WARNING! This review is long.
After reserving this cruise almost two years ago, we (group of 8) were a bit concerned if our cruise down the Nile on the Viking Ra scheduled to begin on March 6, 2020, would be cancelled. With Viking’s new cancellation policy, at least we could make a decision closer to the scheduled date so that gave us some flexibility with the ever-changing situation. We ended up going as scheduled and were thrilled with the entire trip, itinerary and experience that Viking provided.
As soon as the trip began, we heard that Viking was shutting down all cruises for several weeks so this was the last cruise the Ra would take for awhile. We joked that we were shutting off the lights as we left each port. It was hard to think about the many tour agencies and other cruise lines that would be shuttering for awhile and how that would effect the many service people, vendors, guides and staff that we met along the way. Just like in all the countries around the world, their economy will take a hit and the poverty that we witnessed will only get worse.
We had made our air reservations through Viking and we were so glad that we did. I’ve always been frustrated by their fees for any changes to the air itinerary even before the trip is booked so we have not always gone with their deal, but we decided to go with them two years ago because we knew with the length of this trip (17 days total with extension to Jordan), we weren’t going to add any more days (we do have to work at some point to pay for our travel! ☺) More on that later.
From the moment we arrived at Cairo airport, the Viking staff took over. Someone met us at the arrivals gate and guided us through the areas at the airport. We had gotten our visas online through the government website ($25), another couple had gone through an agency, and the other four just paid for the visa on arrival. As so many others have said, just do it when you arrive. There was no line, they didn’t look at passports, they just asked for $25 USD (cash) and you walked on through. Took all of 2 minutes. Our luggage was taken care of and we really didn’t have to deal with carrying them the rest of the trip. Our Program Director, Hani, met us on the bus and gave a welcome, some history on the bus ride to the hotel and lots of clear and useful direction on ATM’s, restaurants, the information meeting the next morning and how our trip was structured. The Ritz Carlton Cairo was beautiful and in a great location right on the Nile and next to the Egyptian Museum. We had a bite to eat in the lounge and headed to bed. Our other breakfasts and one dinner were at the main floor restaurant and were all very extensive buffets (included in our tour).
Our first touring day was the biggest one and after being awakened at 4 by the disco on the Nile or maybe on the small island in the middle of the river, I wasn’t sure how the day would go. We had an orientation meeting at 8 and started touring at 9. We started at the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, then a rug making school before lunch at a hotel buffet. The afternoon was spent on the Giza Plateau where we had time at the great Pyramids, rode a camel and visited the Sphinx.
Let me just take a minute to say that Viking provides 2 Egyptologists and they are with you for the entire trip. You are broken into two groups and you stay with your Egyptologist (called Program Directors) the entire time. Our group had Hani and the other group had Tarek. We were so gratified all through the trip to have a Program Director leading us. Not only did they provide general information about each touring day, take care of all entry fees and most tips for the wash rooms, make sure we had the correct information for touring each site and gave us pointers on how to deal with aggressive vendors, but (what they were really trained for) they described, explained and enthused over the tombs, temples and pyramids we saw so that we could really appreciate and understand what we were seeing. Because we had the same Program Director each day, they could build on information they had given us days before and build on the picture that we were seeing of the country they loved. This was one of the few times when I saw the wisdom of going with a structured tour group instead of building a trip itinerary and doing it on our own. Great job, Hani!
I’m sure you won’t get much from an in-depth review of each day, but I will insert anything that might be of use to future travelers on this itinerary.
Day Two was the Citadel and mosque. Our PD did explain a lot about his personal Muslim faith and what it meant to him and his culture. I thought it was fascinating and insightful and the mosque was beautiful. Later that morning we went to the Egyptian Museum and our PD showed us the highlights. Since it was right next to our hotel, we headed back after lunch at the Ritz Carlton. One couple in our group paid to go into the mummy room and said it was worth it. If you can make it across the street (traffic is insane), there is a government shop (meaning that the prices are fixed) that had some good shopping. Our group booked two cars through the concierge and went to a recommended Middle Eastern restaurant on one of the islands on the Nile. The name of it was Abou El Sid and it had great food, including pigeon! About half of the large group went to the El Kalil market and dinner excursion. I heard mixed reviews.
