Viking River Cruises had not sailed onto my radar until my mom and dad cruised the Rhine River several years ago. And I don’t think that I would have considered a cruise for myself until my dad passed away, and I decided to sail the Danube River with my mom. It just seemed like something that older people did. (I know — I’m 50. Go ahead and laugh.)
But from the minute that we met our Viking-appointed driver — at midnight in the Budapest airport after a 30-hour trip from Fort Wayne, Indiana, via Chicago (where we were delayed for mechanical issues) and then Frankfurt (where we then missed our connection and ended up with a 12-hour layover) — I decided that I could get used to the bountiful little luxuries provided by a Viking River Cruise.
The Pros of a Viking River Cruise
A bit of perspective: I’ve never been on a cruise of any kind. Most of my travel is roughing it: whether literally, out in the woods; or organizing busy budget trips for my family; or traveling solo, in which I’m solely responsible for my safety, transportation, accommodations, food, water and activities.
I’ve never been on a trip where people took care of things for me. So the very nature of a cruise in which things are planned and managed is a novelty. And that leads me to a long list of pros:
- Transportation from and to the airport is arranged. If you book your airfare through Viking (we got free airfare as part of one of their regular promotions), then Viking will send you a baggage tag and a sticker for your shirt before you leave, and someone will greet you at the airport upon arrival, take you to the boat and put your luggage in your room. This was especially welcome during our unexpectedly arduous trip overseas. The same works in reverse: When it was time to leave, Viking took us by bus to the airport, helped us with our luggage and showed us to check-in.
- You can get help during your flights. If you book your airfare through Viking and you run into travel snags, then you can call a number that they supply exclusively for flight issues and someone will guide you to solutions, as well as notify the boat.
- Drinking water is abundant and free. They’ll give you a bottle of water when they pick you up from the airport. There’s always a large glass bottle in your room. When you depart for an included excursion, they’ll provide a bottle of water. I drink a lot of water all day long. In some places where I’ve traveled, tap water is unsafe, and drinking water is scarce. In others, it’s a matter of buying, carrying and keeping enough on hand to feel hydrated. On this cruise, someone made sure that I always had drinking water. I’d say it’s the little things, but this was huge for me.
- The boat is luxurious. It’s not big, but it’s modern, bright, very clean and sleek, reflecting the Scandanavian design aesthetic of its country of origin. There are floor-to-ceiling windows nearly everywhere in the shared spaces, making it feel open and airy and allowing for great views of the passing scenery.
- The service is exceptional. Thanks to my work as a food and wine writer, I’ve enjoyed some amazing service, and the people working on our Viking River Cruise were on par. They lead with enthusiastic welcomes, gracious offers of help and hard work.
- The food is fantastic. There’s a huge selection of menu items at every meal, including dishes local to the region that you’re visiting each night at dinner. There were two coffee stations on our boat with cappuccino machines, hot tea and cookies available all day. The lounge had a full bar and, if you have the Silver Spirits package, premium cocktails, beer and wine are free. (Otherwise, a nice selection of wine and beer is free at lunch and dinner.) Breakfast and lunch include both a self-service buffet area, and sit-down, full-service options. Dinner is full service.
- The included excursions are phenomenal. I pride myself on comprehensively canvassing a city when I visit. I do a ton of research beforehand to identify places to see and to get a sense of the vibe and history. I map out routes and plan how to get around, whether by foot, public transportation or even a Hop-On Hop-Off bus. The basic tours included in our Viking River Cruise each morning eliminated all of that legwork — I could simply show up, look and learn.
- There are spaces to tuck away. The boat includes a tiny library space and workspace at one end of the upper level where you can read, write or go online if you need a bit of a break from all the people-ing. (See the people-ing and wifi cons below.)
- There is community. If you’re traveling solo and can swing the single supplement, this is a brilliant way to feel a part of a group. People grow familiar very quickly, and they’re quite friendly, adept at making interesting conversation. Many are avid travelers with good stories. Yes, the average age of the population on a Viking River Cruise is probably 70. But it’s a largely lovely group of well-traveled people who know how to make small talk and do a good job of it. If you’re traveling solo, you’ll have ample opportunities to make friends and share conversation.
