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Confessions of a first time Cruiser (Europe river cruise)

My wife and I had never been on any cruise before when we were invited by close friends to join them on a Viking River Cruise. Our close friend’s mother had chaperoned 8 teenagers including him, my wife and I 50 years ago this month and this trip was to fulfil a promise to return that we made back in 1966.
My wife and I have traveled to Europe a couple of times in the interim. As we always do when traveling, we flew close to the ground, making all the arrangements ourselves and staying pretty much off the beaten path. We knew the river cruise would be a different from the way we choose to travel, but we determined to make the best of it.
I’m writing this because I suspect a fair number of you here at Rick Steves are more like us and have never been on a cruise. Viking River Cruises has a fantastic marketing campaign and sure make compelling advertisements that appear on PBS and magazines like Smithsonian that we’re likely to read. As an atypical river cruise customer, I’d like to share some thoughts with the curious who are wondering if a river cruise would be for them.
We sailed down the Rhine from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam, Netherlands on the Viking Eir from July 15 to July 24, including a two day extension in Amsterdam. There were 187 passengers and 50 crew members on board. We were blessed with rainless but very warm weather the entire trip. The Rhine river level was optimum and the sail went off without a hitch.
Our shipboard experience was excellent. The Viking Eir is impeccably maintained and comfortable. Our room was spotless and cleaned twice a day. The entire staff worked overtime to make the trip pleasant and enjoyable. All meals were well prepared and I like their open seating concept; we got to make many new friends.
I think they missed the mark on both their included and optional excursions. It took four buses to cart us around and there was just one guide for an entire bus of 50. The included excursions were designed to fit between either breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner on board. I often felt rushed. We were promised some free time, but this worked out to be at most and hour and usually much less. We only took one optional excursion (in place of the included one) and is was a big disappointment. We took the excursion up the Moselle River, which was primarily riding on the bus. It advertised two wine tastings. What we got was a hurried stop at a winery and two glasses of wine to taste. There was not much value in the extra 100 euro we spent.
The most memorable times of the trip occurred during our free time pursuing experiences we planned ourselves. We rode a cable car from Rudesheim to the Niederwald Monument. Most of our time in Amsterdam was free and we took a canal ride and visited museums and street markets.
We are glad we joined our close friends for this trip and we certainly had a wonderful time. Viking did a lot of things right and it there were magic moments sitting on the upper deck at dusk with the river at our feet and the skylines of German towns in the distance. It was nice to unpack just once. However, I don’t think river cruising fits our lifestyle and personalities. We love the interaction we have had with the citizens of the countries we’ve visited in the past. On those trips we seek out restaurants frequented by locals. We stay at small B&B’s, often in the homes or on the farms of empty nesters who rent out just a room or two. With a river cruise the only interaction is with your guide and the clerk at the shops where you buy souvenirs.

I did a little research and found that a similar DIY trip, including airfare, hotels and rental car would have cost way less than half of what we spent. A similar Rick Steves tour would have cost less as well.
Viking makes their river cruises look compelling. However, if you subscribe to the Rick Steves philosophy of travel, think long and hard about if this is the experience you want to have.

Posted by
2441 posts

Thank you very much for this review, which confirms my belief that a river cruise is not for me and my husband. I always feel kind of sorry for the people following one of the river cruise guides through a major attraction. It must be extremely frustrating if you have any real interest in what you're seeing. That wine "tasting" sounds pretty cheesy for 100 Euros.

Posted by
2148 posts

DougMac,
Thanks for your thoughtful report. I have received the Viking River Cruise brochures and have a number of good friends who love them. I, however, have felt it would not fit my style of traveling. I don't want to be confined to eating 3 meals onboard leaving hardly any time for sightseeing in the countries you are visiting. It sounds good on paper - unpacking only once, seeing the sunset while relaxing on the boat deck. I like the RS tours (I've been on 2 and the 3rd is coming up in October) because you have many more opportunities to spend time "on the ground" in Europe and to learn about the history and culture. Also, RS gives you ample free time in which you can design your own itinerary to satisfy your own curiosity and interests and passions. Plus, a big plus in my book, is the RS guides help guide you to become an independent traveler so that you can come back and dive more deeply into an area that you enjoy.
Thanks again,
Judy B
Atlanta

Posted by
3330 posts

I'll echo traylaparks in thanking you for this report. I've been pretty sure that our diy trips cost half or less than an organized tour, and we stay at places with some charm and eat well. It's important to us to get deep into the places we visit. An hour for most sites just won't satisfy. A friend has been singing the praises of river cruising, including the one you just took; and my instinct has been that it's not for us. You've erased any doubts.

Posted by
308 posts

Thank you so much for posting this! I've been very curious in the past about Viking river cruises because they are SO GOOD at marketing (that scene of the ship sailing through Budapest on the Danube comes to mind).

Posted by
95 posts

My DH and I (late 40's) took a Viking River Cruise a few years ago and LOVED it. In general, we do our travel arrangements ourselves, but we had never been to France and don't speak the language and thought this might be a great way to get an overview. Since then, we've been back to France twice and plan to go again next year. But the Viking guides were fabulous and the places we went we had enough time to take the tour and then do a bit on our own. It is expensive and it's not for everyone, but we will definitely go again to places like China, where we would be too timid to go on our own, but would like to visit. It was great just to have someone else handle the logistics, have great meals and have different options for touring.

Posted by
6950 posts

So many people love European river cruises, but dollar for dollar ocean cruises are a much better value.

