For our 15th wedding anniversary, my wife and I enjoyed a vacation in Europe that included a two-week river cruise. Many people have asked me what a river cruise is like. So, today's blog post shares our experience and offers some travel advice.
We are experienced cruisers with 19 ocean cruises to various regions: Alaska, Caribbean, and the eastern Mediterranean. Those sailings included ships by several cruise lines: Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Celebrity, Holland America, Costa, and MSC. What's a river cruise like? Read on below.
We began researching our trip about 18 months before the departure date. This approach allowed us to browse and compare cruise lines, ships, itineraries, and prices. Early planning provided time to discuss travel plans with friends interested in traveling with us. We settled on the Grand European Tour itinerary by Viking River Cruises. The itinerary, sailing between Amsterdam and Budapest, included 15 days, 3 rivers (e.g., the Rhine, Main, and Danube), 5 countries, 16 towns, and 60+ locks. We'd visited Europe before and this itinerary included an interesting mix of destinations we had and hadn't visited.
You can sail the Grand European Tour itinerary in either direction. After reading the Viking River Cruises site and the River Cruises section of the Cruise Critic site, we settled upon the eastbound sailing from Amsterdam to Budapest. Prices for river cruises seemed significantly higher than ocean cruises, so we looked for discounts. We have used the Cruise Critic site before, and I highly recommend it; especially the passenger-written cruise reviews in the Community Forum section.
Viking offers three types of cabins: standard with small porthole windows, ocean views with floor-to-ceiling windows, and balconies. To save money, we selected the lowest priced cabin. From past cruising experience, we spent little time in the cabin.
Based upon our research, we noticed that prices are higher for river cruising compared to ocean cruises. A direct comparison is a little unfair since Viking's prices include shore excursions and free, unlimited beer/wine at lunches and dinners, while base prices for most ocean cruises exclude shore excursions and beer/wine/liquor packages. We were able to save money (~50 percent) by using Viking's "2-For-1" discount plan. To get the discount meant sending money early. I realize that not everyone is comfortable paying for a cruise a year in advance, but the savings appealed to us.
Pre- Or Post-Cruise Activities
We always plan to arrive in the cruise departure city one or two days before the ship sails. That ensures stress-free travel, especially if there are flight delays due to weather. For this trip, we wanted additional time to visit Hamburg and Cologne. So, we budgeted three days in Hamburg to explore the city and to visit the Miniatur Wunderland model train exhibit; three days in Cologne to sight-see, visit the Chocolate Museum, and sample several local beers recommended by family living in a Cologne suburb.
We also budgeted three days to explore Amsterdam. I used the RickSteves site to research things to do in each city. We weren't interested in any post-cruise stays in Budapest. After adding in travel time between the airports, hotels, and cities, our total vacation schedule included 25 days.
A friend traveling with us recommended a travel agent. We used that travel agent to book our trip on the Viking Alsvin cruise ship. In addition to Viking's 2-For-1 discount, that agent secured an additional discount for us. To protect our investment, we also purchased travel insurance with Travel Guard. We've used Travel Guard before and have been satisfied with their services.
Similar to ocean cruise lines, river cruise lines offer travel options that combine air and cruise travel, plus (bus) transfers between the airports and cruise terminals. Given our 25-day schedule, the travel agent wanted to charge a deviation fee from the cruise line's normal air-cruise transfers package transfers. The fee was hefty, so we decided to book air, hotel, and transfers on our own. We didn't want to do that work, but we disliked the fee more.
We prefer non-stop flights and booked non-stop flights on Lufthansa between Boston and Munich. Non-stop flights make travel easier and minimize stress from flight delays and changing planes. With air booked, we focused upon travel from Munich to Hamburg, Hamburg to Cologne, Cologne to Amsterdam, and Budapest to Munich. We initially considered train travel because I love trains, and train travel in Europe is efficient. Given the distances, that plan evolved into a mix of air and train travel: Air Berlin from Munich to Hamburg, trains between Hamburg, Cologne, and Amsterdam, and Air Berlin from Budapest to Munich.
