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Monday, January 11, 2016

Review: What It’s Like to Cruise with Viking River Cruises

Review Viking River Cruises Ship in Wachau Valley

When we announced we were going to be taking our very first cruise, and that it would be with Viking River Cruises, we learned there are quite a few of you who are really interested in taking a river cruise with Viking River Cruises but haven’t pulled the trigger yet.  A lot of you had questions about the rooms, the excursions, the food, and if non-ocean cruisers would enjoy river cruising.  After our eight-day European river cruise with Viking River Cruises, during which we cruised along the blue Danube and visited European Christmas markets, we are ready to answer all your questions and provide our review of Viking River Cruises.

Spoiler alert, we loved our first European river cruise.  We have wanted to try one of Viking River Cruises’ European river cruises since we first started seeing their commercials years ago, and my dream river cruise has always been one that visits European Christmas markets, so it seemed a pretty sure thing we were going to love this cruise.  However, we have also been skeptical of cruising, as we like to see and do as much as possible and spending more time on a ship than on land doesn’t appeal to us.  So even though this cruise was one we had wanted to do for years, we were still a little nervous that it wouldn’t live up to all our hopes.  While we haven’t converted to full-time cruisers, based on our first experience I can pretty much guarantee we’ll be enjoying this style of travel again in the future.

Viking River Cruises’ History

Review Viking River Cruises Bar

Viking River Cruises has been around for a long time.  The company was founded by Torstein Hagen, a Norwegian businessman, in 1997.  He started with four Russian ships and provided Russian river cruises to Europeans.  Viking River Cruises continued to market to Europeans until 2000 when the company expanded and entered the American market.  One tour guide said it was because they found many of their European passengers weren’t fans of the all-inclusive thing while North Americans are big fans.  Viking River Cruises now offers river cruises through Europe, Russia, Egypt, and Asia, and most recently started offering European ocean cruises as well.

The Pre-Trip Package

Review Viking River Cruises Pre-Trip Package

Anticipation is part of the joy of travel.  Viking River Cruises feeds anticipation by sending a fun pre-trip package once you’ve booked your trip.  We received a box in the mail containing for each of us: an itinerary with answers to frequently asked questions, a book about the different destinations and the Danube, a red leather luggage tag, stickers to put on our person and our bags upon arrival, and a toiletry bag.

Getting to Your River Cruise

Review Viking River Cruises Longship Entrance

Viking River Cruises makes your trip even easier by taking care of booking your airfare if you choose.  I highly recommend taking advantage of this option as they will most likely find airfare far cheaper than what you would find on your own (for our trip we found airfare around $1,200 while they provided airfare of around $880).  Also, if you book your airfare through Viking River Cruises, they will provide roundtrip airport transfers so you don’t need to worry about figuring out how to get to the ship.  If you book your own airfare, you can purchase airport transfers separately. 

Viking River Cruises also offers pre- and post-cruise extensions.  We couldn’t take advantage of this (pesky limited vacation days), but for our cruise a pre-cruise extension was offered in Budapest and post-cruise extensions were offered in Nuremberg and Prague.

Related: What to Do in Budapest in One Day

Review Viking River Cruises Reception Desk

We were picked up from the airport, driven by bus to the ship, and checked-in.  We were immediately shown to our room (it’s amazing how fast the process was), introduced to the amenities, and given the schedule of tours offered for the day. Since we had half the day ahead of us, we immediately disembarked and started exploring the city on our own.

Viking River Cruises’ Ships

Review Viking River Cruises Longship Lobby

I really wasn’t sure what to expect of the Viking River Cruises ship.  It’s like a hotel on water, and yet feels cozy and intimate.  We sailed on Viking Longship Atla.  When boarding the ship, you usually enter on the middle deck, which has the lobby area.  Like any hotel, there is a reception desk which is manned at all times of the day.  This is where you check in, sign up for excursions, and pick up and drop off your boarding passes each day.  A wide staircase leads to the upper floor, and another staircase leads downstairs.  There is also an elevator.

Review Viking River Cruises Longship Lounge

Also, on the middle deck towards the bow is the restaurant.  Here is where you can enjoy a sit-down breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The walls are floor to ceiling windows so you can enjoy the view as it drifts by.  Upstairs, above the restaurant, is the bar and lounge.  Cocktails are served each evening before dinner.  On the same level at the very front of the ship is the Aquavit Terrace where you can enjoy lighter buffet meals and an outdoor table if the weather allows.

