I have procrastinated in writing this review because I have had difficulty determining a rating for this 50-day Viking Empire cruise. We had a fantastic time seeing so many different ports of call, seeing sights I never thought we’d get to see, meeting some fabulous people, eating great food, enjoying massages and facials, and experiencing a ice cold grotto after a steam room. On the other hand, this cruise also provided an inordinate amount of unnecessary stress and frustration. Of course we knew this was a maiden cruise and we should expect some amount of glitches and problems, and no I would not call it the “cruise from that-bad-place-we’ve-all-heard-of.” The ship did not sink, we were not set adrift without power, and we were not attacked by pirates. But there was a rather constant drip, drip, drip of daily problems that continued well beyond the first week or two. Some things were never fixed in the whole 50 days we were aboard.
I’m listing the good things first and then those items that caused this Viking experience to lose its five star rating:
1 – The Ship and its esthetics are wonderful. The clean lines, uncluttered and calm décor are set off by some small and interesting touches that make the ship a delight. (I particularly liked the huge colorful Murano glass fishes in the first floor Atrium.) Small luxe details like leather railings, doorknobs, and desk tops add an upscale feeling. There are plenty of spaces to sit and relax, join others in conversation, or take in the sun. We never felt crowded, although I’m not sure the ship was ever at full capacity either.
Now we were expecting glitches in this category. Our door lock didn’t work – it locked OK, but then it wouldn’t unlock - we couldn’t get back in without hunting down the cabin steward to let us in. I went to the Explorer’s Desk (henceforth called ED) and stood in line with many of my fellow passengers for a half hour to let them know. They wrote this down on a legal pad (no automated system?) Our keycards were replaced twice, but that didn’t solve the problem. On day 3 when the cabin steward’s card didn’t work either they finally sent someone up about 9:30 pm, just as we were ready to retire. They tried to fix the lock, but it was unfixable. Next day they had to replace the whole lock with one they scavenged from another room. (Viking left 55 cabins vacant for the first segment, which was very wise of them.)
And of course as you are aware from other reviews, the TVs didn’t work. While the TV part of this didn’t bother us, this also meant you couldn’t see your shore excursions, your dinner reservations, or your ship billing account. Another odd thing was a problem with our phones. When anyone tried to call us and we weren’t there, it was supposed to roll to voice mail, but instead it rolled to Room Service. But we were expecting this sort of thing. At least our toilets flushed (except for one afternoon while they were fixing something else they broke all the toilets on the 8th floor starboard side), the A/C worked (as long as we pulled the drapes shut if the sun was on the starboard side), and the minibar was refreshed (although not everyday, but about every third day).
So I’m leaving the rating at 5 stars, as these glitches are expected on a maiden voyage.
2. The Food - We thought the food was outstanding for a cruise ship. Not a Michelin star, but certainly above our expectations. Generally we agree with other posters – Manfredi’s was our favorite, followed by the Restaurant, followed by the World Café, then Mamsen’s, and finally the Pool Grill. We were not fans of the Chef’s Table. For one thing having the same menu for 9 nights in a row means you only would want to eat there once every 9 nights – who wants to eat the same thing twice? Over the 50 days we ate there for 5 different menus. We didn’t think the wines particularly went with the food. And except for a few dishes, we found the food a little contrived. Note: in all our 50 days, we never ordered room service. We tried but never could get them to answer the phone. This might have been a problem with our phone somehow being connected to Room Service in some bizarre fashion.
In general though, we thought the food a good step up from the Viking River Cruises. So if you like the Viking River cruise food, you’ll LOVE this food. So the rating is still 5 stars.
3. The Spa – One of my favorite places on the ship. You have free access to the general spa facilities even without a spa treatment service. The locker rooms were clean and well thought out. The thermal suite was a delightful relaxing place. Some areas for improvement would be locker doors that didn’t bang you in the head when the ship is in rough seas and rocking. The magnets that hold unlocked doors closed are not strong enough to hold them closed when the ship is pitching back and forth. I got a nasty bump on the head – so be careful. The other pet peeve I have is that there are no shower curtains on the two shower stalls. Three sides are enclosed but the fourth is wide open. I know this is probably a European cultural thing, but I’ve had a double mastectomy and trust me, no one wants to see me buck-naked. The first time I used the Spa, I made this suggestion to the Spa desk and the ED (remember Explorer’s Desk), but there was still no shower curtain on either shower stall when we departed, even though this would be an easy fix with a tension rod and curtain. I made one other suggestion that was followed up on. Originally there were no weight scales anywhere on board – not in the fitness area, nor in the infirmary. I suggested on Day 2 that they get an inexpensive bathroom scale, and in Venice (Day 12 I think) they went out and bought 3. One’s in the fitness area, and the other two are in the locker rooms.
