First River cruise with several ocean cruises behind us. The first thing we found was how open the ship was, for the actual width. After the massiveness of the ocean liners, this ship looked very small from the outside, but they have done a great job of making it very roomy indeed.
Our cruise had 184 passengers so you never got the feeling of being crowded. In fact I was pleasantly surprised that overall there was more "personal space" on this ship than on the ocean liners. Very surprisingly we found there were 172 Americans on board, so it was more like an American ship. We had originally thought we would be one of the few Americans or at least some balance of cultures from around the world. In any case, the mix of people really made the cruise exceptional and we were also surprised that the average age of passengers was a little younger than we had anticipated (not the mid 70's but more late 50's to mid 60's) and all pretty well traveled.
We spend a couple of nights in Budapest prior to sailing, which was wonderful. Allowed us to recover from the flight and get our sleep patterns in check, as well as see more of the amazing city. Others joining the cruise on the day of embarkation wished they had booked a few days as well (highly recommended whichever cruise you take).
Our balcony room was slightly larger than our ocean cruise rooms and extremely well laid out, with large flat panel TV larger bed, more storage and a really nicely designed bathroom. The shower has an angled glass wall with 2 doors, so while still relatively small, it is easy to get in and out of and has enough room that you didn't feel locked in.. I was quite impressed with this feature.
Meals were excellent and much better than I expected. Definitely restaurant quality with no hint that this was a mass production line. We didn't buy the upgrade package for wine and spirits which allows you to have higher class drinks any time, rather than just at meals. The "included" drinks at meals - beer and house wine were actually very nice indeed, the wine was far better than anything you would find as "house wine" in the U.S. At the end of the trip our total "additional" drinks bill was about $120, which was far better than the upgrade package cost. There is always orange juice, a coffee/chocolate machine upstairs and large water bottles in your room.
The ship moves effortlessly through the river and you hardly know you are moving. The scenery is constant and only ever a few hundred yards away which makes for a great experience, especially going through the different locks, which just fascinated me - 3 inches to spare on either side of the ship...
The staff were simply wonderful, although you will likely locate the best staff quickly and stick to their section in the dining room (Thank you Senya and Igor). Dawn, the program director is a multi-talented absolute, over the top personality (which takes a day or so to get used to) and I wish I had a tenth of her energy. She is the glue which holds the ship together for pretty much everything, including entertainment and shore tours (Thank you Dawn)
We decided to make our own way around many of the locations we visited and take public transport rather than the arranged tours. This seemed to throw the front desk staff for a bit of a loop, when we asked questions like - "Where is the ship docked" on the map they just handed us and "Where is the train station" or "What is the best public transport to the RingStrasse"? It seems that most people just jump on the tours and the staff are less than prepared to handle questions outside of that. We actually found that the location of the ship, in one case, was not actually on the map and the business card they give you with the ships location was of little value unless you were taking a taxi back to the ship. A little better information in this area - maybe maps printed by Viking themselves with better "on your own" directions would entice a younger (mid 40s and above) element who may not want to be sheep herded around.
Our cabin was more midship, with a short walk to the main atrium/exit/stars/dining room and lounge, so we never got the feeling that we were hemmed in, or got the sensation of how long the ship really was in the living quarters end of the ship. I would highly recommend a room nearer to the middle. The foot traffic was very light and noise was never a problem for us (room 209).
The name "Romantic Danube" gives you a sense that this might be a romance themed cruise - well it's not... it is just the name of the river (you'll have to plan your own romance); and don't expect anything too special in the way of being Christmas market themed either, apart from some tours just happening to have Christmas markets at the main center of town or at other attractions. It is the same itinerary as the other tours, but just happens to have Christmas markets. You may have to do a little research on some out of the way markets. We found quite a few in Vienna by riding the bus. It seems that there is a small market around nearly every corner, while the big ones are right at the major squares.
Overall this cruise was fabulous and far better than anything we have experienced on ocean cruises.
Would we do it again - in a heartbeat... In fact, I would consider doing this cruise in early fall for the foliage. December was bare treed, but I could imagine what it is like fully leafed.
This was a great get away and a great way to see different cities that you would likely never go to.