One of the hottest travel trends of the last decade has been the rapid rise in popularity of European river cruises. I’ve been reading about them, writing about them, seeing the ads when watching Downton Abbey and wondering about them for years. But I always hesitated to go on one fearing I’d be the youngest person onboard, feel embarrassed to participate in the organized tours, gain weight, or get bored.
When I finally gave in and took a Danube cruise in early December, my preconceived notions vaporized. I really had a great time and learned a lot with a fun group of people, young and old, ended up embracing the organized tours, lost weight and was not bored for a second.
I’ve struggled with trying to figure out the best way to present my experience to readers and have finally settled on a Q&A format since I have been getting tons of questions from folks since I got back. Via these questions, I’ll reveal to you what my experience was like in words and pictures.
Please note that I was a guest of Viking River Cruises on this trip.
How much does a river cruise cost?
Due to their popularity, European river cruises are not cheap and the most popular itineraries sell out fast. I sailed on Viking River Cruises, which is considered a solid mid-priced brand. Our 7-day itinerary (from Budapest to Nuremberg) was called “Romantic Danube” but since we were sailing in early December, it was more of a Christmas market cruise. Summer prices for 7-day river cruises run in the $3,500 to $4,500 per person range, but during fall and early winter, cruises are much cheaper. Viking put us up in a standard-sized stateroom with a veranda that goes for about $2,900 per person; standard rooms without balconies or verandas run about $2,400. In November, prices fall as low as $2,000 per person. Most cruise lines offer very good deals on airfare, too. For example, when booking with Viking (or a travel agent) you can add on air between the US and Europe for about $400 per person in economy– upgrades to premium economy and business class are available, too. Or of course you can use your frequent flyer miles or buy your own ticket.
What’s the demographic onboard?
A river cruise is a very active endeavor– there’s a lot of getting on and off the boat, walking up and down hills on cobblestone streets, navigating sidewalks, stairways and footpaths, taking taxis, and running to catch the boat when you are late like me. So you don’t see the walkers, wheelchairs or oxygen tanks that are part of more sedentary ocean cruises. While it can vary from cruise to cruise, about 60 percent of the passengers on our ship were in their 60s or 70s— well-heeled, active and engaging retirees. The remaining 40 percent were in their 30s, 40s or 50s and still working. There were a two honeymooner couples on board who mainly stuck to themselves and a smattering of fellow gay travelers who joked about being “friends of Dorothy.” There were no children onboard. Nearly everyone on our ship was from the US or Canada. Most of the crew was from eastern Europe or the Philippines.
Did you get seasick?
No! Not for a second. A total non-issue. I was amazed at how smoothly our “long ship” navigated upstream – occasional waves from ships or barges passing in the opposite direction were undetectable. Entering and exiting locks on our route was equally smooth with no bumping or lurching. I saw people with their seasickness wrist bands on and heard of those taking Dramamine, but it was not necessary. Riding a bus or a car is much more motion sickness inducing.
How many days were you onboard?
Our cruise lasted seven days. We boarded in Budapest on a Saturday afternoon, and ended in Nuremberg (in Bavaria) the following Saturday morning. We departed San Francisco and flew into Budapest via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines on the Friday before and flew home from Frankfurt on the Sunday after, so the entire trip lasted 10 days.
Ten days is quite a long time for a vacation these days, and I wish Viking offered shorter four or five day options (an easier option for the employed) but regrettably they do not. However other cruise lines do have shorter options. (Other lines cruising the Danube include Ama Waterways, Crystal, Scenic, Avalon, and Uniworld)
How big is the boat? How many people onboard? Pax and crew
Now I know why Viking calls these boats “long ships” they are really REALLY long. Our ship, the Viking Gullveig clocks in at 443 feet– 100 feet longer than a football field! (See lead photo at top.) The ship has 95 staterooms on three levels and holds 190 passengers. (Our Dec 1 sailing was sold out.)
There are about 50 crew members on board. In addition to staterooms, the ship has a large lounge and a separate large dining room— both of which can accommodate all guests at one time. There’s a glassed in deck area at the front and the a big deck and walking track on the roof– but due to the cold weather on this voyage, it was usually quite empty.
No smoking is allowed indoors on the ship, however, smokers gathered on a covered outdoor deck on the second level, and also crew members smoked in a specially designated area on the roof.
What was your cabin like?
There are three levels of staterooms on board. The least expensive rooms on level one have rectangular port hole windows that are just above water level. On the second level, all rooms have balconies or verandas. On the third floor are the larger suites along with some balcony and veranda rooms.