Review Viking River Cruises Longship Library

If you’re on the ship but don’t want to hang out in your room, you can visit the lounge or enjoy one of the small seating areas that are found around the ship.  There are small nooks where you can get water, sparkling water, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, pastries, and cookies any time of day.

Review Viking River Cruises Putting Area

At the top of the ship is a deck open to passengers unless the ship will be passing under low bridges.  On the top deck, you will find deck chairs, a putting area, shuffleboard, and a walking track.  This is a fun place to go when cruising through beautiful places like the Wachau Valley or moving through one of the many locks of the Danube.

Viking River Cruises’ Staterooms

Review Viking River Cruises Veranda Stateroom

The Viking Longships have 95 staterooms.  There are five types of staterooms.  The “cheap rooms” are on the main deck.  These 25 rooms are smaller and have windows high up on the wall.  French balcony staterooms are found on the middle deck and upper deck.  We stayed in one of the staterooms with a veranda, which are also on the middle deck and upper deck.  On the upper deck are suites with both a veranda and French balcony, and there are two Explorer Suites at the stern of the ship with wrap-around verandas.

Review Viking River Cruises Stateroom View

We were spoiled with a veranda stateroom on the upper deck.  Our stateroom had a king size bed with bedside tables on each side, a vanity with a bench, and a chair.  While the rooms are not large, they don’t feel cramped at all.  We loved having a balcony.  While the balcony is narrow, it has enough room for a small table and two chairs, and also enough room to set up a tripod for your camera.  We didn’t spend too much time on the balcony since it was very cold, but we still ran out on a number of occasions to take pictures, and most of those times we were in our pajamas.  Balconies are private, with each room’s balcony separated by opaque glass.

Review Viking River Cruises Stateroom Vanity

Our room had a large flat-screen television on the wall.  Not only could we watch regular television, we could also choose movies and television shows (Downton Abbey seemed to be a real favorite), listen to music, or watch the live bow cam or lounge cam.  Another thing I loved about our room was the plethora of outlets, both European and North American.  In this day and age of cell phones, cameras, e-readers, etc., multiple outlets are a necessity.  I counted three North American outlets, two European outlets, and one USB outlet.

Review Viking River Cruises Stateroom Balcony View

There is also a speaker system in each room from which the television sound comes through, but also the voice of the program director.  Announcements are made giving warnings of when excursions are about to start.  Also, on the morning we sailed through the Wachau Valley, our program director Cornelia’s commentary of all the castles, towns, and other sites we were passing was piped into our room so we knew what we were seeing without having to leave the comfort of our stateroom.

Review Viking River Cruises Stateroom BathroomThere is plenty of storage space including drawers, shelves, and closet space.  We each brought a rolling checked bag and a duffel bag and we were able to store our rolling bags in the closet and still hang our sweaters above and store our duffel bags on the closet shelves.  There were also enough drawers for us to both put away our clothes for the week-long trip.

The bathrooms are what really blew me away with their efficiency.  I was expecting small bathrooms, as I can’t imagine taking up a bunch of room on a small river cruise ship with large bathrooms.  The bathrooms are small, but they don’t feel too small.  For one thing, the floors are heated, which is so nice after coming back from a long day walking outside in the cold.  While the shower is small, it is easily manageable, and two glass doors open into the shower, which helps make the bathroom bigger when the shower isn’t in use.  I was surprised to also find that you can get your shower water pressure quite high and as hot as you want at any time of day.  The shower doors also seal very well, which means no leaking of water onto the bathroom floor, which is usually a problem in small bathrooms.  There are shelves under the sink so you can keep your toiletries in the bathroom without them getting in the way or getting wet from the sink; though there is also a vanity table in the room so the two of you don’t need to be in the bathroom at the same time.  The other miraculous feature of the Viking Longship bathrooms is that the mirrors never fog, no matter how hot your shower is or how long you stay in.  All rooms have a hairdryer, so no need to bring one from home.

Review Viking River Cruises Towel Animal

A few other nice touches included a fresh carafe of water in our room every day, fresh fruit in the room, and a towel animal one night.  

Wi-Fi is provided on the ship, and it's free, which isn't the case on ocean cruises.  However, the Wi-Fi is not the most reliable.  Sometimes it worked great, sometimes not so much.  In this day and age of being constantly connected, this can be a bit frustrating, but remember you are on a moving vessel with no cables connected to land, so it's actually pretty amazing to have Wi-Fi, and at no extra cost, and Viking is constantly working to improve the Wi-Fi connection for passengers.

