My husband and I were on the Grand European Cruise on Viking Skadi which departed from Budapest on May 17. We enjoyed it and consider ourselves lucky that the weather was mostly good and the cruise went mostly as expected, with a few exceptions that were handled as best as they could be.
Embarkation was very smooth. My husband and I made our own arrangements for the flight (a lot less than what Viking was charging) and we took a taxi from Budapest airport to the Viking dock. The only issue was that we got off the taxi a little bit too far from the ship and had some difficulty carrying our suitcases over gravel / grass since there was no sidewalk. As soon as the Viking crew saw us they came and carried our bags. We got into the ship, gave our names, and were led straight to our cabin by the hotel manager. They didn't even check our ID to make sure we were who we said we were.
We were in a stateroom with a "French balcony" (not really a balcony, but a floor-to-ceiling window which slides open). It's a tight squeeze in the room, but we expected that. I have a few complaints: (1) the pillows are too soft -- almost like having no pillows at all; (2) the toilet paper dispenser in the bathroom is a terrible design - I had to keep removing the toilet paper from it and just setting it on the shelf; (3) toilet paper is a bit rough; (4) not enough hangers in the closet. I had to hang three or more pieces of clothing on each hanger, and I used all the 3 drawers just for my things. My husband used the shelves in the other half of the closet to stack his clothes (folded, not on hangers). Well, we survived. Maybe I brought too many clothes! Finally (5) wi-fi internet access is very spotty in the rooms.
Apart from these, I think the stateroom was fine. Bathroom amenities included La Occitane en Provence shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, and shower gel. The shower has good pressure and is a good size for a river cruise ship. I never heard noise from the rooms next to us or the hallway. There is a safe and several electrical outlets, both US and European. The room was always cleaned promptly, usually while we were having breakfast, and the bed was turned down while we had dinner. One day we got a towel bunny and another day we got chocolates (I wish it had been every day!).
The TV in the room is a large flat screen, with just a few channels, a limited selection of movies, and all episodes of Downton Abbey. You can also get the weather forecast, a map of the ship's location, a lounge cam, and a bow cam. The lounge cam allows you to watch the daily briefing if you don't feel like going to the lounge for it.
Nice dining room, with tables set for six or eight. The lounge was a bright, comfortable place to relax at any time of day, and the best place to get wi-fi (a couple of laptops are also available for public use). There is a sun deck, but for more than half of our cruise it was closed. The water in the rivers was very high due to lots of recent rain, so the railings had to be dismantled, and all the tables and chairs removed so that the ship could go under the bridges. It was a bit scary sometimes to see that there was just a foot or less of clearance between the top of the ship and the bottom of a bridge! A few more inches and our cruise might have been canceled. Fortunately, for our departure from Budapest, as well as the most scenic parts of the cruise, the sun deck was available to us. Also on the sun deck (which has a shaded section) are a walking track, shuffleboard, and a giant chess board, as well as an herb garden for the kitchen's use.
Apart from the lounge and sun deck, there are a few other small other public areas where one can sit and relax -- a little library, the outdoor Aquavit Terrace, and some sofas in the atrium. They are nice enough.
Unfortunately our ship had a problem almost right from the start - water had gotten into the engine. This did not affect the first few days of the cruise, but we were told that instead of docking in Passau on Day 4, we would dock in Linz and would be taken to Passau by bus. While we were in Passau the ship would be repaired. Everybody had to get off the ship, whether they wanted to or not. Free lunch was provided at a restaurant in town (my husband and I decided to eat elsewhere, to save time so we could do more sightseeing). At the end of the day, the bus dropped us off at a different location so we could board the ship. The bus ride was an hour and a half each way, which meant significantly less time available to see the sights in Passau. In addition, for the next few days we had to disembark in industrial areas instead of the city, because the ship was behind schedule. To compensate for these inconveniences, there was one evening of open bar in the lounge. At another city, when the ship was delayed arriving at the port where we were to get back on, the cruise director offered free drinks at a bar in town (imagine the madhouse in the bar as a result).
Well, stuff happens and this little engine crisis caused some inconvenience, but I think that Viking handled it well and I didn't hear any major grumbling about it from other passengers. Upon our return Viking sent us a voucher worth 25% of what we paid for this cruise, good for a future cruise. I hope to take advantage of this voucher next year.
I would say that overall the food was very good. I enjoyed most of the meals, the main exception being the German-themed dinner when the pork was tough and dry. On a couple of evenings my husband said that the fish was overcooked. The portions are not large, so if you're a big eater you might want to order more food, but for me there was always more than enough. There was always a selection of several appetizers, entrees, and desserts, which changed every evening. And if you didn't want any of those, you could always have salmon, steak, or roast chicken. Caesar salad and a cheese plate were also always available. There were a couple of times when I couldn't decide which appetizer to have so I ordered two.
On our last evening, the kitchen was apparently trying to get rid of an excess supply of asparagus, so there was asparagus in almost every selection except dessert! I didn't mind since I like asparagus and since it was the peak of the season, it was quite good, and rather funny. But for anyone who doesn't like asparagus, it was probably a disappointment.
Wine, beer and soft drinks were included at both lunch and dinner.
Lunch and breakfast were buffet style, but you could also order from a menu. It was very easy to overeat at these times.
All meals are open seating. After a couple of days however we ended up eating with the same group of people for almost all meals. We met two other couples that we really liked and we all got along really well. We had our favorite table and favorite waiter who took good care of us. It's not really possible to reserve a table, so we tried to get to the dining room early to make sure we got our spot.