Day Three began early with a 5 am wake up call and bags out by 5:15. We had a buffet breakfast at the hotel and headed to the airport for our charter flight (8 am) to Luxor. As soon as we landed at 9:30, we headed to Karnak Temple. All transportation was seamless and taken care of by Viking. The buses they used throughout were comfortable with plenty of cold water bottles and a bathroom if needed.
We headed to the boat at noon and a buffet lunch. Ah, the Ra. Beautiful ship. The common areas were well thought out, the two room suites were spacious and the top deck lounge area so inviting. Before we could get off the bus, medical personnel came on board with a questionnaire and took our temperatures. We had our temperatures taken each morning while we were on the cruise and that information was sent home with us incase there were questions re-entering our home countries. We heard there were 51 people on our tour so we assumed no one had cancelled before the trip but later we were told there were only 46 on the cruise portion, so I’m not sure if some left the tour after Cairo, whether we were not given the right original totals or we forgot someone at the airport. ☺ We were originally surprised more people hadn’t cancelled before the trip with the news that a Nile cruise ship had been struck with COVID-19 the week before After a welcome, port talk and safety drill we headed out to Luxor Temple. I thought it was great to see a temple lit up at night.
Day Four was another early morning wake up at 4 am. We hopped on a motor boat for a 10-15 minute ride down the Nile and to the other bank where we took a short van ride to the balloon launching point. Yes, we opted for the Hot Air Balloon ride over the Valley of the Queens. It is something that you book when you arrive in Cairo and costs about $250, I think. I assume they have to wait to see what the weather will be like before they book. Only 13 of the 46 on our cruise did the Hot Air Balloon ride but each participants that I spoke with thought it was the “must do” experience of the trip. We launched on a beautiful, calm, gorgeous morning and were amazed at the sights below us. Such a unique way to see the temples and tombs that we would go inside later that day, plus just the topography and the graphic nature of that swathe of green extending from the Nile and then this sharp boundary where the desert begins. Amazing! Do it!!
We had a wonderful breakfast on our return and then headed out to the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. Ramses VI’s tomb and Queen Nefartari’s tomb are not to be missed. I think Ramses tomb is an extra fee. We also went into King Tut’s tomb which was an extra price. Our PD downplayed it, but we thought it was worth seeing. We also saw the Collosus of Memnon on the ride back to the boat. After lunch we had free time. During free afternoons our PD’s would sometimes have a talk including topics like – the Arabic language, Women in Egypt, hieroglyphics, ancient Egyptian medicine, etc. After dinner was a belly dancer and a whirling dervish in the lounge. It was hard to watch the belly dancer’s performance and I know that the staff said that they try to tell Viking that no one likes it, but it’s still on the entertainment schedule. You’ve been warned.
Day Five we saw Dendera Temple in the morning and had the rest of the day to ourselves as we sailed back up the Nile.. It’s wonderful to sit on that top deck or on your balcony and watch the world go by.
Day Six – the men in our group went to the 8 am tour of Esna Temple. We ladies decided to take the village tour and then did some shopping (you do walk by the temple on the village tour). I think enough people have reviewed the crazy, pushy, aggressive behavior of vendors. You get a bit used to it but it always feels rude because eventually you just have to be very firm. One note, if you really want something, just keep walking away. The vendor finally got to the price I was willing to pay for a galabeya (long flowing garment) when I was walking down the steps to the ship (Viking’s dock was right next to the village). Get a tunic or galabeya before Egyptian night on the boat. It was fun to see people wearing these colorful garments at dinner that night.
We set sail again and enjoyed a Falafel demonstration in the restaurant. That night was an amazing Egyptian dinner and the Nubian dancers in the lounge afterwards were very entertaining. Interestingly enough, we ran into a sand storm in the afternoon and had to dock at Edfu since all river traffic was stopped by the government. It was only through the hard work of our crew that we got clearance to keep sailing about 5 hours after the storm ended and were able to dock in Aswan the next morning so that those going to Abu Simbel could make their flight.
