European cruising; all the luxuries, but on the thrifty side!

European cruising; all the luxuries, but options to save about 35% off regular pricing!

Melk Abbey, Austria, circa 1089, from Danube River, on the Wehrs' trip

This is the story of thrifty European cruising by Ellen and George Wehrs of Stockton and Diana and Bob Boehme of Spokane, WA. The Wehrs are new friends who read my earlier features about travel on Grand Circle Cruises in Europe and the Boehmes are long-time friends who turned us onto frugal travel a number of years ago.

The Wehrs followed our advice (we have done two lovely cruises with Grand Circle); they booked through Grand Circle Travel, ranked top European river cruise company by Conde Nast Traveler in 2015. Starting with the gct.com website, they clicked on “Ways to Save” and then “Last Minute Deals”, saving about 35% over regular fares (they had six weeks to ready for departure).

Their journey began October 19, with a flight into Prague; the ship-board trip began in Linz, then onto Melk, Austria; they were aboard the ship River Aria (three decks, only 140 passengers) for 13 days. They sailed through the Wachau Valley, Salzburg, Bratislava (where they found cheap beer) in Slovakia, and into Budapest. The currency exchange caused them some angst in Hungary, a country not on the Euro monetary system.

Ornate Melk Abbey church, with historic frescos and gold gilt.

The river Aria on the Danube, with 140 passengers and crew of about 40.

They loved the ornate Melk Abbey, Austria, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1089, now partially used as a school for the town. The abbey is perched high on a bluff overlooking the Danube River adjoining the Wachau Valley. Its ornate church offers frescos by Johann Michael Rottmayr and a library with thousands of medieval manuscripts.

George found all these old river towns deep in history and delightful for each morning’s walking tour. In Bratislava, they had coffee and snacks with a local family, a 30-something jewelry maker, her husband a news/PR person for the government, which provided them a wealth of insight into how locals live and feel about their country. The tour of Budapest, including Hungary’s Parliament Building, was a tour highlight.

Their shipboard program director was a hit, beginning every morning by guiding a walking tour through the historic river towns, with each tour member getting an electronic listening device. On these small-ship river cruises, all the walking tours are included in the basic cruise package.

In Prague, a local guide met them in the park and offered details on the “Prague spring” and history of the country. Overall, they had lovely fall weather, with only a bit of rain. They took three side-trips for moderate additional cost, to Melk Abbey, the musical Vienna tour and Schonbrunn Palace tour in Vienna, featuring the staterooms and apartments of Franz Joseph and the imperial monarchy.

The Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest, part of the day's walking tour.

Ellen, a principal in Lincoln Unified, retired three years ago; George, with his own mailing business, retired January this year. They were delighted to meet two Lodi couples on the trip, made new friends with folks out of Minnesota and are contemplating a return trip to Europe’s historic rivers. This was their first international trip; Ellen notes “the only downside to the trip were the long airline flights and the long wait at customs in Los Angeles”.

Bob and Diana Boehme, of Spokane, WA, sailed on their third trip booked through Travel with Alan, a company that purchases blocs of cabins on luxury liners and offers substantial discounts for those who act quickly. They spotted a sweet deal, then flew Spokane to Denver, to Dulles, then to Barcelona, Spain. Travel with Alan staff met them at the airport, delivered them to their ship and arranged connections and hotel stays. Bob adds, “you have to work about 6-8 weeks out, and react quickly because their deals are snapped up within a few days of posting”.

The Sagrada Familia, church by architect Gaudi, in Barcelona, Spain.

They did a three day advance trip to Barcelona and 24 days on a Holland America ship, sailing from Barcelona to Sardinia, Sicily, up the Italian coast to the port outside Rome, then to Luca and Pisa, on to Monte Carlo and back to Barcelona. The cruise continued along the Spanish coast to a Portuguese Island, then eight days at sea to Fort Lauderdale, FL.

The Boehmes enjoyed the trip, “our favorite part was seeing the Gaudi Cathedral (Sagrada Familia) in Barcelona”. The Roman Catholic Church, designed by architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) is a lofty design combining Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms. Construction began in 1882 and still is underway.

The Boehmes add that their ship, with 2100 people aboard (300 folks were from Travel with Alan) and 900 crew is not as intimate as Grand Circle cruises, which typically carry a max of 150 passengers per ship. Additionally, the big cruise liners offer excursions to shore destinations for about $100 per person extra, so it’s easy to run up your bill.  The Boehmes made happy-hour purchases of on-board liquor; on Grand Circle cruises, wine and beer are included at both lunch and dinner.

The Leaning tower of Pisa, Pisa, Italy, part of the Boehme's trip.

Thrifty cruising in Europe with all the luxuries at about 2/3 the cost – have your passports ready, and be prepared to act fairly quickly when you find that “last minute deal” from Grand Circle or Travel with Alan! If you are like my spouse and me – if we can stretch our travel dollars by 30 to 40 percent, that’s a big deal!

For more information: Grand Circle Travel, gct.com; Travel with Alan, travelwithalan.com.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in the west!

Michelangelo's Pieta at St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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