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Viking Danube cruise: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

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Anniversary Viking River cruise: Romantic Danube (the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)

What do you say when you come home from work one day and your sweetheart suggests a 7-night Viking “Romantic Danube” cruise from Nurenberg to Budapest to celebrate a special anniversary? Thank goodness the commercials on “Downton Abbey” had their effect! Though we have been married (thank you, Supreme Court) for only two years (our honeymoon was last year in Scotland and England) this October is our 25th year together. Usually I plan the trips so it was such a turn of events to be greeted with this news! Linda liked the idea of seeing scenery as we cruised and not having to pack up, travel, and unpack. We both liked the idea of being able to see both sides of the banks as we both didn’t think we’d do well with ocean cruising with that wide expanse of water. We booked a top floor cabin with a veranda so we’d have breathing room in more ways than one. Our room was 313 … a little less than half way down the corridor.

We knew we wanted to go in the middle of July thinking the chances of rain would be diminished. Shame not to see Prague since we were so far out there so we used our United miles and flew in to Prague for two nights on our own, booked a German bus line to take us from Prague’s train stations to Nurenberg’s train station for one night there before starting the cruise, and then flew home from Budapest after a post cruise night on our own. Viking had pre and post add-ons but for the money and what you got for that, it just didn’t make sense.

Once we booked I didn’t do a lot of research around the Viking ship/cruise itself as I didn’t want to have any preconceived notions. In addition, this cruise was Linda’s idea (and I needed to reinforce THAT behavior) and I didn’t want to take over that part of the trip. I scoured tripadvisor, booking.com, frommers, fodors, and Rick Steves for just the right accommodations and nailed all three of them down by the end of the January (more on those hotels in a separate trip report) I brought my European hair dryer out of my travel bin and my J.Jill sleeveless linen dresses out of the closet, put on my Clarks walking sandals, and I was ready!!

Viking cruise: the Good!
• Compact and highly functional stateroom! Three different mirrors: behind the door, in the bathroom, and next to the television allowed two women to get ready without being in each other’s way. Bathroom had shelving space, closet with about 15 hangers, shelving on the other side of the closet with safe. Drawers below a counter, nice sized TV (only time it was on was when we walked in), end tables besides each bed, refrigerator behind a false set of drawers. Plenty of lighting, soft, dim, reading, etc. L’Occitane products (ooh la la), “French door” shower, plenty of warm water and excellent pressure, big towels…not bath sheets but good. Firm mattress.
• Beautiful sun deck! Included a walking track around half the sun deck… a little over 12 laps equaled a mile. Two hole putting green on one side and a shuffle board on the other. Lots of chairs and tables.
• Adequate dining area and lounge! On our floor…the third…was the lounge where the safety drill was held, where the bar was, and where people gathered for the nightly briefing about the next day’s events. There was a piano with a player from time to time and when a guest speaker came aboard or some regional entertainers…that was where they performed. The second floor included the reception area, where you entered and exited the boat, and the location of the restaurant. For people with walking difficulties there was an elevator for the three floors, but not one that reached the sun deck.
• Meeting new people! Because the dining tables are large and seat from 8-12 people, it is a little like a bed and breakfast in that we have meals together and begin to talk. There was a more casual eating option on the third floor at one end of the lounge where a lighter version of each meal was served, and it was possible to sit in smaller groupings. There were folks from the U.S., of course, a lot from Florida, a few of us from California, Ohio, the mid-west, the UK, and Australia. Some folks you can handle sitting with for one meal, but by the middle of the cruise there were several couples/pairs that we enjoyed spending more time with. Most couples there seemed married, there were a few families (teenage/older children), a mom and daughter, two best friends, that kind of thing. I think we were the only same sex “couple” on board.
• Seeing new places! At each port, there would be a local guide and most were excellent…giving a little history about the city, pointing out architectural features and explaining them well. In Passau we split from the group because the tour consisted of the guide basically pointing out the flood lines on the buildings from 2013. In Vienna, we took advantage of the Viking city bus overview tour, but once we got off the bus, we went our own way.
• Pulling up right to the city! This happened in Vienna, Budapest, and Regensburg. Though all three required about a 15-20 minute walk from the boat to sightseeing possibilities, it was so convenient to be so close.
• Seeing sights along the Danube from the sun deck! This is also an “up” side to cruising…seeing vineyards and castles from the boat while hearing the Activities Director explain what you are seeing.
• Breakfast! It was always a buffet with an omelet station where egg whites were not a problem. Nice! Bacon was always well cooked, and the buffet included breads, fruits, cereals, meats, yogurts, cheeses, hot oatmeal. There was a fancy coffee machine outside the lounge so if you were up before breakfast you could make yourself a drink. The hot chocolate (my AM trip indulgence)was milk-based, not water.

