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Viking River Cruise Secrets for First Time Cruisers

written by Julie Cohn

For many, a Viking River cruise is the top of a well curated travel bucket list…for good reason.  The destination offerings are unique, the luxurious accommodations inviting, and the on-board service is world class.  There are certain travelers, like me, who have never been on a cruise, and who were hesitant to get on a ship.  Does this sound like you?  Guess what?!   Not only did I take a cruise, but I loved it!  These Viking River Cruise Secrets for first time cruisers will change you from non-cruiser to cruise lover too!

{I was hosted as a guest of Viking River Cruise but opinions + photos are my own. May contain affiliate links}

Viking River Cruise Secrets for First Time Cruisers

Confession time:  Although I love to travel and explore new destinations, I was never particularly interested in traveling by cruise.  Concerns about sea sickness, tiny cabins with no space to breath, and hidden port and drink fees kept my feet firmly planted on land.   I had zero interest in being on a huge ship with hundreds of people, dressing up for dinner every night, with short port excursions crowded with people.

Still, with so many interesting cruises and cruise destinations, I warmed up a little to the idea over the years.  A river cruise was one of the cruises I was most interested in, so when I was invited to experience a Viking River Cruise this winter, I was excited.

Still, some of those old apprehensions resurfaced and I just didn’t know what to expect.  Oh my goodness, was I pleasantly surprised!  My cruise turned out to be nothing like I expected and was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had.  I honestly cannot wait to take another Viking trip!

On the Ship

Smaller & More Intimate | Unlike large ocean liners, Viking River Cruise ships are smaller, most with a capacity of 200 passengers.   A smaller ship makes time on the ship more cozy, with room for dining, excursions, and finding a seat on the tour bus.  A smaller ship also allows guests to get to know other guests and crew more easily.

But…just because one is on a cruise with 200 people does not mean you have to be with those people all the time.  There are plenty of places on the ship for for quiet time including the Aquavit Lounge for more intimate dining, the rooftop sundeck with lounge chairs and breathtaking views, and private stateroom balconies for peaceful reflection.

Intimate Setting = Fun Activities – I traveled right before the Christmas holiday, so my ship was festively decorated with a Christmas tree, gingerbread house, and other holiday decorations.  In addition, the staff prepared fun activities to make the season special for guests.  The program director (JP) advised me that Viking River celebrates occasions both large and small to make the voyage even more special for guests.  Imagine celebrating your birthday or anniversary with 200 of your closest friends!

Vking River Cruise ornament

Viking River Cruise German Night

The Demographics | The average age demographic for guests is 55 – 75, but there were guests aged 24 -84 on my particular cruise and everyone had fun interacting. As there are no activities geared toward children on the ship, children under 16 might get bored, but my 19 year old son would have enjoyed interacting with other guests.  The minimum age for cruise passenger is 12 with a parent, and 18 without a parent.  Most of the cruise activities and tours are geared toward active adults, with lots of walking/hiking.

Mobility  | Many of the tours are interactive, with lots of brisk walking, so I recommend guests have a certain level of mobility available.  With that said, there is an easy walking group (more on that below), so people who walk with a cane or walker should have no problem.  There is an elevator on the ship for people who have trouble with stairs on the Viking longships, but the hallways are too narrow for someone who is wheelchair bound.  Also, getting around the cobblestone lined streets in the excursion ports might be difficult for wheelchair users.   

Smaller Ship + River Cruising = No Seasickness | One of the little surprises of my trip was no seasickness.  I barely even felt the ship move, and when I did, it was a gentle lull.  Even moving through the locks on the Rhine was easy, with just a few little quiet bumps each time.

Safety First | All guests are required to view a safety video on the first day of the cruise, and participate in a safety drill with a life jacket for about 15 minutes on the second day.  The drill is a minor inconvenience, and I was impressed with how seriously the crew take passenger safety, so was not bothered by the drill.

