A Baltic Sea voyage on Viking Cruises proves just the ticket to satisfy both our 30-something writer and her baby-boomer mom.
When I tell friends that I recently took my 66-year-old mother on a two-week cruise, their reaction is always the same. “Wow, that’s so nice,” they remark, followed quickly with, “I could never do that.”
I get it. When it comes to travel, my mom and I aren’t super compatible either. We have markedly different tastes, interests, and even basic ideas about what a vacation should be.
We learned this the hard way—by butting heads on mother-daughter excursions to China, Japan, Spain, Morocco, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, and Hawaii. Both fiery by nature, neither of us has the good sense to back down when the drama ratchets up. On paper, we sound like a hellish match. The reality is more nuanced, of course.
Taking a cruise would give us precious days to catch up, bond, and make new memories in strange lands, just as we had done in the past...
I like traveling with my mother because she is upbeat, funny, and overflowing with joie de vivre. She flouts convention in everything she does, from the colorful outfits she wears (most of them handmade) to the work she creates as a mixed-media artist. In turn, my mother enjoys my services as the logistical ringmaster of our little traveling circus. I handle the bookings and transportation, the currency exchange, and the language barrier. I do the research and planning, often scheduling our trips down to the millisecond.
Now that my mom and I live 1,133 miles apart (she in Pennsylvania and me in Minnesota), it’s harder than ever to carve out quality time together. Taking a cruise would give us precious days to catch up, bond, and make new memories in strange lands, just as we had done in the past, but without the stressors of cramped flights or unpacking and repacking suitcases every other day. The potential upsides of a cruise, we decided, outweighed the risk that one of us might get flung overboard in the heat of an argument.
Spoiler alert: I’m writing this, so it means we survived. But only because we followed a few key rules. Here’s what worked for us, and why you should consider these tips any time you travel with a family member whose M.O. doesn’t align perfectly with your own.
Be honest about everyone’s limitations.
There are a gazillion cruises in the world. To narrow down the options, you have to level with yourself about your parent’s physical abilities and mental hang-ups.
My mom doesn’t move like she used to. I’m half her age, so it’s hard for me to understand how a bad back can make it difficult to walk great distances or stand for long periods of time. But for that reason alone, I knew adventurous cruising expeditions were off the table.
The next issue we had to grapple with was our contrarian travel styles. I’m down for anything that has me experiencing a new corner of the globe, accommodations be damned, but “roughing it” is not in my mother’s lexicon. Her desire for five-star comforts ruled out any boats with hostel-like bunk beds, cocoon-tight showers, and hubcap-sized portholes.
The itinerary presented another challenge. My mother is well-read and interested in the arts, but she isn’t keen on big cities, while I love a huge glittering metropolis. We needed a tour that balanced a bit of everything. Cruising in cooler climates was another must, given how miserable my mom gets when sweating.
In talking honestly about our needs and wants, we discovered a few points we saw eye to eye on. Neither of us wanted to be on a megaship, nor trapped at sea with hundreds of kids squealing down saltwater slides or whooshing past our faces on a zip line. We wanted a quiet ship. A classy ship. No fistfights at the shrimp buffet, no drunks falling off bar stools at midnight karaoke.
When we added up those factors, all signs pointed to Viking. The 21-year-old company’s newer sextet of luxurious ocean liners are a hit with the baby-boomer crowd. Ships max out at 930 passengers, all of whom must be 18 or older. The itineraries offer a good mix of small-town and big-city ports, and the onboard programming skews toward the intellectually enriching.
After weighing Viking’s myriad itinerary options, we settled on a “Viking Homelands”-themed cruise through eight Scandinavian and Baltic countries. The 14-night trip began in Bergen, Norway, and ended in Stockholm, Sweden. In between, it made calls to the Norwegian ports of Eidfjord and Stavanger; Aalborg and Copenhagen in Denmark; Berlin, Germany; Gdańsk, Poland; Tallinn, Estonia; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Helsinki, Finland.
The ship itself, the Viking Sun, was just a year old and a picture of elegance, with original drawings by Edvard Munch hanging in the atrium, floor-to-ceiling windows in the lounges, and a handsome bar inspired by ye olde Viking longships. Each stateroom boasted a private veranda, plus all the amenities you’d expect in a high-end hotel on terra firma. A month after our return, my mother is still marveling over the size of the bathroom with its glass-enclosed shower and heated floors. “If I found out I had just three months to live,” she said, “I’d spend all of my savings on another Viking cruise.”
Now that’s the mark of a happy travel partner.
Be patient. So, so patient.
The anxious phone calls started about three months before our departure. My mom would FaceTime me every hour of the day, mostly with questions about packing. I’m the type of person who throws a mound of (hopefully clean?) clothing in her suitcase the night before a long trip and trusts that at least some of it will match, so it was difficult to relate to someone who lays out outfits three weeks in advance and follows an actual packing checklist—like with checkboxes and everything!—to make sure she hasn’t forgotten anything.
As the more seasoned traveler, it would have been easy to sigh and whine and roll my eyes like a petulant teenager. But it was even easier to just be kind. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you and all that jazz. As my mom likes to remind me, “You’ll be old someday, too.”
