How a River Boat Changed My Mind About Cruises

My two experiences on cruises were enough to have me docked on dry land forever: at 9, we braved the Big Red Boat’s Disney cruise, where I was too old for the kiddie activities and too obnoxious to hang with my parents near the pool; seven years later, I became the babysitter to all of my younger cousins while everyone else spent the night at the disco.

My dad had been looking into river cruises since I’d announced I was moving back to Europe, gathering information on routes and rivers, sharing tips on saving money for a cruise and mapping out a time when all four of us would have overlapping vacation time. I kicked and screamed digitally, instead convincing them to do Ireland, Northern Spain and even Morocco.

how a

An itinerary for the so-called Danube Waltz popped up in my inbox two years ago, announcing that my parents would be meeting me in Munich for eight days of river cruising past castles, vineyards and quaint villages stuck in time along Europe’s most fabled river. I lost out and continued digitally screaming and kicking as the countdown to our trip ticked from months into weeks.

I was skeptical, having become more jaded about travel and packaged tours, and cruises had seemed like a cop out for people who couldn’t be bothered planning their own vacation. But I hadn’t seen my family in a year and was eager to visit Vienna again and experience Budapest in the wintertime. 

Viking Magni Ship

A few months later, I picked my parents up at Franz Joseph Strauβ and set off for Passau, the City on Three Rivers. It was Christmas Eve and we’d missed the markets, several shops and bars were still open so we could stretch our legs before setting off.

A Luxury Experience at a 2-1 Deal

The company runs amazing deals, offering two-for-one cabin rates and airfares. Sure, it’s pricey when you add it all up, but the devil was in the details. A state-of-the-art longboat, comfortable and stylish cabins (even our double in steerage!) and a fleet of friendly staff sets the company apart.

viking state rooms

Oh, and they spend THREE TIMES the money on food per passenger than the average ocean liner! Between free local beers and wines, incredible bar snacks (and a barkeep who just handed us an entire bag of them when he saw us on approach) and regional dishes on every mealtime menu, we practically rolled down the gangway each morning at port.

Customer service was also willing to discount my airfare from Spain and still honor the two-for-one discount – a gold star in my book.

Breaking the Cruise Rules

Two of my biggest issues with cruises are the schedules and the forced sense of community that entertainment directors try to create. Choosing a river cruise meant far less people aboard and more interaction between my family and the staff.

Each afternoon before dinner, we had a briefing on the next day’s city and entertainment of some sort, but that was it. Dinner tables were not assigned and there were no required meetings – instead, a schedule, optional activities and language guide was left on our beds by housekeeping each morning. My sister and I spent plenty of time catching up in our state room over local beers and a barrage of movies available on our TV when at see, or my dad and I sat on the upper deck, bundled up, to watch the castles perched atop cliffs float by.

Cruising on the Danube

Melk Abbey

I’d long thought that these sorts of cruises, which feature older people in their publicity, were for the AARP crowd, but we had about a dozen of us between 18 and 30. No disco, casino or gift shop aboard – these spaces were filled with elegant viewing decks, a library full of books in several languages and larger rooms for passengers.

History, not just Beaches and Booze

My travel style has evolved greatly over the past few years – I went from ticking places off a never-ending list to focusing on more local and meaningful travel – and immersion is important to me. I spend my euros on visiting cities and not beaches, which is one of the reasons that cruising has never appealed to me much.

Being Christmastime in Europe, we packed long underwear and thermal shirts rather than sunscreen, so we were already on the right track.

alleyways in Vienna Austria

munich christmas market gluhwein

Vienna at nightfall

The cruise company’s curated activities included making gingerbread in Passau, visiting home stays outside Bratislava and wine tasting near Dürnstein. We’d take advantage of morning tours with guides over walkie talkies and then meander until we found a place for lunch and a beer. Afternoons once we’d lifted the anchor meant food demonstrations, lectures on composers and local lore, or even optional tours of monuments. 

