19-29 June, Viking Idun and Viking Njord, Prague extension and Romantic Danube
The flights went according to plan. Transfers likewise. The Hilton Hotel in Prague was excellent. The Viking team were there if we needed them, but didn't push themselves on us if we wanted to do our own thing. The Viking reduction in rates for the Hilton car service was a welcome perk.
The first we knew of a definite ship swap came with a posting I saw online on Cruise Critic. No email or representative visit from the Viking Hilton reps. The Viking post on Cruise Critic said the ship swap would take place when we reached the Altenworth Lock, still closed due to flood damage. Our first ship would drop us off, luggage would be transferred and our second ship would be waiting a short distance away on the other side of the lock. For information, the lock is between Krems and Vienna. Thus we expected to leave the ship on day five, whilst we were at Melk Abbey, and collect the new ship on other side of the Lock, to sail onwards to Vienna.
This is what actually happened:-
Following the Prague add on, we left the Hilton for a coach journey to board the Viking Idun moored in Nuremburg. Journey uneventful and smooth except for comment by Viking rep that they can't turn the air con on, whilst the coach is standing because 'it costs us money'. We were waiting for 25 mins in 37 degree heat. Totally unacceptable.
Arrived at ship. Clean, beautiful, modern lines of the new Viking longships. Cabin spotless. Bathroom likewise. Dinner that first night was excellent, and all the meals were of the same high standard. However, being a non alcohol drinker, I tended to be forgotten, and on three nights had to remind the waiter to bring me a soft drink. When I asked for a virgin colada, he quibbled, and said I would have to pay. I explained that all soft drinks were included at lunch and dinner, and he replied he would have to ask permission. When he returned, and said yes it was ok, I felt his attitude smacked of penny pinching, and I was left uncomfortable asking for anything other than a diet coke with my meal. Despite asking each time for no ice, I was never served a drink without it.
Evening briefing with Ray, cruise director. He had to leave us part way through, and Anita took over. Along with Bojan, the concierge and Pavel the maitre d' they were all very pleasant and extremely willing. I cannot fault my interactions with these particular crew members who were the most visible to all the guests, and certainly a pleasure for me to deal with, personally. Anita in particular sourced a new suitcase for my dad after Viking damaged his transferring from Idun to Njord, and Pavel helped me plan a wonderful dinner celebration for dads birthday.
However, I felt that last year the evening briefings were far more informative. There were also quite a few blank faces at reception at times, more so in the Njord than Idun. Occasionally, there were sewage smells onboard the Njord, caused we were told, by being moored between two other ships. The heating/air con on both ships proved impossible to regulate. Even the crew thought it was useless. I resorted to downloading a PDF of instructions from the Siemens website site at 1 am, so desperate was I for some heating. On the Njord when you turned the dial to heat, hot air came out along with a strong smell of burning. Again, on the Njord, our room safe was only partially working: two buttons on the keypad having been ripped out.
We did notice a difference between the two ships: the Njord has these very odd frosted bathrooms. Totally unsuitable if you're cabin sharing with a friend or, like myself, with my father. Also useless at night when one person goes to the loo, and light floods the whole cabin through the glass walls.
Nuremberg. First class trip and guide. Sadly, the only good guide all cruise. Noticed a huge fall off from last year in the quality of guides Viking are using. The consistency of English speaking and knowledge just isn't there. Several guides omitted to take their groups into Passau cathedral which was open despite the bishops death. They missed out on seeing the stunning organ and interior.
Regensburg. Atrocious guide. Told us all about his favourite luggage shop and would wander off to talk to locals and leave us. Never took us over the bridge, but left us crowded round the empty museum. Walked at snails pace, and we were in one of the more active groups.
Spent the afternoon on the balcony, one of only two occasions when we were able to use it due to us being moored between other ships. As this cruise has a lot of locks to navigate, we knew the upper deck would be closed and therefore booked a balcony. We got only two hours use of it. Other passengers were furious that Viking hadn't told them just how rarely the upper deck would be open.