Last August, we took an 11 day Baltic cruise that included Germany, Tallin, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm and back to Copenhagen. We flew to Oslo and took a Norway in a Nutshell tour to Bergen.
The end of April, 2016, we flew into Rome for 3 days and got on a 12 day cruise to Malta, thru the Greek Isles to Turkey and to Venice.
For what a one week river cruise cost, we spent less on both cruises--including our two flights to Europe.

Posted by
1845 posts

All,
I'm glad to hear you have found my post of some benefit. Here's a point or two of clarification.

While we didn't have much free time as part of the included excursions, most days we had the afternoon free for our own exploration. The ships usually dock within walking distance of the town, therefore it's easy to just walk off the ship and into town. At Strasbourg and Heidelberg, you could either return to the ship after the morning included excursion or stay in town and catch one of the three shuttles they provided in the afternoon. If you wanted to stay even later, you could catch a taxi back to the ship.

The Black Forest Excursion was shorter than I would have liked and since it was about an hour away there was no way to return. Viking did offer an all day Black Forest trip, but at $150 euros each we opted not to take it. That's OK, we'll return to the Black Forest when we win the lottery and travel to the BMW, Mercedes or Porsche factory to pick up our new car (I'm leaning towards the BMW 8i). ;-)

melodyesch, I understand your apprehension for going it alone in an exotic location. Be thinking of my older son. He is one week into a two week business trip to mainland China! He pretty much had to make the plans by himself and he's navigating from city to city on his own!

Posted by
5517 posts

Your post made me think of a couple we met in Amsterdam this summer. They shared they were just off of a River Cruise. They said that they often take ocean cruises and also enjoyed their river cruise experience. I was a little surprised when they shared that they were the youngest people aboard their particular river cruise and they were in their late 60's. They certainly aren't old, but it did make we wonder just who all takes river cruises if everyone else was older.

Posted by
1002 posts

We're in our late 40s and I have thought that river cruises look like a great option for when we are incapable of going it alone or even on a Rick Steves tour. I still want to be able to travel and appreciate that there are still ways to make it happen even a bit later in life. We won't all be able to continue to travel like a local forever, unfortunately. Cruising through Europe with a glass of wine and a sunset might be just what I need when I'm in my own sunset. :D
Ocean cruises with 5000+ people on board? Never.

Posted by
13697 posts

Doug, thanks so much for your thoughtful report! We get brochures from Viking all the time, and it may work for us sometime down the road if/when it becomes more difficult for us to go it alone but not at this point. I would never knock cruises as I know lots and lots of people enjoy them - and it's THEIR money and their trip, not mine - but one-day stops don't do it for us. Heck, 2-3 days in major European cities isn't nearly enough, and we'd be miserable with just one afternoon or one day on our own.

We're also not big on having to follow a group around, and having a schedule dictated to us. It's too much fun to do what we want, when we want to, for as long or not as we want to so I guess we're just lousy tour material!

(hanging head)

Posted by
4599 posts

I appreciate your posting to give us the inside view of the river cruises. My husband & I both have said we wouldn't be interested - too independent and love eating with the locals, etc. as you mentioned. Being in a bus with 50 people sounds like a horrible vacation moment, especially thinking about how much vacation time would be "waiting - waiting to load, waiting to unload, waiting during the tour, etc. - yuck! : )

We know some people who have taken those cruises and love them. I consider that it's better that they're able to enjoy Europe in that mode than not at all.

Posted by
504 posts

I have been on three Viking cruises, and I am going on the fourth at the end of August (sounds like the one you were just on). I have been on as many independent trips. There are better and worse aspects to both:

Advantages
* You have a hotel that moves around with you. Usually you dock in the center of town.
* One payment covers most of your travel, lodging, and meals.
* You can be sure of dealing with people who speak English.
* Your tours are arranged and conducted by people who know the area.
* If you aren’t sure whether you want to spend much time in a region, you can get a good sampling of different cities. If you find some you like, you can go back on your own.
* The food is good.
* Someone else deals with your airline reservations, luggage, and local transportation. You won't be lugging your bags.
* Because you travel mostly at night, your waking hours can be used for fun.
* The times when you do travel during the day are more scenic, and you’re not sitting in a seat for hours at a time.
* You sometimes have very interesting dinner conversations with people you would not have met otherwise.
* The staff is helpful and will try to take care of your special requests.
* You're always free to skip the group tours and go off on your own.

Disadvantages
* You have to conform to someone else’ schedule.
* The tours always take place in large groups.
* You often find yourself in a group surrounded by other groups.
* If you have some kind of special interest, you may not have time for it, or you will have to spend less time than you would like.

* At worst (but not often), some of the locations and entertainment are uninteresting or just plain tacky.
* Tours seldom go to museums, except perhaps art museums.
* When you’re thrown together with a lot of other people, it’s inevitable that some of them will get on your nerves.
* Usually the boat stocks only one good draft beer.
* It’s expensive. (That said, so is independent traveling.) You need to plan ahead and look for deals.
* Much of the evening entertainment is a write-off.
* While the food is good, it’s prepared by the same staff every night. You don’t get the adventure of dining in local restaurants, unless you forgo the on board meals that you’ve already paid for.