Several other nit-picky things – First, they don’t wash the sandals between users. I watched the locker room attendant take them out of the “used” basket, match rights and lefts, and then put them right back in the lockers. The big fluffy bathrobes are laundered between guests, as are the towels. Second thing is there’s no shampoo or conditioner in the showers so you have to remember to bring them from your room. There are two different kinds of body wash in the locker room showers – one I particularly liked was an exfoliating body scrub. The third thing is that the “Snow Grotto” does not really have snow falling. I really liked this ice cold room, but all the times I used it (a lot), I never experienced snow actually falling.
I made good use of the spa treatments – had 5 or 6 massages. Joachim was fantastic. I also had a regular facial (OK, but nothing unusual) and three, yes three, HydaFacials (I think they called them Nordic Facials) that were divine. I also got a hair cut (be careful here, she tends to cut hair really short), and a Nordic Hair & Scalp treatment that was very relaxing, and two manicures. Although the prices are pretty high, even for a cruise ship, they weren’t exorbitant (except for the manicure). I get a ‘gel’ polish, which was $75 at the Spa, but then they charge $30 to take off your old polish for a total of $105 plus tip – I get this same thing at home for $45.
My one beef here is with the difference between the “Auto Service Charge” and “Tipping”. They automatically add 15% onto your bill as an Auto Service Charge but this gets split up between all the spa people. If you want to tip the particular person, that’s a separate charge. I got pressure from only one person in the spa to add this on top and that was from the manicure lady. I wasn’t about to tip 30%, so I talked to the guy at the Spa desk and he told me how to delete the Auto Service Charge and then add a Tip, but be warned this is not easy to do and one time I didn’t do it right and I ended up tipping 30% for one of my facials to my horror. Keep in mind too that if you leave it all to the specific person, you aren’t taking care of those spa people behind the scenes. There was no way to do half and half.
I’m going to lump the Fitness Room into this section, since it’s right next door and seemed to be managed by the same people. While I’m anything but a gym rat, the equipment seemed to be first rate. Some of the features, such as a TV on the treadmills, were not working, but I rack that up to maiden voyage snafus. For a ship this size, it was well equipped and very seldom crowded. I used the fitness center half a dozen times on sea days and there were usually only 3 to 4 other people there. I more often used the second floor promenade deck to get in my walking as I enjoyed the fresh air. Four laps exactly make a mile. There are some blind spots and some wind baffles to navigate, so fast jogging might be an issue, but walking was great!
Despite the couple of beefs I have over locker doors that bang me in the head, lack of shower curtains, and the Tipping issue, I really, really enjoyed the Spa, so the rating is still 5 stars.
4. Laundry – We were in a Penthouse Junior Suite and one of the perks is free laundry; really nice on a 50-day voyage, otherwise I would have had to bring twice as much, or spent time in the laundry room instead of the Spa. If you get your laundry bag out before 9:00 am, you get it back by 7:00 the next night. They did a beautiful job; with shirts, T-shirts, slacks and jeans all coming back on hangers, and the rest folded up neatly in a leather-covered box. I even sent in my Tilly hat one time when a pigeon decided to deposit something on the top of my hat. It came back better than it’s looked in years. Who could ask for more?
For those who have to pay for laundry, on the laundry service slip that you fill out, the prices were listed and they seemed pretty reasonable – less than on Princess cruises.
I did check out the laundry rooms and these seemed to be very nice with 2 ironing boards and a sofa. Note: the one floor where there isn’t a laundry room is the 8th floor, but most of these rooms are in the same ‘free laundry’ category.
So still 5 stars.
5. Staff level crew – We had a great cabin steward, great waiters, great staff in general. They always said a cheerful hello, and went out of their way to make sure you had everything you wanted. I’m deliberately distinguishing between staff level and management here. And I’m also not including the Shore Excursion people and the Explorer’s Desk people. I’ll get to them later. Still 5 stars.