Our stateroom was on the third floor and had a veranda with a wooden floor, a table and two chairs– which we barely used due to the frigid temperatures outside. If I had a choice, I would have booked a balcony room which provides more interior space with a sliding glass door that opens to a balcony from which you can lean out, but cannot walk out on. (However, I’d keep the veranda if I were on a summer cruise.)
The staterooms are compact, but are wonders of engineering and ingenuity with a nook, cranny or cubbie for everything. Empty suitcases go under the bed. There’s a small refrigerator (but we just stored our German schnapps on the freezing cold veranda). Six drawers and a small closet easily accommodated our clothing.
The bathroom is tight but bright and efficient with plenty of shelf space, a relatively roomy shower with glass doors, and a nice touch: heated floors! The Scandinavian design is neutral wood, wool and leather and the room was super clean… seriously, I think our attendant Jenny wiped the whole thing down each day. Not a speck of dust or a stain in sight with room service closely monitored by an Austrian hotel manager.
How was the food? Did you eat onboard or onshore more?
The best part about a European cruise is that you are on and off the boat a lot– sure you can eat on board, but part of the experience is to tuck into the local fare. We did that in Vienna with a lunch of tafelspitz (boiled beef), wienerschitzel and gruner veltlinger (wine) at the famous Plachutta restaurant in Vienna. We also loaded up on the local sausages and gluhwein (spiced wine) and beer at Christmas markets. And we sat down with a table of festive locals at Bratwursthausle in Nuremberg for beer, pretzels, pig knuckles and sauerkraut.
Onboard, we ate a hearty breakfast each day from a buffet that included an omelet station, an endless variety of bread, pastries, cheeses and sliced meat, muesli, fresh fruit, smoked salmon and more. It was quite a spread and hard to resist each morning. Lunches were mostly spent dining on shore. For dinner on board, there are two options. You can have the full-on four or five course meal in the main dining room seated with new friends (or strangers). Or you can opt for a lighter buffet meal in the lounge area which is more quiet and less intimidating than the big production in the dining room.
Did you gain weight?
I was really worried about this since we took the cruise in early December and were headed into the heavy-eating holidays. However, we walked a lot— using my Fitbit, we averaged around 15,000 steps per day. In Vienna we walked the most, and even took a ride on the subway– something I try to do in every city I visit. So even though the calorie count was high, we walked it off nearly every day. When I arrived home and jumped on the scale, I’d lost three pounds despite all the bread, pastries, booze, chocolate and meats for which the region is famous.
How were the Christmas markets?
They were the highlight of the trip! Since it is so cold and gray in this part of the world at this time of year, locals go all out to brighten up the scene. It’s really gorgeous, friendly and can handily put any grinch into the spirit of the holiday season. Every town and city has its own market, with most only allowing goods made locally to be sold. Here’s a look at the spectacular market at Vienna’s city hall:
Is there wi-fi onboard? TV? Onboard entertainment?
Yes, there is free wi-fi onboard, but you get what you pay for. The signal was weak, spotty and frustrating. I know we are on a boat in a river, but I know that better, faster technology exists (as it does on planes and buses). I would have happily paid for a faster connection, but that was not an option. The frustrating wi-fi situation was the only grumble I heard from fellow passengers and something Viking should fix, especially since it encourages social media participation via the #myvikingstory hashtag on Instagram and Twitter (Check out the pics!).
There’s a nice big flat screen TV in every room, and the channel selection included a helpful moving map of our location. If you’ve watched Downton Abbey on PBS, you’ve undoubtedly seen the Viking River Cruise ads before each episode. That partnership extends to TV where you can watch the entire series if you have the time. Plenty of other good news, TV and movie content, too. But we had little time for that.
Another departure from big cruise lines: there is no casino or gambling onboard. Entertainment included a piano player during the evenings, and a polka band on German night.
How many stops did you make?
We made six stops on our journey upstream, and passed through 25 locks. The cruise started in Budapest, Hungary. Overnight we sailed past Bratislava, Slovakia and then stopped in Vienna. From there we sailed overnight to Krems, Austria for half a day, then sailed through the gorgeous and historic Wachau Valley and woke up in Passau, Germany.
After that it was Regensburg, and finally we got off the Danube and sailed up the Main Canal to Nuremberg, which is located in Bavaria, about midway between Munich and Frankfurt. In Nuremberg, the boat turns around and makes the same stops downstream.
Was it awkward for a world traveler like yourself to take a tour with a group leader holding up a paddle?