--Dav

Posted by
6879 posts

Caveat: I have a general bias against cruises mainly because I'm 44 and really like active, independent travel. Having said that, I'd do a cruise where it's the best or only option - Alaska, Galapagos Islands, Norwegian fiords, and Patagonia region in Argentina. A friend of mine went on the Viking Waterways of the Tsars cruise (Russia and Ukraine) which, truth be told, sounded fantastic. The cultural activities and knowledge imparted on that cruise sounded extraordinary, and I think that's the kind of place where linguistic barriers (cyrillic alphabet and difficult language) to do-it-yourself travel make a cruise option quite attractive. This is not so much the case in (I would argue) easy to travel places throughout Europe like the trip referenced above. Viking has the slickest advertising and prices to go with it - from the outside, it does look tempting but for all the "cons" previously mentioned. Thanks for posting your experience.

Posted by
244 posts

Thank you for your post. We started our European travels after my retirement. We combined a river cruise (Avalon Waterways) with RS do it yourself. It was a perfect place for us to start. We enjoyed our cruise from Amsterdam to Basel. We enjoyed meeting everyone on our ship, making many friends from Austrailia and Shanghai as well as the USA. We didn't enjoy having to follow a guide around but soon figured out we could just skip the tours and enjoy our day on our own. When we arrived in Basel we picked up a rental car and our RS tour book and spent 9 amazing days in Switzerland. We learned that travel in Europe on your own isn't that difficult. The following year I was still a little nervous so we took RS My Way tour of Italy. We absolutely loved every minute of that trip. We also gained confidence to be independent! Last year we spent 5 weeks in England and Scotland and this spring we spent a month in France. Using RS tour books we had all the tools we needed! Plus our 4 to 5 week of travel cost about the same as a 9 day River cruise! We are definitely independent travelers now and spending more time meeting locals and loving every minute!

Posted by
323 posts

My husband have decided, (he is 78 and I am 74) that when we can no longer carry our suitcases up three flights of stairs we may start taking cruises. Or maybe not. When we travel we have the good fortune of being able to stay in Europe for two months at a time. I'm afraid a week or two would never be enough for us. We do travel as frugally as possible and rent apartments when we can so we can save our meal money for a worthwhile meal at a good restaurant once a day. We have loved what we have learned in traveling and have RS to thank for it. God bless Rick Steves, although we have never taken one of his tours, we have a library full of his books.

Posted by
1845 posts

I see some of you think that river cruising might be a good alternative later on. My 90 year old step father-in-law and mother-in-law think the same.

Here is some things to consider. Almost all the cruising was done at night. The exceptions were one late afternoon, the morning we sailed the Middle Rhine and the morning before we arrived at Kinderdiik.

We carried our iPhones (in airplane mode) and checked the built in Health app. We averaged walking 6.5 miles a day that week, with two days at 10 miles. I guess you could stay on board, but rarely was there much to see from the dock.

Dav did mention another downside. 98% of our fellow cruisers were wonderful people. There was one guy who couldn't hold his liquor and was loud and obnoxious the first couple of days. Finally when he was drunk and wouldn't go back to the room, his wife dressed him down in the lobby! Luckily that straightened him up. There was another jerk who screamed at the staff when another Viking tied up side by side. Also, we had a nice light classical recital one evening. This guy walked in to the lounge in the middle of a song and started talking loudly to a friend. He was shushed by a number of guests, but kept on talking. Finally another guest told him if he wanted to talk he should go somewhere else. After the concert the jerk came over and threatened the other guy! Some Americans can sure act boorish.

Posted by
2441 posts

Jerry&Stelly you hit the nail on the head. I expect to seriously consider a river cruise when I can't handle the rigors of a train ride. But at 67 it's a few years off, God willing.

Posted by
8507 posts

We have friends who have lived overseas in Asia and South American, as well as traveled extensively around the world. Now one is ill, so they are happy with river cruises and agencies that transport them door-to-door. There is a right time for everything and everyone.

Posted by
1 posts

I was on a Viking River Cruise in April 2014, on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel. All the previous posts from you all here in this thread sound accurate to me. IMHO the bottom line is how much adventure (good & bad), stress, independence do you want in your vacation and what’s you budget. The local tour guides in each city were almost always great and I would love to have spent more time with each of them. I’m sure there are less expensive river cruise operators but you usually get what you pay for. I was 55 years old on that trip and I think only 11 other passengers were younger than I was. Usually as you get older you have more $$ for a vacation, maybe that’s why so many older folks are on these more pricey cruises.

And thank you Rick Steves for all the great advice over the years!

Posted by
12991 posts

Taking the cable car up to the Niederwald Denkmal is a great way to get a view of the Rhine and valley., very scenic. Walking back down takes a bit over half an hour.

Posted by
1584 posts

We did a cruise down the Danube from Budapest to Nuremberg and bused to Prague for two more days. We loved it but won't be taking a river cruise again until we can no longer carry our cases and walk six to ten miles a day. While I loved it all, it was very expensive. I'd rather spend less, see more, and stay longer on my own or on an escorted tour. We avoid large tour groups preferring the smaller group tours. We sailed on AMA Waterways. But...I loved our small boat cruise down the Amazon and Celebrity Xpedition in the Galapagos!

Posted by
988 posts

Yes these river cruises are expensive but Viking always has a period each season where the cruises are deeply discounted to 2 for 1 and flights are also bargain priced. You need to shop early to take advantage of these reduced fares.

Posted by
13697 posts

I might be the odd duck but I find the personalities of accommodations we stay in during multi-destinational trips to be part of the fun! With a few exceptions, our European stays haven't been in run-of-the-mill, cookie-cutter rooms, and I've enjoyed their individual quirks. Kind of like people?