Daily Briefing | Just before dinner each night, the program director hosted a daily briefing for about 45 minutes, highlighting the activities that would take place the following day.  It may not seem important, but the briefing offers valuable information about excursion times, places of interest while in port, and activities that take place throughout the day.  Try not to miss the briefing, it really is informative.

Hint: The briefing takes place in the Observation Lounge, making it easy to meet friends and grab a pre-dinner cocktail while listening to the session.

Tipping | Gratuities are not included in Viking River cruise packages, so be prepared to tip $10-12 per person/per day at the end of the trip to your favorite crew, and $2 per day for the program director.  The staff are so accommodating that you will probably want to tip more, so this is a basic guideline.  It is best to tip in cash with the currency most used on the trip.  For example, if you are taking a European river cruise, tip in Euros.

Note:  On my cruise, the crew work 3-4 weeks without a break. Once one group of cruise guests leave, they ready the ship for a new group and set sail.  The staff should be commended (and rewarded) for their friendliness, courtesy, and hard work in making Viking cruises so accommodating for guests.

Hints:

  • A Viking River cruise is the perfect opportunity to relax and be social or have one-on-one time, your choice.
  • Take time to get to know the other guests, as most everyone is friendly, but also allow quiet time to recharge your batteries.
  • Participate in the social activities.  They are entertaining, allow you to let your hair down a little and have fun with the other guests and crew.
  • Get to know the staff.  They are friendly, accommodating, and truly want to make your voyage memorable.

Dining

Dining On-Board  | Cruises usually have mixed reviews when it comes to food, but the cuisine on my Viking River cruise was flavorful and appetizing, with a nice variety and beautiful presentation.   The chef combines local specialties with traditional Continental flavors to create unique and delectable dishes.  Breakfast was buffet-style (with a wonderful omelet station), but guests can order Eggs Benedict, pancakes, and other specialty items off the menu.  Lunch has three appetizer, entree, and dessert menu selections, with a pasta and salad buffet.

Dinner is a choice of three appetizers, entrees, and dessert choices, as well as standard chicken, steak, and fish dish.  Some of the wonderful entree choices on my cruise included Chateaubriand, grilled prawns saffron, and porcini mushroom ravioli.  For those looking for a more casual dining experience, I recommend the Aquavit Terrace Lounge upstairs, for buffet and menu options. Guests with food sensitivities or special diets should advise staff before cruising, so the staff can make accommodations.

Note:  There is usually a seafood option for pescetarians, but true vegetarian options are rare without prior arrangement.

Flexible Dining Options | Viking River cruise ships have open seating in the main dining room.  This means no reservations are required, no reserved seating, and no dressing up (unless you want to). Honestly, after a full day of shore excursions with lots of walking in the cold, it was nice to go to dinner in a comfy sweater and leggings.  Thank you to no ball gown requirement!  (Psst-I even wore slippers to dinner one night and no one was the wiser!)

Breakfast is usually served 7 a.m. – 10 a.m., lunch from 12:30 – 2:00 p.m., and dinner from 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. and guests can come in any time during those dining hours.  The dining tables seat 6 or 8 people, with a few tables for 12 guests, but with plenty of seating, guests can sit alone or with friends.  My group of six sat together every night in the dining room, but it was nice to sit and visit with other guests at breakfast and lunch.  Seating in the Aquavit Lounge is even more casual, with tables of two and four.

Alcoholic Beverage Options | Beer, house wines, and soft drinks are included with lunch and dinner, but if you want a cocktail or premium wine, you will need to purchase those separately from the bar.  For the price of about 3-4 cocktails/premium wines a day, you may want to order the Silver Spirits package, about $22 a day, per person.  A pricing guide for alcoholic beverages is available here so you can decide which option is right for you.

Hints:

• Sit at the same table or area each time you dine, as you will likely have the same waitstaff.  This will allow the servers to get to know you and your preferences.  By the third day, your servers will bring drinks without asking, know if you are vegan or gluten-free, or allergic to certain foods.  The wonderful waitstaff added so much to our experience.

