I first heard about Viking River Cruisesfrom my friend, Elaine, who highly recommended Viking, has traveled the world extensively, and been on countless ocean and river cruises. I’ve never been interested in an ocean cruise but a river cruise sounded slightly interesting to me. When I learned you could take a river cruise and visit Christmas markets all along the way, I wanted to learn more. I started out by visiting Viking’s website and learning about the many cruises they offer. Their website is extensive and offers a wealth of information. Eventually, I became a bit overwhelmed with all of the information and decided to call them directly to learn everything I could. My call was taken by a representative at Viking by the name of Caesar, who was reallyhelpful. I wasn’t set on any specific Christmas market cruise, and had an open mind about anything that would be available on the dates I was looking at. It turned out that the only cruise available that matched my dates was the “Romantic Danube“, which takes you through Hungary, Austria, and Germany. Viking’s policy (at least when I booked) is that they will hold a reservation for you for 72 hours while you decide if you’re going to commit. After 72 hours, you have to make a deposit on the reservation in order to hold it, and at that time, it’s a binding commitment. I really liked that once you work with someone at Viking, (in my case, Caesar), that will be the person you work with for your entire planning process, and right up to departure. Caesar was great about telling me his days off so that I could make sure to plan to call when he was working, but I was also welcome to call and talk to anyone else if he wasn’t available when I called.

I really liked the sound of the river cruise after learning more about it and was pleasantly surprised at the airfare. You have the choice of booking your own flights, or you can have Viking do it for you, which I highly recommend. There are a number of reasons I decided to have Viking book my flights.

  • First of all, the round trip airfare from Spokane to Budapest and then from Nuremberg to Spokane was $335. You read that right. $335 dollars.
  • And, if Viking books your flights, they arrange for your transfers from the airport where they will meet you once you land, take care of your luggage, and transport you to your boat. And the same on your return, which was really nice because the ticket counters and security area would have been a little bit hard to find on our own, but Viking personally walked us to the ticket counter and then to security. It was so nice to not have the burden of worrying about those details.
  • Our tickets were basic economy fare. When we received our flight details from Viking, we were able to call the airline directly and use miles to upgrade to business class, which was really great. (This was done completely on our own and not through Viking, and could be tricky depending on what fare type Viking has booked you in, the airline, and the rules of the airline's mileage plan.)

BOOKING YOUR TRIP:Anyway, after taking the 72 hour hold time to work out dates and figure out the logistics, I committed to the trip and paid. (You can pay half when you commit and then half by a certain deadline Viking sets, if that works better for you). After that, I just waited to get the specific details on flights and more detailed information on the trip that are scheduled to arrive approximately 3 weeks prior to your departure). I think our flight information came something like six weeks prior but I can't remember exactly. A lot of detailed information on your itinerary can also be found on their website right after you've booked and you can take this time to learn all about included and optional excursions available on your trip and arrange for any of the excursions you choose through the website as well.

EXCURSIONS:There are excursions available for you at every stop along the way on the river cruise. Some of them are by bus, and some of them are by foot. And there are excursions that are available free of charge and others that are an extra fee.

  • MaryJane (my mother-in-law and travel companion for this trip) and I decided on booking two additional excursions (in addition to those provided). They were Schonbrunn Castle and the Bavarian Beerfest. (I wrote about our visit to the farm and beerfest here). I absolutely loved the farm and beerfest and highly recommend it! Schonbrunn Castle was pretty and interesting but I wasn't blown away by it.
  • There were two locations that had bus tours on our itinerary: Budapest, Hungary and Nuremberg, Germany. I will start by saying I would never choose to go on a bus tour, I don't find them enjoyable. If I'm visiting a city, I want to actually be in the city, not viewing it from a bus. Because the President of China was visiting Budapest while we were there, I think that's why we had to take the bus tour, and we had originally been scheduled to be in areas that he was now going to be in so we had to change. Sadly, the bus tour was not enjoyable and not a great start to the trip. We opted out of the bus tour in Nuremberg because we wanted to avoid the bus tour but mostly, because we wanted to visit the Christmas markets instead.
  • Some tours require taking a bus to the location and then you walk around. That was the case with a few of the places we visited.
  • Viking offered revised or "gentle" tours for folks with limited mobility at every location we visited. 