- It can be very affordable. If you have a traveling companion, and you take advantage of one of the specials — such as free airfare — you will likely beat the cost of a self-organized trip by a mile.
The Cons of a Viking River Cruise
- There’s no space to work out. Yes, I know. It’s vacation. But after sitting on an airplane for hours (or days) and eating and drinking so much, I wished for a small gym. The upper deck of the ship is an open-air seating area with a walking track. But depending on the time of year in which you cruise, it could be a really brisk walk, as in blustery.
- I felt like a conspicuous tourist. During our excursions, we were shuttled to our walking tours in giant motorcoaches. We wore listening devices on bright red lanyards. We followed our guide, who was bearing a sign, in a slow-moving cluster. This all eliminates the opportunity to observe a place unnoticed. It makes you a more obvious target to vendors or pickpockets who follow travelers like bees on honey. And we were sometimes noticeably annoying to local residents.
- Your time is not entirely your own. There’s not always a chance to linger at something you want to explore further when you’re on an excursion, or to venture further in a place. It’s the tradeoff for being free of planning responsibilities.
- An introvert could be overwhelmed. If you dine in the restaurant, you’ll share a table with a group. When you go to the mandatory safety presentation, or the cultural presentations and port talks, or the captain’s welcome, you’ll need to continue chatting with other people. Sometimes it’s a lot of people-ing. And on a small boat, you’re not anonymous for long. The good news: The people on my cruise knew very well how to dip into a conversation and dip right back out.
- For the solo traveler, it’s expensive. The solo supplement turns an affordable trip into an extravagance.
- For a pair, the cheapest rooms are tight. It’s entirely manageable to share one of the lower-deck rooms. They’re well-designed, making the most of the teeny, tiny space. Your two twin beds are pushed together or separated, and there is space under the beds for luggage. But there isn’t enough room for two people to pass each other at the foot of the beds; it’s a bit of a dance to navigate. And any time that you have a suitcase out, it consumes all of the floor space.
- The internet is unreliable. I was able to work extra before and after my trip and avoid long days or late nights on the laptop during my cruise. But I did need to send some emails and make some social posts, and I was dead in the water, so to speak, for several days. Our service was extra bad — they even brought in a tech team in Vienna, but the service failed again the next day.
- You lose the sense of place that comes with staying in a destination. On a Viking River Cruise, you’re somewhat esconsed in typical American culture, far more than if you were staying in a local hotel for a few days.
Viking has a fleet of river and ocean cruise ships. Ours was the Viking Jarl, built in 2013. It holds as many as 190 guests. There are three levels on the ship, plus an open-air deck on top. The lower level includes guest rooms and crew areas. The middle level includes guest rooms, guest services and the restaurant, plus a dining terrace. The third level includes guest rooms, a library and other seating, and the lounge. The top level is an open-air deck with a walking track, herb garden, solar panels, shuffleboard and a golf putting area.
We chose the most affordable room, 101. It had two twin beds, a full bathroom, a small closet, three drawers, a mini fridge and a TV. We had a small window and were eye-level with the water. Other rooms offer more space, or balconies, or other combinations of luxuries and perks.
We chose the Romantic Danube, October 2–9, including Budapest, Hungary; Vienna and Krems in Austria; and Passau and Regensburg in Germany.
Arrival in Budapest. If you arrive as scheduled, then you can embark at 3 p.m., leave your luggage and go into the city to see the sights on your own, or sleep off some jet lag. We missed this part of the trip, arriving after midnight thanks to our flight delays.
Day Two: Budapest, Hungary
An included excursion to Budapest (pronounced Bu-da-pesht). At 8 a.m. we boarded motorcoaches in four groups with four tour guides to the heart of the city. Along the way, our guide explained the basics of the Hungarian language and the large concrete buildings, left over from communist days, in which many of the citizens of the Pest side of Budapest live. Our first stop was Heroes Square, where we disembarked for a history lesson. We reboarded the buses for a driving tour of the Buda side of the city, enjoying views of the Danube, its many bridges and the Parliament Building.