The Bad
• Sun Deck was closed a lot! Because we went through many locks, it pre-empted passengers from being on the sun deck. We went through a lock once when we were sitting on our veranda and we could basically touch the cement walls. Most locks happened at night. The first was a bit unsettling when in the middle of the night, I drew our veranda curtains to see a cement wall.
• The food, though presented nicely, lacked that “taste factor” (a phrase so aptly borrowed from someone else). Usually there were several options: a fish meal, meat meal, or veggie meal as well as menu staples such as salmon and Caesar salad. The servings were small which was nice as there were usually three courses but I never felt that kind of satisfaction that comes with “Wow! That was a great meal!”


The Ugly
• Apparently, the Danube River water level is low this summer. Despite spring rains and snow run-offs there hasn’t been much rain lately. Soooo, our Danube River cruise hit a snag when we arrived in Regensburg. There was some foreshadowing the day we left when I received an email ON THE WAY TO THE AIRPORT letting me know we weren’t going to board our original ship, the Viking Var, but a sister ship, the Viking Tor. I phoned Viking from the airport to talk this through and asked about future problems but was assured that nothing else should be different about the cruise. However, the first evening the Activities Director said we should hope for rain so we don’t have to go through “disembarkation.” Well, no rain. So on the third night we were told that we would need to pack up to be moved to another Viking ship…our ORIGINAL ship. You see, one cruise goes from Budapest to Nurenberg while the other goes from Nurnberg to Budapest. Both ships needed to switch passengers BY BUS to avoid the shallow waters between Regensburg and Passau. During the briefing about this switch it seemed half of us found this news very disconcerting while the other half applauded Viking’s efforts in dealing with this act of nature. So instead of moving on from Regensburg to Passau, we rode a bus for 90 minutes to Passau for our city tour and then back to the ship. We stayed in R. for two nights then instead of one.

The following morning, we packed up by 8:30, left our luggage in our room with tags and spread out on five busses. I timed it and we were on the bus for 4 hours and 40 minutes. Uggg! We stopped just outside Melk Abbey at a restaurant that seemed used to accommodate large numbers. We had one of the best meals of the entire trip, actually! We then headed to the abbey for a tour, got back on the bus for a 45-minute drive to the next port and boarded the Viking Var in another industrial area. Our luggage didn’t not arrive until 90 minutes later. It made for a long, long day. And that was the biggest disappointment…the long bus ride, the altered agendas, the effort and energy to unpack and repack and unpack again. I was totally unprepared for that. If you go back though and read the fine print of the contract, it does address disembarkation. Because our timing was off from the middle to the end of our trip, we ended up cruising the famous Wachau Valley at night. This was the celebrated “highlight” of the river cruise. The towns and castles were somewhat lit up which was beautiful, but I would have preferred to take in ALL the sights on both sides during daylight hours.

• The second “ugly” is that Viking will stack her ships parallel to each other in certain ports. I heard that this is to avoid separate docking fees. It happened in Vienna and it happened in Budapest. I opened up the curtain one morning to see another veranda right across from ours! We were stacked three deep! So to exit the ship you had to cross into another boat…very easy as we were so close to each. In Budapest in particular when I was looking forward to sitting out on the veranda and looking at the Buda side or the Pest side my view was totally obstructed by another Viking ship. As my British mother would have said, it was a bit of a swizz.

• Wifi was slow and spotty. Facetime/Skype was out of the question (we tried daily) although a fellow who was facetiming his granddaughters in the UK didn’t have a problem. I didn’t think being on such a sophisticated ship that we’d face that. I was really looking forward to staying in touch with my dad and had to rely on wifi hotspots when we were out and about.

Overall, it WAS a trip of a lifetime. Although, the “ugly” parts were time setbacks and inconveniences and modified sightseeing, the cities we visited, the people we met, and the floating hotel experience was something that was amazing to experience. Once home, I began to dig deeper into the whole “disembarkation” and found that is happening a lot to folks on several cruise lines on the Danube this summer to the point where some people are being notified days before their trip of their cruise CANCELLATION. Ouch! For someone who began the trip several days before the cruise, that news would have been hard from which to pivot once in Europe.

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