6. Entertainment – I’m neutral on this one. We didn’t attend many of the evening performances because they were mostly scheduled too late for us. A show that doesn’t start until 9:30 or 10:00 pm when we have to get up for an Excursion that leaves at 8:00, is just going to have to be skipped. The Port lectures and other educational lectures seemed to be scheduled around when we typically ate dinner, between 5:30 and 7:00, or while we were in port exploring some new city. I heard some of them were great and some lousy, but can’t comment personally. We did attend one show, “The Rat Pack” and it was Ok but not particularly good. Hard to tell who was trying to be whom from this famous trio. We did attend a performance by two singers from the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg. However, as it turned out, the mezzo soprano was an expat from the US and the tenor was an expat from Brazil. Although they sang a couple Russian songs, most were not. Instead we got Carmen, and My Fair Lady instead of the soulful melancholy or upbeat Cossack songs that we were hoping to hear while in Russia. Sort of a miss on the “cultural immersion” Viking prides themselves on. There was a Flamenco performance around the Pool one evening, but we were so far at the back, we couldn’t see a thing, and without seeing this performance, it just missed the mark. We left soon after we arrived. Apparently there was also another Folkloric performance in the Dalmatian Coast area, but we didn’t hear about this until it was over. (see item #10)
So at this point one might say the Entertainment was a dud for us, but there was one performance that made up for that – the Montserrat Boys Choir came and sang for us in Barcelona and they were great. I loved this performance, so I’m back to neutral. So still 5 stars. (Without the boys choir, this would have been a slight downgrade.)
7. Technology Failures – This is probably one of the few things even Viking will admit to. As stated earlier, the TVs were black for the first 2 segments and worked occasionally after that. While TVs are not a priority for us, you cannot see your dining reservations, shore excursions, or ship’s billing account without it. Also, any screen around the ship didn’t work; so for example, the screens next to the elevator that are supposed to tell you what’s on each floor were black. The screens next to the various restaurants that are supposed to tell you the menu for the day were black. Any screen anywhere was black. Eventually, and painfully slowly, they got these to work – by Bergen, most everything worked, but for us that was three quarters of the cruise.
The bigger problem that we had was with internet. Surprisingly, it worked fairly well from Istanbul to Barcelona. But then in Barcelona, various Press Corps started to arrive. It got really bad in Gibraltar. The trickle of Press and VIPs that started in Barcelona swelled to a multitude by London. I found out by talking to two Press people that they were given free ”Premium Access” upgrades, and had gotten special access codes – they thought the internet was lighting speed. My theory is that the Press and VIPs were using most of the bandwidth and us paying passengers were lucky to get whatever was left over. The internet became virtually unusable for days at a time. I was unable to even obtain an IP address to even connect. At first Viking denied there was any problem, but then finally admitted that they had changed Internet Service Providers in Gibraltar. My theory though is that it had nothing to do with an ISP change. My bet is that the internet is probably pretty good now that the Press and VIPs are probably not aboard.
There are two cinemas that can be closed off or opened up to the Star Theater. They were supposed to run first run movies. For the first three quarters of the cruise they did not work at all. For the last segment, they worked, but only ran Karina’s Viking videos that you can see on the Viking website, and the TED lectures which were pretty boring. No first run movies in the Cinemas and no first run movies in your room either, unless you classify Ben Hur, Gone With the Wind and Gigi as first run.
So, now we’re down to four and a half stars.
8. Cabin – The Penthouse Junior Suite is very roomy. There’s enough space between the foot of the bed and the desk that both people can walk by each other without turning sideways or taking turns. Or one person can actually be sitting at the desk and the other person pass by without having to ask the desk person to get up. This is really nice. The seating area can fit four people easily with a sofa and 2 chairs, plus a coffee table. Unlike some cabins, there were oodles of drawers. Eleven drawers were in the closet, desk and credenza, plus 2 shelves. Then 2 small drawers in the nightstands, plus cubbies. And 2 drawers in the bathroom, plus cubbies. The outside deck was very large, being about 50% larger than the regular cabins.