Local Guides and no Required Activities

The company uses local guides – we had a university lecturer guide us past Rococco buildings in Passau, a grade school teacher and life-long resident of Bratislava recount stories of a Communist upbringing and our cruise director himself gave us tips for his favorites cafés and food markets in Budapest. Even with just a few hours in the cities we visited, we skipped over the glossy tourist spots and went straight to the heart of a city.

christmas market in Salzburg Austria

Plus, we were given 100% freedom to take the tours or not, and those we did take were done via Whisperbox. No annoying umbrellas, recited monologues or enormous groups – and in each port-of-call, we found ourselves with different families. We skipped Vienna’s bus tour to see the Spanish Horse Riding School and have lunch with my cousin and passed on a guided tour of Salzburg’s city center in favor of the merry Christmas market adjacent the cathedral.

Family in Budapest

Our trip through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary (uh, and then my jaunt in Romania) felt like a perfectly planned vacation that we didn’t have to actually plan ourselves that still left room for us to make the trip our own. The pace, comfort and customer service was unbeatable.

While in Chicago this summer, I flipped through the 2016 promotional brochure, which announced open seas trips to Scandanavia. Maybe it’s time to start considering cruising vacations.

Have you ever done a river cruise? What were your impressions, and where did you go?

My Top Tips To Stay on a Budget While Traveling

It’s officially summer when I’ve had my first granizada, a lemon slushie synonymous with the sweltering season. Summer means freedom from work, from alarm clocks and from all of those ‘adult’ things for two blissful months. And, if I’m lucky and have applied for unemployment, a trip!

Saving Money in Europe

Many ask me for tips on staying on budget when traveling around Spain and further afield, which I’ve rounded up into seven quick travel tips:

Timing is Important

Even if you are visiting a swanky destination, you can stay on a budget if you time it right. You should visit your preferred destination after high season times if you want to save while you travel. Prices skyrocket in Spain in July and especially August, so if you can, travel outside of these periods, particularly if you’re headed to the coast.

Plan your meals

If you know that the restaurant around the corner is expensive and the food served isn’t really good, you should look for options and save money. For this, it is important to do some research and find some economical restaurants that taste great, too! Search blogs, Trip Advisor and newspapers for the skinny on where to chow down (or, check out my section on Food in Seville).

wine on the table in spain

Another alternative is to cook while on vacation. Spain is truly Europe’s fruit basket, and shopping locally and spending an evening in cooking with a glass of wine could mean more money for an experience or day trip.      


It is important to be specific with car rentals and look for car rental coverage. Take advantage of insurance and credit cards that have car rental coverage. Here in Europe, the size of the car even matters. Choose the smallest car possible because it will help you save money when refilling gas, and note that automatic cars are generally pricier.

If you are traveling around with kids, you might think of bringing the car cheap and adding it to your luggage. However, it is advisable to ask the car rental company about their rental prices for the same and compare them. Choose an alternative that is cheaper. Remember, if you are adding it to your luggage, you might have to bear the charges for extra luggage.


Rail, metros, and subway are often the best alternative because it is quite cheap, especially if you are traveling to Europe. However, it is better to choose a slower mode of transport if flying is too short. This gives you an advantage of sleeping while traveling, too.

Learning in India - Riding the Train

Even while moving around, it is better to avoid taxis and use public transport instead. For travel between cities, consider Bla Bla Car, a car sharing program in Western Europe that will automatically calculate your fuel charge.  


Watch out for the exchange rate and keep checking it regularly. Avoid exchanging dollars from such exchange centers, and instead exchange money at home to have cash at hand, or take from an ATM. Most big banks will have a partner in Europe from which you can withdraw at no charge. If they don’t, take larger amounts to cut down on silly charges.

The dollar is quite strong against the euro, so now really is the time to travel to Europe!

Mark the tourist spots

If you know where and when are you planning to travel, you will spend less time wandering around. This will help you save time and money on touristic sites, transportation and maybe even a pair of walking shoes!

bring a map on a trip

Always make the local tourism office you first stop for free maps and discount codes. Many museums in Spain have free days or afternoons that you can take advantage of, thus significantly reducing your spending.

Plan in advance

Air tickets and hotel bookings should be done in advance when possible. There are a number of sites that offer exclusive packages that can help you get the best prices on your bookings. Expedia is one of the best options available for you, and you can even use discount coupons for Expedia.

Note: If you are booking your tickets in advance, check your airline’s site regularly for updates or set up a price tracker.

madrid street signs

Budget travel is possible in Europe, even in the peak summer months. Your main ammunition is research, planning, and price comparison! Spend those American dollars here in Spain, please!

