This is a review of the Viking River Cruise that my wife and I recently enjoyed. I hope to provide some insight and tips for those who may be interested in doing a river cruise, doing one with Viking, or repeating the itinerary that we did (Paris to Prague, the 12-day Cities of Light trip). Overall the trip was excellent, accompanied with pleasing lagniappe (surprises), except for a sloppy screw-up with the bus transportation for the excursion in Prague.
My wife and I have done a few ocean cruises with Disney, Paul Gauguin, and Holland America Line (HAL). We have read about river cruises and like the concept of a leisurely boat trip through rivers and canals. We had a thoroughly enjoyable experience on one of our HAL cruises when we transited the Kiel Canal in northern Germany. My wife’s only stipulation was that the ship has to be new or recently refurbished. Viking Cruise Lines was a match, because river cruising is apparently a booming business, and Viking launched 12 new longships in 2012 and 2013.
Here is what appealed to us before the trip: the itinerary (Paris, the German rivers, Prague), the small number of passengers, inclusion of a “land package” (tours in Paris, Luxembourg, and Prague), actual balconies for most of the cabins (with chairs and a table for relaxing outside), and the included optional excursions.
We sailed on the Viking Odin. The ship was almost full (about 190 passengers). There were several groups of families and friends. The age range was 40’s to 70’s (with an average age of about 60), mostly Caucasian, and mostly from the United States (including Hawaii). The crew was European. Two surprises were the Program Director and the Concierge. The Program Director accompanied us from Paris through Prague, and was the “face” of Viking Cruise Lines. He was friendly, always smiling, always helpful, and knowledgeable—a true asset to Viking. There was also a Concierge on board the Odin, who was available to help with booking visits, concerts, etc., in any of the cities on the cruise and in Prague. We used her services to book a wonderful organ and violin concert in St. Giles Church on our first night in Prague. She also sold future cruise vouchers on the ship (something apparently new for Viking; some bugs need to be worked out for the redemption process)—pay $100 and get $200 towards a future cruise, per person, per booking.
There were no children on the trip. I think the history of the places on the trip would appeal to an interested teenager. Younger children would probably be bored. Except for a talented musician/piano player, there was no other regular nightly entertainment. There were a few nights with special entertainment. When we were in Heidelberg, we had a glass blowing demonstration onboard (the guy could be a comedian as well). Another night we had a classical violinist from one of the towns perform along with the ship’s musician.
The weather turned out much better than expected for the last half of May—hardly any rain, sunny skies, and warm temperatures (70s and 80s). I packed for cooler weather and bought a Viking short sleeve shirt and a “Moselle River” themed t-shirt in one town for the warmer weather.
Six days of the 12-day trip were on land (2 days in Paris; 1 day on a bus trip from Paris to Luxembourg to the ship, which was docked in Trier, Germany; 1 day on a bus trip from Bamberg to Nüremberg to Prague; and 2 days in Prague—one of which was the travel day to return home). The other days were on the Odin, with optional city tours at various towns along the way.
The local tour guides were generally very good. They were knowledgeable and often humorous. They were willing to help you with pronouncing the local language. I think the locals appreciate it when you make an effort to speak a few words in their language. (The Program Director did teach some basic German and Czech phrases onboard the Odin.)
We traveled on the Moselle, the Rhine, and the Main Rivers. There was no current on the Moselle River or on the Main River—because of an extensive system of locks. The ship would enter the lock, and then be lowered (or raised) 30-60 feet, before continuing the trip on the river. I was pleasantly surprised that locks were used on these rivers. Many passengers would watch the process from the front of the ship (Aquavit Terrace), the Sun Deck, or from their cabins.
The downside to the lock system is that the ship’s schedule can be adversely affected. The Captain cannot predict which barges and ships might be on the river and enter a lock before the Odin; you have to wait about 30 minutes for each ship to enter and clear a lock. Due to the unpredictability, we arrived late in Rüdesheim and had an abbreviated optional excursion (wine tasting). The Captain even missed the Captain’s Cocktail Party and Captain’s Dinner when we departed from Würzburg, so that he could make sure we arrived at our next destination in a timely manner.
