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Emerald Cruises vs. Viking River Cruises

Jeannine Williamson
Jorge Oliver

May 5, 2023

Read time
10 min read

Viking River Cruises is well known for its multiple Viking Longships and having vessels on waterways from the Mississippi and Europe to the Nile and the Mekong. Meanwhile, Emerald Cruises offers great-value-for-money and sailings on its modern Star-Ships, sailing in European waterways and also the Mekong River.

Which should you choose: Viking or Emerald? Each cruise line shares a number of similarities and both offer solid river cruise offer options on head-turning vessels. If you’re curious about these two popular river lines and how they compare, read on to find out which one will suit you.

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How Do Viking River Cruises & Emerald Cruises Compare on Price, Inclusions and Booking Policies?

Much like virtually all river cruise companies, Viking and Emerald offer plenty of deals and promotions throughout the year, so comparing prices can be a tricky affair. Fares will also vary for each line depending on the time cruises are booked and the date of the sailing. Generally speaking, Viking's costs tend to be a bit higher than Emerald, but this is by no means a set rule. Using Cruise Critic's Find a Cruise tool, you can easily compare fares from both lines at any given time.

In terms of inclusions and onboard amenities, both lines are similar. They sell their itineraries on a cruise-only or airfare-included basis, offer airport transfers, free WiFi, and include wine, beer and soda with lunch and dinner. The most notable difference is that Emerald includes gratuities in its fares, and Viking does not.

Both lines require a non-refundable deposit at the time of booking, with the balance payable 120 days before the date of departure for Emerald Cruises and 10 weeks for Viking, or in full if a cruise is booked less than these periods before sailing. Viking passengers who cancel more than 70 days before departure lose the deposit only and with Emerald a cancellation more than 120 days before a cruise results in forfeiture of the deposit. After that, Viking imposes a forfeit of 50 percent of the fare for canceling between 30 to 69 days before sailing, and the total fare for cancellations less than 30 days prior to departure. With Emerald, passengers who cancel more than 120 days before a cruise forfeit their deposit, 50 percent of the fare for canceling between 91 and 119 and forfeit the entire amount for cancelling less than 90 days before departure.

Choose Emerald if You Want Gratuities Included Emerald's fares include all gratuities for onboard and shoreside staff, which is a big plus point for U.K. passengers and any other nationalities that don't share the same tipping culture as the United States. Viking passengers are requested to settle onboard gratuities at the end of the cruise. Viking automatically adds $15 per passenger per day to passengers’ shipboard accounts, which is to be settled at the end of the voyage.

Choose Viking if You Want Your First Choice of Cruise or Might Have to Reschedule With a fleet of 65 ships in Europe alone (55 Longships and river-specific vessels for the Douro, Elbe and Seine rivers), you are far more likely to get the cruise itinerary and departure date of your choice with Viking. Similarly, if you have to reschedule your trip it will be much easier to find another sailing with Viking simply because of the number of ships they operate. By contrast, Emerald currently has a fleet of nine Star-Ships, eight of them operating in Europe.

How Do Shore Excursions Compare on Viking River Cruises & Emerald Cruises?

The fares on both Emerald and Viking include an excursion -- sometimes two -- at each port of call. The lines work in conjunction with expert local guides and passengers use personal audio headsets to listen to the commentary. These tours are a combination of walking tours and coach excursions into the local countryside, stopping at historic towns, castles, monasteries and other sights and noteworthy attractions. Both lines also offer some optional excursions, for a fee. These are special interest experiences, such as an art class or wine-tasting tours.

Choose Emerald if You Want More Active and Complimentary Options Emerald has a fleet of onboard bikes, free to guests on a first-come first-serve basis, and also offers escorted bike rides of varying lengths. While Viking does not have onboard bikes, they do offer cycling excursions in some ports.

Emerald Cruises also has activity managers onboard to help run its EmeraldACTIVE excursions and onboard activities, such as hiking, biking and canoeing on land and Pilates and yoga classes onboard.

Emerald's more immersive EmeraldPLUS excursions are also included in the fare and there is at least one per week, such as a home-hosted tea with a local family or an evening theater trip. The cruise line's DiscoverMORE tours are also available on each sailing for a fee.

Choose Viking if You Want to Take Things Easy or do Your Own Thing Viking goes to great lengths to grade its excursions according to their difficulty level, such as the amount of walking that will be required and any steps or steep gradients. Passengers can also choose between regular or slower-paced walking tours. There is also an onboard concierge who can suggest independent sightseeing itineraries, recommend places to eat and drink and make bookings for spa or hairdressing appointments in each port of call. The concierge service is free of charge.

How do Ships and Itineraries Compare on Viking River Cruises versus Emerald Cruises?

No line can top Viking in terms of fleet size, and in total it operates 77 vessels. The majority of its fleet comprises 55 near identical Longships that sail on the rivers of Europe and carry 190 passengers. Emerald has a slightly lower passenger ratio, and carries 180 passengers in its mainland European Star-Ships, which are also purpose-built to the same design, and smaller ship, Emerald Harmony, custom-built for the Mekong.

In Europe, both lines sail on the Rhine, Danube, Main, Moselle, Rhone, and Douro, typically on seven- and 14-night voyages, although longer itineraries are also available. Both lines also offer spring sailings on Dutch and Belgian waterways. Viking also sails on the Seine, Elbe, Garonne and Dordogne.

Outside of Europe, Viking sails on the Mississippi, the Nile in Egypt and on the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia; while Emerald also sails on the Mekong. Both lines also offer Christmas market cruises.