• The European butter served on European cruises is ambrosial.  The butter has the consistency of cream cheese and a slightly sweeter, less salty and creamier taste than American butter.  Give me all the butter!

• The breakfast yogurt/fruit parfait, sprinkled with a bit of granola is a must.

• Save room for dessert. Delicacies such as Valrhola chocolate tarts, raspberry sorbet, or cream puffs with praline add an elegant finish to a wonderful meal.

The Rooms

Stateroom Variety | Staterooms are available in several sizes and varieties, including staterooms with windows, staterooms french balcony, and veranda, and suite rooms with separate living room area.  All rooms have standard king-size beds, a large double closet, drawers and desk area, refrigerator, and a separate bathroom with shower.  The king bed can also be divided into two twin beds with prior notice.

The bed was comfortable, with sparkly clean sheets and plenty of fluffy pillows.  The closet was large enough to fit clothes and  a large suitcase, but there was also room under the bed for the suitcase.  The dresser drawers were handy for gloves, hats, and scarves, as well as undies and socks.  Ample storage allowed me to keep my belongings tucked away and have more freedom to move about the room.

Electrical outlets | The staterooms have sockets for both 110 (US) and 220 (European) voltage, which means that if you are from the United States, you can plug your mobile phone, laptop, and other devices in a regular outlet without the need for a European adapter.

Bathrooms | The bathrooms are small, but easy to move around, with sink, toilet, shower, and storage area for toiletries.  The shower has doors that fold open to expand the bathroom when not in use, yet easily fold closed to seal in the water when shower is on.  The shower itself is surprisingly roomy, with a shelf for shampoo and soap. The water took seconds to warm up and had good pressure, and the premium toiletries were a lovely touch.

Daily Service | Rooms receive twice-daily maid service.  In the morning, the bed is made, room cleaned, and fresh towels stocked.  In the evening, attendants turn down the bed, lay out the next day’s itinerary, and dim the lights for the evening.

Hints:

• Lower level rooms are water level, so have smaller windows that do not open.  I recommend a room on the main or upper level to get the best views and add more “room” to your room. A veranda stateroom is definitely worth the extra cost –  I had a veranda stateroom and loved having the veranda balcony to step outside to take photos and take in the scenery.

• Two words:  Heated Floors.  The bathrooms have heated floors to keep toes warm. It does not sound like a big deal, but on a cold winter night, heated floors are a healthy slice of heaven on earth. The room attendants turn the warmers on in the evening so guests have warm tootsies at bedtime, but the heated floors can be turned on at any time.

• If you are doing a pre or post trip excursion, you may still need that European electrical outlet adapter.  Bring one just in case.

• The on-board boutique sells clothing (with Viking logo) but does not sell toiletries, medications, or other supplies.  Be sure to bring your own over-the-counter and prescription medications, as a pharmacy may be difficult to find while in port.  Also bring enough toothpaste, razors, etc., although these are easier to find in port.

• Make sure the announcement speaker is turned up in your stateroom so you can hear announcements.  The speaker volume is located on the wall near the television in standard staterooms.  A couple on my cruise inadvertently turned down the volume and missed a morning departure announcement, missing a tour. Opps!

Port Excursions

Included Excursions | One of the best features of a Viking River Cruise is that a daily excursion/guided tour is included as part of the cruise package, while most large ocean cruises do not include any excursions. On my cruise, guided tours included a trip to the Black Forest, with a visit to a cuckoo clock factory and black forest cake demonstration, walking tours to five UNESCO World Heritage sites (including cathedrals, castles, and windmills), and walking tours in the Christmas markets in almost every city.