Day Seven – I think it was at breakfast when Karoline, our Hotel Manager, told us the bad news that Jordan had closed its borders and we would not be able to go on our extension trip to Jordan. Our trip was cut short by 4 days. Here is where we were extremely happy that we had done the Viking airfare. By the time we got back from our jaunt to the airport, Viking had rebooked us on a flight out of Cairo for Tuesday and handed us our new flights times. Easy. They were actually better flight times than we originally had and we didn’t have to try and rebook and cancel flights online or over the phone (Karoline said the wait time was sometimes 6 hours on the phone). Our friends (they couldn’t book through Viking because of another reason) tried twice to talk with someone on the phone and after an hour wait were disconnected. They finally were able to use the ships computer to book a flight home and decided to deal with cancelling the original flight and getting the refund later. To Viking’s credit, they worked with all of the passengers whether they had booked their original flights through Viking or not, but those passengers that hadn’t booked with Viking did have to deal with the logistics themselves.
Abu Simbel. What can I say. There are no words. Mostly because we only saw the Aswan airport. ☺ We did see the Aswan Dam in a 20 minute stop on the way to the airport. But once we got to the airport, we waited for our plane to come from Cairo. Unfortunately, because of a bad rainstorm the day before, Cairo’s runways were flooded and flights were backed up. (We also heard that all the schools were closed, local transportation cancelled and electricity cut off because of the flooding. Because they rarely get rain, let alone a lot of it, they just don’t have the drainage in the city. Who knew?) After several delays and concerns over another sand storm trapping us in Abu Simbel if we did make it there, our PD called the trip off and we headed back to our ship. The Aswan airport was an interesting morning tour spot with bathrooms that included toilet paper and no attendant to tip, shops that had fixed prices and a free soda at the cafeteria. After a week in Egypt, all three were welcome experiences. The others in our group that didn’t go on the eventful Abu Simbel excursion, said that their boat ride (although too windy for a felucca ride) and market visit were good.
That night a few of us (20 or so) went to the Phillea Light Show by boat. There are 5 light shows at sites around Egypt and I was glad to get to go to one. I think our group was divided on how much we liked it. It is very artsy and was trying to showcase the history of the temple in a different way. It was professional and the temple is beautiful as it’s perched on an island, but you do see the temple in the daylight the next day.
Day Eight – We had a lovely boat ride to a Nubian village where we visited a local home and the Papyrus Institute before heading back to Phillea Temple. The afternoon was spent cruising before reaching Kom Ombo for a late afternoon tour of the temple and the small crocodile museum.
Day Nine – our last day of touring started with a carriage ride to Edfu Temple before sailing back to Luxor. We really enjoyed going through the lock and the activity of the vendors in boats alongside us tossing up their wares…our last experience with the aggressive merchants of Egypt. I believe that this experience is usually seen on the way upriver but because of the sandstorm on our way to Aswan, we went through the lock at night.
Day Ten – the next morning we had to have our luggage out by 5:15, then our last breakfast onboard before boarding the bus for the aiport at 6:30 am. We were saying goodbye to an amazing staff onboard the Ra. This was my third Viking river cruise and by far the best staff across the board. Karoline, the Hotel Manager was exceptional. She has been with the company for over 20 years and my only regret is that since she is on the Russia sailings in the summer, we won’t have her on our ship next summer on the Volga. I can only imagine the headaches she had with this last cruise as the craziness around the world with the COVID-19 crisis changed things day to day and she and her staff took care of everything. We passengers have no idea of the turmoil below deck but I’m sure it was a massive effort. My husband had an eye problem during the cruise and she took care of arranging an eye doctor to come to our room and kept us informed. Excellent service.
The restaurant staff was also exceptional. Kai and Abdullah were the chefs and we loved the quality and variety of food (wine selection was not up to snuff but that was because of excessive import tariffs, I’m told). Priscilla was the restaurant manager and she was friendly, efficient, welcoming. And that atmosphere was carried through in all of the staff – Wadde, Anastasia, Mohammed and Hussein made each meal so pleasant with their excellent service, pleasant nature and interest in making our meal times relaxing. Although I didn’t spend as much time in the lounge, I do know that the staff I came in contact with there were very pleasant, unobtrusive and efficient. The ship and staff of the Viking Ra have set a high standard for the next two cruises we’ve already booked.
Our flight back to Cairo was uneventful and after a buffet lunch at the Intercontinental Hotel (beautiful hotel!), about 20 of us headed out on the Coptic Christian walking tour of Old Cairo. We spent a very interesting afternoon looking at the area and visiting a synagogue and church. When we got back to the hotel, we ladies headed next door to the attached 5 story shopping mall for some shopping before our farewell dinner. Because of the times everyone was heading home, it was an anticlimactic buffet dinner as we all said goodbye and wondered what it would be like back home. Some headed to the airport that evening, but most of us didn’t leave until 3:30 the next morning for our 6:30 am flights.