The bathroom was longer, affording two sinks, and the shower was larger too. The shower head was magnificent and we had plenty of pressure and consistent pleasant warm water, although I heard from other passengers that theirs fluctuated between hot and cold. However, our shower leaked and we had to mop up the floor every time we used the shower. When there were rough seas, the leak turned into a flood. The bottom lip of the shower is only about an inch and a half high. When the ship would roll to starboard, the water would cascade over the lip and a waterfall would flood the bathroom. When the ship would roll to port, the water would overwhelm the drain, causing a further backup, so the next roll to starboard caused another waterfall. Fortunately, there’s also a lip from the door of the bathroom to the rest of the cabin, so we didn’t flood the whole cabin. The constant leak can probably be fixed with better caulking, but the flooding during high seas will be much more difficult to fix.
Interestingly, there was only one soap dish, and we only got one bar of soap for the first 24 days and our second bar in Barcelona. Although we never actually ran out, sometimes I had to hunt down our cabin steward to get extra shampoo/body wash so that we wouldn’t run out. He sometimes had to go scrounge enough to give me some. Don’t know whether this was a ship-wide shortage or not.
The bathrobes are my favorite waffle weave, so you don’t get too hot in them. The grey slippers I found a bit scratchy and were way too big for my feet, but only come in one size. The bathroom amenities are OK and are easy to distinguish between shampoo and body wash etc, but I wish they would have stuck with L’Occitane. For all I know these private label (Freya) brands are really expensive, but to me seemed the quality I’d get in a Holiday Inn – they just didn’t have the luxurious feel of L’Occitane. Some folks will like them though as they are unscented. The binoculars are small and easily fit in a backpack or big pocket. They were OK, but if you want to watch birds or something, they weren’t that powerful. We were glad we brought our own. The promised cashmere blanket only showed up halfway through our cruise and although it’s wool, it’s not cashmere.
Also in our bathroom was a heated floor and a very hot towel rack. In the Mediterranean, our bathroom would get fairly hot with both these going. We asked how to turn them off, but unfortunately an electrician has to be called to turn them off – the passenger cannot. I think there should be a switch or dial so that you can regulate these two items yourself.
One of the reasons we were excited about this cruise is the promised King Sized beds that were advertised. Alas, these are not American King Sized beds! These beds were 66 inches across and an American regular King is 76 inches across – that’s a whopping 10 inch difference. We had thought, finally an ocean cruise ship with real king sized beds, but NOPE! I realize some other parts of the world have different measurements for King sized beds, but I’m talking about their American advertising. Viking still continues to advertise in America that they have King sized beds, and I happen to think this is misleading at best and false advertising at worst.
A bigger disappointment with our cabin, and the main reason we booked this higher category was the ability to somewhat separate the sleeping area from the seating area. My DH happens to be a morning person and I’m a night owl. So we thought this would be a perfect solution. (No way we could afford the Explorer’s Suite.) Not so! Unfortunately, there’s only one light switch and it controls all the lights in the cabin. So either all the lights are on or all the lights are off. (There is a little reading light by each bed, but that doesn’t give you a two-room feel.) So much for one of us being awake in the seating area while the other person sleeps. There was a pretty significant bump up in cost to get this feature, which turned out impossible to use.
A floor lamp with a separate switch was eventually installed in the seating area somewhere around Day 22, but this didn’t really solve the problem. Although installed in the seating area, they installed it right next to the bedroom area. The drapes, which are supposed to separate one room from another, are rather thin, so the light from the floor lamp illuminates the bedroom area as well. So the sleeping person either wore an eye-mask, or the awake person left the cabin or read in the bathroom. Not at all what we had envisioned.
So although these cabins are roomy and spacious, they are not Suites, which usually implies two rooms. And although the beds are quite comfortable, they are not King. And these are not glitches that can be fixed – these are design flaws and misleading expectations. So for these two reasons and extra money we paid for the upgrade, I’m downgrading Viking another half star to 4 stars.
9. Management Staff – These folks were nice and friendly too as long as you were being nice and friendly. But if you had a problem or were frustrated and trying desperately to get someone’s attention to get a problem solved, some of them became not so friendly. Either they became condescending, patronizing, or in one case what I would consider to be rude. I will cite one example. I had gotten off the ship in Dubrovnik after lunch to catch the free shuttle back into town. In the Viking Daily it had said the shuttle ran “continuously”. Once outside the ship I joined a guy who was also waiting and said he had been so about 10 minutes. We waited a bit longer, another several people joined us waiting, and the shuttle finally came. We boarded and the bus driver turned off the engine and pulled out his paper and told us he wouldn’t be leaving for half an hour. I got off and looked for a Viking person to inquire. I found a guy. I asked (pleasantly I thought) “I thought these busses were supposed to run continuously, but the bus driver says he’s not leaving for half an hour?” I told him we’d already been waiting for close to 15 minutes. The Viking guy said “Well, you can’t expect to walk off the ship and be whisked right into town.” Perhaps he thought he was being funny…I was not amused. I found out later he was the head guy in charge of Shore Excursions.