Passau. Told the night before that we would be moving to Vienna. Shock amongst passengers. What happened to free time in Passau? The cruise along the Wachau Valley? Melk and the Abbey? We were told we would be taken back from Vienna to do these excursions. We were never given a reason as to why we couldn't do them as planned, and leave our ship near Melk. We saw Tauck and Avalon ships at Durnstein. If they had made it downstream from Passau to Durnstein we could have too. We pointed this out to Viking and were told they had sailed upstream from Vienna. They plainly hadn't as the lock was closed between Krems and Vienna. We were not being told the truth.
Likewise journey times. Vikings journey times are at least a third shorter than the actual ones. Passau to Vienna, three hours. It took over four. Vienna to Durnstein, one hour. It took 90 minutes. Melk to Vienna, 45 minutes. It took one and a half hours. It doesn't do to be economical with the truth about matters such as how long folks have to sit on the coach. People were rightly cross. It dented confidence in the information Viking was giving us.
The classical concert in Vienna had to be rescheduled to the following afternoon, and the Schonbrunn Palace excursion canceled. The concert was therefore offered to us gratis, as a good will gesture. It was appreciated. However, several people missed it, as Viking failed to make it clear enough when to meet and where. This happened in Passau too. Some guides dumped guests at the town hall, and left them to find their own way back through the town for lunch. We were told someone would direct us. No one was there. We used our initiative, others didn't and nearly missed the meal.
Twice, local restaurants were used for lunch, due to the ship being docked in Vienna. These meals were ok, but nothing like the food onboard and not what we had paid for.
The coach journey from Passau to Vienna meant all free time in Passau was lost, as was the sailing from there to Melk. Viking therefore put us on a public pleasure boat for the trip down the Wachau Valley. It was not the same as sailing in our own ship, with our own complimentary teas and coffees, from the comfort of our balconies and lounges. It was a poor substitute. The ship was not exclusive to us, but included other tourists.
The visit to Melk was curtailed due to the already lengthy amount of coach travelling we had to do. Over the entirety of the cruise, not counting transfer days or journeys, we did fourteen hours on coaches. This includes city tours, as many on the Danube are not within walkable distance of the ships dock. Viking need to address this, the non use of balconies and closure of the upper deck. It is not enough to mention it in the small print.
Daily programmes were not as informative or well set out as before. The organisation of tour tickets was ludicrous. Over 180 people queuing to collect and return in the small lobby. The volume of river cruises has increased dramatically over the years. Thus the number of coaches on the quayside has double, trebled even. And the incremental rise in the number of people all crowding on the same excursions to the same places is making a mockery of the once intimate and exploratory nature of these holidays. Viking bring another dozen ships online next year. It will only get worse.
And therefore, when things do go wrong, as they have done as a result of the European flooding, the logistics of making Plans B and even C become more fraught. Viking needs to work on its communication of those plans to guests, both before the trips and whilst on board. And if people don't want to take these alternatives, they should be offered a cancellation option or monetary recompense for not delivering exactly what was promised.
Viking have some good staff and try hard. I acknowledge that. But ... they are saturating the market with advertising and ships. New river cruisers make up the vast majority of passengers. And it was my very unfortunate experience to sit by such a group on the four hour coach journey from Passau to Vienna. Tanked up over lunch, twelve men and women from North Carolina boarded the bus and proceeded to open and drink six bottles of champagne in the space of an hour. The first bottle they sprayed the contents over the back of the coach, ceiling, floor, myself and my 85 year old father. We sat there for the duration stinking of alcohol. No apology was offered. As they grew louder and louder, the frat boy jokes grew more and more vulgar. When we finally arrived in Vienna, a fellow guest remonstrated with them. A few minutes later one of the women from the group approached me and said it wasn't their intention to spray us, and she hadn't done it anyway, it was someone else. When I explained the consequences of her actions, she called me very rude for spoiling their fun.
And that is why I will never sail with Viking river cruises again. It may well have been a one off, but if these are the sort of people being attracted by advertising and promotions to travel with Viking, I will be staying well away. Because unlike on an ocean liner, there is nowhere to hide on a river cruise. And because £6,900 is far too much money to pay for a partial coach tour and to be insulted by your fellow guests. I shall take my money and custom elsewhere. I'm afraid to say Viking no longer offer a high quality product worthy of the prices they charge.
Still to come:
Celebrity Eclipse Canaries September 2015