Having done 18 ocean cruises, and several "bus" tours of Europe, I was intrigued by river boat cruising. After much research, I saw that Viking Cruise Line had build new longships for 2012, and looking for a less than two week stay, I decided to book the Romantic Danube Cruise with Viking sailing November 4-11 with a two night pre-cruise stay in Budapest, Hungary. I am a pretty independent "booking agent" that is I prefer to do my own on-line research and booking, and booked directly with Viking. I have to say that the Viking River cruise personnel when booking are just wonderful; they are personable, and really explain everything, not only with the initial booking but with any questions you have during that time up until the time of departure.
You may also book you're air with Viking and for a small fee I chose to personalize by "flights"..I live in Philadelphia and wanted to utilize USAIR and to assure that I basically used that option and told the Viking representative handling the air portion of the trip, what flights I wanted including connections and what airline.
Having never been to Budapest before, I was intrigued by this beautiful city on the Danube and booked Viking's option two day pre-cruise extension. Initially I had thought I was going to be in the Budapest Hilton in the Castle District and initially was disappointed when they had changed my hotel to the Budapest Marriott, but I was glad they did. We thankfully had no trouble with our flights since it was around the time in late October 2012 when Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast USA, and was greeted by a Viking Representative at the Budapest Airport. In addition to transfers, a Viking Representative was available for a good portion of our stay at the Budapest Marriott to help with transfers to the Longship Embla (was just a few blocks away on the Danube), to assist with any recommendations or options tours while in Budapest or restaurant reservations. Getting back to my comment on being switched to the Budapest Marriott...the location could not be better. It is located directly on the Danube on the Pest side of the city with fantastic views of the River, particularly at night when the entire Danube banks are lit up. In addition, having arranged a private walking tour, there is much more action in my opinion on the Pest City, albeit Buda Hills/Castle district are a must to visit. The hotel's exterior had a more bleak Eastern European"Bloc" appearance, the interior of the hotel was far superior to many hotels I have visited with an included huge daily breakfast buffet and a wonderful staff.
Since the hotel was on the Pest side it literally was 1-2 blocks from the vibrant pedestrian only thoroughfare Vaci Utca, a great place to explore day or evening, and fully enjoyed the time in Budapest, including a visit to the Rudas Baths just across the Elizabeth Bridge from the hotel and a great way to soak away jet lag when arriving in the city.
On the day of the cruise, our longship Embla docked,in a premier spot...right under the Chain Bridge, the most famous of all Danube River Bridges, and let me tell you, once it got dark, walking up to the observation deck was a picture opportunity beyond belief. My companion and I arrived a bit later to check in as we were enjoying a beautiful fall Sunday in the city, and "missed lunch". I couldn't believe that the waiter actually went the kitchen and fixed us a nice hearty plate of finger sandwiches and drinks...and the personalized service that introduced on the First day did not stop.
Budapest is a beautiful city and I would recommend not only to be beat jet lag (and if it's affordable) to come in a few days early and explore the city. Many who flew in that same day did have the evening to explore as being docked in the heart of the city, and the next day with the guided tour, We left Budapest Monday afternoon sailing into Austria for the next port of call Vienna. Another full day as we docked in Vienna at 8 am and left at midnight. Vienna city center is not on the Danube per se and is a short walk to the metro/subway for those that wish to explore independently. I had planned this trip for a while so I mapped out lists of things I wanted to see, and decided for the most part to skip the included tours with Viking. However for those that don't want to do that or may be limited, rest assure that in each and every port, there is an included tour with optional time for shopping/lunch, etc.
I could easily write a review about each and every stop, but in summary from a full independent day in Vienna (from the Schoenbrunn Place, to the Naschmarkt and Wiener Schnitzel Lunch, shopping on Kartnerstrasse, visit to the Hofburg palace are and ending the day at a Viennese Coffee House), the other stops were the charming city of Melk and a visit to one of the most beautiful baroque buildings in the world, the Melk Abbey and Church, and the Bavarian cities of Passau, Regensburg, and Nuremburg, each city provided a unique travel experience.
My favorite on-board cruising was the traveling from Vienna to Melk along the scenic Wachau Valley and Danube Bend. It was a cooler November day that morning and I enjoyed the slow vistas of the fall colors of the River passing along Baroque Church steeples and castle ruins while seated under a heating lamp drinking hot mulled Gluhweinn, prepared by the chef.
In addition to the service, the accommodations were more than adequate. I decided to save a bit and booked a standard lower cabin. This was at water level with a window, and I did not feel "claustrophic" at all. Having sailed on 18 ocean cruises this cabin on the Embla was larger and more well appointed then ocean cruise cabins.
The meals were also beyond what I expected. Each day was a full and hearty buffet breakfast with a mix of American style and more European continental style breakfast, or you could order from the menu. Each day there as lunch, and featured a dining room menu or a specialized them buffet like lunch on the outer deck. Beer and wine are included with lunch and dinner on Viking cruises as well as soft drinks/soda. Dinner was open seating and we quickly enjoyed seating with cruise guests which on my cruise was probably about 90% US guest. A full five course meal was available. Our chef Karl-Heinz Zwanleitner, was superb...never have I seen such pride and freshness in a cruise meal (btw, the passenger capacity was 180 on the Embla.) One night he made a fabulous butterfish, that he received a standing ovation when he walked into the dining room.
The entire staff/and crew could not have been more friendly. Any questions or concerns I had (and they were mainly questions on "How do I get to center city Vienna on the subway"?) were addressed with a smile.
For those that want to stay in touch on-line, the wifi on board did not work that well, but they had two public computers with internet access that were adequate. I mainly used them not to connect with work at home but to research restaurants and sites for the next day's port.
I didn't know what to expect from River Boat Cruising, and on the Danube; prior reviews were "lukewarm" but I got the feeling there were so because of 2011 water levels during a drought period, in which I think the cruise experience on Viking was unfairly reviewed....you can't control the weather. I cannot stop telling friends and family and co-workers about the experience. In fact, one friend based on review just booked the Rhine cruise with Viking. I don't think I would ever do another "bus tour" of Europe, and looking forward to planning another river adventure with Viking.