus. They have the oldest surviving Roman structures outside of Rome. The city gate called Porta Nigra was very fascinating to see.
This was our last city that we visited by ship. Then we got on a tour bus to reach our other destinations.
Luxembourg - A very small and very wealthy country that is an interesting mixture of languages and cultures. Many foreigners live here. Many businesses (including Apple and Amazon) have their European headquarters here because of favorable tax laws. The highlight for us was visiting the American cemetery and seeing the many graves of those who fought in both World War I and World War II.
We didn't spend very much time in Luxembourg, but we did stop by an open air market and purchased a variety of Italian cookies to try. They were delicious!
Paris, France - This was on the bucket list for my daughter and was one of the main reasons why we chose this itinerary. I remember being worried that we would be spending too much time in Germany and wouldn't get enough time in France for her. We all enjoyed Germany so much though that it wasn't a problem at all. In fact, she was a little overwhelmed when we first got to Paris because it was so incredibly crowded. Our guide also warned us about pickpockets and scam artists who singled out Americans and tourists in general (we had some people try to approach us, but we just waved them away and ignored them). It took us a while to convince her that it was just a big city and we would be ok.
Once she got over her culture shock (we all had it a bit after a week of quaint little towns), she embraced Paris. We had a city tour with our group and saw the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. We drove by many other important landmarks. We had a free afternoon so we spent it at the Musee d'Orsay since she loves Impressionist art. It was a beautiful day in Paris and a great way to end our trip.
I sure do miss waking up to views like this each day! I would definitely recommend river cruising through the Rhine river area, especially with Viking. Our crew was fantastic and the ship was beautiful. It was a great way to travel. I'm so thankful to have so many photos to help me remember this trip of a lifetime!