You may have seen the commercials for the Rhine Getaway Viking Cruise on television or online and thought to yourself “That looks marvelous!” The majestic three-story high, four-hundred foot long viking cruise ship seamlessly gliding through the water and surrounded by gorgeous landscape. Flashes of high-culture and decadence swirl around your mind’s eye. Soon enough, you have gone through the viking cruise website, found your package, and booked the plane ticket.
So… Now what?
Let’s be real here. You just dropped a pretty substantial penny for this experience and now you want to make sure you get the most out of it. What if you pack wrong? What if you make a cultural faux-pas and almost cause an international incident? If only you had known!!
You’re in luck. You found this! We just returned from our own Rhine Getaway Viking Cruise and made this guide to get the most out of your international river cruise experience.
While on the trip, I kept making notes. I’ve only traveled to Europe once before in my life and I felt like there was a steep learning curve. How do you prepare for something like this? Should you pay with credit cards or use cash? Do I really need to learn the language before going? What are the city tours like?
I hope to answer all of those questions here. I’ve split up this article into two separate posts. One is for preparation and the other is for what my experience was while we were there. I made these notes as we went on the cruise, polled our group, and wrote some after we’d returned. If you have any of your own advice, feel free to post below! We’d love to hear your thoughts.
MAKE A BUDGET
This is Economics 101, but it can’t be overstated. Expenses pile up very fast when you’re overseas and if you’ve ever been on a cruise, they are known to nickel and dime you for everything. Luckily, Viking really wasn’t like that, but the bar tab alone might put you over budget. Consider these expenses before you go so you don’t find yourself in debt when you come back.
- Tipping – Aside from meals ashore and the customary times you would tip in America, it’s also polite to give your tour guide, driver, and Viking staff €1 or €2 every day. To calculate this roughly, if you do a morning tour and a bus tour in the afternoon on 5 of your 7 days, you should plan to bring €25 – €50 for tipping them during the course of your entire trip. Believe me, your kindness is appreciated.
- Souvenirs – Every tour passes by the gift shop. If you’re one of those people that likes to buy gifts for others (or bring something back for yourself), plan accordingly. The food there is delicious and you can take home anything under $100 without making a blip on Custom’s radar. A nice beer Stein in Germany will set you back €30 – €100+. Souvenir t-shirts were roughly €12. There are also countless little trinkets you might find interesting when visiting the more tourist friendly places.
- Wardrobe – It’s cold over there. If you’re from Florida or you’re one of those people who apologizes when they shake people’s hands, take the time to prepare your wardrobe. Being cold and wet is miserable; and paying thousands of dollars to feel miserable will make you kick yourself. So if you’re going anytime between late Spring or early Fall, buy a scarf. Not only is it smart, you’ll blend in as a local. This is especially true for men. It’s not feminine to wear a scarf. Buy a classic grey scarf and it’ll go with anything. You may also want to purchase some Yaktrax for footing or a nice overcoat. Glove liners with special fingertips to allow cell phone use are also quite… handy. (Teehee) And don’t forget the sunglasses!
- Walking Gear – 90% of your experience ashore will revolve around a walking tour of some kind. Plan accordingly. Wear comfy shoes for walking, water, sunscreen, hand sanitizer and bring a portable power-charger. This thing was a life saver. I took mine everywhere and never had to worry about battery life. Also, pick pockets are rampant over there and they work in teams. A common tactic involves someone to get you to buy something cheap (like a flower, tiny trinket, or by begging). Once you hand over the cash, the pick pocketer will see where you keep your wallet and attempt to lift it from you. I was on my guard and NEVER FELT someone attempt to steal something from the top of my camera bag. Deter them by wearing jackets that cover your pants pockets and tying your zippers together.
Remember a time when you didn’t need a cell phone? It was a long time ago. People now link safety with having one. It’s not just a convenience item any more. They are ubiquitous and the people assume you have one. Not only are some cell phones fantastic point-and-shoot cameras, they offer a sense of security; and when you’re in a place where you do not speak the local language, that feeling want for security is exponential.
