First of all, we are loyal ocean cruisers and have cruised several lines. When we first started cruising thirty years ago, the staff was always so friendly, and it seemed like it was because they enjoyed their jobs and not because they were looking for a good tip. I have seen that attitude change some over the years, but the Helvetia staff was genuinely friendly. They could not do enough to make our stay enjoyable. Perhaps the staff’s attitude has something to do with Viking’s tipping policy which was different from any I have ever seen. There are two recommended tips: $168 for the crew and $28 for the Program Director. Since the tip is shared among the crew, I guess they all want to earn their share.
I confess to being a little worried about the condition of the Helvetia. With their focus on the new long ships, I was afraid Viking might be letting other ships suffer. My fears were completely unfounded. The ship is lovely and in excellent condition. The biggest problem is with the ship’s PA system, but that should be an easy fix which I hope Viking will do something about promptly. Our stateroom was perfect (room 205) and was so convenient to everything. The restaurant, lounge, coffee service, and entrance were all within a few steps of our room. We could hear lots of plumbing (flushing, showers) during busy times of day (morning and at bedtime), but otherwise the room was very quiet. I think I have to have a balcony when I cruise the ocean, so I was afraid I would miss my balcony, but I didn’t. The large windows open wide at waist level, so when we had our window opened (which was often) we felt like we had a balcony.
One of my first thoughts about being a new river cruiser is that you can forget pretty much everything you think you know about cruising when you are on the river because this is a completely different animal—and I mean that in a good way. Ocean ships have a lot of rules, and I understand why. When you have so many people of so many ages on a ship, you have to establish guidelines to keep chaos from erupting at every turn. It was fairly easy to spot the seasoned ocean cruiser because they would ask questions like, “May I take this drink, food, etc., to a particular location to drink/eat it?” The answer was always, “Well, of course!” There were no restrictions on where alcohol or food could be taken onboard. And the allowance of outside alcohol was very different from the ocean cruises. A trip so free of rules and schedules was very relaxing.
The Program Director, George, was amazing. I personally think he is a triplet because he was everywhere! He was on every offered shore excursion and on most of the optional ones. Who knows when/if he actually sleeps! He was very personable and knew the names of several of our group members within a day or two (not sure if that was a good or bad thing!) The Concierge staff was also extremely helpful. They could not do enough for us. They even arranged departure taxi s for 14 of us in Amsterdam even though we had not purchased transfers from Viking. They were truly awesome.
Ours was the first Rhine Getaway of the season so we had a crew that appeared to be fairly new to each other. They were not new to Viking or to cruise service, but were not entirely comfortable with each other. For instance in the dining room when we asked for an additional entrée, we were usually told, “I will see if we can do this.” And when we ordered a cheese plate and dessert, we were told we could have one or the other, but not both in more than one instance. That’s no big deal, but I think it speaks to the crew’s comfort level with what they felt they may and may not do. Perhaps they didn’t know how much leeway they had with their superiors yet. Meal service in the dining room was also somewhat slow. Now this isn’t really a problem because there is nowhere you have to be after dinner anyway, but at our table for eight or ten, the food came out at wildly varying times. Some of us would order the same thing, and a few would get theirs quickly while others would not get theirs for another fifteen minutes or so. Now the tour of the galley may explain this because in such small quarters, they clearly do not have room to keep 200 meals ready at all times. Or it could just be that our group was confusing the staff with some of the requests that were being made on occasion. The food was very good, but there wasn’t a meal that was just a total Wow--although I will say the German night buffet throughout the ship offered a number of excellent choices. Another issue that may be because we were the first cruise of the season had to do with our tour guides. Most of them (not all) seemed a little green--like they didn't all have their spiel down quite yet. They lacked a certain energy and enthusiasm in some cases.
Overall, our trip was terrific and I hope to post a trip report on ports of call later. I would cruise with Viking again in a heartbeat. Their itineraries are great and they offer a product that is accessible to all age groups. We did have a few younger couples with us (Under 50), and they were not bored. The pace was a little slow for them—morning shore excursions provide a taste of a port, but if one was exploring on his or her own, you could cover a lot more ground. And except for the late evening/early morning departures from Rudesheim and Cologne, there wasn’t much to offer in the way of night life. However, I was happy enough not to have to go anywhere at night except to bed. Again, I think that contributed to the relaxation level of the trip.