We took the Grand European Tour and stayed in the Explorer Suite (a special occasion at great expense). This is a senior cruise, with the majority of guests over 65. Disabuse yourself of the idea that a river cruise is charming small ... Read More
We took the Grand European Tour and stayed in the Explorer Suite (a special occasion at great expense). This is a senior cruise, with the majority of guests over 65. Disabuse yourself of the idea that a river cruise is charming small ships sailing right into town. With the exception of Krems and Bamberg, all ships dock very far from the towns and a Viking shuttle bus takes you to the town center, often miles away; the docks are sometimes just cement landings in an industrial port area. This is an all English-speaking cruise, with 95% being Americans, with a few Canadians, Brits, and Australians. Also be prepared for the huge crowds of tours--river cruising has boomed tremendously. There were sometimes four Viking vessels docked, each with 200 people, along with a dozen other cruise boats from other companies. The tours groups are about 50 people each, so imagine how crowded that gets with all the tours going in the same places simultaneously.
If you are thinking of getting the Explorer Suite, think again: these rooms (only two on each ship) are located directly over the ships' engines, and the balconies are basically unusable unless the ship is docked (and who wants to sit out there and look at cement?). The vibration from the engines is so loud and so severe that at one point I watched a glass vibrate its way across the glass table and fall off. This is especially true of an up-river cruise (Amsterdam to Budapest) as the engines are always working full-blast. Save your money and get a regular suite up toward the front of the ship where it's quiet. I think Mr. Hagen, Viking's founder, ought to spend two weeks in one of his Explorer Suites to see what it's like.
The food is good, not great, but good. I have food allergies and the Maitre d' met with me each morning to go over the entire menu to make sure I wouldn't get sick, and I didn't. The service overall is beyond anything we've ever experienced--kind, helpful, friendly beyond belief, and the Viking crew seems to absolutely love their jobs. Very well done.
We added the Prague Extension. Beware--the "transfer to Prague," which our sales agent told us was a few hours by bus, is an EIGHT hour drive via Slovakia (with a rest stop for lunch in what had to be the worst cafeteria food I've ever had), in essence losing an entire day (advertised as three days in Prague). Then, the only other complaint was the Soviet-era hotel called the Corinthia; Viking says "Hilton hotel or equivalent," supposedly a five-star hotel which is nothing of the sort. It's miles away from town in an industrial park, and there are shuttle buses--very nice ones--which take you to and from the old town square every half hour. The hotel's air conditioning did not work, and they "fixed" it by giving us a fan. The windows don't open. Many of us were miserable. If I were to do it all over again, I'd book a flight from Budapest to Prague and get a hotel in town--it would also save time and money.
We are a gay couple in our 60s, and luckily found another couple to hang out with, because otherwise the clientele was frosty towards us at best and on at least two occasions people did not allow us to sit with them--always Americans, almost always from the South. My favorite moment at breakfast was when a woman from Alabama ended up sitting across from us--her husband had sat there first leaving only the chair across from me free for her--and under her breath muttered to him "why did you have to sit HERE?" She wouldn't speak to me and stared off into the distance acting as if there were a bad smell in the room. Variations on this occurred several times. Obviously this is a cruise for straight couples. Fortunately there were also some very decent couples, wonderful people, who were happy to sit with us. Sometimes, though, it was awkward. This is no fault of Viking's of course, just something to be aware of if you're a gay couple--bring friends along or be prepared to be shunned, not ever by Viking staff, but by your fellow travelers.
On the plus side, the included tours are wonderful, though whirlwind fast, sometimes with a bit of time on your own (never more than a half hour though).. There are rechargeable "Quiet Vox" boxes in each room with an earpiece which one brings along.
The highlights of the trip included an organ concert in Passau's cathedral, truly excellent; and when the captain took the ship out for a 90 minute cruise at night in Budapest--we've never seen anything like it in our lives, with all the big buildings in Pest and Buda (opposite sides of the Danube) all lit up. Absolutely mind-blowingly gorgeous. The other highlights were the small towns of Bamberg, Rothenburg, Miltenburg, and Krems. We quickly realized we liked the charm of the small towns more than the crowds and bustle of the big cities like Amsterdam and Vienna (also having been to both before).
All in all a wonderful trip--Viking is possibly the best-managed cruise company we've ever seen and they really take care of you--with a few weird hiccups. Read Less