Our second stop was Inner City Parish Church; from there our guide led us on a walking tour through the retail corridor and gave us time to wander the Central Market Hall, where they sell everything from embroidered table runners to made-in-China plastic to spectacular meats and meals. There’s even an Aldi in the basement. I bought some authentic paprika from an upstairs stall.
After a short visit, we again boarded the buses to meet up with the boat, which had already set sail for Visegrad shortly after we left. After we boarded the boat and headed to the dining room for lunch, the ship continued west. With less than four hours’ sleep the night before, I slept off some of my jet lag and did some writing before catching the tail end of a presentation on Viennese coffeehouse culture in the lounge, followed by the chef’s Champagne reception, dinner in the restaurant, and drinks and live music in the lounge.
Day 3: Vienna, Austria
An included excursion to Vienna. I should have gone to bed earlier. I should have had less booze. I was dragging again the next morning, and jet lag and early morning boat noise didn’t help. The ship was forced by local police to conduct a passport check — a sometimes occurrence — so we left about 20 minutes after our scheduled 9:15 a.m. departure.
We again boarded motorcoaches in groups; this time, some were going on different types of tours. Our included excursion took us to the Ringstrasse, the broad boulevard through the city center where we disembarked and walked with our guide through the historic area of Vienna, soaking up his stories of history, buildings and people along the way.
Our guide left us in front of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, reiterating directions for the metro and the nearest toilettes for those who wanted to stay in the city for the afternoon rather than take the coach back to the boat. We had already been armed with maps, and our guide even had euros on hand for those who needed to use the restroom and forgot to bring money. (It typically costs 0.50 euros to 1 euro to use a public restroom, known as a toilette or WC/water closest.)
Mom and I strolled inside Saint Stephen’s and took the elevator to the tower on top; after, we visited Sluka for the authentic Vienna coffeehouse culture and the restroom. We made our way back to the Spanish riding school to inquire about tours of the Lippezaner facility, pausing to gape in awe at the interiors of Saint Peter’s and Saint Michael’s churches, but the next ticket wasn’t until 4 p.m., so we meandered around the Hapburg Palace area, then made our way back to the metro near Saint Stephen’s; a short ride put us within a 10-minute walk of the boat.
Drowsy, I explored the boat a bit and wrote for a while, until our port talk previewing the next day’s activities and then dinner.
Day 4: Vienna, Austria
We were on our own for this day, so Mom and I booked a self-guided Grand Tour of the Schonbrunn Palace, the fantastical “hunting lodge” built at the end of the sixteenth century for Emperor Joseph I and his family. The website for the palace says the tour is 50 to 60 minutes, but allow at least two hours. You’ll want to gawk, and you’ll want to walk the grounds.
I had the great idea that we should get off the U-Bahn (Vienna’s subway) at the Karlsplatz stop on the green line versus the St. Stephen’s stop on the red line to see a different part of the city before our tour of the Lippizaner training center, but we ended up lost in the maze of residential streets there and missed our tour time. (Sorry, Mom!)
Instead, after we found our way back to the city center we returned to Sluka for coffee and a sacher torte, then headed back to the boat for dinner. We finished our day with an add-on excursion to an orchestral concert of Mozart and Strauss, including dancers and opera singers. It was short and sweet and surprisingly spectacular.
Day 5: Krems, Austria
An included walking tour of Gottweig Abbey. We docked in Krems sometime during the night. In the morning we boarded buses for a short ride to Gottweig Abbey. Parts medieval, parts baroque and thoroughly gorgeous, the monastery is famous for its apricot wines and brandy. While there are roughly 35 monks still living and working there and in the surrounding community, one of the primary sources of revenue for upkeep, aside from leasing the surrounding lands, is tourism. In addition to a visit and wine tasting, you can stay on the grounds, which are rich with views and gardens.