Don’t push, nudge.
When vacationing with a parent, it might not just be their physical limitations that dictate what you can and can’t do on board or in port; for some, it’s their willingness to try new things. The trick here is to encourage your set-in-their-ways parent to poke a toe outside their comfort zone—not shove them out with both hands.
Take food, for example. My mom is not an adventurous eater. If she had her way (and she did some nights, thanks to Viking’s 24-hour room service), she would eat a New York strip steak and french fries for every meal. No way was she was going to tuck into a multicourse tasting menu at The Chef’s Table, the most progressive restaurant on board the Viking Sun. One look at the “weird” ingredients list (octopus, curry foam, etc.) and Mom was out. But Norwegian waffles with fresh berries, cream, and curls of brunost, served at the Explorers’ Lounge? She’d give it a shot. (The verdict: loved the waffle, hated the brown cheese.)
Another plus to nudging instead of pushing is that your parent might surprise you with their out-of-the-blue adventurousness, like the time my mom devoured a plateful of tender reindeer meat, freshly carved in the ship’s World Café. It was a small victory, but truly rewarding to see someone you love say “yes” after so many “nos.”
Embrace the cheese—and not just at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Compared with the razzle-dazzle Vegas-style spectaculars commonly associated with mainstream cruising, Viking’s onboard entertainment is pretty sedate, leaning more toward cultural enrichment than pool deck contests and synchronized mermaid shows. In the course of our two-week vacation, we watched numerous TED talks on the TV and attended an hour-long roundtable discussion on the black plague. But we also gave in to trivia hours (who knew octopuses had three hearts?!), cha-cha classes, a round of Putt-Putt on the top deck, and campy musical tributes to the Beatles and ABBA. Yes, cruise ship entertainment can be corny. But it’s also a good excuse to act like a kid again. And every adult, even overly serious ones like us, can benefit from that.
Plan your own shore excursions, at least some of the time.
Letting your cruise line map out your activities in every port takes the hassle out of planning, but you’re missing an opportunity for deeper immersion and real adventure.
The shore excursions that my mom and I took on our Viking Homelands cruise were a mixed bag. Some we loved, like the “Soviet Flashback” tour in Tallinn, Estonia, and a visit to Nuuksio Reindeer Park in Espoo, Finland. Others, like a canal cruise in St. Petersburg, Russia, felt like cattle calls to big-yawn tourist traps.
When my mom and I really bonded was when we took off on our own. In Poland, for example, we planned a D.I.Y. trip to the Stutthof concentration camp in Sztutowo, 50 minutes outside Gdańsk. We hired an Uber driver to take us out there and, with the help of a nice young Polish couple, hopped a local bus back. Walking at our own pace, and seeing the crematoriums, gas chamber, and the mountains of shoes, eyeglasses, and other personal effects belonging to Holocaust victims was a deeply moving experience, but I don’t think it would have felt nearly as powerful had we been traipsing along with 30 other cruise ship tourists.
A cruise is not a marathon meal at one restaurant; it’s a cocktail party with roving canapés. A taste of this, a taste of that—whatever port city stands out the most, that’s where you’ll return later for a proper deep dive.
When exploring a new port, set 1 or 2 goals—not 10.
As a professional travel writer, I’m used to parachuting into new destinations and exploring them in depth over the course of five to 10 days. But five to 10 hours? That’s a challenge—and it’s why I’ve always been skeptical of cruising. How can you get to know a city when you spend more time on a boat than on land?
That’s when I realized I was doing this cruising thing all wrong. A cruise is not a marathon meal at one restaurant; it’s a cocktail party with roving canapés. A taste of this, a taste of that—whatever port city stands out the most, that’s where you’ll return later for a proper deep dive.
As soon as I accepted that I wouldn’t be able to eat, see, and do everything, port hopping became a lot more fun. Liberating even. I made a short list of top priorities—say, an art museum, a medieval church, and a food market—before setting out. Whatever I experienced beyond that would just be icing on the cake. My mother, who has complained at least 200,000 times that she can’t keep up with me, was supremely grateful for my newly relaxed approach. Sometimes doing less means experiencing more.
Don’t spend every waking minute together.
In a funny way, cruising combines the best of solo travel with the best of family travel. My mom and I don’t share all the same interests. We’ve established this. I love walking around cities, photographing the architecture, ducking into intriguing shops and under-the-radar museums, and sampling foods whose names I cannot pronounce. On the contrary, my mom’s favorite phrase when it comes to cities is, “I wouldn’t give you a pinch of sour owl dung for [Stockholm, Copenhagen, or another fill-in-the-blank marquee capital].”
So when we didn’t see eye-to-eye on an upcoming day’s activities, we simply split up. I was happy to hit the pavement in a new port, without dragging her along kicking and screaming. She was thrilled to relax in our stateroom, take high tea in the ship’s Wintergarden, or cozy up to her sketchbook in the Explorers’ Lounge, with its deep leather sofas and flickering steam fireplaces. When we’d meet up for dinner at night, I would show her my photos from my big day in the city and she would show me her drawings from the upper deck. We had our separate experiences and our together experiences. It was a win-win.