Schedule Change From Viking
We left for our vacation as planned. While in Cologne, we tracked the Viking Alsvin's GPS position using the MarineTraffic site. Something seemed odd since the ship was sailing the Danube river instead of the Rhine river. Then, I received an e-mail message from the Customer Relations department at Viking River Cruises:
"Thank you for choosing Viking Cruises for your upcoming European cruise. Due to a scheduling change you will be welcomed aboard Viking Bragi. Like Viking Alsvin, Viking Bragi is a new, state-of-the-art Longship, featuring all the same comforts and style as the rest of the Viking Longship fleet. She also has a warm and welcoming staff who will be delighted to have you as our guest. Your stateroom category and room number will remain the same."
The Bragi was built in 2013; the Alsvin in 2014. So, both are new ships. Both feature the same deck plans with four decks. Each carries about 190 passengers and 50 crew members. The notice didn't explain what prompted the "scheduling change," and an e-mail to the cruise line asking for more details went unanswered. We'd hear more about that later during the cruise.
Our Viking Cruise
We happily boarded the Bragi in Amsterdam and began our cruise. We found the crew hard working, attentive, and very professional. The ship and our cabin were clean and comfortable. The digital television system in our cabin offered a wide variety of programming, including European cable channels, music, and information about the cruise. WiFi was accessible in many areas of the ship, and the connection speed was acceptable. Since WiFi is dependent upon a satellite connection and a cruise ship is a moving vessel, broadband speeds may be slower than you are accustomed to at home. The on-board dining room featured five-star dining at every meal. The food and service were superb. The portion sizes were excellent.
During the first night we experienced plumbing problems in our cabin. Water from the bathroom sink backed up into the shower. After a late-night call to the front desk, a maintenance crew arrived and fixed the blockage. Unfortunately, the plumbing problem occurred again the next morning. After another call to the front desk, the maintenance crew returned and fixed the blockage. We did not experience any more plumbing issues, but the experience left us a little jittery since this was a new ship.
Day two included an awesome shore excursion in Kinderdijk, Holland to a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring 19 working windmills built during the mid-1800s. The tour guide explained how windmills operate, and the tour included the opportunity to explore the interior of a windmill.
Three key advantages of river cruising quickly became apparent:
- The focus is upon shore excursions. Everyday there is a new port to explore. You can use the shore excursions included with the cruise price, or pay a little more for optional, special excursions. Local guides led all of the shore excursions. In most ports, there was time after a shore excursion to explore on your own. We did this whenever possible.
- The ship's public spaces (e.g., dining room, lounge, cafe, sun deck) encourage you to meet other passengers. There is no assigned seating in the restaurant, and one seating. We met many other passengers.
- The ship's public areas allow passengers to easily watch (and photograph) the spectacular landscapes, castles, and towns you sail by. You pass something interesting every day.
The original schedule for day three included 10 hours docked in Cologne. We had planned to use that time for the included shore excursion, to explore on our own, and to meet family and friends. That plan quickly changed when the ship's Program Director informed all passengers that dock time in Cologne would be reduced by three hours. The Bragi needed more sailing time.
This was a disappointment. We completed the shore excursion, but had no time to meet family and friends at the pier. The optional shore excursion, a pub crawl around Cologne, was cancelled.
The Bragi's slow sailing speed caused other changes. The original schedule for day four included a stop at Koblenz for a shore excursion to the Marksburg Castle via bus, and then rejoin the ship further upriver in Braubach. Instead, the ship skipped Koblenz and docked at Braubach for us to depart on our shore excursion. During our shore excursion, the Bragi sailed further upriver where we rejoined it at St. Goarshausen. So, we missed seeing Koblenz, and spent more time traveling in buses to stay on schedule.
We quickly learned that things can change during a river cruise. Viking has buses pre-positioned in port destinations to carry passengers for bus-based shore excursions. If a ship encounters delays, Viking will use those same buses to move passengers to stay on schedule.