The Food and Drink

Review Viking River Cruises Dessert

Three meals a day are served on the Viking River Cruises ships, plus there is a full bar, and snacks provided all day.  Viking will make sure you never go hungry.

Review Viking River Cruises Aquavit Terrace

The one meal we ate on board every day was breakfast.  We love staying at hotels that offer a free breakfast because we can easily, quickly, and cheaply eat in the morning and have plenty of energy for the busy day ahead.  We made sure to take advantage of the breakfast offered on board every day.  A light buffet breakfast of pastries, yogurt, fruit, etc. is offered every morning on the Aquavit Terrace.  It feels very European with small tables and a view.  For more variety and larger breakfasts, a sit-down breakfast is served in the restaurant.  You can either order from the menu, which includes items like eggs benedict and pancakes, or you can get an omelet from the omelet bar and other offerings from the buffet.

Review Viking River Cruises Food Appetizer

We only ate lunch once onboard as we were usually eating sausages and fried deliciousness at the Christmas markets.  Our one lunch onboard was good.  There was a buffet with hot pasta, salads, and small appetizer plates and items could be ordered off the menu as well.  We shared a grilled ham, cheese, and pickle sandwich with a side of curly fries.

Review Viking River Cruises Austrian German Dinner

We ate a few dinners on board.  Our absolute favorite dinner was the Austrian / German dinner with regional dishes like schnitzel and sausage and dumplings.  I loved that even though we were on the ship, we were getting to eat the same kind of food we would be eating if we were off the ship.

Review Viking River Cruises Food Grilled Fish

On most nights there is one dinner seating and three appetizers, three entrees, and three desserts from which to choose.  The choices were different each night and included items like chateaubriand, grilled fish, turkey, etc.  The food was very good.  However, we like to eat local food while traveling, so I personally wish at least one entrée a night was something local.  I think this would please people like us who want to eat local dishes as well as people who prefer more familiar foods at their meals.

Review Viking River Cruises Cheese Plate

Knowing that we might be pickier than the average traveler about this, we listened carefully to what other passengers were saying about the meals.  The consensus is that everyone loved the food.  We heard lots of passengers talking about the food not only during the meals, but also at other times during the day, and all those remarks were not just positive, they were glowing.

Review Viking River Cruises Longship Kitchen

We had a chance to visit the kitchen and talk to Chef Mihai Olteanu.  We learned that menus are standardized across the ships running the same route.  Fresh ingredients are picked up at least twice during a cruise.  This is why there are only a few different choices offered each night.  However, passengers with food limitations or allergies are taken care of well.  Just be sure to let Viking know ahead of time.

Review Viking River Cruises Food Chateaubriand

For those who did not wish to have a three-course meal every night for dinner or didn’t want to eat at the time of the set meal, a lighter buffet style meal was served in the Aquavit Lounge.  We never ate dinner there ourselves, but I did hear tell of hotdogs.

Viking River Cruises Review Sezer Crafting a Viking Cocktail

Our ship had a full bar in the lounge which was always manned by the jovial Sezer and Sorin.  Included in the cruise package is hot coffee and tea all day, complimentary bottles of water supplied in the stateroom every day, and hot tea, iced tea, coffee, house wines, house beers, and soft drinks served with meals.  Premium drinks are available for purchase, or passengers can take advantage of the Silver Spirits beverage package and enjoy fine regional wines, specialty beers, cocktails made with premium brands, and receive one bottle of Viking sparkling wine in their stateroom.

The Service

River Viking River Cruises Safety Briefing
Participating in a safety briefing deserves a daiquiri, as modeled by Mike of Mike's Bloggity Blog.
There are a lot of crew members for the approximately 200 passengers.  Service is quick, friendly, and always with a smile.  The steward who made up our room always said hello and goodbye to us.  The program director and her assistant were always available to answer questions.  The bartenders were friendly and funny, always bringing a smile to everyone’s face.  The chef came out and mingled with guests in the dining room to make sure everyone was enjoying themselves.  The omelet chef was always humming a song in the morning.  The only time we saw the staff be slightly less than their usual cheerful selves was on the final day because the poor things had to be up and ready to serve breakfast at 3:00 a.m. for passengers who had super early flights!  There was still humming coming from the omelet station, but it was a sleepy hum.

