Raise your hand if when you hear the words ‘ocean cruise’, the images that first spring to mind are of relaxing on a beautiful deck in the sunshine with a cold, fruity drink in hand and feasting on delicious, bottomless buffets at dinner. Now, raise your hand if those same words instead elicit visions of perpetual seasickness and overdramatic Titanic-esque sinking scenarios. (Fyi, I have my hand up right now.)
I have never been on an ocean cruise and likely never will. Am I missing out? Maybe. Does that bother me? Not in the slightest. I’ve never really been a boat person. I get sea sick easily, and while I can swim, I don’t exactly enjoy the idea of being forced to do it because my boat has sunk, so in general, I tend to avoid situations where I’ll be on any sort of water vessel for very long. So then, just why did I choose to cruise down the Danube for a whole week with Viking River Cruises? In all honesty, the opportunity to spend time with a friend plus see a whole slew of cities I’d never visited before simply proved too good to turn down. (And river cruising just felt a whole lot safer to me than ocean cruising, which I’ll get into more below!)
My friend Lisa (of The Wandering Lens fame) and I traveled with Viking River Cruises on their Romantic Danube trip just a couple weeks before Christmas. This particular trip itinerary is offered all throughout the year, but as we were traveling at Christmastime, our trip had a unique holiday twist with lots of Christmasy events on board the ship and Christmas market tours in all of the cities we stopped at along the way. I’ve been excited to share about our experience cruising the Danube River with Viking River Cruises for quite some time now, but decided to wait until a more seasonally-appropriate time of year since Christmas markets aren’t nearly as fun to read about in July, right? Now that it’s November, and a perfectly acceptable time to start singing Christmas carols, it’s time.
I’ve tried to break down what it’s like to take a Viking River Cruise as best I can below, but if you’re considering cruising with Viking River Cruises or taking the Romantic Danube trip specifically, don’t hesitate to leave questions in the comments. I’m happy to help. I know these trips aren’t cheap, but (spoiler alert) they’re worth it!
VIKING RIVER CRUISES ATLA LONGSHIP
Viking River Cruises has a fleet of over 40 longships. We cruised on the Viking Atla, named after the Norse goddess of water. With 95 rooms on board, the Viking Atla is far from small, but thanks to a well-planned design, the ship still feels plenty cozy and is easy to navigate once you’ve gotten your bearings.
Apologies for the blurry nighttime picture, but I thought this one would best showcase the actual layout of the ship. (Right click to view the image in full-size.)
There are four levels on the Viking Atla, although you’ll likely only spend time on three of them unless you’ve chosen a water-level room. (More on choosing a Viking stateroom below.)
The level of the ship you’ll enter on is known as the Middle Deck. The Middle Deck is where you’ll find the ship’s reception area, which is where you’ll check-in on your first day aboard the ship and where you should come if you encounter any issues or need more information about the day’s excursions. Also on this level are 36 staterooms, as well as the Viking Atla’s main restaurant.
Below the Middle Deck is the ship’s Main Deck, where guests staying in one of the ship’s 25 water-level staterooms will find their accommodations.
Above the Middle Deck is the ship’s Upper Deck where we spent the majority of our time on board the ship. Besides 34 more staterooms (including the ship’s suites), the Upper Deck also features a bar and lounge, a comfortable open seating area with a small library and computer center, and an indoor-outdoor cafe known as the Aquavit Terrace.
When you’re not quite hungry enough for the 3-course meals served in the main restaurant, or you’re just looking for something a little more quiet and casual, the Aquavit Terrace is the perfect place to enjoy your meal. The menu is smaller, but the food is just as delicious!
The lounge on this level, besides being the perfect spot to gather with friends, is also where you’ll meet for daily briefings, ship presentations, and a nightly cocktail hour before dinner.
All of the common areas on the Viking Atla – the main restaurant, the lounge, and the Aquavit Terrace – feature floor to ceiling windows for a perfect view of the passing scenery while cruising.
And finally, the top level of the ship is the Sun Deck. If we hadn’t been traveling in December when it was bloody freezing outside, we probably would have spent a lot more time up here than we did on our trip. The Sun Deck features a walking track, a putting green, shuffleboard, and a covered area with deck chairs for relaxing outdoors in the shade (in warmer months, of course).