Just some general thoughts on this massive tome: This was the first time that I was truly impressed with Viking. Our other two cruises were nice and we enjoyed them, but if this is the service, attention to detail and staff that is the standard of Viking, I will continue to give them my business. I thought this cruise was very expensive but I will say that I could see where my money went. We had wonderful accommodations at the hotels and on the ship. We had security personnel on every bus, during tours and even some police escorts – a necessary precaution but the areas we went to did not seem unsafe. Tips and entry fees were taken care of by our Program Directors with only a few exceptions. This made for a streamlined tour and faster entries. Having staff assigned to the airports, each hotel and our Program Directors with us the entire trip made all the difference in our enjoyment and the ability to see so much in this jam-packed itinerary.
Another plus for Viking is that we never had other boats tied up next to us. We always had our own dock and some of that could have been happenstance but I know that in a few of the towns, Viking has paid to have their own docking space. At Kom Ombo I took a picture of three ships docked against the pier with up to five ships tied up to each of those ships. We were the only ones that had our own docking space. During the sandstorm a ship tied up to us because everyone was forced to dock, but other than that, I was always able to use my balcony and have a nice view.
We had rooms 300, 301, 302, and 303. I was really glad that we had a balcony (I believe all the rooms on the Ra do) because I sat out there many times and read, had a drink and watched the shoreline. Our rooms had plenty of storage between the two rooms. There is room under the bed to store your suitcases. The bathroom was the biggest I’ve seen on a cruise ship. Our room steward kept the place spotless and fully stocked. Our only complaint was that most mornings we woke to the sound of chairs being dragged across the floor of the pool deck above us. Maybe the second floor would have been a better choice for rooms. We had to be up early most mornings anyway but it was a negative for those particular rooms. Just an FYI, the odd numbered rooms seem to be most likely to have a view of the Nile rather than the dock.
Lastly, others have alluded to the fact that this is a tiring cruise because of the itinerary. We are in our 50’s and some in our friend group were in their 60’s. Some days were longer than others but I don’t think anyone thought the trip was grueling. There is not a lot of time for just casually hanging around but there is free time and I thought the itinerary made the most of getting us to a lot of Egyptian sites, experience some of the culture and making sure we felt like we were on vacation. A few in the larger group needed to use walking sticks, but they kept up fine and never complained.
This was not a perfect cruise in description (sandstorm, cancelled Petra excursion, no Abu Simbel excursion) but it was the perfect cruise in actual experience. I commented to our group that I couldn’t think of one fellow traveler in our group of 46 that seemed to be a complainer or challenging in any way. Everyone seemed in good spirits, positive, on time, considerate, rolled with the changes in schedule and pleasant to be around. I highly recommend Viking and the itinerary they have put together. Well done!
The only complaint about this beautiful cabin is that you could hear the crew moving chairs on the pool deck (6-6:30) every morning.
Phillea Temple was beautiful and situated on an island. I thought the sound and light show was worth seeing but not a "must do". Our boat ride to a Nubian village and the trip to the Papyrus center were both interesting and information. We also stopped at the new Aswan dam. There's not much to see there but I was glad we were able to see it as it has had such an impact on Egypt.
unfortunately, our flight was cancelled so we didn't see it.View All 3 Abu Simbel Reviews
Just a brief stop to get a sense of the magnitude of the statues.View All 3 Colossi of Memnon Reviews
Spent a good amount of time here since there is a lot to see and the complex is big.View All 6 Karnak Temple Reviews
Excellent! We saw this as the sun was waning and then lit up when it went down. Very interesting.View All 5 Luxor Temple Reviews
We had seen the temple from above on our hot air balloon ride so it made seeing it up close even more interesting.View All 4 Queen Hatshepsut's Temple Reviews
This is a must see. Ramses VI tomb was amazing and we enjoyed Ramses IV's tomb also. We did pay the extra fee for King Tut's tomb also and felt it was worth it. Don't miss the tomb that is forgotten because the restroom trailer hides the entrance.View All 5 Valley of the Kings Reviews