Viking Danube Cruise Embla-- Explorer Suite
We would rate this experience at 3.5 stars. It had the potential to be worse.
The underlying problem is that the business model is wrong for the upmarket traveler. Despite advertising, it is not a luxury cruise.
Our reference level is large suites in luxury ocean cruise lines such as Seabourn, Silversea or Regent, with whom we have done a dozen or more trips of 1-2 weeks duration at comparable prices. Booking the Explorer Suite (the most expensive ) on the Viking Embla falls short in four respects and it is not clear from the advertising.
First, the accommodation at the largest suite level is at least 40% smaller than a comparable priced ocean accommodation, somewhat imposed by the restrictions of the riverboat itself and the lock system through which it must pass. The bedroom in particular is extremely tight. The ceiling is very low. In the Explorer, the largest suite on the boat, which lists for $33,000 for seven nights for two and sells for just over $20,000, the bedroom when closed off is about 10 feet by 10 feet making it feel like a tomb. The suite is advertised as 440 square feet, but that includes the balconies (some two feet wide) so the interior space is about 375 square feet. It is cut up into two tiny rooms plus a nice bathroom, a hallway, and quite large closet. There is no table and chairs to dine in the suite nor is there room for them. Seabourn, for example, lists the interior square footage and the veranda square footage separately.
Second, the service level is much lower. There is no room service available and certainly no butler service. No stocked refrigerator with drinks is included. Tips are not included. The dining room guests are herded into a crowded room filled with big tables allowing little privacy. It looks like a high school cafeteria with table cloths. There is no reserved seating and no tables for two. There is no distinction made for guests in a suite that cost $7000 or less...for the trip from those that cost $20,000 for the trip. That is fine if you paid $1000.00 per night or less, but the Explorer suite costs almost $3000.00 per night. At that level one has the expectation of elegant dining. Officially there is no alternative to the dining room except a sandwich menu on the deck behind the bar, which does contain tables for two and four. On our trip we were able to get served on the deck by a very concerned and professional staff that was unbelievably accommodating. Actually , they were among the best teams I have ever known in more than 20 years of cruising.... Pavel, restaurant mgr...Michael, hotel mgr...Radostina Alexsieva and, Kristin Krauss, tour assistants, Vivien Kiwitt, front desk, Timea Stit (head of tours and entertainment) and wait staff Jackie and Alan. They worked in what is basically an almost impossible situation. Other guests complained of slow and poor service; this is probably because the boat did not have enough kitchen/dining room staff, with the economics determined by passengers paying a third or less than Explorer suite category.
Third, the intrinsic quality of the food and beverages was disappointing, especially the meats, cheeses, and the sparkling and still white wines that were included with the meals. The chef, Karl Heinz, was actually superb, and did the best with what he had. We saw his efforts for us on the back deck, Aquavit Lounge, but trying to serve an elegant meal to 188 people who all enter one room at once is almost impossible, especially when one offers a menu with choices.
Fourth, and most importantly, the itinerary is highly dependent on water conditions in the Danube. These can affect the advertised destinations either because the water is too low (not enough under the keel) or too high (in order to pass low bridges). Viking's solution is buses and hotels, for the inaccessible sites, which can amount to one or more nights of a seven-day trip. Thus you may miss your first night on the ship and are put up in a hotel room instead. On our trip most people spent the first night of the cruise in hotels in Nuremberg and then were bussed to Valshofen for the second night of the cruise. They thus had six nights on the ship, not seven. This gets you to most (but not all) of the advertised shore excursions, but falls far short in value of the $3000/couple/day of the Explorer suite. You could do better paying for chauffeured transportation, private guides, great restaurants, and luxury hotel suites and still pay not much more than $1000/day for a far superior experience. Even ocean liners blow the itinerary once in a while owing to weather or mechanicals, but the risk in the riverboat environment is higher and is too well-hidden in the advertising brochures. The Danube Cruise is especially prone to bussing instead of sailing and the company ought to provide a history of completed versus incomplete sailings before you sign up so that each passenger is aware of the risk and how that risk is typically handled. Substitutions evidently happen quite regularly. When you are paying $3000.00 per night for a suite on a ship, a $150.00 hotel room and a two hour bus ride to the ship at another port down the Danube, missing sights on the river that are important is not a reasonable exchange.
In general the service staff mentioned above made a real effort to address some of the shortcomings, and we are grateful to them for salvaging the trip. However, we conclude the underlying problem is that the business model is wrong for the luxury travel market..