Review Viking River Cruises Longship in a Lock

You can tell Viking has been running these cruises for a very long time.  They have everything down to a science.  For the passengers, everything seems seamless, but I’m sure behind the scenes there are changes and corrections constantly being made to provide the perfect experience.  Prior to our trip, we learned that our planned ship, Viking Jarl, couldn’t make it back to Budapest in time because of low water, so our ship was changed to Viking Atla.  On the rare occasion a ship can’t continue because of water that is too low or too high, buses are used to move passengers along to the scheduled towns and there could be a mid-trip ship change.  Sometimes a long line at a lock can slow progress as well.  These occurrences are unavoidable, but the Viking River Cruises crew does their best to make sure this affects the passenger experience as little as possible.

Passenger Demographic

Review Viking River Cruises Restaurant View

We were asked about the demographic of the passengers.  As you probably expected, Viking River Cruises passengers are of the mature variety.  In fact, Viking River Cruises specifically promotes its European river cruises to the 55+ demographic.  However, all ages are welcome, though you probably don’t want to bring little kids.  If you think this means the ship is full of a bunch of geriatrics with walkers who only want to relax on a ship or sit in a bus, you are incorrect.  Viking’s cruises are tailored for active adults who are interested in learning about the destinations they are visiting.  Most tours involve walking, and many are completely walking.  European river cruises are also well-suited for multi-generational vacations.  On our cruise, there were some families traveling together which included adult children and their parents.  Most passengers are from the United States, but passengers also include people from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and England, with a few from other countries like Germany as well.

Viking River Cruises’ Excursions

Review Viking River Cruises Umbrella

Every day Viking River Cruises offers excursions at each port of call.  Passengers can choose to stay on the ship, join an excursion, or explore on their own.  Some days there are just a couple excursions offered, and other days there are multiple excursions offered.  Some excursions are walking tours, some involve time on a bus (but usually not too much time), and most also provide some free time to explore.  Some excursions offer unique activities like sailing down a beautiful river on a carved wooden barge or visiting a winery.  Many include guided tours of palaces, churches, and abbeys.  I was pleased to see that the guided tours are kept fairly small, with 30 people maximum but usually somewhere between 15 to 20 people, and sometimes even less. 

Viking provides whispers, or wireless audio guide systems, so you don’t have to be right on top of the guide to hear what they are saying.  I was a big fan of the whispers because it allowed us to wander around a church and take pictures and yet still hear what the guide had to say. 

Review Viking River Cruises Longship Atla

Some indication of the excursions provided are included in the pre-trip package you receive from Viking River Cruises.  Every night, usually during dinner, a booklet listing all available excursions for the next day is left in your stateroom.  The booklet also includes information about the town, the sites, and fun facts about things like local food or music.  Once you’ve decided what excursions you want to join, you let the front desk know so they can assign you to a group.  While there may be one walking tour offered in the morning, there may be four or five different local guides leading that same tour so groups are kept small.  Not everyone from the ship joins the same tour.  In the morning, you check in at the front desk and pick up your boarding pass and a card listing the group you will be joining.

Every night before dinner the program director provides a short presentation in the lounge.  The presentation gives information about the town being visited the next day and an overview of what each excursion covers.  The presentation isn’t mandatory and we usually skipped it.  I personally wish we had received a list of all excursions at the beginning of the trip, as I’m a planner, but that may have been overwhelming for some.  We did get a list at the beginning of a handful of excursions that cost extra as those needed to be booked at the beginning of the trip.

Make Your Cruise Your Own

Review Viking River Cruises Putting Area and Wachau Valley

The most important thing to remember is that Viking River Cruises encourages its passengers to make their cruise their own.  There are excursions offered every day, but that doesn’t mean you have to join them.  Three meals a day are served on the ship, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat them.  We joined some of the excursions when they sounded interesting, included something we couldn’t easily visit on our own, or allowed us to be off the ship and provided transportation back to the ship when it cruised to a different port during the excursion.  We also spent a lot of time exploring on our own rather than joining an excursion.  Every possible chance we had we ate our meal in town rather than on the ship. 

We Americans love to get our money’s worth, so it can be psychologically difficult to skip excursions and purchase food off-ship when excursions and meals are included in the price of the cruise.  However, if exploring on your own and eating local food are important to you, you’ll need to get over that if you want to truly enjoy your European river cruise.

The great thing about a river cruise with Viking is that if you want to just relax, you can do that.  If you want everything planned for you, it has been done.  If you want to research your destinations and explore on your own, you can do that too.

Thank you to Viking River Cruises for hosting our Romantic Danube cruise and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Do you have any questions about taking a river cruise that isn’t covered in our Viking River Cruises review?  Let us know in the comments and we’ll try to answer!

Travel the World's in-depth review of Viking River Cruises' Romantic Danube European river cruise.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.