I got a similar snippy response when after 20 days of trying to get unsweet iced tea, I hunted down the head of Food & Beverage. He told me that Americans drank too much iced tea, or if I insisted on iced tea that I should order hot tea and a glass of ice. (I had already being doing this, duh.) I know other passengers thought these guys were fantastic, but my experience with them was totally different.
Other times I was totally ignored. I had tried to set up a birthday party in one of the private dining rooms for another Cruise Critic poster who would be joining the cruise in Barcelona. I asked the guy at the ED (twice); I asked a senior guy at the Cruise Critic Meet & Greet in Istanbul; I even asked the top guy on the ship, the Owner’s Representative. No one knew how to go about reserving a private dining room, which I totally get as it’s the first couple of days on the maiden voyage, but they all promised to get back to me and took my room number. Never heard back from any of them.
Our room had several problem which included a slamming exterior door to the Sun Deck and a not so private balcony because of the staircase going up to the Sports Deck. I reported both these problems immediately and several times to the ED, but did not get a response until Day 49 when an “engineer” came to look at the problem. This engineer did not come on his own but was brought there by another passenger. This passenger had issues of his own and after the engineer was finished with him, knowing of my problems, had drug the engineer up to our cabin. The engineer agreed that the slamming door could easily be fixed with a simple adjustment, and that the problem with the stairwell might take a little longer but he could see how to remedy that too. Now we’re talking Day 49 here. I wonder if these problems are fixed by now.
After asking our cabin steward (who I found much more responsive that the ED) to see if he could get the electrician to turn off our heated floor and towel rack, the electrician did indeed come and turned off the floor, but not the towel rack. Cabin steward said he could do no more and asked me to go to the ED to complain, which I did, but got no further response, so we lived with a hot towel rack for the whole voyage.
I also found a lot of finger pointing from one department to another. I needed to call Housekeeping to get a bucket of ice; no, instead I needed to call Room Service for a bucket of ice. Neither I might mention would answer the phone.
And forget getting the ED, or Shore Excursion Desk or the Restaurants to answer the phone. Instead you had to go personally down to the desk and stand in line. For restaurant reservations, there was a restaurant fellow in the lounge area outside the ED who would take reservations in person, but his hours were erratic and not posted. We found the best way to make reservations was to go to the restaurant in question around dinner time. If you had a Shore Excursion simple question, like what am I booked for tomorrow, the ED desk could not help you. They were working on having the ED desk computers be able to access your Shore Excursion reservations, but as of our departure, this was still not happening. And the ED was woefully undermanned for the inaugural trip. Two people for 900 or so passengers was way too few. On the initial segment, when things were going wrong with cabins, reservations, etc and only two people to write down your complaints on a legal pad, this led to tremendous lines.
The Shore Excursion Desk needs to be open longer. The hours, although posted, were short and not at a time when you might normally need help. The Viking Daily listed the times of shore excursions for the next day. These usually came out around 7:00 pm. Often we would find our reservation times were different than the Viking Daily said. For example, we usually had reservations for the earliest shore excursions, but the code number and the time on the Daily would have us on the last excursion. But the ShoreEx desk was closed after 5:00. Towards the end of the 50 day cruise, I found the ShoreEx people to be rather dismissive and condescending, and generally not helpful. When you can show them your emailed reservation for an early excursion departure and they just shrug their shoulders at you, it’s rather frustrating.
So now I’m down to three and a half stars.
10. Misinformation, or lack of communication – These instances become almost too numerous to mention. From little things like what floor is disembarkation – first one ShoreEx person says Deck A forward, so we go to Deck A forward and nope that’s not right, the folks there tell us Deck 2 aft. Back up the stairs and down the ship only to find out no, it’s Deck 1 midships. My DH has arthritis and all this walking before we even get off is not helpful.
