Viking Pride Review - "Disappointment on the Danube"
13-27 July 2008
We have cruised many times on smaller seagoing ships and twice on the Nile (long ago, before the current overcrowding on the river. We had visited Budapest and Vienna before and know Amsterdam fairly well, but the other ports on this trip were new to us. So this was an experiment for us, in the hope that we would find river cruising to be an enjoyable alternative to the ocean. We have around 200 days on Silversea, so we chose Viking in the light of its claim to be the best river cruising company "by far". We paid roughly what we would have paid for two weeks on Silversea in Europe.
Tickets arrived late, but in time after being chased up. There were several errors in documentation, including the wrong disembarkation date on the invoice.
Travel to Port of Embarkation
We took the inclusive flights from the UK on BA. They were on time and we had no problems. A local representative met us and about 10 others outside customs and we took our bags to the bus, which transferred us to the ship.
Viking Pride can take up to 150 passengers in 75 cabins and is one of five nearly identical ships. Pride was built in Holland in 2001.
We were frequently parked (sorry, moored) right up against other ships, often walking through them to get to the shore, so we had the opportunity to make direct comparisons. Viking Pride looked old-fashioned when compared to these others. For example, many of these ships had much smarter public areas, French balconies, and sitting areas by the balconies.
Safety is always a concern when traveling, so we were reassured to witness a staff safety drill, held when most passengers were ashore. Alarm buttons are provided around the ship and in every cabin. However, there was no security check on boarding in any ports.
It wasn't a problem, but as Brits traveling in Europe we hadn't expected the passengers to be over 90% American.
We met only one repeat Viking guest on this trip - but she was on her 11th trip with the line.
There are just two cabin sizes but five price grades depending on location. 63 cabins are 154 square feet and 12 are 120 square feet. All are outside cabins. Our cabin was category B and had sufficient space, though with nowhere to sit near the window except on the bed, unlike other ships we saw. The smaller cabins have a fold-down bed/sofa set-up, and this is much tighter on space.
We had enough hanging space and plenty of drawer space, even for our two-week trip. All cabins have a shower only. The shower worked OK, but had a curtain not a door. There was plenty of hot water. Pairs of hand towels, bath towels, face cloths and a bath mat were supplied. The towels were tired and in need of replacement.
Only basic toiletries were provided: a bar of soap, a fixed squeeze-bottle of shower gel in the shower, two unbranded mini-bottles of shampoo, two of body lotion, a shower cap and a "vanity set" (Q-tips and cotton wool). The toiletries were not replenished, except for the shower gel.
There was a hairdryer to plug in at the small dressing table. Located here were two 220V sockets and one 110V socket (both European plug). The beds were reasonably comfortable with adequate duvets and nothing-fancy linen. One pillow each was supplied.
Soundproofing was very good and it was rare to hear any obtrusive noise in the cabin. However, some passengers on the top deck were kept awake by a noisy party on the sun deck late at night.
Air conditioning and heating (we needed both) was efficient, but crazily the vent was by the window, so behind the curtains/drapes at night.
Unlike other ships, there were no net curtains.
The TV had six channels, but three of these were in German. The only familiar channel was CNN. A different movie was shown each day on the TV.
Before we left, we read the Cruise Critic forums and noted the lack of soap dishes in the showers. During our trip, new soap dishes were installed. Maybe somebody at Viking reads the forums? Let's hope so.
The ship is designed to fit the locks on the rivers, with a few inches to spare. So the only public spaces are the restaurant at the rear, one lounge at the front with a bar, and some seating in the reception area. The ship was full and often felt crowded. It was often necessary to squeeze past others in public areas and there was a rush and then a line for any event or meal.
The upholstery in the public areas, especially the lounge, seemed worn out. All of it was creased, some was torn, and inexcusably some was stained and/or dirty.
The lounge in particular was not well cleaned. It was common to see crumbs on the floor in the morning from the night before. Tables in the lounge were not cleared routinely and empty coffee cups, glasses and other detritus were sometimes left for hours.
In contrast, the outsides of the lounge windows were cleaned daily by the deckhands and gave a good view, which was needed in view of the weather.
There is a small library with a few paperbacks and hardbacks. A small selection of board games and jigsaw puzzles was available.
The sun deck was very large, but the elevated section at the rear, making up around 70% of the space, was closed due to low bridges for more than half of the cruise. If we had had better weather, this would have been a problem with a full ship.
Smoking was only allowed outside and with the limited deck space it was sometimes necessary to move to escape others' smoke.
There is relentless muzak in the public areas, including the sundeck, throughout the day.
Coffee, hot water, ice water and ice tea were available free at a table near reception.
Breakfast was served mainly buffet style, with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and one other hot item, juice, cereal, fruit, cheese, cold meats, rolls and toast. You could also order an omelet, pancakes etc. Strangely, you couldn't have bacon if you ordered an omelet: you had to fetch that from the buffet yourself. Coffee at breakfast was mainly OK and better than the stuff in the machine at reception.
An early riser breakfast - just pastries - was provided at reception from 6 am. Afternoon tea - just cakes - was provided in the same place for an hour each afternoon.
With one exception, lunch was served aboard. There was a choice of two made-up sandwiches and a very limited selection of salad at a buffet, a soup and a hot dish, plus a dessert or ice cream. The cold items were sometimes duplicated in the lounge.