The day five stop included a wonderful walking tour around Miltenberg. We ate and drank beer in the hotel Zum Riesen, which many claim is Germany's oldest inn. The beer tasted great. The day six stop in Wurzburg featured an awesome shore excursion to the baroque Bishops' Residenz, a huge and very ornate palace, which is another UNESCO World Heritage site. If you have never visited this palace, I strongly encourage you to do so. You probably have seen nothing like it.
After leaving Wurzburg, the passengers were informed that we would be switching ships in Nuremberg to "get back on schedule." All passengers sailing on the Bragi from Amsterdam to Budapest would switch to the Alsvin, and similarly all passengers sailing on the Alsvin from Budapest to Amsterdam would switch to the Bragi.
The day seven schedule included a stop in Bamberg. I decided to skip the shore excursion and stay on board. Things became controversial that evening when one passenger got lost and missed the bus to return to the ship. Staff looked for this poor soul who, rather than staying in one spot, kept looking for the bus. They eventually found this person, but the damage had been done. The ship missed its scheduled time to transit the locks and we were forced to dock overnight at Bamberg, next to the smelly town dump.
This delay had a ripple effect: we spent more time the next day in buses to stay on schedule, and to complete shore excursions in Nuremberg. The stop in Nuremberg didn't include free time to explore on our own. Disappointing.
For the day seven shore excursion in Nuremberg, I took the optional World War II Documentation shore excursion. After a bus tour around downtown Nuremberg, we stopped to enter an administrative building used after World War II for the trials. That included a tour of Court Room 600.
After re-boarding the bus, the tour continued with a visit to areas used by the NSDAP/Nazi party circa 1929 – 1941. The areas included the Zeppelin Field (Adobe PDF), a parade ground for rallies, the incomplete Congress stadium (modeled after the Coliseum in Rome), and the Documentation Center (DC). The DC presented a wealth of details about how Adolph Hitler rose to power, democratic freedoms were removed in Germany pre-1933, and the many programs to remove and eliminate minorities – much based on pseudo-science. I was struck by the efficient propaganda machine, manipulation of citizens, removal of democratic freedoms, sneaky efforts to circumvent the post-WWI treaty of Versailles, and efforts to hide militarization prohibited by that treaty. It was a stark reminder about how citizens must carefully watch how any political party says one thing and does another. That shore excursion felt rushed. I could have spent two days in the DC, not two hours.
The day ten stop was at Passau, Germany a beautiful town where three rivers converge. We took the included shore excursion: a guided walking tour and a wonderful organ concert in the 17th centur Saint Stephen's Cathedral.
The day 12 stop in Vienna included a bus tour of the city and a complimentary Mozart and Strauss concert by the Wiener Residenz Orchestra. This was fabulous. The concert was in a private room that held about 350 guests. The 13-person orchestra included two dancers. This concert originally cost 64 Euros per person, but the cruise line provided it for free to compensate passengers for the inconveniences we had experienced.
We arrived in Budapest at night-time, which is probably the best time to arrive. You see the city buildings and bridges lit up. It is a unique, wonderful sight; another advantage of an eastbound sailing itinerary.
When leaving the ship, Viking ordered our car service since we had an early-morning flight departure. This level of service is noteworthy, as it is something we never experienced on ocean cruises. It was a pleasant 45-minute ride from the cruise ship to the airport. I paid the driver with a mix of Hungarian Forints and Euros.
For passengers interested in exercise and relaxation alternatives, the Sun Deck on the Viking Bragi is the place. It features a walking track (not running/jogging), lounge chairs for sun-bathing, tables and chairs for eating, a three-hole putting green, an over-sized chess set, and a shuffle board. Viking ships are designed so that railings, the pilot's house, and other items on the Sun Deck can be lowered to enable the ship to navigate under low bridges. Sometimes, the clearance is only a few feet. Our Viking cruise documents stated:
"Weather permitting, the ship's sun deck is the most popular area when the ship is sailing. During passage through locks or under bridges, it may be necessary to close the sun deck for passenger use. We invite you to use the other outdoor areas during these times."