Then there’s what times the World Café will be open. The Viking Daily says one thing but then you go there only to find it closed, and are told by wait staff it doesn’t open for another half hour or it closed a half hour ago. Now what.
These were the little things. Then there were the medium class miscommunications. If you didn’t pay really close attention to the Viking Daily, you could miss performances and lectures. Even if you studied the Dailies carefully, you would only hear about performances the night before, when the next day’s Viking Daily would be delivered to your room, somewhere around 7:00 pm. Maybe Viking was trying to surprise us with wonderful new events, but it also meant it was impossible to plan around them. In my opinion there should have been a board or sheet of paper that was handed to us at the beginning of each segment that would detail the lectures, special events, performances etc, so that you could plan around them accordingly. Otherwise, it was a bit hit and miss.
Another example is the Christening Day. Up until the night before, it was impossible to get any details from Viking about when the day’s events would take place. Even when we did find out, it was only a schedule of the actual Viking Christening, and nothing about what time or where the Norwegian National Day parades were being held. Given that Viking had altered our itinerary so that the Christening would coincide with the National Day, you’d think they would have given us parade maps and schedules instead of us having to find them for ourselves wandering about town.
Then there were the big ones. Our first day aboard in Istanbul was a fiasco. Our Penthouse Junior Suite cabin entitled us to access our room at 11:00. We boarded at 11:00 but were ushered up to the World Café and told that our rooms were not yet ready (thought we were the first passengers, but OK). We waited, and waited and were still told our rooms were not ready by smiling faces and apologies everywhere. The World Café finally opened at 12:00 and we could get something to eat. By 1:30, we were all totally frustrated. The Star was really only in Istanbul for the half day of embarkation and then until 2:00 pm the following day, so I thought if we can’t get into our cabin until later for some reason, let’s leave our carry-on bags somewhere and we’ll come back later.
So I went in search of someone who could tell me when we would be able to get into our cabins and where we could leave our carry-ons in the meantime. This was not easy as there’s no “front desk”. I finally found the ED (Explorer’s Desk) and asked the fellow there, when would be able to get into our cabins. He said that depended on our cabin category. I told him we were in a PS 1 and he said “Oh Madam, your cabin has been ready since 11:00 am.” You can imagine my response! I informed him that the World Café was full of Full Suite and Junior Suite passengers that were being told their cabins weren’t ready yet. I went back upstairs and let everyone at our table (some were Full Suite passengers) know our rooms had been ready since 11:00 and the keys were in our room. About 5 minutes later an announcement came on letting people know this. So basically we wasted two and a half hours in Istanbul hanging out in the World Café because one Viking hand didn’t know what the other Viking hand was up to.
Speaking of wasted time in port… Why were the Viking tours delayed two and a half hours (8:30 to 11:00 am) from disembarking in London? We never got an answer to this question. One Viking person would say that the British officials held up our shore clearance. This one was hard to swallow because the British authorities came on board the day before, and all passengers had to present themselves with their passports to these authorities in order to speed up the disembarkation process. One Viking fellow I talked with later that afternoon said that all had gone well and we were cleared for the next day. (Except that other British authorities would be boarding the next day to inspect all the kitchen facilities, but seriously doubt that’s what delayed us.) Another Viking person would say that there was difficulty in docking since this was the largest vessel to navigate up this far into the Thames. This was a bit more believable, but didn’t quite ring true when I spoke with two different Press Corps passengers who had boarded that morning between 8:30 and 9:00, just when our tour group was supposed to be leaving. One of these people said that they had had to wait for other Press Corps to disembark before they could embark. So, if we weren’t securely tied up, how did these people with all their camera gear safely board?
Also, boarding in London were a great many VIPs. Don’t know when these VIPs boarded, but wouldn’t be surprised if it were in the morning. Now, IF the reason we were stuck in the Star Theater and Torshavn Lounge waiting for 2 ½ hours for our tour to depart was because the Press Corps and VIPs took priority over us paying passengers, then I can understand why Viking didn’t tell us – there would have been mutiny. I doubt that this particular situation will happen again, but it does illustrate Viking’s lack of communication and their inclination to tell you what they think will satisfy you, be it not entirely accurate.