If you wish to contribute with a tip or two, please post them in the comments!

Take the Grilled Cheese and Run: How a Desperate Family Committed a Christmas Crime

It was on my fifth Christmas abroad that my father decided to make us accessories to a crime.

Since moving to Spain, my family had made the effort to follow me around the globe. We’ve spent Christmas with the monkeys on the Rock of Gibraltar, making gingerbread in Germany and visiting the cliffside Monserrat Monastery near Barcelona. In seven years in Europe, I’ve spent just one Christmas in my native Chicago.

But in Killarney, desperation meant my father had to pillage a hotel cafeteria for the sake of his hungry daughters.

How a Family Stole in Ireland

I come from an Irish family (red-headed, freckled and deathly pale are my hallmarks). A family that marches in local Saint Parick’s Day parades. Still has ties to the homeland in Country Mayo. One whose prized heirloom fiddle cries with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” at every wedding. In fact, my surname is synonymous with Irish sport. The Emerald Isle has always been my father’s greatest travel dream, so he booked round-trip tickets to Ireland for Christmas without asking anyone’s permission.

But this vacation was doomed from the beginning – satellite photos showed the entire UK covered in snow. This meant a seven-hour ground delay for me in which my mom texted me, “R U hungry? I bought u a bagel” followed 20 minutes later with “Srry ate ur bagel.” I arrived famished and grumpy, and having not seen my family for a year, they were less than thrilled at my reception.

Dingle Peninsula

And there was more: the frost meant the pipes were frozen solid, leaving us without running water to shower or brush our teeth. Roads were shut down on the Ring of Kerry and thus rerouted us more than once, and sites that claimed to be open during the holidays didn’t bother to post that the snow had them shut down. My sister even came down with the flu and missed seeing Cork and exploring Amsterdam on my family’s layover.

But our lowest moment came on Christmas Day, where we had to stoop as far as breaking the law to save the holidays.

cliffs of moher

Christmas Eve dawned bright but cold in Galway on a bustling shopping day. We awed at the Cliffs of Moher before heading to Limerick for the night. After we shared a hearty Christmas meal, my dad and I went to the bar for a drink. My vision suddenly became cloudy and my head began to pound.

Apart from inheriting a love of beer from my Irish father, I also got his tendency to get sinus infections while traveling. I called it an early night and hoped to be over it the next morning (I also, luckily, got my mother’s iron immune system).

Having plowed through Angela’s Ashes on the long flight delay, I was eager to walk around Limerick that morning before setting off for the Dingle Peninsula. It was just as desolate and depressing as Frank McCourt describes – the morning still was interrupted by an occasional car passing by, or the honk of a goose. Squat, dilapidated houses lined the “historic” quarter.

Limerick Ireland

My dad chucked his map in a nearby bin, and we chucked the city.

Climbing into the car, I warned my family that we’d have trouble finding a place to eat on Christmas Day. Dad came to the rescue with a gas station English breakfast – soggy hash browns, pale grey sausages and a pack of cookies for good measure.

The ride around the damp Dingle Peninsula that morning was torture: every pothole sent a jolt of pain through my head and any time we stopped, I’d have to be coaxed out of the car. I grew hungry and restless to just stop somewhere and have something warm to drink, but storefronts were dark and the nearest gas station was back in Limerick. 

Galway Ireland

If I was grumpy and starving, my sister was far beyond that point. We passed the majority of the day in absolute silence.

Driving into Killarney, Mom spotted a sign for McDonald’s. “Don!” she squealed, “TURN AROUND! McDonalds will surely be open!”

After another strike, my dad pulled into a hotel nearby. We kept the car running to stay warm, but it took him 20 minutes to return.

He handed us each a Styrofoam plate with a steaming grilled cheese and french fries. “I told them we were guests at the hotel and that I’d check in once we ate, and they allowed me into the kitchen to make sandwiches,” he snickered as he put the car into first and sped off.

Guinness in Ireland

As I ate a tasteless grilled cheese and some cold french fries once we had safely escaped the scene of the crime. I smiled at my father, who was rifling through his suitcase for some more sinus congestion pills. 