Optional Excursions | Guests can purchase optional excursions when booking their trip, or book optional excursions while on the cruise (if available).  Optional excursions on my trip included winery visits, museum tours, a private tour to the top of a Cathedral, a visit with a Dutch cheese maker, and a beer dinner.  The optional cruises offer another way to get a taste of the destination you are visiting, so I definitely recommend signing up for a few optional excursions.  My beer dinner in Cologne was a ball!

  • Flexibility – Book every excursion available or plan your own adventure, it’s up to you!  The ship is at each port of call for several hours, so guests may have flexibility to venture out on their own, if they chose.  Also, because many of the docks are located in the center of the city, getting around town is fairly easy.  Guests can even take a guided tour, then venture on their own at the end, and in some cities, shuttle service may be available several times a day back to the ship.  Check with your concierge to see if you are able to venture on your own, and to arrange transportation and activities.  Note:  Some Viking River Cruises may not be as flexible while in port, depending on the destination, so work with your booking specialist to plan independent touring.

Hints:

• Many guided tours offer an “easy walkers” tour for guests with slower mobility.  I have lupus and the cold is not kind to my joints, so I signed up for the “easy walkers” tour bus after the first day.  The tours are the same, but the pace is slower and more relaxed.  A bonus in taking this tour option was that it allowed me more time to take photographs at each location.

• Don’t necessarily sign up for every guided tour available, especially if you want a little down time.  Most of the tours are pretty fast-paced (even the easy walkers tour), and with some of the tour times 4-5 hours long, it can get exhausting if you are on the go every day.  It’s your vacation time after all!  Keep an afternoon or two open during the trip, so you can relax and enjoy the scenery from the sundeck, read a book, take a nap, or visit with other guests.

• Keep some Dramamine and a water bottle in your day pack for tour bus trips.  The tour buses tend to be warm and some of the routes are winding mountain roads…not a great combination for motion sickness.

• Use the free handheld headphone systems provided in your room for tours.  I forgot mine on a tour and missed half of what the tour guide said.  The headphones are a must!

• For winter travel, wear layers, and keep gloves and hats handy.  Weather conditions can change at a moments notice, and you may want to shed a layer or two on warm tour buses. Layering is probably a good idea for summer travel too, when moving between an air-conditioned tour bus and warmer outside temperatures.

• Wear flat comfortable walking shoes on the guided tours.  Some of the tours include a lot of walking (even for the slower paced walkers) and many of the pathways in Europe have uneven cobblestone streets.  Leave the heels for nighttime entertaining.

• Pickpockets can be a problem in Europe, so ladies should wear a small cross-body hand bag that sets close to the body, and men should use a neck or waist wallet.  Do not put your phone or wallet in your back pocket. Use an RFID blocking sleeve or wallet for credit cards to block credit card skimmers from getting your personal information.

 

A river cruise is a wonderful way to get your feet wet for cruising (pun intended), especially when cruising on an award winning river cruise line.  I think you will find, just as I did, that you can’t wait to experience another Viking River cruise. I may even be ready to try an ocean cruise, and thankfully there are Viking ocean cruises as well!

I hope these cruise secrets were a help, but if you have other questions about my Viking River cruise experience, please leave a message in the comments area below, and I would be happy to answer your questions, and if I do not know the answer, I will find it for you.

Be sure to check out the Viking website and for my Canadian readers, please check out the Viking Canada site!

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Have you always wondered if a Viking River Cruise is right for you? I have tips and insider secrets for you!

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24 comments

Denise Cobden 01/22/2017 at 9:36 pm

I loved your review. I found it interesting to read someone else’s opinion of our favourite holiday company. Almost all of which I agreed with. This year we are taking an ocean cruise with Viking (something my husband said he would never do until Viking started them.

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Julie Cohn 01/25/2017 at 12:56 am

Denise, Thank you so much! I would love to try a Vikings Ocean cruise as well and would never have considered it, if it were not for such a wonderful experience in the river cruise!