In some spots on the rivers, there was not much overhead clearance for the bridges we crossed under. Railings on the upper deck would be removed, lounge chairs stowed, overhead awnings lowered, and the wheelhouse (from which the Captain and staff controlled the movement of the ship) would lower—sometimes completely to the deck below. The Sun Deck (upper deck) would be closed to passengers for safety reasons, until the ship passed safely under the bridge.
The information on Viking’s website was helpful and accurate. The dress code was casual, but you could dress up if you wanted. Most did not. I liked that Viking provided name badges and lanyards for each passenger. That helped me meet and greet other passengers. A suggestion to Viking: make the first name much larger so that it is easier to read at a distance.
My wife and I were sent a personalized travel booklet on our cruise several weeks before departure. My only complaints were the “generic” dates in the itinerary section and the information on power plug adapters. The dates were listed in the format Day 1, Day 2, etc. It’s up to you to figure out the exact calendar date for each location (to check weather forecasts, to make alternative visit plans, etc.) The paragraph in the booklet on travel adapters was useless; it didn’t tell you what kind of power plugs to bring. Even a call to the travel agent who called Viking didn’t provide the info I needed initially (strangely, Viking won’t talk to you if you book with a travel agent; you have to use your travel agent to get answers to questions). For Paris (and Prague), you need a Type C or Type F plug adapter. On the Odin, there were standard US plugs and well as European plugs (use Type C or F plug adapter).
Paris was a nice starting point. My wife and I decided to arrive early and visit the Normandy area (just before the 70th anniversary of D-Day). It was easy to get from the airport to downtown Paris. Our plane arrived at Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle Airport. We took the airport shuttle train, CDGVAL, to the 2nd stop, Terminal 3/Roissypole; then we took a RER (Blue) train—one of the direct trains (four times an hour)—to the Gare du Nord station in downtown Paris, for 9.75 Euros each. From there we could connect to the Paris metro and other train lines. We later traveled on our own to the hotel for the start of the cruise.
The hotel in Paris was nice: Le Méridien Etoile. It is located away from central Paris, but convenient to reach by metro or the RER train. The hotel is located across from a shopping center; on the lower level is an upscale store, Galeries Gourmandes, which sells groceries, wines, chocolates, etc. Hotel check-in with the Viking travel desk was quick and efficient.
After 2 nights in Paris, we departed by bus (motorcoach) to travel across France for a visit to the city of Luxembourg. It was an early day. For my bus group, luggage had to be left outside your hotel room by 7:15 am, with departure by 8:15 am. The buses were double deckers, and most people sat on the upper level. There were 4 buses for the passengers. The buses stopped at a rest stop near Reims, France. You had the chance to buy some champagne (Reims is in the heart of the Champagne region), get a snack, or use the restroom (the buses had a small bathroom as well). One couple missed the departure time in Paris and took a taxi to meet up with the group at the rest stop.
During the tour in Luxembourg, we encountered more lagniappe from Viking—Quietvox listening devices. Each passenger was given a unit with an earpiece. The guide would select a channel number, inform your group, and then talk into a microphone to give you commentary about the historic sites. You didn’t have to be around the tour guide; you could clearly hear what the guide was saying from up to several hundred yards away. This is a boon for photographers like myself who sometimes linger to take pictures. There were charging stations for the Quietvox in each cabin on the Odin.
At the end of the day, the buses took us to the Odin, which was docked in Trier, Germany. The next day on our land tour of Trier, we encountered another pleasant surprise—Viking provided 4 Viking Cruise buses that transported us to meet local tour guides and return us to the ship after the city or castle tour. The buses stayed with us the entire time we were in Germany. After dropping us off at the Odin (which had moved down the river while we were on the tour), the buses would head to the next port to meet up with us. The buses were single level, clean, comfortable, provisioned with free water, and contained a small bathroom. You could leave stuff on the bus during the tour if you wanted. Just be aware that the overhead storage space is small; you could store backpacks, etc. on the floor under the seat in front of you. When we left the Odin in Bamberg, the Viking buses took us to Prague. We had different (local) buses for our land tour in Prague (sadly, there was a fee for bottled water on this part of the trip).
Viking offered optional tours at all ports; these were free of charge. Typically, there was also a “leisure tour” option for slower walkers; this option tried to minimize the number of steps that were climbed. Suggestion for Viking: publish the number of steps for each tour to allow passengers to make an assessment of their ability to handle the climbing. Be prepared to pay 0.50 Euros to use public toilets in Germany. I don’t recall the fee for toilets in Prague, but it was a nominal amount also. An alternative is to buy coffee or a drink at a café, and then use their toilet.