As it was, the only time we actually spent up here was when we were cruising through especially scenic areas and wanted to take photos. With nothing to break the wind coming off the water, even coming up top for pictures was sometimes difficult. Other options for photography when cruising through the more scenic areas of the Danube are your balcony (if your stateroom has one) and the outdoor portion of the Aquavit Terrace. (It’s easier to run in for warmth in these areas when you start getting too cold!)
VIKING RIVER CRUISES VERANDA STATEROOM
Lisa and I stayed in one of the Veranda Staterooms on the Upper Deck of the Viking Atla. Having never slept on a ship before, I had no idea what to expect from our accommodations, but figured that we’d be a little cramped at best. Turns out, I was totally wrong. I was blown away by how spacious and luxurious our room was! The Veranda Staterooms are available with either one queen bed or two twin beds. Either way, there is still plenty of room to walk around. (No sleeping with your suitcases here!)
Besides a super comfortable bed, our room also had large enough storage for our suitcases, plenty of drawers for our clothes, and enough hanging space for our bulky winter coats. A decent-sized space with a mirror doubled as our desk and dressing area. We also had a large flat-screen TV with lots of regular channels, on demand movie options, and music channels. We were provided with fresh bottled water every day, and there was also a refrigerator in the room where we could store any extra food or drinks we bought while exploring off the ship. An in-room safe is provided for your passports and valuables and it’s recommended that you use it.
If you’re anything like me and have a lot of trouble sleeping while traveling, you’ll probably be worried about what it’s like to sleep overnight on a boat, especially if this is your first time cruising. I feared I’d be able to hear every little noise from the ship and other guests in neighboring rooms, but I hardly heard a peep. In fact, on the nights when our ship was cruising overnight, I actually slept better than I usually do. I think it was the vibrations and the steady rumble of the ship’s engines. Our room seemed very well sound-proofed, too, as I hardly ever heard anyone out in the hallway or in the rooms beside ours.
Just like in our stateroom, our en suite bathroom was designed to utilize all available space in the best way possible. While I wouldn’t call the bathroom spacious, it was laid out in such a way that at least our elbows weren’t knocking the walls every time we turned around. And, just like our room, it was clean. Like, sparkling clean every single day thanks to the hard-working staff on the ship.
As far as amenities go, L’Occitane shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, and lotion were provided complimentary. Our shower had perfect water pressure and no matter how hot we turned the water, the mirror in the bathroom never fogged, thanks to the fog-less glass, which made getting ready after a shower easy peasy. And, get this, the floors are heated. Is there anything better than getting ready in the morning in a bathroom with heated floors? No, no there isn’t.
Even better than a bathroom with heated floors, though, was having a room with a veranda balcony. Every morning when we woke up, we would draw the curtains back and watch the scenery passing from the comfort of our beds. While it was much too cold in December to sit outside for any length of time, had we gone on this trip in a warmer season, that’s exactly what I would have done every morning while we cruised into our port for the day.
Having a place to take photos of the lovely scenery from without having to make our way up to the sun deck was a nice luxury, too, especially on the morning that we cruised through the Wachau Valley in Austria. We were awoken from our sleep with news over the loudspeaker that we were entering the valley. We threw our coats on over our pajamas and admired the view from our balcony, fully aware that had we needed to get dressed and fix our bed hair before making our way up to the sundeck, we probably would have missed seeing a good portion of the valley.
If you’re able, I highly recommend choosing one of the staterooms with a veranda or a French balcony for the views alone!
SAFETY ON BOARD VIKING RIVER CRUISES
Viking River Cruises makes sure you stay safe on their ships by requiring you to wear your safety vest at all times when on board the ship.
But they do require you to attend a safety briefing on your first full day on the ship while wearing your very own fashionable orange vest provided in your room. Safety protocols and evacuation scenarios in the event of emergencies are explained at the briefing.
In general, river cruising is incredibly safe. One of the biggest deterrents for me about ocean cruising is the possibility of sinking. (I realize this almost never happens, but irrational fears are called irrational for a reason!) With a river cruise, I had no worries in this respect. In the event the water levels in the river become too low to continue cruising safely, Viking will dock the ship and transfer passengers to the next destination by bus. And let’s be honest, in the rare event your ship did suffer damage and begin to sink, you’re never very far from shore. I felt very safe while cruising, especially since I could always see land!