Granted, I wouldn't want to be checking in and out with the frequency of location changes involved with cruise itineraries but we're also leaning towards longer stays as our spring-chicken days become ever more ancient history. HA!

Posted by
1068 posts

I generally agree with the OP about ways of travel and generally plan trips myself, take tours or do some combination. However, because of circumstances I've taken 2 river cruises. The first was from St. Petersburg to Moscow. As I don't like traveling totally alone, I signed up for the cruise as it started the day that I was "done" in St. Petersburg. The food/entertainment/guides etc. on that cruise were mediocre but acceptable. After one night in St. Petersburg we headed down to Moscow. The boat stopped daily and we generally spent 4-6 hours touring small towns with interesting histories. I only felt one stop was too "touristy" and we ended up in Moscow. I did take an optional excursion in Moscow (the city at night) and got my money's worth. So not my favorite trip, but a good experience. The other tour was a cruise of the Nile which I think was and still is the best way to see Egypt. After seeing Cairo, we flew to Abu Simbel and then took a cruise ship to Aswan.... we stopped daily on Lake Nasser for about 3 hours to see temples and tombs which were part of the Nubian Temple projects.... very few tourists and a great experience. We transferred ships in Aswan and did the usual cruise down to Luxor with stops on the way. For a short tour, I think it was a good sampling of Egypt. Other than that, I will be hard pressed to take another cruise until I am too old to travel the way I like.

Posted by
6796 posts

DougMac thanks for the report. Sounds like a good option if your party includes someone who is less mobile.

Posted by
11292 posts

Thanks for this report. Like several others have already said, this confirms that river cruising is indeed right for some travelers - and that it's not for me at this time.

Posted by
489 posts

Great forum! We've now taken 2 river cruises on AMAWaterways and we NEVER had 50 in a tour group. If you'd like to try a river cruise and I must add there is nothing so lovely as waking up on the Main River while gracefully floating and listening to the wild birds do their morning song and having a cup of tea.( I actually saw and heard a cuckoo bird one morning) We also experienced the 64 locks from Amsterdam to Budapest and marveled at the wonder of the Main-Danube canal, including locks 81 feet tall- incredible. Going over the continental divide. That was our second cruise and a rather long one..(14 days) In my opinion a bit too long. Ever wonder if your head would be cut off sitting on the top deck and going under one of the low bridges in Germany (our crew said we could stay, but must sit down.. omg, this was a thrill ride!)
Yes, I was definitely tired of the food on board, but not because it was bad... just so much. Actually hunted out the best burger in Passau, Germany... needed a burger fix! But I must admit they served the very BEST soups I have EVER had- both cruises! WOW!
And you can possible look for those other treasures to do without the other cruisers... but don't book it ahead of being in the country as with nature and the river, schedules change. We were lucky and I found on google one day while gently on the danube that the night we were in Vienna was one of only 5 performances of the "Tribute to Vienna" where we could see the Spanish Riding School, hear an ensemble from the Vienna Symphony and a vocalist from the Vienna Opera.

why did we take 2 cruises? Because, I wanted to have less stress and save my marriage. No rental cars, no fighting with the language, etc. and what we gained was some very lovely friends, the stressless mode of travel and many cities I may never have visited.
You can meet local people but you may have to work at it, just like when traveling on your own. I spent an hour with a wonderful group of people in a small town in Germany sipping the great Rhine river wine.
And please do not think you can do a river cruise if you can't walk. Now, AMA separates their groups to Active, Regular and Gentle walkers... so if you are not able to walk or stand on cobble stones PLEASE be a gentle walker and not slow the group down.

However, what I missed is the local food (AMA had no cost options for culinary tours) So I signed up for most of these.. Like making Slovakia specialties with a chef in the Sheraton in Bratislava. My hubbie was able to take 3 biking tours (very small numbers in these). All included in our huge first price, but like someone said that was our choice.
I would do another river cruise but will be hard pressed to do a ocean cruise again. We did the Baltic with Holland America last August and couldn't get off the ship fast enough. No personal interaction, very unlike our river cruises. But was an adequate and cost effect way to see the Baltic capitals. Loved every port.
Now in about 30 days taking our first RS tour to the Adriatic. I must admit the bus portion of the trip seems the least fav.
We have lived and traveled extensively (on our own) in Asia and Australia, so catching up in Europe now. Happy Travels.

Posted by
221 posts

Thanks so much to the OP and everyone who added comments. I've been toying with the idea of a river cruise for a while, enticed by those lovely Viking ads, and thinking of a Rhine river cruise. But my reservations are exactly what has been highlighted--touring in large groups, eating the boat food every day (even if it is fine, still not the same as local places), possibly mediocre evening "entertainment." The comments have given much to think about. It does seem as if these might be better at a time when less active travel is more attractive, and that's not where we are now. Some of the posters were on cruises other than Viking--was that experience any different? and are any of the ships smaller? Besides the Rhine cruise, I've also looked at small boat trips in the Greek isles, on ships with only 50 or so passengers, which seems like a better size. Larger ocean cruises are absolutely unappealing--we looked into ones for Alaska, but lost our nerve contemplating a crowded ship that seemed to us to be a huge floating Las Vegas-style hotel--wonderful for those who like it, but not our style!

