The comments below are from a letter sent to Viking following our July, 2013 cruise from Bucharest to Amsterdam. Overall the trip did not meet our expectations. We realize that some problems were caused by the rolling lock strike, but the way that Viking handled that issue was disappointing. In addition, there were aspects of the trip independent of the strike that were disappointing.
First, since the negotiations between the parties had been going on for months, Viking clearly knew that there was the possibility of a strike long before the cruise, although the actual dates of the strike were uncertain. Viking made the decision not to inform their clients of this possibility. Had we known about the possibility, we probably would have decided to take our chances, but we would have been aware of potential disruptions. This unwillingness to communicate was further manifested on the cruise itself. There was very little information provided except to assure us that everyone was working hard to make alternate arrangements. As time progressed and it became apparent that the cruise would have to be terminated, we were asking questions, and the staff seemed to be trying to assure us that we would still be able to continue. Frankly, the failure to communicate left us with the impression that Viking River Cruises was completely unprepared for the strike and that they were making arrangements on a day-to- day basis. As a consequence, at least one of the contracted bus companies (Wii) was completely incompetent, first getting lost in Heidelberg, taking an unnecessary and dangerous route to the castle and then trying to take us back to the ship in Nuremberg rather than going to Wurzberg where the ship was docked. Our belief is that Viking needed to have vetted companies in preparation for a strike in order to avoid these kinds of issues rather than appearing as if they were making all arrangements the day before. Basically, we felt that Viking was not open concerning various plans and options, and furthermore that we were being treated as children.
Independent of the strike issues, however, there other issues that made the cruise less than optimal. Most importantly, we feel that Viking's decision to have two people (cruise director and concierge) responsible for 180+ people was wholly inappropriate, regardless of how competent those individuals may be. As teachers with over 70 years combined experience, we cannot image how difficult it would be to keep track of that may people on excursions. One place where this deficiency became apparent was on bus excursions. With only two Viking personnel and four or more buses, if there was a problem, there was no one from Viking there to address the issue. As a matter of policy, no bus should ever leave the ship without a Viking employee on board independent of any contracted tour guide. That employee (who could be from the wait or hotel staff) should be able to communicate with the cruise director, Viking, and the bus company. That employee should keep count of the people on that particular bus, allowing a departure when everyone assigned to that bus is on board. Doing so would avoid the usual lengthy wait as only two Viking people tried to get everyone on board various buses. In Bamberg the lengthy delay meant waiting in an extremely hot bus since the bus was not able to idle and turn on the air conditioning. It was extremely uncomfortable. Had we left our dog in a car in similar heat, we could have been prosecuted.
On excursions, guides from different buses should vary the order of tours to avoid the inevitable congestion that occurs when 180+ people are following the same path. Moreover, when lunch is served on an excursion, more than one restaurant should be used when possible. The amount of time spent feeding 180+ people at once meant that time spent either in sightseeing or free time was significantly reduced. Later in the tour we simply skipped the offered lunch because of the crowds and noise. Furthermore, all optional excursions should be advertised well before the cruise. We learned about some optional excursions only on the ship. Finally, the comfort of passengers should be the top priority. On buses, toilets were frequently locked, and staff on long bus trips (more than 1 hr.) should never say that a rest stop will occur if there is an emergency. As a matter of policy, when travelling on a bus, passengers should be allowed a rest stop at least every 1.5 hours, and the time allowed for these stops should be realistic. (Stating that the stop will be 10 minutes when more than 180 people have to use the toilets is not realistic.)
Finally, we would like to address what we feel is misleading advertising by Viking River Cruises. Ads show three or four people with a guide. The reality is up to 40 on a tour, which as former teachers we feel is too many for a single guide. Second, unlike the ads, it is only after one has paid for the cruise, that there is any information that ships may be rafted together, thus making use of a veranda impossible. We spent two days in Budapest rafted without use of the veranda. Surely, the ship could have turned around or switched with the other ship (both were Viking ships) to allow some use of the veranda. Third, the ads say that dinner is between 7 and 9, leaving the impression that one can go into the dining room and be served at any time during that period. The reality is that everyone is expected to begin dinner at 7 as each course was served to everyone at the same time. Given that the tables are for 6, 8, or 10 people, everyone waiting for the next course meant that the noise level in the dining room was so high that conversation was nearly impossible. As an alternative, consider tables no greater than 6 and encourage people to vary their dining time to make interaction easier. Fourth, in the ads people were dining on the Aquavit terrace. When one of us inquired about that possibility, the person at reception at that time argued that the terrace was open for lunch only. Only after one of us continued to insist and also showed her the information in the booklet in which the word evening appeared, did the receptionist check with someone and come back with the limited evening menu. Dinner on the terrace was wonderful until the word got out, and it became more popular. Initially, people were told that dinner could only be served in the enclosed portion of the terrace, but later the staff relented and allowed dining in the open area. The problem was that the number of people serving (2) was not increased as the area become used more, with the result that food was sometimes cold before it could be delivered. Finally, the ads imply that the cruise would be a voyage of cultural and intellectual discovery. However, the time taken to organize excursions, the time allowed for shopping, and the general ambiance encouraged aboard the ship seemed to us to be an attempt to create more of a party experience.
In sum, although we found parts of the trip interesting and stimulating, our overall experience was a disappointment. Had we had a more accurate understanding of the reality of Viking River cruising, perhaps we would have been less disappointed. More importantly, our disappointment cannot be attributed wholly to the dislocations due to the strike, although that was an important component. One way to judge a tour company is how well they perform when things go wrong rather than when things go well. By that criterion, we believe that Viking has work to do. While we are not precluding a future river cruise, and even one on Viking, we have much lowered expectations based on our experience. Moreover, when asked if we would recommend Viking River Cruises, our recommendation must be, at best, qualified.
As a consequence of this letter we received a $1000 voucher which we thought was a response to the letter and not linked to the promised 25% voucher. On Aug. 13 we received the 25% voucher and an hour and a half later received an email rescinding the $1000 voucher. Very childish and petty. We definitely would NOT recommend Viking to anyone. At this point we feel we have been had.