I have to admit I was nervous about this. When traveling on my own, I’ve given arrogant glances at tour groups and dismissed them as only for amateurs…but always stuck around for a few seconds to hear what the guide had to say before feeling guilty for freeloading. Viking uses a network of well-vetted, knowledgeable guides in each of the cities its ships stops in.
The normal routine is that in the morning after breakfast, most passengers get off the boat and split into small groups of 10 or so led by different guides. To prevent making a loud scene, the guide wears a small headset microphone, and passengers wear small ear pieces during the 1-2 hour walking tour. And while I cringed a bit as we embarked on our first tour, I quickly became a convert– these local guides provided invaluable historical info, a good “lay of the land” and insider tips. They are very open to questions and generous with advice. Once the tour is over and you are armed with the basics, you have the rest of the day to explore each city on your own. It’s a great way to go. I’ll never look at tour groups dismissively again.
What about tipping? Did you feel nickel and dimed to death?
Not at all. Unlike the big ship cruises on the Caribbean or elsewhere, Viking cruises are still pretty much all inclusive. For example, those basic introductory tours are part of the package. All food, specialty coffees, and house beer and wine is included.
You also have the option of buying a special “silver spirits beverage package” for $150 that includes access to premium wines and a full bar. You can also buy more robust tours if you’d like– for example, there were side trips to Munich beer halls, WW2 history tours of Nuremberg, symphony outings in Vienna and even a bike tour of the Wachau Valley– which was regrettably canceled due to a cold rain.
There’s no tipping onboard during the cruise. However, you are expected to give your tour guides a few euros for a job well done. At the end of the cruise, Viking recommends tipping around 14 euros (about $17) per day per passenger, which is added to your final bill, which came out to around $120 per person. We also left $10-$20 with our housekeeper and bartending staff who frequently went above and beyond to keep us happy.
Who did you travel with?
I traveled with my partner Barkley who was very patient with all my picture- and note-taking! Onboard, there were several groups of friends or families traveling together (with multiple staterooms or larger suites), and a few singles.
What did it look like out your window?
On the two days it snowed, it looked like a post card of a winter wonderland. The Danube is an ancient and industrial waterway, too, so you also see factories, bridges, and barges along with birds, trees, castles and rolling hills. What’s best about these cruises is that the boat docks right in the heart of most towns and cities.
What’s it like to go through a lock?
I was amazed to learn that we’d go through a total of 25 locks on our way upstream (and up hill) from Hungary into Germany’s Black Forest in Bavaria. Here’s a photo of the Gullveig inside a lock in Melk, Austria.
In the photo above, I’m looking back as we entered this lock- those big doors close, the water begins to rise, gates open and the we cruise out the other end 50 or 100 feet higher. The whole process takes only about 15-20 minutes and is barely detectable, even at night.
How is winter in Europe? Too cold?
During December it’s pretty cold and gray in this part of the world. Every day, the high was about 34 degrees and the low was about 24 degrees. It snowed twice, which added to the festive holiday spirit. To fight back against the cold required multiple layers, hats, scarves and gloves that rarely came off. Onboard, everything was warm and toasty which felt nice at the end of a long day outdoors.
What was the dress code?
This is another key point of differentiation for Viking River Cruises– the dress is casual. There are no “formal nights” as you find on big ocean-going cruises. Men and women wore nice jeans or slacks, sweaters or jackets, comfortable/casual shoes and for outings they bundled up in puffer jackets, hats, scarves and gloves. Check out the sharp hat I bought at the famous Hut Konig store in Regensburg, Germany– I blew my shopping budget on it, but as a hat freak with a big head that few hats fit, I’m in love.
Are you allowed to go “behind the scenes on the ship?”
On the last night, guests were invited down into the galley for a look-see. I’m always amazed at what a chef and crew can turn out in such small spaces, in this case feeding nearly 250 people at a time.
Crew bunk rooms are nearby, but off limits to passengers, although I was told that they are of similar size to guest rooms, with two crew members per room.
Would you go on another river cruise?
In some ways I feel like this is a once-in-a-lifetime type of trip… but then I start dreaming about how cool it would be to travel by riverboat with my family through the Netherlands during tulip blooming season. Hmmm. Sounds nice!
Have you ever taken a river cruise, or do you dream about it? Please leave your comments below. Also, if you have any questions I did not answer, fire away!
Disclosure: I was a guest of Viking River Cruises, which covered the cost of the cruise only. I arranged and paid for all other aspects of this trip.