When we ate lunch in Heidelberg after a city tour, students from the local university sat at each table and talked with us. The student at my table was a first year physics student from Spain. It was a real pleasure to be able to talk with her.
Another lagniappe was a “treat” when returning from a city or castle tour and going back aboard the Odin. The Hotel Manager greeted you and provided a cold drink, some “gummi bear” candy, an ice cream bar, etc.
There were 4 optional excursions for a fee: two wine tastings, a trip to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and a tour of Lobkowicz Palace in Prague. It was difficult finding out from (my travel agent finding out from) Viking which tours I had to book before leaving home. On ocean cruises, you typically have to sign up in advance (while at home), to secure a spot on such an excursion. In the end, we only had to sign up for the Lobkowicz Palace tour in advance; the others we could sign up for on the ship (and we could have waited and signed up for the Palace Tour as well). Be aware that Viking does not issue a voucher for this prepaid tour; our tour sign-up was just noted in the personalized travel booklet sent to us prior to travel.
We skipped the wine tasting in Bernkastel-Kues, because it only offered sweet wines. We did the other wine tasting in Rüdesheim at the Georg Breuer Vinothek, but the experience was so-so. (We had a free, blind wine tasting the day before on the Odin, and enjoyed that experience just as much.) Our visit was shorter than planned, because the ship arrived late. Viking did graciously refund a portion of the cost of the wine tasting excursion, because of the time constraint—another example of Viking’s good customer service. We did take the tour to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a medieval walled city; this was one of the primary reasons I selected this cruise itinerary; we liked the tour. We also enjoyed the tour of the Lobkowicz Palace. We got to eat in a private room in the palace and then listen to a classical concert by 3 performers. Info on these optional tours was available online and in a brochure in your cabin onboard the Odin (or ask the helpful Concierge).
Our cabin (315) on the ship, a Category A Verandah room, was well designed and sufficiently spacious. The queen size bed was comfortable. There were plenty of drawers, a closet, a safe, a refrigerator, and a chair. The refrigerator even has a cut-away portion on the top shelf, so that you can chill a bottle standing up (another nice extra, compliments of Viking). My only criticism of the room is that there is a lack of places to hang up items to air out; there were only 2 hooks on the back of the door and a string line in the shower. The TV allowed you to see a GPS map of the location of the ship on the rivers. There was a good selection of music and movies on the TV. Unfortunately, the slideshow of photos did not work on the TV; you could only see the photos taken by ship staff (most often by the Program Director) on the TV screens in the ship lounge. Suitcases easily fit under the bed. The shower door could be closed (unlike some of the European hotel rooms that had a half glass partition). I liked the L’Occitane toiletry products in the bathroom. Be aware that the bathroom sink is designed so that if you wash your hands, some water splatters onto the counter, which runs off the counter onto the bathroom floor below. Your cabin was quickly and efficiently serviced by Housekeeping at least twice a day.
Wine and beer were provided free at lunch and dinner, and there was sparkling wine for breakfast. You could get as much as you wanted. Except for one night, though, it was the same every day. You could order a bottle of wine from a wine list if desired. I think you could also buy wine ashore and drink it with a meal. Another option was to purchase the Silver Spirits Premium Beverage Package. Then you could get unlimited premium wines, beers, espresso drinks, juices, mineral water, and cocktails for the entire cruise. However, this was an expensive option: 150 Euros per person. My wife and I declined that package. We figured we could enjoy the free “house” wine and order a cocktail or two for several evenings and spend much less than 150 Euros. We did enjoy the “house” wine; the white wine and red wine were tasty and went well with the food. I would have preferred that Viking switch to new “house” wine halfway through the cruise, to add some variety. We ended up buying and enjoying some local wines in the outdoor cafes during our free time on the land excursions and near the piers where the ship was docked in the evenings. The shipboard cocktails were inexpensive (about 5.50-6.50 Euros) and well made.
The Executive Chef was very personable, held cooking demonstrations, and mingled with guests at dinner and during some of the Daily Briefings in the lounge. He has an extensive herb garden on the Sun Deck and other places on the ship. One night the dinner theme was “Taste of Germany”; we got to visit the kitchen (galley) and be served local German favorites.
