On the final day of summer vacation, before my teens went back to school, we squeezed in one more day trip: a Rhine River cruise.
Often overlooked by tourists who travel to Germany for Oktoberfest, castles, beer, and WWII history, the Middle Rhine River Valley is a gem worth exploring. While the Rhine river begins in Switzerland and goes all the way up to the North Sea through Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands, the sweet spot is right near Frankfurt which makes for a fantastic day (or overnight) trip for castles, medieval history, and some wine. Germany has some of the best white wine in the world, rarely exporting the good stuff to the U.S. so you have to get it while you’re here.
If you’re visiting the Frankfurt area for more than a few days, I highly recommend doing a Rhine River boat tour. Count on it taking at least a full day and maybe even an overnight if time allows.
We made a few mistakes during our trip so to save you some headaches, I’ll pass along our lessons learned.
Mistake 1: Not Having a Plan
Decide with your family what you want to see and do before buying boat tickets. The Rhine has much to offer, and is known for three main things: wine, castles, and their adorable accompanying towns. It makes for a great combo for families because kids can explore castles while adults do wine tasting or local shopping. Bring along the grandparents and there’s enough sitting to satisfy those who have a little trouble moving around. [Note: During the week, these tours can be overloaded with elderly people.]
From Rüdesheim to Koblenz, the most scenic portion of the Rhine, castles and vineyards line the hills. Quite honestly, all of these small towns are worth exploring. Each has its own history, castle, and likely winery; it’s a great place to “experience Germany.”
I was overwhelmed by the tour choices, including where to start, how far to go, where to stop, etc. KD Tours operates the majority of the daily cruises going up and down the river. Bingen-Rudesheimer also operates shorter tours. If the Frankfurt area is where you’re day-tripping from, my suggestion is start in Rüdesheim or Mainz. Rüdesheim is a little further down the river (the river flows north) and most of the good sights to see start there. If Mainz is easier to transport to, then go from there, but it will make for a longer journey. A round trip ticket on KD tours will cost will cost around €23 for adults and €11 for students. Children under 14 get a bigger discount.
For a day tour, it’s best to decide on a final destination if you plan to take the return boat trip back rather than returning via the train or spending the night. Before boarding with your squad, agree on what to see and where to stop. For example, there are about 26 castles between Rüdesheim and Koblenz. Not all are necessarily open to the public and some only open during certain times, but that’s a lot of potential castles to explore.
TravelTeening Tip: Don’t try to combine too much into one trip. With lots of potential things to see and do, the travel time on the boat can be considered part of the “adventure.” Rüdesheim offers great charm for visitors so spending time before or after the trip is worth the effort.
Mistake 2: Misreading the Timetable and Missing the Boat
Now here is a completely fun project for your teens: Show them the boat timetable.
It took five of us huddled around the table to decipher the schedule. (The one we had was in English, but still). All well-versed in train schedules, this one still confused us. With lots of discussion, one thing led to another, and we all came to the conclusion our boat left Rudesheim at 9:30. When in fact, it was supposed to leave at 9:15 a.m. (see above). Arriving promptly for our expected departure, we sadly watched the boat sail away.
The boats stop only to let passengers off and the new ones on. No lingering. Then they quickly sail away. Be there on time.
TravelTeening Tip: Talk to the attendants at the docks and on the boat if there is confusion. If making a stop before your final destination one way, you’ll need to get a stamp from the information center on the boat. They will make a note of where you get off and where your final destination is. (See Mistake #1: Have a plan.)
Mistake 3: Not Considering the Weather
While there is an indoor part of the boat, the allure of this cruise is to check out the spectacular views. This whole experience would have been less wonderful on a rainy cold day. If you have bad weather, taking the train which follows the same route, might be a better option since you still get the views but at a faster pace between towns.
The high season is between April and October, which means more boats and times. Any beautiful day in spring, summer, or fall is a perfect day for a river tour. Several boat operators have some trips during Advent, but they appear to serve a different purpose, mainly focused around the Christmas markets. You will still get to see the castles only in winter and the weather could mean you spend more time inside the boat. But with family visiting, this could still be a festive way to see the area and stay warm.
TravelTeening Tip: The water makes things cooler than on land so dress in layers. There are places to escape the sun, rain, and cold. But be prepared for anything as you may be on the boat a long time. See next point.
Mistake 4: Underestimating How Much Time is Spent on the Boat
We started at Rüdesheim and made our way to St. Goar, which took approximately two hours. The boat served drinks on the top deck—coffee, hot chocolate, water, soda, wine and beer—so for the morning ride it was lovely to sit outside and enjoy the scenery. The ride home was longer because we were going upstream so it took three hours. The adults shared a bottle of local German wine and it made the trip a little more authentic. We brought our own food on board; however, there was a full-service restaurant downstairs on our boat.
In retrospect, five hours on the boat in one day was a long time. If we had planned a little better, doing an overnight would have allowed us more time in a few towns and less time just sitting on the boat. Boredom set in after four hours of cruising.
TravelTeening Tip: If a round trip journey is part of your plans, bring things to do (board games or cards), especially for that ride back upstream. Also, we had backpacks full of snacks/lunch. I’m sure the food down below was lovely, but it was nice to have enough food to keep people’s belly’s full.
Related: How to Spend an Afternoon in Cologne
Mistake 5: Skipping the Small Towns, Not Seeing a Castle
While these cruises are not meant to be a hop on/hop off type of tour, start early enough and one short stop along the way is possible.
We stopped in St. Goar to see the Rheinfels Castle. The walk to the castle is clearly marked and takes about 10 minutes. If your squad can’t hack the walk, there is a shuttle stop right near the port departure point. At the top is not only the castle, but a hotel, which might be a fun option for an overnight adventure.
This particular castle ruin is a good one with lots of nooks and crannies for kids to wander through and climb around. There is a small museum with information in both German and English (always appreciated). And the view from the top of the tower is perfect for all the Instagramers.
TravelTeening Tip: Find a town which offers something for everyone and make that your turn around point. Spend more time there, have lunch, explore, shop, and then head home. A few recommendations include Bacharach, St. Goar, Bingen, or Braubach.