Even at the most desperate of moments (and the most disastrous of family vacations), I knew my father would do anything for us, particularly if it included a good story and a plate of food.

Have you ever done anything desperate on your travels?

Visiting Munich’s Christmas Markets

Exploring Munich's Christmas Markets

I’d long been hoping to visit Germany during Christmas time. After five trips to Deutschland during the coldest months of the year, I finally made it to Oktoberfest, an absolute dream for beer lovers.

But shortly after my trip to the Weis’n, my parents decided to spend Christmas on the Danube River aboard a river boat, leaving from Munich. Glühwein for all!

Christkindlemarkt Munich

After a chaotic trimester, I tacked on a Friday and Saturday onto a weeklong cruise to eat my way around the Bavarian capital. Flight delays dropped me into the city near midnight, and after fumbling around my hostel dorm room to try to change into pajamas, I woke up still fully clothed and running late to meet my cousin, Christyn.

The hostel workers pointed me towards the city center and circled no fewer than ten markets around town, most of which were clumped around Marienplatz. Even before 10am, the streets smelled of seared meat and sweet, candied nuts, but my sensors detected something else: the GLÜHWEIN. 

The delicious gluhwein

But in all seriousness, is there anything so delightful?

I chose a booth right in front of the statue that gives Marienplatz its name, and it seems she had the same idea: as soon as I’d wrapped my paws around the steaming cup, she’d sidled up next to me and ordered one, too.

The oldest Munich Christmas market, then called Nicholausmarkt, dates back to the 14th century, and  the city now has themed stalls all around town, from traditional to children’s to even a medieval markets that sells pelts and wooden swords. We began at Marienplatz, which has traditional offerings like Christmas decorations and food – and slowly worked our way around the periphery markets.

Visit the Munich Christmarkets

Munich Christmas Cookies

Christmas time in the Munich markets

peacocks in Munich


Eating brats in Munich

Christmas Time in Europe

Christmas markets and ornaments

How delicious is Gluhwein!

In the end, my money went not to whimsical dolls or ornaments for my fake Christmas tree, but to food and drink to keep me warm! I’d see more markets in Passau, Vienna and Salzburg on that trip, but Munich’s is more magical – even for a Scrooge like me!

Interested in reading more about Munich? Check out my posts on Oktoberfest, on my thoughts on Neuschwanstein and the surprising village of Passau.

Have you ever been to Munich or any Christmas markets?

The Best-Kept Secrets in Florence

I admit I’m terrible at keeping secrets, but only the kind that you’re bursting to share with people. The kind where no one is being talked about and no one will get hurt.

I would have loved to keep the Novio completely in the dark about our Tuscan holiday until we arrived to the airport in January 2013, but as someone who hates surprises, it was easier to tell him to pack for a weekend of eating and drinking, with a little bit of walking around in between courses.

It’s not secret that I love Italy and just about everything I’ve experienced – my great aunt married an Italian just off the boat, and together they founded Chicago-based Italian food import company Dell’Alpe. Italian food and language have always been present at my family gatherings. The Novio had never been to anywhere north of Cagliari, so I bought him round-trip tickets, a secret I kept for less than three hours. 

Having spent my first solo trip in Florence, the city’s main sights held little mystique, so I got a local to spill the beans – Tiana Kai, an American married to a Fiorentino, who sent me a list of bars, enotecas and hole-in-the-wall trattorias. But everything went out the window when we arrived cold and hungry to Florence after 10pm.

Despite wrong turns, nearly scratching our rental car and being at the inability to find our hotel, the concierge suggested a hidden trattoria for dinner. When I say hidden, I meant really was – even after an exhaustive Internet search, I still can’t find the name. It was near the Mercato Centrale and just as nondescript as every family-run restaurant on the street.

We arrived just before the kitchen closed around 11pm. Ushered to a table and poured glasses of wine, we blinked blindly at the menu, which was all in Italian. A group of American students chattered nearby, crinkly their glasses of Chianti together every opportunity they got.

I found two words I knew – ravioli and gorgonzola – and settled on it. The Novio ordered another ravioli dish and a plate of antipasto. We broke a no-pasta-or-rice-before-bedtime rule.

