River Cruises offer sightseeing, learning, and a really good time

This article was originally published in the Citrus County Chronicle, September 1, 2017 — Full disclosure: This was a media trip but it was one of the best vacations I have ever had. The story is from my one and only Viking Cruise experience leaving from Budapest. While the travel industry has been affected by the pandemic, and many details found here may be changed in the future, I am eagerly awaiting the time when I can take another Viking Cruise through Europe.

August, 2017–For the itinerant traveler, browsing websites or brochures about river cruises can raise the heart rate—the thought of traveling from country to country, enjoying scenery and historic structures along the shoreline while sitting on a private balcony or on the front deck of the ship, sipping wine and eating gourmet meals, makes it a must check off the bucket list someday.  For many retirees, that someday is now. 

According to Viking Cruises Hotel Manager Jadranka Brajkovic, when she first started working on river cruises three years ago, with another company, most passengers were in their seventies or eighties.  Now, she says, at Viking, they are seeing people as young as mid-forties, some still working, and retirees in their fifties and sixties booking river cruises, and many doing so more than once.  That means customer service and activities have expanded to include more than just sailing, eating, and a short, easy tour.  Today, programming includes a variety of tour options, from a leisurely pace for those who prefer to take the cobblestone streets a bit more slowly, to standard tours that cover more ground and information through a combination of buses and walking, and even providing passengers with public transit passes so that they can get around among the locals while still having a guide with them along the way. 

We made these sausages on our Viking Grand European Tour excursion at our stop at the Ratskeller in Regensburg, Germany.

It also means that passengers want to experience the trip in different ways.  Unlike typical ocean cruises, the focus is less about shipboard activities and more about visiting cities and towns along the river, and many people want to have the chance to interact with locals.  On a recent Grand European Viking Cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, stops throughout Hungary, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands offered optional excursions that included sausage making with a top butcher and restaurant owner; a visit to the homes of the modern aristocracy to tour their centuries-old residences and enjoy food and drink in these homes; a wine tour and tasting at a local vineyard and winery; and a visit to a dairy farm to learn about and taste the Gouda cheeses they make.

Glass blowing demo on board

The program director keeps passenger preferences and the possibilities always in mind. Optional excursions sometimes include dinners or lunches in local restaurants, and, even after guests return, the Program Director keeps things humming late into the night.  Trivia competitions, on-board lectures by entertaining historians, musical performances, dancing and even glassblowing demonstrations by locals are some ways passengers connect with each other and the crew.

A good Program Director makes friends along the river and keeps the itinerary, itself, fluid. Opportunities may arise for a surprise unplanned event—like a recent quick trip up and down the Danube on the first night to see the magnificent glowing castle, bridges and Parliament in Budapest. Summer activities on the Danube normally prevent that option. 

Most passengers are from the U.S. and Canada, as well as from the U.K. and Australia, and on most ships communication is in English. However, Viking has begun a cruise for Chinese guests only, with Chinese-speaking staff and tour guides.

Brajkovic said that a key difference she found when she started with Viking River Cruises was the warmth, friendliness and happiness of crew members in doing this kind of work.  As a relief Hotel Manager, she replaces managers on cruises who are on vacation. 

“I see 10 different crews, and generally the crew is wonderful. Viking really takes care of them and is always trying to improve working conditions,” she said.  “I see that the friendliness they show to guests, they even show to each other when guests are off the ship on tours.”

Crew members recall the names and preferences of approximately 190 guests, even from the first day.  One example is that passengers with food allergies were shown the days’ menus every morning at breakfast by the maître d’, who remembered guests’ specific needs, pointing out choices to avoid and suggesting how to adjust food options.

Nevertheless, there are things to prepare for: 

The cruise experience is like being a spoiled teenager in the summer—never having to make the bed, clean the bathroom, or do anything you don’t want to do. It’s all taken care of.  On this recent Viking tour, as passengers shared breakfast with new friends, the cleaning crew was already in motion.  The same young man vacuumed the halls, staterooms and even balconies, while others washed the bathroom floors and walls by hand daily.  Beds were made, counters wiped down and tall glass bottles of fresh water were replaced along with clean glasses. After dinner, beds were prepared for the evening and a daily briefing outlining the next day’s itinerary was placed in each room.

The atmosphere was relaxing and casual, with worries forgotten for a while, including any dress code. Though some were fashion-forward and dressed for dinner each evening, others were hippies at heart, donning shorts and sandals from morning till night. 

Miltenberg, Germany

Realize that on board, internet may occasionally be unreliable.  As Brajkovic told guests the first night, “Enjoy the cruise the way we did things before the internet.” 

When booking a cruise, be aware of the amount and kinds of activities offered. On this cruise, many of the walking tours were on uneven cobblestones, up and down hills, taking place outdoors in various kinds of weather–hot, chilly, rainy or sunny.  Wear good walking shoes, bring comfortable clothing and sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat with a brim.  Bring a rain poncho or use the ship’s umbrellas if needed. Backpacks are helpful for carrying necessities such as the bottled water Viking provides for excursions.

Also take into account that at the end of the trip, everyone will be handing out tips, and you will find certain crew members who have been especially helpful and attentive.  On this cruise, putting a general tip and a tip for the program director on a credit card was possible, however, individual tips were given in cash—Euro or US Dollar. 

For more on Viking River Cruises, visit: www.vikingrivercruises.com and view details of my trip on the blog http://gettinghungary.tumblr.com.

The windmills of Kinderdijk, Netherlands, the last day of the cruise.