We returned to the boat for lunch, then sailed the Wachau Valley, a picturesque and rustic section of the Danube famous for its wines. Our program director narrated the sights and identified the small towns along the way while we basked in the warm October sun and sipped Viennese coffee. The day included other talks and a cooking demonstration, along with the usual entertainment in the lounge before and after dinner. There also was a presentation featuring discounts on future Viking River Cruises.
Day 6: Passau, Germany
It was incredibly foggy when we arrived in Passau. The sun soon burned the soft filter off of the Italian-designed pastel buildings to reveal brilliant blue skies, cobblestones and charming passageways at the confluence of three rivers. There were many, many university students, children, dogs and babies in the Old Town area; it made my heart so happy. I had beer at a ratskellar, visited a castle and petted puppies in addition to the included walking tour.
Passau might have been my favorite place on our cruise. People lined the waterways with friends, families, pups, toddlers, beers and musical instruments to watch the golden hour bathe the picturesque pathways.
Day 7: Regensburg, Germany
The walking tours that morning included a Jewish history option. It was a gut punch in a lot of ways. Our marvelous tour guide, Sylvia Seifert, MA, showed us tiles built into the sidewalk that represent victims of the Holocaust. An art program throughout Europe, they’re called stumbling stones — not to catch the feet, but the mind, and they’re placed in front of the places where the victims last lived. She is working on a book to compile information about each of the stumbling stones memorials.
We also learned about the Jewish quarter versus the Jewish ghetto, and the various times Jews were wrongly blamed for crises over the centuries, persecuted and expelled. We learned that people destroyed Jewish cemeteries and saw the gravestones used as trophy architecture. Our tour included Emilie and Oskar Schindler’s home in Regensburg.
It was a cold, gray, impactful morning. After a warmup in a coffee shop, we ventured back out into the UNESCO World Heritage old town We saw weddings in the square and German-made Christmas ornaments by the truckload and indulged in some retail therapy, as it was our final day.
Of course we *had* to have sausage and (for me) a beer at Historische Wurestkuche, the Regensburg kitchen serving the workers who constructed the 12th century Stone Bridge and the oldest sausage kitchen in the world. It hasn’t changed a bit, judging from our peek inside! We also stumbled upon the centuries-old abbey … and a bit of a creepy saint altar within … before walking back to the boat.
Our final dinner on the ship was magnificent. There was entertainment afterward, but we opted to return to our room and pack. Even though our departure from Munich (about 1.5 hours away) wasn’t until 1:30, Viking wanted our luggage in the hall at 5:30 a.m. and us on the bus at 6 a.m. with others who were leaving around the same time. In fact, there were departures scheduled as early as 2:30 a.m. If you book your airfare with Viking, there’s no way around this. At the same time, it was very nice to have included transportation, and our wait in Munich wasn’t onerous. I dozed on the bus.
Viking River Cruise FAQs
Do you have to dress for dinner?
No. You can if you want to; some people put on a more dressy top and jewelry before dinner, and some people came in casual dress. And some people wore the same jeans they’d had on all day.
Do you have to sit with the same people at dinner every day?
No, you’re free to move about the cabin. Mom and I sat with several wildly different groups of people, only similar in their charming conversation skills and warmth.
Can you store your luggage in your room?
Yes, I had a full-sized suitcase clocking in just under 50 pounds, plus a large carry-on, and I was able to stash both underneath my bed.
Do you have to share a bed?
No. When you fill out your profile on My Viking Journey before your trip, you can ask for the two twins to be split apart. It’s tight, but doable.
Do you need a converter and adapter for the outlets?
On our ship, you didn’t have to have them, but it would be helpful. There are several 110-volt plugs in the room. But if you have multiple devices, they’ll be used up in a heartbeat. I alternated charging my watch and my phone with the 110-volt plug using a regular Apple block, or with the one USB charger built into the wall. I brought an Apple Europe adapter for my laptop, and I brought the European hair dryer that I purchased in Milan several years ago, because the last time I traveled overseas with my American hair dryer, it conked out. I used the European plugs for those.