And if you’ve been following the posts from the maiden voyage, you will have heard about the 50-day and 29-day passengers having been invited to a special dinner off the ship for the Christening, only to be disinvited once we were assembled in the Star Theater, all dolled-up for a night out, and then being asked to leave. Talk about miscommunication! If you want to read the details, there’s a thread called “Viking insults it’s most valued guests.” They did “compensate” us for the mistake, and the Owner, Mr Hagen did apologize, but even the apology had misinformation. When Mr. Hagen said that the Star had the best internet on any cruise ship and better than most hotels, about a third of the audience shouted “No.”
We got to the point in this cruise that when Viking told us a reason for a delay, change of itinerary, malfunction, problem, etc, we were pretty sure that the reason they were giving us was absolutely NOT the real reason. This is not a good place to be. So now we’re down to 3 stars.
11. Shore Excursions – This is where we had the most problems. Not that the destinations were not good – in fact with a few exceptions, the destinations were great. And we enjoyed the sights we saw. And the tour descriptions for the most part did in fact cover what we saw, just without all the glowing adjectives. Sometimes “strolling through quaint alleyways” turned into a forced march back to the bus through not so attractive areas. But this is normal for any tour or cruise. We try to ignore the adjectives in a description and realize the pictures you see on the Viking website with no crowds are not reality. We also realized this is the first time Viking would be in many of these ports and would be to some extent at the mercy of local tour companies. However, when a Brewery Tour turns into having two beers at a restaurant in Gdansk, and the Winery in Cartagena turns into a large hall; sometimes things did not work out as advertised.
The real problem here we felt was the organization and logistics surrounding the tours which resulted in huge amounts of wasted time. Some of the tours we had were great, some were so-so, and some were really awful. It was clear that Viking had not vetted these tours by actually sending someone on any of the tours, as they would have realized some of those tours marked “easy” were in fact over cobblestones straight uphill for a quarter mile. One “easy” tour we took netted 4 miles of walking on my pedometer. And some tours were virtually impossible to do in the time allotted.
Part of the ShorEx drill was that you got a paper ticket with a tour number on it when you first get into your cabin. You then looked up the tour number in the Viking Daily that you got the night before and saw what time you were supposed to meet in either the Star Theater or the Torshavn Lounge. You went there at the designated time. You were then handed a number on a plastic card (paper in the beginning). You then took a seat in the Theater and waited until your tour number was called. Sometime it would be 10 to 15 minutes of waiting but other times it could be 45 minutes. This was AFTER the ship was cleared by the port authorities and you could be out seeing sights, but no, you were stuck in the Theater waiting for your number. Wasted time, with no explanation.
For many of the tours, particularly the included tours which were heavily attended, Viking tended to send one group of passengers right after another group of passengers, all in the same direction so that everyone ended up jammed into the same sight. For the walking tour in Split, Croatia it was so bad that in the Cellars of Diocletian’s Palace (our first stop), there was barely standing room it was so crowded with Viking tour passengers. We finally dumped this tour and went on our own. It would have been very easy for the different groups to have taken a different path through the city and seen all the sights, just in a different order, thereby avoiding this crazy crowding. But this would have necessitated some planning and organization, which was not Viking’s strong suite we found out.
This applied to Optional Tours as well. For Herculaneum, we got to the Theater at the appointed assembly time. We waited only about 10 minutes and our number was called. Yipee I thought. We all boarded the bus and then just sat there. Everyone was aboard the bus and accounted for, we had a driver and a guide. I asked what we were waiting for, because I happened to be sitting in the seat right behind the guide. She said she was told not to leave until she was told to by the Viking guy and she pointed to the same guy who told me in Dubrovnik that continuously running shuttle busses didn’t mean “all the time”. (sigh) So we waited until all three busses that were going to Herculaneum were full and then all the busses departed together about half an hour later. You are probably not surprised when I tell you that Herculaneum was then crowded with Viking passengers. I still cannot figure out why they didn’t gladly let the first bus go and then the second and so on.
On another optional tour there were two busloads. This time they kept us waiting in the Theater about half hour and then called both numbers. Both busses then left together. After about an hour’s bus ride we got to our first stop. Our guide informed us that we should use the “facilities” here, as there weren’t any until lunch and we had another stop after this one where there weren’t any facilities – lunch was about an hour and a half away. So, of course, both busloads got in line. Problem: there was ONE toilet in the women’s room and ONE in the men’s room. For two busloads. Had they staggered these, it might not have been as much of a problem – but still a problem if you ask me.
