Uta and I took a Viking River Cruise down the Danube from October 31 to November 7. Everyone from my doctor to our airport driver had seen Viking ads on Public Television and wanted to hear how it went. Here goes.
Would we do it again? Absolutely — if the locations were desirable. Our cruise started in Nürnberg, and stopped in Regensberg, Passau, Melk, and Vienna before ending in Budapest. (Itinerary.) We’d been to Nürnberg, Regensberg, and Passau before, but that was more than 40 years ago. We’d spent a week in Vienna last year. Budapest was a new one for us. All of these are beautiful, intriguing places to wander around. (Our photos start here.)
Here’s the drill. At each stop, Viking provides a half-day tour and lets you explore on your own for the remainder of the day. There’s often an optional, extra-cost tour available. For example, most passengers went to a concert in Vienna. All meals are provided on the ship although we generally chose to lunch in town.
The great thing is that you visit half a dozen cities without having to check in and out of hotels. Your stateroom floats to your next destination during the evening.
Our stateroom had a “French balcony.” That’s a shelf perhaps two feet wide with a couple of chairs. It makes the otherwise tiny room feel larger. The bathroom is minuscule but serviceable.
Food on the ship was excellent, as was service in the restaurant and bar. Smiling, friendly staff. An enthusiastic maitre’d insured that the kitchen provided vegetarian meals for Uta. Bartenders remembered our preferences. Overall, we felt pampered.
Beer and wine flow freely at mealtimes, but we bought the optional Silver Service package which prepays for unlimited cocktails and premium wines. At $210, our consumption of house brand champagne, among other libations, put us ahead on the deal.
Our fellow passengers were primarily American retirees. Those PBS ads apparently work. By and large, the passengers were cordial, outgoing, nice people. A few were loud, look-at-me boors. Particularly memorable was the asshole who wore his black Stetson even when visiting a cathedral.
Every day featured a PowerPoint presentation in the lounge on a topic such as the EU, how canal locks work, and the life of Mozart. Viking is really missing the boat here. The presentations should provide the foundation for the tours on shore. Now, they are banal, poorly organized time-wasters.
I’m going to get on the soapbox for a moment, for this is the realm of my expertise as a learning professional. First off, the presentations need a purpose, e.g. conveying the history of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburgs, the Romans, or the Reformation. This would lay the foundation for the guided tours. Second, the presentations should be designed in a compelling fashion (see Presentation Zen, Nancy Duarte, Cliff Atkinson). Third, the on-shore tours should draw on the presentations.
The on-shore tours were led by well-meaning locals who seemed to think we were interested in dates and names (that no one would remember five minutes later) instead of stories and the big picture. The guides made up their own content; a well-crafted outline would guide the guides to become better at what they do.
We didn’t want to fly to Europe to spend a mere six days, so we flew to Nürnberg a week early and later spent a few extras days in Budapest before coming home. Pre-cruise, we visited the medieval walled city of Rothenberg, spent three days pigging out in Alsace, and wandered around Bamberg for a couple of days.
Post-cruise we spent two extra days in Budapest on an extension offered through Viking. Were we to do this again, we’d save money by making our own arrangements in Budapest. In fact, we’d have opted to book our own flights and just buy the cruise package.
As it happened, Viking arranged our flights. We flew out on United cattle class. I detest United. No individualized entertainment, bad attitude, and they always seem to have their hand in your pocket. (Although the Japanese hostess who checked us in at SFO was the friendliest agent I’ve ever encountered). We flew back Lufthansa, middle seats in one of the last rows on the plane.
Our total tab for Viking, including airfare, drinks, tips, and the two days at the Budapest Marriott came to $8,447, about $1000 day. This is an expensive way to travel.
We’ve been to Europe thirty or forty times, generally renting a car and following our own itinerary. I wasn’t confident we would enjoy the regimentation of a managed tour, too reminiscent of If it’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, but we encountered enough variety that this was not a problem.
Overall, I’ll give our Viking experience four stars out of five. Please leave comments on my Flickr site or Google Groups.