The food was good at breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the ship. There was a lot of variety. I loved the ship-made strawberry and mango jams at breakfast. At all meals, you could order off a menu, in addition to selecting items from the buffet in the restaurant. You could show up late, after the start time listed in the daily program, and still get an entire meal. In the Aquavit Lounge, a buffet was served; at lunchtime, you could also get food from the grill. The server poured the “house” wine and beer, and served soft drinks and other beverages at lunch and dinner. You could ask for extra portions at any time. As lagniappe, the Maître d' would bring around special treats in the main restaurant at dinnertime.
After your final night on the ship (in Bamberg), be ready for an early morning. For my bus group, I had to place luggage outside my cabin by 7:00 am and disembark by 8:15 am for the bus trip to Nüremberg and then to Prague. There is a rest stop on the way to Prague.
The hotel in Prague was also nice: Hilton Prague. It is also removed from the city center, but near a tram stop. It is a 20-25 minute walk to the Old Town area. Hotel check-in with the Viking travel desk was quick and efficient.
Although some restaurants in Prague would accept Euros, some places do not (including public toilets). So you need to plan to convert some Euros to Czech korunas. Except for one place that our tour guide recommended, avoid exchanging money in Old Town (you don’t get as good a rate as at other places). In Prague, you can pay in Euros instead of Czech korunas at major restaurants and tourist shops. However, I determined after I returned home that you pay a 10-20% premium to use Euros, depending on the restaurant (call it a convenience fee for the restaurant accepting Euros.) It’s better to convert some Euros to korunas at the hotel before you go out, or at a bank, and then pay in korunas. If you’re staying for several days, use an ATM.
Viking offered a city tour in Prague in addition to the optional excursion to the Lobkowicz Palace. There were 2 small buses for the Viking Odin groups that did the combined city tour and Palace tour. Unfortunately, Viking mismanaged the transportation. When the bus that I was on dropped my group off for the Palace tour, we were told (as we were accustomed to) that we could leave stuff on the bus. We learned later that the people on the other bus were told differently—to take their stuff with them. After our Palace tour was over, different Viking representatives picked us up and took us to the buses. We were initially told that those going to the Hilton Prague should get on the 2nd bus (my original bus); it clearly didn’t have enough room for all the people who came on the first bus and the second bus in the morning. Then people from the original 1st bus sat down on stuff that people from my (2nd) bus had left on the seats. The people from my bus lost their seats and had to go on the other (1st) bus. That bus left, but then had to come back, because we had people standing in the aisle on our 2nd bus, and our packed bus couldn’t leave with people standing up. For as long as Viking Cruises has been doing tours in Prague, I was disappointed at the sloppy way the bus transportation was handled. (And some of my new friends were those who lost their seats and had their stuff sat upon.)
We departed for the Prague Airport after our 2-night stay at the Hilton. We arranged with the Hilton to get a taxi to the airport. It was a very early morning for us, but it took less than 30 minutes to get to the airport. We arrived by 4:20 am for our 6:00 am flight, and were among the first to check in. We had printed out boarding passes the day before at the Business Center at the Hilton Prague.
Originally we had signed up for the Prague extension with Viking. Then we reassessed the trip when we looked at pros and cons. According to the description online, and as verified by our travel agent, there were no tours or meals offered by Viking during the extension. The only meal provided was breakfast, which came with the hotel room at the Hilton. You could ask the concierge at the Hilton Prague about sightseeing tips, with no Viking involvement. I also found out that I could book a room at the same Hilton and thus extend my stay for much less than the cost that Viking was charging. Because my wife and I were comfortable taking a cab from the Hilton to the Prague Airport for our return trip (cheaper than the cost of the Viking transfer), there was really no benefit to booking a Prague extension with Viking. So we cancelled it. (We decided to do a pre-trip extension in France on our own instead.)
My biggest regret on the cruise is that I was too busy taking advantage of the land excursions and other shipboard activities. I really enjoyed the scenic cruising in the Bamberg area, looking at the vineyards and castles along the river. I wish I had spent more time enjoying the cruising. But I suppose that is what repeat cruises are for. I had to rest at home after returning from this vacation. It was a thoroughly enjoyable vacation—highly recommended.