May be necessary? During our cruise, the Sun Deck was closed for five straight days, about one-third of the total cruise, due to low bridges. I wish that the cruise documents had been more forthcoming about the closure. I practice T'ai Chi and the Sun Deck is the only place on board the ship with sufficient room. Several passengers joined me, and tai chi became a very social activity. The shuffle board and chess set seemed to have gone unused the entire cruise. We noticed that other cruise lines' ships had hot tubs.
The Viking cruise documents say that passengers wanting exercise options can use the on-board concierge to make appointments with land-based gyms and fitness clubs. One person in our travel group asked the concierge for assistance renting bicycles. The concierge needed time to research bicycle rental options. Perhaps, the cruise line should store bicycles on board. My impression: using land-based fitness clubs doesn't appeal since time the ship is docked in ports is already limited. Time spent at a land-based gyms could easily replace time for shore excursions.
Every evening before dinner, the on-board Program Director explained to passengers during a Briefing in the Lounge what would happen the next day. This was a useful and appreciated method to keep passengers informed. During these briefings we heard about schedule changes affecting shore excursions. The Program Director on the Bragi worked very hard to explain things, and I got the impression that Viking's corporate headquarters made decisions the crew just had to react to.
The day before arriving in Bamberg, the Program Director explained what would happen during a ship switch. Basically, passengers packed up their luggage and settled their accounts on one ship by paying their on-board bills. Cash and credit cards were the options. The crew transported passengers' luggage to the new ship. During our shore excursion in Nuremberg, the buses took us to our destinations, and then transported us to the new ship.
Switching ships is a hassle in that you spend time packing and unpacking luggage; which defeats the purpose of booking a two-week cruise so you pack and unpack only once. Viking recognized this hassle and compensated passengers with free drinks and a complimentary concert during the shore excursion in Vienna, Austria.
Families And Children
Viking River Cruises' target audience seemed to be people ages 50+ and retirees. There were no children on our sailing. I did not see any resources on-board for children. Most passengers were from Canada. To enjoy a European river cruise, you should be pretty mobile. There is a lot of walking and uneven cobblestone paths in many historic sites. During our cruise, I saw a few passengers with canes or walkers. I didn't see any passengers in wheelchairs.
River cruises provide many conveniences: plenty of shore excursions, knowledgeable and local tour guides, great dining on board, spectacular sights, professional service by the staff, and the opportunity to sample beers and local foods daily in every port. You unpack and pack once.
Is a river cruise for you? Only you can decide that for yourself. I've been told that most river cruise itineraries don't include switching ships as we did. Regardless, it seems that things can quickly change during a river cruise. Weather can produce high or low water levels affecting navigation. River traffic, broken locks, and lost passengers can cause delays. Delays mean more time spent in buses to stay on schedule.
To be fair, weather (e.g. hurricanes, storms) can disrupt ocean cruises, too. I found the sailing on a river cruise to be far smoother than ocean cruises. People who avoid ocean cruises because of seasickness may find river cruises appealing. During our river cruise, we frequently never knew we were moving. At night and in bed, you may hear or feel the ship's rumble. That applies to both river and ocean cruising.
If you have never cruised before, then a river cruise is a great way to experience a cruise and meet people. You can pick a shorter itinerary than the two-week sailing we selected. A river cruise is a very social experience.
If you have sailed on ocean cruises before, then you know the importance of deck plans. When researching river cruise lines and ships, pay close attention to deck plans so you know what is (and is not) available on board. The available activities may or may not fit your lifestyle. For me, I was aware and still missed the on-board casino, hot-tubs, spas, and athletic facilities commonly offered on ocean cruise ships. I would not select a river cruise during the colder months because outdoor areas, such as the sun deck, would be even more inaccessible.
Are river cruises better than ocean cruises? Only you can decide. The important considerations are your lifestyle preferences and the regions, cities, and towns you want to visit. Some people may become bored with multiple shore excursions to churches, palaces, and castles. Others never get bored. If you are considering a river cruise, hopefully this cruise review has given you an idea of what it's like.
If you have sailed on river cruises, please share your experiences below, including the cruise line, ship name, and destination.