Posted by
489 posts

Lois, On our last trip the cruise only had 90 people on it. We never had more than 15 people in any group tour. The audio system they use allows you to listen to the guides (who are all local people) and wander around a bit. Or you are not required to go on a tour in any city you visit. Just know when you must be back on board. In Vienna we had the entire day and some others on my tour used Rick Steves audio guide and did their own things.
Our food on AMA waterways was excellent. Always choices, but what I didn't have to do is research restaurants in each town, make reservations, etc. They also try to do regional selections .. like in Germany we had a whole roasted suckling pig! My only hardship was that for 14 days in a row we had a 4 course meal every night... not my normal way of eating. But the soups were phenomenal!

The sights from the river are some you would never see if traveling by coach or car. And it puts you back in time, as river travel was the first travelways of Europe. The Rhine river is great and you'll see more castle ruins, Take a short river cruise in the beginning or end of the season, cost is lower and less people on the boats. I have not traveled with Viking, but have definitely witness their tour groups of 25+, when we had much less in ours. Another benefit of the company we went with is they offer many biking tours. My husband had participated in these and Loved them!

Posted by
221 posts

Thanks, tgreen, I'm glad to hear about less-advertised alternatives. I'll look at AMA waterways.

I know what you mean about researching restaurants--it is time-consuming and one never knows how reliable reviews really are, even from trusted sources like RS, although I've never had a bad meal from a recommendation from his guides. The temptation to eat much more than usual is a hazard of travel in Europe, I've found, but a hardship I'm willing to endure!

Since definitions of early and late season are sometimes flexible, how would you describe them? We tend to avoid summer in any event because of crowds and likely hot weather. And since we're no longer limited to school vacation periods, there's no reason to go in the summer anyway!

Posted by
489 posts

Lois,
Early is April or May, Late is end of October into November. We did our first cruise October 2014 and was in Prague on Halloween. You can get lucky and have a very warm week or need hats and gloves. It turned cold the last weeks in October that year so we needed double layers and hats, scarves, but not objectionable at all. The tourist season is fairly over and other than not being able to use the pool on the top deck, sitting out bundled up is quite pleasant sipping on a hot beverage while gently moving down the river. Our second cruise was May 2016 and started in Amsterdam. The day we went thru the Rhine River Gorge started with lazy fog, which added to the ambiance of the River. The ship provides plenty of blankets to wrap up in, but then the sun broke thru and was gorgeous. But do your research as the spring can be rainy and remember all the mountains wash into those rivers, so water levels could be high and then your schedule may change some. If you want to do something completely different consider a Christmas Market Cruise.

Posted by
221 posts

tgreen, I'm thinking of trying to see the tulips next spring, so might be in Amsterdam in late April. That could combine with a Rhine cruise, since they often start there, but that would be really early since I think the tulips are done by early May. Were you able to see them before your trip this spring? The other choice would be late Sept or early Oct., which would probably be very pretty. Not being able to use a pool deck wouldn't trouble either of us, whether in May or fall. I did take a look at AMA cruises on the Rhine, and will think about that once I return from the RS Village Italy trip I'll be on in September.

Posted by
920 posts

Lois,

We took the AMAWaterways Tulip Time Tour a couple of years ago. It was great and the flowers were so beautiful! I have a friend who is a travel agent and she highly recommends AMA. She told us that all of the river cruise lines have the same size ship, but they all have different passenger capacities. Our AMA cruise was full and only had 125 passengers.

Posted by
221 posts

Stephen,

Thanks for the info about AMA. I'm sure the tulip cruise would be lovely, but I think I'd probably stay on land for Amsterdam and environs. I had planned to do the RS tour that went to Brussels and Holland last spring with some friends, but as our departure was very soon after the bombings in Brussels, our friends weren't comfortable traveling there. So didn't get to tulip time this year, but I thought I could try again next, without a tour, and try a Rhine cruise later. But I will definitely check out AMA.

Posted by
7991 posts

It sounds like the Viking River cruises have changed a lot since we took them several 10 to 15 years ago. There were no buses. The ship carrying around 120 passengers tied up in a town or city for most of the day. A walking tour would be offered. You could return to the ship easily if you wished as it was moored nearby. Lots of independent time. We always ate lunch in tne town or city. The food onboard and tours in cities were not of a high level, all rather pedestrian. No toiletries were provided by Viking either. We looked at it as a moving hotel.
A few years ago we went on a AMA Waterways Mekong cruise which was our favorite one and everything was at a higher level than our earlier Viking River Cruises. We visited places we never would have been able to see on our own.

Posted by
13697 posts

Suki, I can't read again through all of the responses again but I do know that unusually low water levels on some of the rivers within the last few years necessitated changes in docking itineraries. The boats (for more companies than just Viking) had to tie up at more remote locations, and load passengers onto buses to access some of the cities.

Posted by
1845 posts

Thank you for your input and experience. We have cruised big ships in the past, but now having traveled on our own we would never take a cruise through Europe unless it was the Fjords, Greek Isles etc. or when we are just too old to do it on our own.

My parents have always cruised. My dad took me on a British Isle cruise after my mom died. We stopped three places in Ireland, three places in Scotland, we saw Wales and Guernsey Island as well as Normandy. It was an interesting experience after touring Europe on our own. We did "see" a lot. And, for someone who doesn't know the difference, they love it and think that is what Europe is all about (IMHO) But, "seeing" it and experiencing it are two different things in my book. On the cruise with my dad we forgot what we had seen the day before, and we had no real experiences to hang our hat on. When we travel on our own it is a slower pace and I can recall every place we visited and what we did, who we talked with, and experiences that stay with you.