MEALS ON BOARD VIKING RIVER CRUISES
One of the best things about Viking River Cruises packages is that they’re all-inclusive. Once you’ve paid for your trip, that’s it. Unless you want to take part in optional excursions outside your included itinerary or purchase things while out exploring the cities your ship docks at, you won’t have to spend a single cent more. This includes all of your meals. Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the duration of your cruise is covered in your package.
Just how good is the food on a Viking River Cruise? I hesitate to use such an overused word, but it’s amazing. Every meal we had tasted fresh, was full of flavor, and was incredibly filling. We did not go hungry on this trip, that’s for sure. Here’s a breakdown of how meals are served aboard Viking River Cruises:
Breakfast is served for two hours every morning from approximately 7-9am. If you choose to dine in the main restaurant, things like fresh fruit, oatmeal, muffins, and other pastries are provided on the buffet or you can order an omelet from the omelet bar. Staff are available to take your order for breakfast as well. I took advantage of the made-to-order option and had either pancakes or waffles every morning. A light buffet breakfast is served in the Aquavit Lounge as well, but we never ate our breakfast there since most days we had plans to keep exploring through lunch and needed a heartier breakfast.
Speaking of lunch, we actually only ate this meal twice on the ship, choosing instead to stay out in the different cities we stopped at each day and try some of the local fare. (Which is to say we ate a lot of sausages and pastries, because Christmas markets.) If you choose to return to the ship in between excursions, you’ll again have the choice of dining in the main restaurant for a 3-course meal or enjoying something a little lighter served buffet-style in the Aquavit Terrace. Lunch is served for two hours, usually from noon to 2pm.
While we didn’t take advantage of the included lunches in our package, we always made sure to be back on the ship by dinner time, which was usually around 7pm. Dinner is definitely the best meal of the day when you’re cruising with Viking River Cruises! Served in the casually elegant main restaurant, the hardest decision you’ll be faced with on the whole trip will be choosing which starter, main, and dessert you’d like to enjoy each evening. Typically there are three choices for each course, and occasionally there are options that reflect the local flavor of the area you’re cruising through. I noticed Viking was especially good about that when it came to the desserts! If you’re not feeling up to a 3-course meal or chatting with other guests, you are also free to order a lighter dinner in the Aquavit Terrace. We did this one evening and enjoyed how relaxed and low-key it was.
Regardless of where you eat, the dress code at dinner (and all other meals) is casual. No need to bring your fancy ball gown on this cruise! On the second to last evening of our cruise, there was a special dinner with more of a party atmosphere where you could dress a little nicer if you preferred, but it wasn’t required.
*For guests with special dietary needs, you’ll want to contact Viking River Cruises before your trip and they’ll be happy to accommodate you at every meal.
So the meals are amazing and all, but what if you get hungry in between meals? No worries. Viking has you covered. I felt like we were always being fed. We’d come back from an excursion, and there’d be a guy standing there with a platter of bacon-wrapped sausages to greet us. And if we were in the mood for something a little sweet or salty, cookies and crisps and other snack foods were always available at stations near the lounge.
Water, hot tea, and coffee are complimentary all day long in your trip package. At meals, a selection of soft drinks, house wines, and house beers are provided free of charge. If you’d like a soft drink or alcohol outside of mealtimes, you’ll need to purchase these separately from the bar. Viking River Cruises also offers a Silver Spirits premium beverage package for those interested in an all-inclusive drink package.
ENTERTAINMENT ON BOARD VIKING RIVER CRUISES
Most entertainment on board Viking River Cruises happens at night after dinner. On our particular trip this included a Christmas concert, a Christmas tree trimming, live music, game nights, and a farewell concert performance on our last evening aboard the ship. If you’re traveling on the Romantic Danube itinerary outside the holidays, the evening entertainment will be tailored to the time of year you travel, of course. Of the evening events on board, our favorites were the nights with live music and the farewell concert. If you attend the cocktail hour before dinner in the lounge, you’ll be treated to live music from talented performers then as well.
