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Trip Report - Goin' the other way on the Danube (Budapest to Bucharest)

While shortly over a year ago, figured it could be worth posting a trip report on this Viking River Cruise nonetheless, as I'd not seen any others for this particular itinerary.

Went on the Viking Passage to Eastern Europe river cruise from Budapest to Bucharest in Nov, 2017. While the cruise is listed as being an 11 day affair, a few of those days are in your dis/embarkation cities. I tacked on some additional days to that, spending several nights in Budapest before the cruise, and several in Bucharest after. Sailings begin either in Budapest or Bucharest, and include visits to Bulgaria, Croatia, and Serbia.

Initial quick notes about this particular itinerary:

  • It's not a "castles and quaint riverside towns" type tour - the Danube running from Budapest to Bucharest (and eventually on to the Black Sea) is quite different from the Danube as it runs through Austria and in to Germany. Regardless, I still found the sailing-day sights fascinating (Iron Gate section in Serbia is pretty darn neat, and the locks there are impressive!).
    • At the time of our trip (and at present), Hungary was the only Schengen-area country on the itinerary. That means you technically still do need your passport to get from country to country through the cruise. Viking handles this by having you hand your passport over to them when first boarding, getting it stamped for ya in each country, and giving the passport back to you when disembarking.
    • This is non-euro Europe! Each country on the trip still uses its own currency. I got around this by paying with a credit card anytime I needed to buy anything, or only taking out a tiny bit of cash (for tips, taxis, etc) when exploring a city, rather than leaving each country with a bunch of spare change and currency I couldn't use in the next.
    • I actually quite like Europe in winter, and many of my trips to and through Europe have fallen between Oct-Jan. Having said that, this itinerary's quite far south and so one worth considering if you're looking for a trip option at that time of year. It can still be pretty brisk on the river, but I spent most of the time entirely comfortable in sweater vs. jacket. Most importantly...
    • The trip left me desperate to get back to every one of the countries visited. I loved every bit of it.

I'd been to Croatia before, but had stuck to the coast on my previous visit. Eastern Croatia has a charm all its own, though. Bulgaria and Romania, in particular, are two countries I'm very eager to get back to now. I'd certainly recommend making the most of Bucharest if you do this cruise - or, heck, just going there on its own! While Viking does offer the add-on tour extensions, I booked my own additional nights and tours. Transylvania is as stunning as you'd hope - Peles and Pelisor castles, Brasov, Bran are all lots of fun (keep in mind Peles castle itself tends to close for a couple months in winter for refurbishment and repairs, but you can still see it from the outside and go in to its mini-me version, Pelisor). Bucharest is also a treat - a great city to stroll through, and Old Town Bucharest is worth spending some time in. As for Bulgaria, I'm a bit of a castle geek and always go out of my way to see as many as possible wherever in Europe I am, and Belogradchik fortress has to be one of the most incredible ones I've seen - the combination of natural rock formations and constructed walls and ramparts is pretty amazing. It was all I could do to not leave Veliko Tarnovo's artisan shop area without suitcases full of handcrafted souvenirs. For its part, Belgrade is also a city I was not expecting to be so thoroughly charmed by.

Cruising isn't my preferred way to travel, but I'm glad to have done this one - it certainly was a great way to get a taste of things, and spur an intense desire to get back. If you're a river cruise fan, don't overlook this itinerary!

Posted by
2394 posts

Thanks for the trip report, Bulgaria, Romani, and Serbia are on my list of places to go as soon as we retire (January 2020) and have more freedom to travel when we want, for how long we want.

Posted by
3134 posts

The Romanian tourist bureau should pay you a commission for all the people your post will send there!

Posted by
504 posts

Thanks. That route is on our list if we decide to do one more cruise.

--Dav

Posted by
745 posts

Thanks for posting. I have also taken this "Passage to Eastern Europe" tour, although I began in Romania and ended in Hungary - we we're going "upstream" so to speak.
The two European river cruises I've taken (Viking and Avalon - both on the Danube) included all meals, airfare, transfers from airport of hotel and return and a number of included tours. Both tours were nearly the same price at around $3,000/person - and the duration both tours was 12 days. Of course, this "low price" is only available for the least expensive staterooms (fewer than 20). A "upgrade" to the next stateroom category increases the cost considerably.
A word about the "Romanian Tourist Bureau". If you have taken a RS tour, especially one that visited several countries, you noted that a local tour guide joined your RS "host" tour guide as your tour progressed. There is a reason for this - your "host guide" is only licensed to be a guide in specific places. Once outside that realm, they are not "official" guides. Most countries (and regions within those countries) have strict regulations regarding this, and, sometimes the "enforcement division" of those agencies treat violations with severe consequences - financial and sometimes more. I am acquainted with three Romanian tour guides who have told me their country's enforcement of "unregulated" tour guides is practically non existent - and I have witnessed this (in person) when a large group of traveling visitors from Greece strolled the streets of "old town" Bucharest in the presence of their "unauthorized" Greek guide. As my friend and Romanian tour guide turned to me, she said "Așa că merge ... o altă zi în România" - ("So it goes - another day in Romania").