I've wondered if a river cruise would be any different than the cruise with my dad, and your experience just confirms that for me. I had someone once tell me that on a cruise you are in America while on board and in Europe when you get off. Not enough of Europe for me! Thanks for sharing your story!

Posted by
504 posts

As someone who has been happily taking independent trips and river cruises on alternate years for the past decade, I think that the differences can be exaggerated. Yes, on a cruise you do have a home base that is more like "America" (although the crew on Viking boats is usually polyglot, and predominantly German). And, yes, you do have to conform to the schedule of when the boat arrives and leaves. Beyond that, though, you're free to do what you want. You can skip all of the group tours if that strikes your fancy. You can dine where you like, at least while the boat is docked. You're the customer, after all. You are in charge.

I'll be leaving for a Rhine cruise int two weeks. Next year, we're probably going to tackle the Baltic states on our own.

Posted by
808 posts

We've never done a RS tour - although wish we had back in our younger, poorer days - but use the site and travel books extensively. We've also traveled as part of our careers. We took our first river cruise 2 years ago on the Rhone with Tauck. Have since taken their Rhine/Moselle cruise and signed up for another next year. Two points to make.
While I can appreciate that independent travelers might not enjoy a river cruise or think they are too expensive, for us its the cheaper option. That is compared to divorce proceedings or a murder trial. I can't imagine weeks in Europe dealing with all travel details and my husband seeing the prices and arguing about them. We appreciate having all the costs paid well before the trip and all the details taken care of. We're active 60+ and want an active tour. If you make the effort you can put in 5-10 miles of walking a day. Evenings are pretty low key with maybe a singer or trivia quiz in the lounge. Most evenings after a long day with a long dinner and several drinks, we're ready to turn in and wind down to start over on another busy day.

Secondly, there are differences between the river cruise companies. I would have to be given an extremely good price to go Viking. The higher priced all inclusive companies like Tauck truly deliver a wonderful vacation. No tipping, no extra excursion costs, no extra costs for drinks, and smaller group sizes. Taucks biggest ships only hold 130 and their older ships will be undergoing changes starting this year that reduce them to under 100. We never had a problem with a too big group and the local guides have been wonderful. Don't judge all cruises by Viking in spite of their great ads.

Posted by
1845 posts

Beyond that, though, you're free to do what you want. You can skip all of the group tours if that strikes your fancy. You can dine where you like, at least while the boat is docked. You're the customer, after all. You are in charge

I guess I'm too Scottish. If I don't take advantage of the meals and the tours, what am I paying $800+ a day for? I could stay at 4 star hotels and hire a chauffer for that amount of money!

While the staff is polyglot (most of our crew was Eastern European, mainly Romanian), interacting with overworked girl who pours your wine at dinner is not the same as sitting down and visiting with Allesandro, the owner of our favorite café in Greve Italy.

We've stayed at dairy farms in Scotland, helped a farmer build a pig pen in the mountains of Nicaragua and my wife takes 20 nursing students to Honduras every year to do medical mission work. The experiences we seek and enjoy are just different than the ones you have on a European river cruise.

Posted by
504 posts

Now you're taking the discussion in a different direction. The previous posts did not involve mission work or pig pens. Sure, if you want that activity, you aren't going to find it on a cruise; but then, neither will most independent trips include it.

As it happens, I don't entirely subscribe to the Rick Steves philosophy of travel. I find his guidebooks and videos useful, but that doesn't mean I have to think like him in every respect. For that matter, Rick seems to spend a lot of time in cathedrals and art museums himself.

My most recent comments were in reaction to the "oh, it's so American" and "maybe it's okay for disabled old people" posts above. A river cruise is a good way to get your lodging, transportation, and basic meals squared away. It doesn't commit you to be herded around or isolated from places you visit. Not being Scottish, I'm not pinching every farthing. I'm willing to forego some of the activities if the whole package is useful to me.

Posted by
1845 posts

Now you're taking the discussion in a different direction. The previous posts did not involve mission work or pig pens. Sure, if you want that activity, you aren't going to find it on a cruise; but then, neither will most independent trips include it.

Sorry, my intent was to give readers a better idea of our perspective regarding travel. I'm reminded of the financial planning commercial that showed an archeological dig in a dusty in windblown desert. A sweat drenched young man turns to his companion and says: "I can't wait until I retire." The equally sweat drenched older gentleman replied: "I AM retired."

We gladly forego comfort and luxury for a more intimate experience whenever we travel. That factors in my impression of our river cruise. My post was aimed at helping folks who are of a like mind who have never taken a river cruise, but are curious about the experience.

Posted by
1310 posts

I went on a Viking River Cruise in 2012. It was my first cruise of any type and I think that influenced my negative view of my experience. I loved the cruising and unpacking once for 14 days. The food was good, but it is like college-you get tired of any food from the same kitchen after several days. I liked the excursions when we could tie up right next to the village or town in the case of Cologne and not have to be herded into buses. However, most travelers were married couples between 75 and 85 and even though I was in my 60's they preferred to socialize with other couples and when I would politely ask if I could join them at a meal or in the lounge they would tell me all the seats were reserved. My stateroom attendant was very nice, but when I told her I only needed her to clean once a day the head housekeeper heard about it and came to my door and literally scolded me (and since she was married to the Captain there was nothing I could do about her rudeness.) When the grey water backed up and my room smelled like a sewer there was no apology-just keep a wet bath mat over the shower drain and keep your windows open and it will be gone in 48 hours! And, being a RS travel type person, the required tip (especially after the service I had received on occasion) seemed very high. I was also not happy they quoted it in dollars in their material, but in Euros on the disembarking slide show the night before. At the time that was a large difference in price and I felt they were taking advantage of people who really never try to figure out the currency conversion. Viking is excellent at marketing; not so great at on board service. I do want to try river cruising again though and like what I hear about Grand Circle.