If you decide to spend some downtime on the ship in between excursions, there are often small events happening on board the ship in the afternoon. These range from on-ship tours to cooking demonstrations to afternoon tea. As we always took advantage of all the time we had in each destination, we never made it to any of these events, but if you’re on the ship anyway, it’s probably worth checking them out!
ROMANTIC DANUBE TRIP ITINERARY
Our journey with Viking River Cruises took us down the Danube River from Budapest, Hungary to Nuremberg, Germany, passing through Austria in between. Over the course of eight days and seven nights, we explored six different cities in depth and made short stops in a couple more. As I plan to write about each of our stops on the Romantic Danube itinerary separately, I won’t go into detail here on the many excursions offered in each destination. Instead, as I write about them, I’ll come back and link to them below.
(Sorry to those of you reading right now. There’s not much to see here yet!)
BEST TIME TO CRUISE THE DANUBE WITH VIKING RIVER CRUISES
That is the million dollar question, isn’t it? Even though it was freezing cold, I cannot stress enough how much fun it was to take the Romantic Danube trip with Viking River Cruises over the holidays. European cities just do Christmas so well. The holidays were always my favorite time of year in London because the whole city would transform into a festive Christmas wonderland, and the same can be said for every city we stopped at on the Romantic Danube tour.
That being said, if being cold makes you absolutely miserable, maybe traveling in either spring or fall wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Many of the excursions, and of course the walking tours, in each city are outside, so you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors. Dressing appropriately can do wonders for your comfort level in cold temperatures, but sometimes no matter how many layers you put on, you’ll still be cold. (I feel you, I’m one of these people, too.) If this is you, and you won’t be too awfully sad to miss the Christmas markets, I recommend trying to schedule a trip in the fall. Europe’s cities are beautiful when the leaves begin to change their colors. We’ve always found October to be a prime time to see Europe’s cities at their autumnal best.
Basically, the only time I wouldn’t recommend scheduling your cruise is over the summer. Europe can get very hot and crowded in the summer, and as you’ll be doing a lot of walking, it will be incredibly draining. July and August are the worst months to travel in Europe with June and September being slightly better options if summer is the only time you can manage.
BENEFITS OF RIVER CRUISING VS OCEAN CRUISING
Obviously, as I haven’t been on an ocean cruise myself, I’m only going on speculation and information from those who have been on them, but here are a few benefits of river cruising:
You’re never just staring at an endless ocean. On a river cruise, there is always beautiful scenery outside the windows thanks to a much more narrow cruising route.
River cruising is more intimate. Smaller ships mean less people on board. Getting to know your fellow travelers is easier, which is good because you’ll be eating dinner with them every evening. It’s also easier for the staff to get to know your name and handle requests when there aren’t so many people on board to accommodate.
There’s less partying. While certain ocean liners are known for their party atmosphere, you’re unlikely to find anything like that on a river cruise. River cruises attract a completely different demographic, and so evenings aboard the ship tend to be much quieter and low-key.
You’ll have more time in each destination. Typically, our ship would cruise overnight and we’d have breakfast every morning as we were pulling into the port. If we left as soon as the ship was docked, we usually had a good 10 hours in each city to explore before we needed to be back on the ship for dinner. We never had to worry about long queues to get on or off the boat, which I hear is often an issue on ocean cruises.
You get to see what it’s like to cruise through a lock. Any time our ship would approach a stretch of water that was at a different level, we had to pass through a lock, which raised our boat so we could get through. The passageways through the locks are incredibly tight. From our balcony, we could reach out and touch the walls. It was pretty fascinating to see!
You won’t have to worry about seasickness. During our trip with Viking River Cruises, our ship typically did most of its cruising overnight, so we hardly ever even noticed we were moving because we were sleeping. (I could, however, feel vibrations of the engines, but that’s it.) On our first day, I did notice I felt a little dizzy when our ship set sail for the first time, but that quickly dissipated. I am insanely sensitive to movement, though, so if you’re an average person, you probably won’t even experience that.
River cruises are for people who want to see places, not just spend time on a boat. On many large ocean liners, the emphasis is more on what you can do on the boat vs in port destinations. The opposite is true on Viking River Cruises. These are cruises for active travelers who want to see a whole slew of new places on a trip without the hassle of having to plan it all themselves.