Posted by
3236 posts

Thanks for your informative report. Sounds like a lovely tour. Very helpful since we will be in the region this year. Always nice to hear about alternative ways to travel! ;)

Good point upthread about "host guides." We've experienced the best "host guides" on RS Tours and have recommended them to friends taking self guided tours.

Posted by
474 posts

Good point about the stateroom cost and what's included in cruisefare, Blue439!

Adding to that - excursions can often be included with river cruises. This is quite different than what many might be used to with ocean cruises. Each "port" of call with Viking includes a tour, with the option to upgrade (on this particular itinerary, as an example, the included excursion went to various sites in Belgrade, including the impressive Church of Saint Sava; folks could choose to pay extra to add some additional sites to the included tour, as well as go inside and in to the crypts of the Church of Saint Sava). One could also book private tours through the cruise concierge, book no tour at all and just wing it, or make their own arrangements. Since I extended my stay in Bucharest myself, and arrived in Budapest myself, I handled my own arrangements and tours then (and also handled my own airport transfers).

On the cruise ships, if you want to "splurge" but not break the bank, consider the french balcony staterooms instead of going all out with a balcony/veranda. You still get full views of the river when able, fresh air, and so on. Really, though, the ships are small enough and will have sun decks and other open spaces on the ship, with a small enough number of guests, that a balcony/veranda isn't quite so big a deal.

Shop around, too. Viking seems to always have a 2-for-1 or similar such offer (2 guests for the price of one) - the site and marketing emails will say "Book before the end of this month!", and when the next month rolls around another email offer comes through with the same promo running until the end of that month! ;)

I much prefer to travel by foot than boat, and the access to a city that gives me. In terms of being able to unpack once and have your hotel room float down the river with you, so to speak, river cruises can be neat. I'd also say I favor them over ocean cruises - totally different experience.

Posted by
745 posts

I hope your tour options included the home-hosted visit in Croatia, in a nice neighborhood with homes riddled with bullet holes. A grim reminder of their past and present "troubles". Our gracious host was charming and forthright.
A recollection of note: While in Vidin, Bulgaria, a dance troupe from a local public high school joined us for a wonderful performance and visit on board. This was is mid April, about two months after the Stoneman Doughlas High School shootings back home. During our time to talk informally with the students, I asked about their perceptions regarding the threat of violence on their high school campus, and I referenced the recent events in Florida. The knew nothing of what I referenced. I asked if they were social media users (Facebook, etc.) and most said they were. I asked if they had "friends" in locations other than Europe, and they acknowledged that they did, but, somehow, this topic was completely unknown to them. They were quite interested (and shocked) as I attempted to explain.
Our Viking host, a Romanian named Mario, who was born in the Black Sea coast town of Constanta, liked to sit in the last row of our tour bus when we made excursions away from the river. I like to sit there, too, so we had numerous opportunities to chat. He told me he was married to a Slovak woman and they lived in Bratislava with their teenage daughter. Although Mario spoke English beautifully (and, essentially without an accent) he told me he does not speak Czech - his wife's native language - and she does not speak Romanian. They communicate exclusively in English. However, their daughter speaks all three languages,
and serves as a reluctant translator when heated discussions revert to native tongues.

Posted by
474 posts

The home hosted visit was definitely one of my favorite parts. While the home itself had been built after the early 1990s, it was quite interesting to get the hosts' perspective on what happened and hear their stories. There were reminders of the conflict all around, from buildings along the road in to Osijek, to ones in Osijek itself. Some of the memorials seen on the trip were poignant reminders, also.

Something I quite enjoyed about Bulgaria was feeling as if you were in on a secret the entire time there. Our Viking group was the only one at Belogradchik, and in Veliko Tarnovo. Granted, this was November. Even still, much of the trip felt like what I imagine visiting Prague or Budapest might have felt like in the 1990s - prices are low, crowds are absent, monumental change is ongoing, you're seeing so much you had no idea was so worth seeing until you got there.

Posted by
474 posts

Barbara - congrats on your upcoming retirement! I'm sure you'll enjoy Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia thoroughly, along with all the other places you'll go!

cala - I'll happily accept that commission in the form of more trips back ;)

Dav - You'll enjoy it! That was my one and only river cruise to date, but other frequent river cruisers I met on board kept singing its praises and felt it offered an experience that really stood out from other trips they'd taken.

Janis - Have fun on your visit! Definitely a region worth visiting, with so much to see and do!