The restaurant’s kitchen was just over his right shoulder, so I watched the chef hand roll the pasta, shape the raviolis and stuff what looked like pulled pork into the small squares of pasta. Lumps of cheese went into mine, which were then tossed in a wine sauce and garnishes with walnuts. The Novio had unwillingly chosen wild boar, which is also the unofficial mascot of the city (hence the photo).

The following morning dawned cold but bright. I walked the Novio past all of the important sites – the Uffizi Galleries, the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio. We vowed to spend our euros on food and drink, and therefore skipped the lines at the Medici palace for an espresso in the square, just steps from the iconic David statue.

We ended up near Santa Croce at noon. Entrance was a few euros, but as soon as the Novio found out it was Franciscan, he was willing to fork over the equivalent of a nice glass of wine. Though not a secret, hidden church, this basilica houses the remains of illustrious Italians, like Galileo and Michealangelo, in addition to providing respite from the cold sun. It’s a simple church, though its 16 chapels house frescoes from celebrated Italian artists.

We sat in the adjacent plaza after our visit,and I turned on my data to try and find a hole-in-the-wall pizza place I’d visited a few years back and found an open wi-fi code at a nearby wine bar. 

A college friend of mine had studied in Florence and recommended Il Gato e la Volpe. I had a meal there five years before, during my first trip alone in 2008. The waiters had sat me with an Italian American family who shared their wine and breadsticks with me as I devoured a pizza by myself.

Secret or not, this is as dive bar as classy Florence gets – wood paneling, rickety chairs and the smell of burnt pizza crust. We shared a liter of beer, a pizza and gnocchi with pesto for less than 12€, the price of a plate of pasta or individual pizza in a moderate restaurant near any major site in the city. (Via Ghiballina, 151, near Santa Croce. Open Daily)

We walked off our plates in the neighborhood, exploring roadside monuments and tucked-away piazzas before ending up back at the Arno and within view of the Ponte Vecchio.

The last place on our list was Piazzela Michelangelo – not an off-the-map place by any means, but most tourists don’t know it’s accessible by car. Tiana had clued us is, so we grabbed our bags from the hotel, shifted into first gear, and climbed the winding street in our Fiat.

The views were stunning on the clear day. We traced our steps through the narrow roads of the so-called Cradle of the Renaissance, from the Mercato Centrale to the Duomo to the backstreets of Santa Croce.

We were soon on the road to Bologna, food capital of Italy, where we’d skip again the leaning towers in favor of pasta, oysters and wine. Even in Emilia Romagna, we’d find locals willing to lead us to local foodie hangouts and invite us to rounds of grappa in the university area.

We left Italy after 48 hours, easily a few kilos heavier and without seeing any major sites. Unless, of course, you could seeing the Ponte Vecchio from afar.

Have you ever been to Florence or Bologna? 

Is Neuschwanstein Castle Worth It?

Sometimes, as a traveler, I struggle with taking the road less traveled and getting off the beaten path. I also struggle with not using idioms because I not-so-secretly love them.

Anyway, I am the first to admit that I love what everyone else does. Duh, that’s how they get popular in the first place.

Munich has always been a city in the back of my mind to see, just as Spain was since I first learned to say, “Me llamo Cat.” After attending Oktoberfest, I was hooked. Taking advantage of having my family’s arrival to the Munich Airport for our Viking cruise, I planned three nights in Bavaria.

I knew I could see Munich in a day, exploring its Christmas markets and beer halls with my cousin, which left me a full day for going elsewhere. Top contenders were Dachau, Nuremburg and Neuschwanstein Castle.

By the time I boarded my flight, I was still undecided and started considering whatever was cheaper. 

I arrived to my hostel after midnight, falling asleep with the internal wrestle of to do what was popular and what was probably better for the history nerd in me. The following morning, as I set off to meet Christyn, a group of Brazilians introduced themselves and revealed they’d be renting a car to drive to Neuschwanstein the following morning, in case I felt like joining. I politely turned the invitation down, imagining I’d choose to go to Dachau.

An hour later, as we sipped our first glühwein in front of the Rathaus, I announced my plight: visit a castle, pay respects at Dachau, or nerd out in Nuremburg. Christyn revealed Neuschwanstein was one of her favorite sites in all of Germany (this, from the girl with just as much adventure and curiosity as me, just types “schloss” into her GPS and follows the highway to a different castle on free weekends). Without so much as a second thought, I resolved to follow her advice.