Is it an older crowd?
I’d peg the average at 70 on our Viking River Cruise, but that’s not to say that there aren’t any much younger people. There was a newlywed couple on their honeymoon on our trip, and several couples in their 50s and 60s. Children aren’t permitted on Viking River Cruises. There’s no pool, no casino, no disco, no umbrella drinks, no photography sales, no thumping late-night bass on their river cruises. The joy of this crowd, I discovered, is that they’re avid lifelong travelers — not vacationers. They’re curious and informed and gentle and friendly.
Is it all-inclusive?
It can be. The price of our Viking River Cruise, the Romantic Danube in early October 2022, was $2,499. That included our airfare, thanks to a special promotion that comes along fairly regularly. For that price, we had transfers to and from the airport; daily walking tours of each new city; all of our meals plus snacks; beer and wine at meals; and travel support.
Our total trip clocked in at just under $2,949 per person for the fully refundable (for any reason) Allianz travel insurance provided by Viking; prepaid gratuities for the ship staff (though not bus drivers and tour guides); and the Silver Spirits package, which upgraded our booze (embedded in the free airfare promotion so we couldn’t peel it off). Our trip was six full days of tours and travel, plus the day before and the day after to and from the airport.
Any other tips?
- You can extend your trip through Viking before or after your cruise by a few days and see some other cities. We had so many delays on the way to Budapest that we wished we had arrived a day or two early. This also would have alleviated some jet lag.
- Bring Advil PM, an eye mask and ear buds. There’s ship noise, there are early tours and there’s jet lag. I barely slept. I came home in desperate need of a solid eight hours (plus a facial scrub and a food-and-alcohol detox).
- Bring tennis shoes. Though there’s no gym, the walking track on the open-air deck is an awesome way to get in some miles. You can make your own workout from there: push-ups, jumping jacks, triceps dips, walking lunges, etc.
- Don’t count on the wifi. This was the most disappointing surprise of the trip. I don’t usually travel with a sim card or any other means of accessing wifi or cell service, and I thought that the ship would mean better connectivity than I usually enjoy. I’m glad I’d arranged to be free of my social media duties during my trip.
- Many people book second, third and more trips on Viking. Not only are their Viking River Cruises wildly popular, but their Ocean Cruises and their new Expedition Cruises draw repeat guests. To a person, the people with whom I spoke said that every experience they’ve had was exceptional. Service wins top remarks, followed by the food and the boats, as well as the excursions. Honestly, I agree. And I don’t get paid a dime to say that. They seem to treat their staff really well too. Our program director, a veteran of other ocean lines, had only worked for Viking for a week when the pandemic shut down cruising; the company looked after her, as she said, through the duration of the pandemic.
- Go to the port talks. Each night, they’ll prep you for the following day’s destination with a port talk, explaining times, procedures and sights to see in the next city. There’s also detailed information in the Viking Daily, a printed document that arrives in your room during dinner each night.
While it never felt like a hard sell, Viking arms you with literature about their other cruise offerings before you go home, and provides a limited-time discount on future trips. They didn’t need to sell me at all; the experience itself was enough to convince me that I should take another trip whenever I have the time and money again. (When my ship comes in, so to speak.) Apparently I’m not the only one: In 2022, Viking was voted the number one ocean line and the number one river line in the Condé Nast Traveler’s 2022 Readers’ Choice Awards for the second year in a row, as well as number one for both rivers and oceans by Travel + Leisure.
I don’t have experience with other river cruise providers, but I can say that my first experience with Viking made me a fan of the mode of travel. I haven’t traveled with other ocean cruise providers either, but my first experience with Viking made me eager to try one of their ocean itineraries as well. I have my eye on the 33-day cruise to Hawaii and Polynesia (Tahiti!). And the 138-day world cruise is an absolute dream. I need to start playing the lottery.
I won’t forgo my other means of travel. But this was a bit of luxury that I’d love to do again.
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