Posted by
504 posts

I'm sorry you had a bad time. I have to say that in four trips on Viking, I never had those difficulties. I could go into details, but I'll leave it there.

Posted by
808 posts

Laurie, sorry you had such a bad time. You might also want to look at Tauck. They seem to really welcome solo travelers and I've heard lots of good things about the experiences they have. On our last cruise we got to know a nice gentleman who often ate with us as well as several others. I think it helps that Taucks ships don't have as many passengers as Viking (max 130) so tour groups are smaller and you get to meet people easier. The food has been great - especially dinner. Cost is high but all paid for well ahead of the trip including all tips, alcohol, excursions. Everything except laundry service, masseuse, boutique shopping.

A friend just got back from a Grand Circle cruise with her sister. We compared notes and it was a more bare bones experience than Tauck but they had a good time. They liked the stateroom configuration with drop down twin beds. Good for them or singles but some couples might not like.

Posted by
147 posts

We have taken two AMA Waterways river cruises and loved them, would go again and again!

Posted by
2 posts

WE have taken three river cruises (AMA) and loved each one! Were we the youngest on board? Maybe. I'm not sure why that bothers so many people! Do you think people become boring just because they pass the 60 year mark?

We found the experience aboard and on shore to be enchanting for the most part. We like to bracket our cruises with stays in cities like Prague or Berlin where we can spend time on our own, which makes these trips just about perfect.

Please don't write a river cruise off your list just because other people don't find them "real" enough. "Real" can be exhausting, just as expensive and creating no more happy memories than a cruise. To each his own!

Posted by
1845 posts

Please don't write a river cruise off your list just because other people don't find them "real" enough. "Real" can be exhausting, just as expensive and creating no more happy memories than a cruise. To each his own!

Welcome to the forum ASB! I'm glad you've had such good experiences on your AMA cruises. AMA looks like a good alternative to Viking.

I think it boils down to what kind of experience you want to have. Many folks find research and planning stressful. River cruises are a great alternative for them. You pick the cruise you'd like and everything is handled from that point. On the other hand, we find researching planning and making arrangements half the fun. My wife and I have spent many a pleasant evening together poring over possibilities while enjoying a nice glass of wine. The internet has made planning much easier and foolproof.

We also like the sense of adventure and the spontaneity provided by doing DIY trips. Within a general framework we provide ourselves flexibility. More than once we've abandoned the rest of the day's itinerary to spend more time exploring where we find ourselves. We once got caught up in a pub crawl in Linlithgow Scotland with a bride-to-be and her entourage as she sold kisses for her dowry. They didn't realize we were tourists and unfamiliar with the tradition. We were such good sports that they invited us to join them! So much for a quiet night back at the B&B.

Yes, "real" can be exhausting, especially if you plan to cram every possible sight in a minimum amount of time. However, "real" can also allow you to set your own pace. We always plan in down days (as Rick suggests) to take a break from what can become a hectic sprint from one sight to another.

There's no wrong way to travel. The important thing is to get out, explore the world and see different perspectives of living.

Posted by
2 posts

No, there is no wrong way to travel, though people might not consider river cruising because you paint it out to be less "cool".

Your trip report is very informative however, so thank you for the contribution.

Posted by
1781 posts

Hi Doug, I was very interested to read your "trip report". My friend and I are considering a Viking River Cruise for 2017 (Basel to Amsterdam) after spending some time on our own in Switzerland.

One of the posters indicated that tipping was mandatory. The Viking website states that it is voluntary but provides guidelines. Can you confirm if tipping was mandatory? I'd just like to know what I'm signing up for. Thanks for your report and your help!

Posted by
254 posts

Thanks for this post. We are independent travelers in our late 50s and have vaguely considered a river cruise, but I don't think most of them would be for us. On our recent trip to Vienna, we saw very large groups being herded around behind a Viking tour group sign and that was a turnoff for us. Also, I consider planning part of the fun and my husband is happy to have me do the planning.

Posted by
1845 posts

Donna,

Tipping is definitely optional. I don't know how the cruise industry works, but I imagine it is similar to restaurants where the employees depend on tips for a big part of their income.

I based my response on what I read on cruise sites and Viking before I left. I decided to take the suggestions from Viking. We tipped 10 euros per day per person for the staff of 50 and then a separate tip for the tour director.

The trip you are planning is the very same trip we took. Again, we had a wonderful time and I'm sure you will too!

Regards,
Doug

Posted by
1330 posts

Sorry, I just do not trust the cruise company to get the tips to the people that really need/deserve them. I directly tip those that have given me good service. Why end up giving the same amount to a person who gave you terrible service and to a person who gave you great service?

Posted by
21857 posts

We just returned from a month in France that include a week long Viking river cruise. I am in the process of writing a longer trip review but the short version is that we were very pleased with the Viking cruise. We have been on seven ocean cruises around Europe but this was our first river cruise. From reading many negative postings about Viking I was a little concerned. But the cruise far exceeded our expectations. Really nothing to complain about. Food was excellent and on board drink prices cheap. We found all of the included tours to be excellent. Granted there are 30 plus people in the group but all the guides use the head set so it was easy to hear and your could be some distance from the guide and still have a clear understanding of what was being said. We found that we always had a long afternoon for free time and often revisited some of the sites we saw in the morning. We like it so well we bought their 2 for 1 coupons for another trip next year.