ARE VIKING RIVER CRUISES ONLY FOR OLDER PEOPLE?
Ha, okay, I’m going to be totally honest here. If you’re over 60, you’re going to be in good company on a Viking River Cruise.
That being said, Viking River Cruises are definitely not just for card-carrying members of the AARP. Viking River Cruises are designed for active adults, no matter the age. We are in our early 30’s and had a blast getting to know the other passengers on our excursions and at dinner. If I’ve learned anything over the past five years of travel, it’s that when you share a common interest, like exploring the world, things like age gaps and different cultural backgrounds mean very little. It was easy to make conversation with many of our fellow, much older, guests.
If the places and excursions offered on a Viking River Cruises itinerary interest you, and you’re over, let’s say, 25, I say go for it. Traveling this way is such a pleasure and a real treat when you’re used to having to plan each and every detail of a trip all by yourself!
TIPS FOR GETTING THE MOST OUT OF YOUR VIKING RIVER CRUISE
Read everything in your pre-trip package. Before you leave, Viking River Cruises will send you a package in the mail with all sorts of goodies, plus a booklet or two describing your itinerary in detail and offering information about the area. Read it all.
Remember, you don’t have to let Viking River Cruises book your flights. Letting Viking book your flights does make things a little easier, especially since they’ll personally pick you up at the airport and deliver you back at the end of the trip, but if you can get a better deal flying a budget airline and prefer to save a few bucks, then do it. Or if you have a particular airline you like to fly with for points, book that one. It’s up to you.
Attend the on-ship daily briefings. Or at least read the Viking Daily that will be left in your room every evening. That way you know exactly what will be going on the next day and won’t miss anything. This is also a good time to book one of the optional excursions if you see one that interests you. These will be marked separately on your itinerary from the included daily excursions. (Occasionally excursions overlap, so it helps to check the itinerary the day before so you aren’t forced to make a quick decision!)
If you’d rather explore a city on your own, skip an excursion or two. While excursions are the most convenient way to explore in regards to transportation to and from the ship, the staff on Viking River Cruises are happy to help you figure out how to navigate on your own by providing maps and explaining public transport. Lisa and I would often join the first excursion of the day and then break off from the group afterwards and explore on our own, either meeting up with our group later in the day for another excursion or getting ourselves back to the ship on our own when we were ready. If you’re comfortable exploring without a guide, this is the best way to maximize your time when you stop at a new port!
Wear your most comfortable walking shoes. This is not the time to break in a new pair of shoes, that’s for sure. Choose a shoe that’s supportive and comfortable and one you’ve been wearing for awhile because you’ll be doing a lot of walking when you leave the ship!
Be sure to bring a raincoat and a light umbrella. The weather in Europe is known for being unpredictable. Even if your weather app says nothing but sunshine all week, bring your umbrella anyway. (Viking River Cruises provides their own, but they’re big and heavy and become a burden when you’re out exploring.)
Carry a small amount of euros on excursions for tips. It’s recommended to tip your guides and drivers at the end of each day, typically €1-2. You don’t have to, but it’s the nice thing to do.
Leave yourself a little time to relax every day. Whether that means skipping the evening entertainment after dinner or simply having a rest in the middle of the day on the boat, it’s important to give yourself time to relax. You are on vacation after all. It can be a little overwhelming each day with the many excursions available and feeling like you need to do it all, but you don’t. Choose the things that interest you most, do a little exploring on your own, and then give yourself a break.
If staying connected while traveling is important, don’t depend on the ship’s WiFi. We could hardly ever connect to the ship’s WiFi during our trip, especially when cruising between cities. If you need to stay connected, consider alternative means before you travel.
Enjoy the experience of having someone else coordinate your entire trip. It really is a luxurious experience to have all of the details from the major to the minute totally taken care of for you every single day. I’m far too much of a control freak to travel this way on every trip, but it’s super fun to let yourself be pampered while traveling every now and then, and Viking River Cruises certainly do an outstanding job of that!
For more information about Viking River Cruises or to book your next cruise, visit the official Viking website.
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