On the first day of your trip when your flight arrives, if you've had Viking plan your air travel, they will pick you up and take you to your boat. Official check-in time isn't until 3pm but you are welcome to relax in the lounge until your room is available or you can drop off your bags and go explore the city while you wait. Luckily for us, we arrived to the boat at 10am and our room was ready for us. We were able to check in, get our bags unpacked, and enjoy lunch on the terrace at about 11am.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Each boat (ours was the Viking Egil) holds about 190 passengers. The boat has three levels with rooms: The lower level, middle level, and upper level. Our room was on the lower level and comes configured with a Queen-size bed, but you can request to have two twins instead when you book your trip. We chose the twin beds and they were great. The room was a nice size, we both had a nightstand, outlets on our headboards, a credenza with a small vanity and bench, a closet with a safe, and bathroom with a toilet and shower. The bathroom had heated floors, the shower always had hot water with high pressure, a nice large mirror and lots of shelving for our bathroom items. You can't plug a blowdryer or curling iron into the bathroom outlet because the voltage is too high but you can plug either of those into the vanity and sit at the little bench (or stand) to do your hair. The room has U.S. outlets so you don't need an adapter. The room was really nice and quiet. We never heard people going by or anyone in the rooms on either side of us and we were at the front of the hall, so there was plenty of traffic that went by our room. The housekeeping was top notch and our housekeeper, Galina, was really attentive and kept our room so nice and clean, perking things up a few times a day. (You have the same housekeeper for your entire trip). The only time we heard a bit of noise was when we were going through the locks on our way up the river. There was also a tiny bit of a bumping feeling at times when we were going through the locks or when docking. Our lower level room had small windows up high that provided light into the room but weren't something that we could see out of very well because they are placed up high. The middle level rooms have large windows you can see out of and the upper level rooms have small decks. You can find many pictures of the different rooms on Viking's website.

 

FOOD:There are three meals provided for you each day, as well as some treats, coffee, tea, and sparkling water that are available 24 hours a day at two different stations on the upper level, just outside of the lounge. (Meals are included in the cost of your river cruise. There are no hidden charges and no tipping your servers during the trip, but you are expected to tip all of the crew at the end of your trip. I think the recommended tip per passenger is around $125 dollars. You can find information about tipping on Viking's website.) Seating in the dining room, lounge, bar, and the terrace is open. You can choose to sit with others or by yourself and can move around to any areas you want. There is no reserved seating and no VIP areas. Everyone is treated the same. If you do choose to sit in the same general area each day, your server will get to know you and will be good about trying to be extra helpful or make recommendations he/she thinks you'll like. In our case, we ended up sitting in Belle's area most of the time and she was lovely and remembered our names from the first day. For breakfast, you can choose from continental breakfast fixings in the terrace ( a small portion shown below):

or cooked to order selections as well as continental offerings in the dining room. Each morning in the dining room, there is a omelette bar with made-to-order omelettes and you can order items such as pancakes or french toast from the menu. I consider myself a really healthy eater and had to work a bit to make my meals work for me. I would opt for items such as egg whites with veggies, fresh vegetables, smoked salmon, and fresh fruit. One of the biggest things was simply asking the chef to use very little oil in his non-stick pan while cooking my eggs, rather than the small ladleful of oil he was accustomed to using. If you want to go all out, there are many pastries, bagels, toast, sausage, bacon, potatoes, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, oatmeal, yogurt, cold cuts, cheese, etc.

For lunch, you also have the choice of eating in the lounge or terrace with a fixed selection of self-serve items such as pre-made sandwiches, french fries, fruit, a soup selection or two, salads, and a sweet or two. In the dining room, there are a few items you can order from a server at your table. We always chose to eat lunch in the terrace area because it was really quiet and we liked the lunch selections there.

Dinner is served in the dining room only and you have several daily choices representative of the area you're currently visiting as well as choices of fixed items that are always available such as salmon, caesar salad, etc. You are offered an appetizer, main dish, and dessert at each dinner. Again, trying to stay on the healthy side, sometimes I opted to have sauces left off of my main dish and would ask for veggies instead of mashed potatoes, etc. I also learned to ask to have my veggies steamed rather than fried because they'd come soaked in oil or butter if I didn't specify.

There were two evenings where a tea service and dessert buffet was offered and that was a really nice touch. It was fun to try regional desserts and some of the treats were really delicious. My favorite was German Star Cookies that I believe are usually flavored with cinnamon but these were flavored with many more spices and were delicious! 

The meals were fine, but I was never overwhelmed by them.

Beverages:Most beverages are included in the cost of your river cruise. Drinks such as iced tea, sparkling water, sodas, and a selection of wine. If you enjoy liquor, cocktails or really fancy wine, you can either buy those drinks separately, charging them to your room and paying for them at the end of your trip, or you can purchase a drink package for a set dollar amount before the cruise begins and then you can drink as much as you want. You can find all the details on this on the Viking website). MaryJane and I had an occasional glass of wine with dinner and the selections were always lovely. Because neither of us consume much alcohol, we never looked into the extra beverage plan. I really liked paying for the trip and not having to think about the food or drinks or cost, etc. It makes for a very relaxing time.

The Boat:The boat is three levels and also has an upper deck that you are welcome to use, most of the time. (There are times when you're traveling in a canal and the clearance is lower so they have to close the deck). The top level houses the largest rooms as well as some common lounge areas:

The library is also located on the upper floor and has the best wifi on the boat. The books are all available to borrow throughout your trip. There are two desks with computers as well. There are also two restrooms located right next to the library and desks, just at the entrance to the upper floor rooms. The restrooms are really large and a nice way to have privacy if you want some extra time to use the facilities outside of your room.