Coffee, tea, and hot chocolate are always available from a machine. There were cookies for snacks. Croissants were also put out near the coffee/tea machine at breakfast time for anyone who doesn't like a big breakfast.
One afternoon there was "German Tea Time" with a variety of cakes and a special coffee with cognac. Another afternoon there was a demonstration of how to make apple struedel, with slices of struedel given out afterwards. It was good and they gave the recipe, but too complicated for me plus I'm diabetic so shouldn't be eating it anyway.
It seems that in order to be a Viking employee, one important qualification is to always have a smile on your face. Everyone was very nice and friendly. About 1/4 of the staff were from the Philippines, the rest Eastern European, except for the program director, Matthew Shaw, who is British. I was impressed with his multi-tasking -- he coordinated the excursions, gave a briefing every evening on the next day's events, served as master of ceremonies during the evening entertainment as well as "game show" host, and even did a little cabaret one evening, singing different genres of songs. I only wish he hadn't tried to "honor" Luciano Pavarotti by singing a couple of songs in Italian, because his accent was horrendous!
Our dining room waiter was a gem. We got to know him quite a bit and now he's my friend on Facebook!
Short city tours (about 1 to 1.5 hours) were included in every stop, as well as some free time. The quality of local guides varied. We had a really good guide in Cologne, a middle school history teacher. Overall I was satisfied with the tour guides though I often felt that the tours were too short. On the other hand, it's a bit of a pain walking through a city with a large group of people. A few passengers abandoned the guided tours altogether, preferring to strike out on their own. My husband and I went on only one optional tour, to Rothenburg. It was worth it as Rothenburg is a lovely town, but it was way too short. We lost at least 45 minutes because of late arrival at the port (Wurzburg). My husband and I left the included lunch early so that we could have a bit more time to go to the all-year Christmas shop. In Cologne we also took the free optional extension to the Roman museum (entrance fee included, and only a few people took advantage of it).
In some places we had only half a day to go sightseeing (and just a couple of hours at Kinderdijk). The city with the most free time was Vienna (not counting Budapest, where you can stay out all night on the first day if you like). After the short city tour in Vienna we had the whole afternoon and evening until 10 pm available. Note that when the Viking guide says "See the Opera House, Hofburg Palace, St. Stephen's Cathedral" etc you will see only the outside of these places, so the afternoon is a good time to see them on your own. Some people went the optional tour to see a concert after dinner. I happen to have a college friend in Vienna so took the time to see her. We went to a couple of off-the-beaten path places and had dinner in a nice restaurant with typical Austrian food. In Vienna, getting back to the ship requires a subway ride. When we got off the subway at 9:45 pm, we had no idea in which direction to go but fortunately someone showed us the way. It was about 10 minutes walk.
In some cities the only way to and from the ship was via the Viking bus, so you had better be on time if you don't want to get left behind. However the Viking staff were good at counting everyone to make sure no one was actually left behind. A couple of people got a little scolding from the program director when they did not appear at the meeting place on time.
Between Budapest and Amsterdam there are 67 locks. At the first one, many people went out to the sundeck to watch. After that it was generally a ho-hum event, but it could be interesting to see how different types of locks operated. The ship went through many of the locks at night while we were sleeping. Each lock takes about 20-30 minutes, but could be longer if another ship has to be accommodated at the same time. Occasionally we bumped hard into the sides of the locks, which can be very narrow -- just a little wider than the ship. Our waiter told me that on the previous sailing the ship never bumped into the lock walls, so it's not inevitable. Maybe we had a less experienced captain.
We were very lucky with the weather! There was a brief period of rain in Budapest, and a few sprinkles in other cities (Viking provides large umbrellas, but I brought my own little one), but otherwise the weather was lovely. Average temperature was in the 60s, so I usually had to wear a sweater or jacket (some Canadians wore shorts). It was never more than 70 degrees. No sweat! We were told that the week before our cruise, it rained nonstop for several days. Even in Amsterdam, where it rains 200 days of the year, we had sunshine (though the cruise was over by then).
Most of the evenings the entertainment was just a lone musician singing and/or playing the piano. Other evenings we had: (1) songs and folk dances from Slovakia; (2) opera music; (3) a glass-blowing demonstration; (4) Matthew's cabaret; (5) team games on two nights (a 50s-60s quiz and a guess-the-meaning-of-the-word game). In addition during the German-themed dinner there were roaming musicians.
During the day there were a few presentations: (1) the life of Mozart; (2) a history of locks and canals; (3) how locks work; (4) history of the European Union, with a guest lecturer; and (5) Dutch cheese and jenever ( a Dutch liqueur). Except for the one on the EU, the program director gave all the presentations, using Powerpoint. They were ok, a good way to pass the time during less-interesting scenery (no question-and-answer afterwards). Matthew also did some commentary on castles while we were on the Middle Rhine and in the Wachau Valleys.
Viking caters to an English-speaking clientele. Most of the passengers were from the US and Canada; there were a few from Great Britain and Australia. In addition there were a few from Latin America. I would say that most people were in their 60s or 70s. I think there were only two people who were under 30 (not together, but traveling with older relatives).
We arrived in Amsterdam early in the morning. Some people had very early flights but breakfast was available for them even at 4 am. Everyone got color-coded tags depending on their time of departure, so their bags could be taken by the staff from outside the staterooms. My husband and I were staying in Amsterdam for a few days, so we could disembark when we liked (but everyone had to leave their rooms by 9 am to allow for cleaning). The staff called a taxi for us (arranged the day before) and the taxi came on time. It was organized chaos as passengers departed and new ones came on board.
We were sad to leave! My husband and I are hoping to do another river cruise next year.