The following morning, I boarded the first train out to Füssen, the end of the line. The train was chock-full of tourists, and I cursed the 44€ train ticket and the two-hour trip and the two girls seated opposite me who talked on their phones the entire time. I was moderately hung over from all of the wine and beer yesterday, and my stomach churned from overdoing it on the sausages, too. 

The landscape went from industrial to flat and without so much as a trace of a village for hours. By the time we got to Füssen, a small town near the foothills of the Alps, I’d gotten over myself. Like cattle, everyone emptied out of the carriages and directly onto the bus bound for Hohenschwangan. I kept my nose pressed to the glass to see the fairytale castle that inspired a hundred, um, fairytale castles, but the swarm of fellow tourists gasped as it came into sight. 

Built as a retreat for Ludwig II in the 1870s and 1880s, the castle is visited by more than 1.4 million people each year. On a crisp day just before Christmas, the whole place was alive with activity, and I felt like there were 1.4million people there with me. I chose to walk on foot to the nearby Hohenschwangau castle first.

I overheard two other tourists claim that the best, unconstructive view of Neuschwanstein could be seen from the chapel built right into the mountain. I eagerly climbed, Camarón ready, but it was hard to see the celebrated castle. 

Already feeling a bit disappointed with German Disneyland, I decided to forgo entering the castle, as I already felt overwhelmed by the number of tourists, the wait time (nearly two hours!) and the cost of the guided tour (12€ or 23€ to go into Hohenschwangau, too). The train ticket had already cleaned me out of cash, so I grabbed a grabbed a glühwein at a small cafe in town before starting the trek up the hill.

The thing about traveling alone is that you have no one to pull you one way or another and no one to take pictures of you. I grumbled as I looked for someone who spoke English or Spanish to take my picture (see above). In the two hours I’d spent at Neuschwanstein, I didn’t feel inspired or awed or even able to find a reason why it was worth making the trip.

In the end, I didn’t think visiting Neuschwanstein was worth the day or the money. The train trip was long, the cost to visit the castle itself was steep, and I worried I’d have to photoshop the hell out of my photos to remove the other baseball caps and elbows that surely snuck into my shots.

Don’t get me wrong – I will go to the Eiffel Tower every time I am in Paris, and I will enjoy it. I gleefully step into Plaza Mayor in Madrid and marvel at the fact that it was once a bull ring. Seeing the Taj Mahal was an intense experience between the heat, the people and the sheer beauty of the place.

But Neuschwanstein didn’t do it for me, even after I’d braced myself for the tourists, the prices and the cold.

Turning on my data to search GoEuro for busses back to the train station, I found I had enough time to walk down the hill, grab a few postcards and stand in line for the bus back to Füssen, where I would kill nearly two hours before the train back to Munich (and I ran into the Brazilians there, after an all night binge).

Füssen, as it turned out, was a lovely surprise to end the day. The Christmarket on the main shopping street was small but lively, and the morning bustled with shoppers and partygoers. I camped out on a bench with a beer and a bratwurst and listened to Tyrolean horns toot out Christmas carols.

Later that night, after wandering in the Christmas markets, I called the Novio in the hostel’s atrium before saddling up to the bar for another weisserbier. The bartender addressed me in Spanish, confessing to having overheard me on the phone. Inquiring about my time in Munich, I recounted my day and my disappointment with the castle.

My heart sunk when he told me that I could have bought a youth pass or even used my Carnet Joven to get a hefty discount on the train at 10am, something I would have known if I had actually done more research, as I intended to. I gulped down my beer and ordered another, sharing travel tales with the worldly bartender. Like many travel fiascos, a drink and a laugh do me wonders.

I’d consider going back for half the cost, and perhaps during the warmer months. I feel at home in the mountains, despite being from the Prairie State, and find Neuschwanstein more breathtaking in the summer. 

Love Germany? Been to the-Castle-with-the-Impossible-Name? Or have destinations that didn’t live up to your expectations? Check out my other posts that you’ll liebe:

A Guiri Guide to Oktoberfest // Passau, the City on Three Rivers // Karnevals of Cologne


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