And to pile onto this theme, in Gibraltar, they switched the included tour from a Museum (which was closed) to a Cable Car ride up to the Rock. Sounded good. The problem is once again, they dumped everyone at the cable car at the same time. We waited in line in the hot sun for close to an hour in order to get up the cable car. If they had staggered these groups this would not have happened.
For our evening tour of the London Eye, all 5 totally full busses left at exactly the same time. Another very long wait to get onto the giant Ferris Wheel (which was a great experience once we got on).
At the beginning of our cruise there were Viking Escorts who accompanied each tour, but as time went on, many of the optional tours had no Viking Escort. Then things really fell apart. We had two optional tours with about 40 some people in our group and both guides flatly refused to use the QuietVox system. On another one with no Viking Escort, the guide claimed she had not been given a QuietVox so that’s why she wasn’t using it. All these tours were way too big to hear anything the guide said once we got out of the bus.
Which bring me in general to the size of the groups. Many of these were just way too big for the sights we were going to be seeing. Many of the included walking tours averaged 40 to 44 people. On one of our tours there were 49 people – there are only 49 seats on the bus.
On the first segment of this cruise, we did a lot of private small group tours put together with fellow Cruise Critic members on our Roll Call. Even though there were many more problems of a mechanical and technical nature, this first segment was definitely the best and the least frustrating. In retrospect, I wish we had done even more of these private small group tours. I’ve also noticed on other passenger reviews that those that had the most fun were doing many DIY tours or small group tours, and I think this would have made a huge difference in our experience. So I encourage all future travelers of Viking Oceans to get together with others on your Cruise Critic Roll Call and organize some small group private tours. You’ll be glad you did!
We had been counting on Viking to be pretty good at the Shore Excursion thing as we had been most impressed by our Viking River Cruise experiences. After all, to quote Viking, this cruise was supposed to be a “new era of ocean cruising by taking the innovative thinking behind our award-winning river cruises and bringing it to the epic setting of the sea.” They were supposed to have “crafted the ultimate kind of cruise: one focused on destinations.”
As travelers, we too are mostly focused on the destinations and experiencing the culture of the places we visit. Not wasting time while in port sitting around waiting for the ShoreEx folks to get their act together, nor seeing the sights with busload after busload of passengers crammed together. We are more dedicated to seeing the sights than experiencing the ambiance of the ship. While we want the ship to be comfortable and the food to be good, we are more concerned with our experiences while we are on shore. After all, we will probably never be this way again.
Viking’s destinations were supposed to be different than the mega cruise ships – they were not - as a matter of fact in some ways worse. So here I have to say is a full star deduction, which bring it down to 2-stars.
In summary, the ship is beautiful, the food is great, the service level staff is wonderful, but the management team, lack of honest communication and the Shore Excursions need a lot of work. No doubt this will be a wonderful cruise line in a couple of years, but not unless they get these three areas sorted out.
Did we have a fabulous time? Yes we did, but it was DESPITE Viking, not because of them.
Three reason NOT to get cabins 8019 or 8018. First - These two cabins are the last ones in the row of staterooms on the 8th floor. They are adjacent to the Sun Deck. There is an exterior door that’s right outside each of these cabins. It is heavy and it slams shut and makes a very loud crashing sound that even vibrates the beds in the cabin. It starts being used about 6:00 am and finally stops about midnight. I believe the door next to our room on the starboard side got more usage than the port side because the smoking area is on the starboard side of the Sun Deck, so smokers would tend to use this door more often than the port. Second - Your private balcony is not private. The top of the flight of stairs that leads up to the 9th floor Sports Deck overlap the top of your balcony. This would be OK if not for the fact that the risers of the steps are open. When people use these stairs and get close to the top, they look right down into your balcony. We were out on our balcony after a swim, only to be surprised by a voice calling our name and waving to us through the risers. Three – One wall of the cabin is shared with the exterior wall of the Sun Deck. Most of the time this is OK except when a live band is playing in the Pool Deck area and the retractable roof is open. During the day, no problem, but at night, particularly during the “sail-away” parties that sometimes happen at 11:00 pm, you will hear the boom-ditty-boom of the drums very clearly in your cabin. And yes, I expressed my concerns about these issues with Viking Management on numerous occasions to no avail. Note: these issues should not be a problem with the other 8th floor cabins…just these two.