The beverage and treat stations I described earlier are on the upper floor as well.There is one on either side of the boat, flanking the entryway into the lounge:

One of the entrances to the lounge on the upper floor. There is one at the entryway into the lounge on both sides of the boat:

The bar in the lounge, with seating all the way around. Anyone is welcome here and you can request any drink of your choice like iced tea, sodas, sparkling water, wine, or cocktails: 

There were a lot of Christmas bits around the boat, which added a homey, welcoming feel, like these gingerbread houses in the lounge, made by the chef:

One of the seating areas in the Aquavit Terrace, which sits just beyond the lounge (shown below). There are a handful of dining tables in this area as well, and this was our favorite spot to have lunch each day. No matter where you're sitting - whether it's the lounge, the dining room, or the Aquavit Terrace - you have a beautiful view of the scenery as you're cruising the river. It is very picturesque and lovely. Viking does not oversell this in their advertising. The beautiful pictures you see on their website and in their advertising is completely accurate. I was honestly stunned at how lovely the scenery was. There front of the boat is just beyond the glass doors and you can go out there to enjoy the scenery as well:

The middle level is where the dining room is located, more rooms, and the front desk and concierge. The lower level houses more rooms and is where our room was located. (You can read about our room in the description at the beginning of this post).

The Christmas Markets on the River Cruise: The Christmas markets seemed to be an added item of interest on an itinerary that Viking runs the rest of the year. I didn't find it to be a focus of the river cruise and that was disappointing to me. MaryJane and I had done a bit of research ahead of time on the markets in the cities we'd be visiting so we had some information, but we expected Viking to offer a wealth of information for us on the markets, which they did not. At each stop I would ask for information on the markets and was told we'd be able to see them on the tour planned for the day, either before or after. What I would like to see, and what I've recommended to Viking is for them to provide a thorough list of the Christmas markets in each city we'd be docking in, and options on how to get to each one or even provide someone to walk you there. I was able to locate markets by throughly quizzing the tour guides in each city, taking taxis, and exploring on my own. For example, when we docked in Krems, Austria, there was no plan for Christmas markets or shopping, but there was a planned tour to the local monastery. I had asked at the front desk if there was much to see in Krems and was told there wasn't. But it looked so cute from the boat, so I opted to skip the monastery tour and walk into Krems from the boat, on my own, and explore the city. It was such a beautiful city, decked out in Christmas and full of so much cheer, darling shops and cafes, and I was so glad I stumbled upon it!

Getting Around:In each city, I made a plan for how I'd get around if I was going to be heading out on my own. Viking provides you with a little card at each port that shows the address and slip number of the boat where it's currently docked, as well as the phone number for the boat. Many times, the boat is docked right in the heart of the city and you can easily walk right in. Other times, you need to take a taxi if you're going to head out on your own. I always had a plan of how I would get back, whether it was by foot, or a plan to take a taxi. I would triple check the time I'd need to be back before the boat was leaving as well. Because of the language barrier with taxi drivers in most cities, I would hand them the card from Viking with the address and make sure the understood where I needed to go before we started driving. I never considered taking buses or trains because I didn't want to waste time trying to figure out the routes or risk getting lost.

Final Thoughts:Overall, my experience with the cruise was really good. I enjoyed how easy everything was (with the exception of the Christmas markets), unpacking only once, not having to think about how to get from one city to the next, meals, etc. And the service was great. The boat was lovely and comfortable and really well done. MaryJane and I both commented on how the decor felt perfect and everything was really spacious. I hope Viking will consider my recommendations on improving their attention to the Christmas markets portion of the cruise and then I would be able to say it was perfect.

. . . . . .

I received so much interest about the cruise and have tried to answer everyone’s questions about Viking and my experience. If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to comment and I’ll try to answer them for you. Tomorrow I’ll do one last post in this series, sharing my recommendations on what to pack for this trip, or for visiting the Christmas markets in general. Here’s a hint: dress warm!!

Leading up to this post, I've shared a series of posts covering my visit to Europe and the Christmas markets in cities along the Danube River, all via the Viking River Cruise I posted about here today. You can find all of the posts about my stops along the way by looking back through my recent posts. The first post can be found here, the second post here, the third post here, the fourth post here, the fifth post here, the sixth post here,the seventh post here , the eighth post here, and the ninth post here.

Tomorrow I'll be sharing my recommendations on what to pack for visiting the markets in winter.

MEET SERENA!

Stay-at-home mom, Serena Thompson, dreamed of creating a fun and happy little event to sell her vintage and handmade goods. In 2002, she and some friends held the first event in her neighbor’s barn. The sale became wildly popular and began attracting visitors from across the country and recognition in national magazines. Today the event fills the Spokane County Fairgrounds and features hundreds of creatively and carefully curated spaces filled with vintage and handmade goods. Many describe it as a bucket list event, magical, inspirational, and the best vintage & handmade fair in the country. Serena describes it as the happiest on earth.

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