Evening meals were served at 7:00, prompting a stampede for tables that became earlier and earlier each night. This made the whole cruise experience feel regimented. Water was served on arrival, but with the ship full one would sometimes wait up to half an hour for the order to be taken.
The restaurant was open seating with tables of four, six and eight (no tables for two). There were one or two cold appetizers, two soups, one meat, one fish and one vegetarian dish, and two desserts (one of them usually ice cream). With such a limited choice, there were times when nothing available appealed. Rump steak and chicken breast, and Caesar salad were available as alternatives.
The wine list was limited and pricey (Euros 21 a bottle for the cheapest non-house wine). It was possible to buy wine ashore and consume it in the restaurant with a corkage charge. There is no restriction on bringing wines aboard for consumption in the cabin.
Meals were in general sufficient in quantity, but not always served hot and the quality was variable, ranging from good to terrible. Unlike most other dining venues afloat or ashore, we were never questioned when we had not cleared the plate. The alternative steaks were a prime example of this variability. Two steaks on separate nights were so tough that they could not be cut with a knife, but at least one steak was described by a table companion as good.
It was very disappointing to walk through a thriving vegetable market ashore and return to lunch with what seemed like packet mashed potato and frozen vegetables.
The one consistent highlight was the soups, which with minor exceptions were good and varied.
We were concerned to see staff, as dinner was finishing on one evening, relaying tables for breakfast using cutlery left behind by diners. This seemed to us to be a hygiene risk. Many people aboard caught the "ship's cold".
There were few meaningful activities aboard. Several daytime events were arranged: a lecture on the European Union; a Bavarian folklore show; and a glass-blower. After dinner, there was usually some form of entertainment, but this ranged from the downmarket to the desperate - bingo and a raffle with cheap-and-nasty prizes were the low points.
With no other public spaces, there was no escape if this wasn't your idea of a good time.
There are no activities for children. We had one teen aboard, but the next-youngest must have been in the forties and most were older still.
Our cabin was clean and kept that way, though we were surprised that the housekeeper herself was assigned to our cabin. It wasn't clear how she did this as well as supervising the others. When we asked for a sewing kit, reception tried to sell us one but couldn't find it, and the housekeeper came to the rescue.
We felt that the ship was understaffed when full. Maybe this contributed to the other service problems.
The dining staff seemed hassled and unmotivated, with at least one particularly apparently unhappy and unsmiling person. A typical response to a routine request was "In a minute, sir".
The front desk was no better, except when large numbers of passengers were boarding or disembarking, when it was "all hands to the pump". (On leaving the ship, you swap your door key card for a paper card, reversing the process on your return, so reception knows who is off the ship.)
Bar service was reasonably friendly but very slow; there was a reasonable selection of drinks.
The Program Director had apparently worked for Viking for 10 years but had poor colloquial English and weak pronunciation. Neither she nor any of the senior staff socialized with passengers.
The Hotel Manager was invisible, apparently staying in his office except during mass boarding or disembarkation.
There were two or three consistently enthusiastic staff, but sadly they were in the minority.
On two occasions when we attempted to raise minor concerns with the "program" (or cruise) staff, we were told that they were "too busy". After that, we gave up.
A musician was aboard and swapped with a colleague about half-way through the trip. Both played keyboards, guitar and sang, during afternoon tea and before and after dinner.
This should have been an interesting itinerary, covering the Danube north from Budapest, the Main-Danube canal, part of the Main river, and the Rhine to Amsterdam. We were unlucky to have cold, wet weather for much of the first week.
There are several opportunities - though not as many as you might guess - to relax as the scenery unfolds around you. By far the most spectacular section is the upper Rhine, with its many riverside castles and steep hillsides and cliffs. This was almost worth the whole trip.
Most shore excursions were included, with transport if necessary, although many were walking tours. The guides were as good as we have found on ship-organized excursions elsewhere, with good, colloquial English.
When coaches were used, they were completely full. You are assigned to a particular coach for the duration of the cruise.
In common with other lines, Viking uses portable short-range radio receivers coded for each bus and thus for each guide. This is a good idea and avoids the need for the guide to shout. The receivers were in short supply within a few days, presumably because some passengers forgot to turn them in. As far as we could tell, nothing was done about this.
For our taste, we felt that the tours were too long and left too much free time. However, in most locations you were free to walk or take public transport or a cab back to the ship.
Good maps and other tourist information were available for almost all ports before arrival, together with a slip of paper giving the ship's location and phone number. This was very useful for handing to non-English-speaking cab drivers.
Viking makes much of its dedicated piers and central locations. This was not our experience in most of the ports on this particular itinerary. In many ports, we were doubled up with other ships and in some (Melk, for example) it was a 15-minute walk into town. In one case (Rudesheim), we were bussed (actually a "little train" into the centre), but return transport was at our own expense.
Getting off the ship is rarely a highlight, and this was no exception.
The usual questionnaire was distributed, together with an envelope for gratuities. Gratuities were mentioned briefly in the disembarkation talk, and it was possible to add them to the final bill, but we felt no pressure to give the recommended amount.
We left the ship on time, but then had a long wait for our bags to be transported to the bus. No matter: we had been taken from the ship three-and-a-half hours before our flight, so we had more than enough time at the airport.
We felt that Viking fell a long way short of our expectations. The price was in the luxury bracket and the experience was nowhere near luxury. The big disappointment was service. We saw no evidence of management, leadership or commitment to customer service at any level. There are plenty of other cruise lines in Europe. Our advice would be to find a better line.