Yes, tip is voluntary with recommended amounts. We did the recommended amounts as the staff worked hard.

Posted by
23 posts

I agree with Frank; our first cruise experience of any type was a Viking cruise on the Danube and we had an excellent time! We've used Rick Steves books for all of our European travels and were a bit worried about river cruising. However, we combined it with an independent week in Slovenia and a few days post cruise in Prague and loved our "vacation within a vacation"! We felt absolutely free to join tours, go on our own, and combine the two. We met great people, enjoyed the food and wine, as well as the lectures and entertainment. We started with a couple days at an airBnB in Budapest before joining the cruise and did the same in Prague post cruise. We'll absolutely cruise with Viking again, just as we'll use Rick's great advice and do our own planning. Remember, there's more than one "right" way to experience Europe-or any new place. Keep your options open and enjoy all new experiences! When I mentioned to our family before our trip our reluctance to "follow the umbrella", our son reminded us that as a college-age backpacker in Europe, he always took the free walking tour when arriving in a new city-and usually met great people too. As Rick says, "Keep on traveling!"

Posted by
1845 posts

Bob,
I understand your point of view and it does make sense. However, I know there were many "behind the scenes" people, such as the deck hands and cooks, who helped provide me with a wonderful experience. I want to show my appreciation to them to.

Speaking of them, I went out of my way to thank as many deck hands as I could. I'd see them in the crew break area on the top deck and took a minute to personally thank them. They were all appreciative and a couple remarked that taking the time to thank them meant a lot.

Posted by
77 posts

I haven't been on a Viking riving cruise, but I was on an Avalon river cruise from Nuremberg to Budapest in April 2014. I'm in my late 30s, but I think the average age of my fellow cruisers was about 65+.

I probably won't be going on another river cruise any time soon (other than a Christmas market cruise perhaps) as I just felt it wasn't worth it. Like many posters have already stated, it was nice to be able to unpack once and have your meals already planned out for you (having white asparagus for lunch one day was really a nice treat).

However, cruising through the immeasurable locks in the Danube became very tedious after a while and being confined to a set schedule was another major downer (ships only have a certain amount of time at each dock). In addition, as the ships themselves can't be very wide due to the size restrictions, the ships can't offer much in terms of entertainment. I brought along a fair amount of books to read and there was a mini fitness center as well as jogging track on the upper deck, but with the shores so temptingly close alongside the ship, it was a real bummer not to be able to get off the ship and walk around.

Posted by
382 posts

Thanks for all the input on this. I appreciate all the great ideas. We have also considered European River cruising, but will put it off for a while. We cruised on the KD line (which travels the Rhine River.) from St Goar, Germany to Assmanshausen and back. Also from St Goar to Koblenz. We saw the best of the castles on the Rhine and used our Rick Steves guide book to tell us about each mile marker along the way. We stayed in St Goar and loved that town and the ability to walk around and dine with locals. Then we took a train to Trier to start our Rick Steves tour. This w as a great way to cruise and it was very reasonable.

Someone mentioned that cruising would be the way to see Alaska. I would like inform that poster that an Alaska Cruise only visits a tiny piece of Alaska. We took a cruise tour of Alaska and we "wanted more". We flew to Anchorage, rented a car and drove all over the state for two weeks. It was incredibly beautiful. It was easier than Europe because the language is English. The Alaskan people are very independent and friendly. I hope you'll see Beauty of Alaska away from the cruise ports.

Posted by
2 posts

I just returned from a river cruise down the Danube with Viking. After reading all the above comments and having my own experience it is clear, pick the vacation that works for you. I traveled with three friends. One friend always maps out her own trips and was frustrated with the cruise schedule. She was much happier when we spent time on our own before and after the cruise. For me I liked the customer service on Viking. The staff and food were excellent!!! My life was so busy prior to the vacation that I welcomed all the pampering, side trips and information the cruise line provided. If you have any special needs or walk slow they always have alternatives to make your vacation worry free and enjoyable. Something I noticed that was wasn't mentioned earlier was the open seating. Every meal is spent at a table of six, eight or twelve. Although I am a very out going person and love meeting new people , I found sitting with new people at every meal exhausting after awhile. I actually was happy I was travelling with four people and not just two (my husband and I) so there were more people to do the talking. I noticed after a few days, people we had sat with were waving at us to join them so I know they felt the same. All the people we met were delightful and interesting so I learned a lot but for people who aren't very social it's good to know about this piece before hand. If you travel you learn there are positive and negatives attached to organized travel verses independent. It is great to have this forum to get info that will help you decide what may or may not work for you.

Posted by
920 posts

I did the AMAwaterways Christmas market cruise last Nov 2015 on the Danube. It was wonderful. Yes I agree that the cruises are more pricey. I am going again in June 2017 (down the Rhone river) and then tacking on a RS tour when I end up in Barcelona. This price is a lot more for river boat cruisin'. But both cruises were/are work related (but at my cost). I have travelled on my own planning our vacation, school trips, and RS tours. My preference is RS tours over all. I like planning but it sure is nice to have RS do all the work. Not sure if I will do more cruises with my work. I cross that bridge later. In the meantime, I keep travelin' with Uncle Rick.

Kim