At the very least, find out what your cell phone plan is. See how much data, SMS / MMS, or voice calls will cost. I was shocked to find out a friend of mine pays over $1/min when he travels outside the US. It made me appreciate my Google Project FI cell phone that much more. On Project FI, whenever I crossed into a new country, I got a notification and a brief rundown of my costs. I spend anywhere between $0.02 / $0.10 per minute on voice and the same $10/GB data as I do at home. I had unlimited SMS and MMS would pull from my data plan. All in all, I spent a whopping $7.71 for the entire trip. That included all of the data and a 23min phone call to the family on Christmas.
Even if data is cheap, don’t expect the mobile speeds to knock your socks off. Plan ahead and download some helpful apps & packages before you go. I would highly suggest getting Google Translate and downloading the language packs ahead of time. With that app, I was able to read menus, an entire church bulletin, and even carry on a very broken conversation with a German student. It’s hard to explain the moment when you realize how much you take communication for granted. When it’s not there, you just feel uneasy.
LEARN THE LANGUAGE
Repeat after me. “I am a stupid American.” If that phrase irritates you, don’t travel; because the “stupid” isn’t a dig at our intelligence, it just means we rarely give the proper respect to how other cultures operate. The best way you can fight this stigma (and actually have some positive experiences) is if you learn the language and the basic social customs. You don’t have to be fluent, but you need to understand some of the basic phrases. If you don’t have the time to download DuoLingo (FREE) and spend 10 minutes every day familiarizing yourself with the language, you need to AT LEAST learn the following snippets. Learn them so well, you catch yourself responding to friends right before you go on the trip. Especially things like the variations of “please” and “Thank You”. Aim to become fluent in at least the following:
- Greetings (all variations)
- Goodbyes (all variations)
- Thank you (all variations)
- “Help” (or “Help Me”)
- Numbers (1,2,3,etc)
- Transit (Taxi, Bus, etc)
- Hot / Cold
- Here / There
- He / She
- This / That
- Words for Food
Here are some other random bits that helped us fully enjoy the cruise experience:
- Submit Travel Plans with Banks – Call your credit card companies, find out which one has the lowest foreign transaction fees (roughly 3%), and submit a travel plan. This will make it so your cards aren’t locked when you try to use them for the first time. We had the best luck with Visa/MasterCard credit cards that had the NFC chip. (Turns out they actually use those chips over there!) Our Discover had high fees internationally and our AMEX wasn’t accepted most places. Go figure.
- Use the ATM – Don’t use the currency exchanges at the airport! They were charging between 8% – 12% when we went and I think that’s bananas. Just use the ATM and you get the current exchange rate minus an international ATM fee. You can also check if your credit cards even have a “foreign Transaction Fee”. Some don’t and you may be one of the lucky ones! Just do the math. If you want €300 and it’s $1.10 per €1.00…
- Currency Exchange: $330 * 10% (Exchange Fee) = $363 US for €300
- Credit Card: $330 + 3% (Foreign Transaction Fee) = $339.90 for €300
- ATM: $330 + $5 (ATM fee) = $335 for €300
- Plan your Packing – My wife did this and it helped immensely. We listed what articles of clothing we were going to pack and what outfits we would wear on the trip. Then we split up which articles were going in the carry-on and how many were going in checked luggage. If you’re on a direct flight, this isn’t that big a deal, but if you have connections, I would highly suggest packing enough items in your carry on to live for 1-2 nights. Lost baggage is a real thing.
- House / Pet Sitter – This should also be your contact person in case anything goes wrong. You’ve spent thousands of dollars on this trip, and having a pipe burst the second day you’re out can ruin the rest of the experience for you. A friend of ours was actually robbed the night after she left for London on a week long vacation; which is also another reason you should never announce you’re leaving for vacation on social media. As badly as you want to write “Adios, America!”, it’s a very sad fact friends-of-friends watch for easy opportunities to make a quick buck.
- Read Your Itinerary – A couple weeks beforehand, Viking will send you a small package with your trip itinerary and their pointers as well. Take an hour and read through it. Even if you just skim the parts that jump out at you. They have excellent advice because it isn’t their first rodeo and it helped me get even more excited about our trip. It helped set expectations. Definitely worth the read.
I hope these tips help you feel more prepared before going on this wonderful experience. Did you do something that helped make your trip more enjoyable? Post below!