Choose Emerald if You Want to Sail with an Assorted Mix of Passengers With its Australian heritage, Emerald attracts passengers from "Down Under," as well as the U.K., United States, Canada and other English-speaking countries. The line's trendy, boutique-style ships also attract first-time river cruisers, including passengers in their 40s and 50s, which is younger than the average river cruise demographic.

Choose Viking if You Prefer to Sail with a Familiar Crowd U.S. passengers who enjoy traveling with their fellow countrymen will want to stick with Viking. Most passengers come from North America and are a mature, well-traveled bunch, although often on their first visit to Europe. Also on board are a sprinkling of Brits, Canadians and other nationalities.

How Do Cabins Compare on Viking River Cruises versus Emerald Cruises?

Emerald's 91-cabin Star-Ships and Viking's 95-cabin Longships have the same layout and cabin configuration, respective to each line, so here your choice is very much personal preferences. The staterooms on both lines have a contemporary feel, with sleek Scandinavian lines on Viking and a more contemporary look with lots of mirrors and reflective surfaces on Emerald. Both are well equipped with comfortable beds, large TVs with on-demand films and entertainment, and free Wi-Fi. The biggest difference is that Viking has real balconies and Emerald has what is described as an "indoor balcony" -- essentially a floor-to-ceiling window that drops down halfway at the touch of a button.

The majority of cabins on Emerald vessels are Panorama Balcony Suites, which measure 180 square feet. On the lower deck, standard staterooms are 162 square feet and have a fixed window. There are four two-room Owner's Suites that are 315 square feet and eight Grand Balcony Suites, which are one-room cabins, measuring 210 square feet.

On Viking Longships, Veranda Cabins are 205 square feet, including the walkout veranda, and French Balcony cabins, where you can look out rather than step outside, are 135 square feet. Passengers in lower deck cabins that have a fixed window benefit from more space, 150 square feet in total. Two-room Veranda Suites are 275 square feet and two-room Explorer Suites (two on each Longship) measure 445 square feet.

It's worth noting differences in the bathrooms, particularly for passengers who might have mobility issues. Bathrooms on Viking Longships are accessed from the cabin corridor and feature a good-size shower with, on newer vessels, a pair of glass doors that fold right back to create the feeling of a wet room or generally larger bathroom area. The bathroom door on the Emerald ships is sited alongside the bed, as opposed to facing out into the cabin, and the amount of space between the wall and bed is not great. Some passengers might have difficulty walking between the two, especially if the cabin is set up in a twin-bed configuration.

Choose Emerald if you are Traveling Alone There are two single cabins measuring 117 square feet on each Star-Ship. Viking does not have any single cabins.

Choose Viking if you Want a Balcony and Larger Suites If you like stepping out and sitting on a proper balcony, then Viking is the line for you. The Explorer Suites on Viking are also particularly spacious and have a wraparound balcony.

How Do Mealtimes Compare on Viking River Cruises and Emerald Cruises?

When it comes to mealtimes, there is little to differentiate Emerald and Viking. Food on both lines is consistently good, with imaginative menus that feature regional specialties and "always available" classic dishes. Both lines include wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner.

Both serve buffets at breakfast, with made-to-order items off the menu. At lunchtime, Emerald has a buffet with a live cooking station and Viking has a buffet; both also offer a la carte menus. Neither line has a full alternative dining room, but both serve an early bird breakfast and lighter lunch and dinner options in their lounges, with the option of eating outside. A standout feature on Viking is the Aquavit Terrace, a sheltered indoor/outdoor eating and alfresco lounge area right at the front of the ship. Occupying space used on other vessels to store nautical equipment, it was created by designing the Longships with a blunted, rather than pointed, bow. Both lines have self-serve complimentary tea and coffee stations available 24/7.

How Do the Enrichment Programs Compare on Viking River Cruises and Emerald Cruises?

Both lines offer similar enrichment programs that are themed to countries visited on the cruise, such as language lessons, cooking demonstrations and shows by local dancers, singers and musicians. On Emerald, staff put on a light-hearted crew talent show.

How Do Viking River Cruises and Emerald Cruises Compare on Onboard Amenities?

Where Viking scores with its Aquavit Terrace, Emerald comes out on top with its range of onboard amenities. The biggest "wow factor" is a swimming pool with a retractable roof that converts into a movie theater at night (Emerald Harmony and Emerald Radiance, based in the Mekong and Douro rivers respectively, are the only two Emerald vessels with outdoor pools). During the day, the area at the back of the ship is a deep 258-square-foot mosaic-tiled pool and lounging area. At night, the base of the pool rises to create a floor and the loungers are rearranged in front of a large pull-down screen. Movies are screened around three times a week, on a free first-come first-serve basis, and passengers are given headphones and complimentary popcorn. There is no pool on Viking.

Other amenities featured on Emerald, but not on Viking, are a small gym, massage room and hair salon. However, the Viking concierge can arrange salon treatments and hair appointments for passengers while in port. Ships on both lines have elevators, offer free Wi-Fi and a for-fee laundry service.

The Bottom Line: Which River Cruise Is Best for Me?

Positioned in the middle tier of the river cruise market, Emerald and Viking both offer good value for money with plenty of inclusions. The final decision comes down to personal preferences. Viking is a good choice for passengers who are more interested in a culture-rich experience rather than extras on the vessels. Emerald will appeal to active types who enjoy various onboard activities and amenities.

Updated May 05, 2023
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