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Debra Schroeder 02/02/2017 at 8:58 pm

Loved your river cruise tips. Interesting that the daily briefing is audio vs a printed itinerary. I’ve been on many (100+) regular cruises but have yet to take a river cruise. One day…

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Julie Cohn 02/02/2017 at 9:01 pm

Debra – You do receive a printed itinerary in your room, the daily briefing is more to highlight certain places in each city, what each tour covers, etc.

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Sheena 02/02/2017 at 10:38 pm

I haven’t done a cruise for about 10 years, I think it’s about time I got my feet wet again! Viking River Cruises look like something I enjoy it, I prefer smaller & more intimate spaces. Would you recommend going in summer or winter or shoulder season?

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Julie Cohn 02/02/2017 at 10:43 pm

Sheena: I went on a winter cruise and other than the temperatures, the trip was lovely, especially since we were able to enjoy the Christmas markets. I have heard from others that summer is a great time to go as well and the sundeck is nice to lounge on. For the best prices, shoulder season is always good but I know Viking has some good specials right now for all year!

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melody pittman 02/03/2017 at 6:41 am

I am going on my second river cruise in April. I wish I had read your article long before taking my first one. (I am sharing because it is THAT good!!). I think that sometimes people compare river and ocean cruising so they are in total shock when they arrive for a river cruise. I had ocean cruised 25+ times at that point and I was still blown away by the differences. My stateroom was so small that my roommate and I honestly thought they were Candid Camera’ing us before pulling down the “shelf” that made a bed. We were so close at night we could have held hands across the 6″ that separated us. LOL Anyway, well done, loved the photos, all the facts, and this was amazing!

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Julie Cohn 02/03/2017 at 6:06 pm

Thank you so much Melody! For a first cruise experience, I don’t think it could get any better than a Viking cruise!

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Tara 02/03/2017 at 9:16 pm

What a great comprehensive guide. Like you, I’m not a huge fan of cruising, but I tell myself that if I’m going to do one, it’s going to be a Viking Cruise. I love the focus on culture and history. Your tips are great!

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Julie Cohn 02/03/2017 at 10:15 pm

Thank you so much Tara, the history and cultural of the areas we visited were one of my favorite parts of the trip!

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Shobha 02/03/2017 at 10:44 pm

I’ve never considered a Viking Cruise because I knew about the kids needing to be 12+. I’m now thinking I want to do the cruise for my 50th birthday! That would be so much fun – our kids would be old enough. and the European butter would make me so very happy :-))

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Julie Cohn 02/04/2017 at 2:48 am

You will love it!!

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Lynne Rosa 09/03/2017 at 12:20 am

Very nice review. My husband and I have traveled quite a lot, generally independently, but have booked our first Viking Cruise next month and are very excited. Tips and suggestions are very welcome indeed!

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Julie Cohn 09/03/2017 at 12:23 am

Enjoy your trip, you will love the Viking service!

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Tom Waldron 01/05/2018 at 7:59 am

Wonderful information! Is it best to tip as you go so the staff knows you are taking care of them, or just at the end?

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Julie Cohn 01/05/2018 at 7:42 pm

It is recommended to tip at the end, but you could probably do extra as you go too.

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Tracy 01/23/2018 at 2:58 pm

Hi! Thank you so much for the info! My husband and I just booked our first river cruise for next year…I’m a planner
We are so excited! Your tips really helped…can’t wait!

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Julie Cohn 01/24/2018 at 1:03 am

Thank you Tracy– I truly loved my Viking cruise and hope you do too!

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Sherri Killam 03/29/2018 at 3:19 am

We are going on our first Viking River Cruise in October along the Rhine, from Amsterdam to Basel. What kind of outer layers would you recommend for the fall in Europe. I have never been to Europe and am so excited! Also, are there any must-do optional or included excursions? Thanks for the great read!

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Julie Cohn 03/30/2018 at 10:18 pm

Sherrie– You will love the trip! I have not been on a Viking Rhine trip in October, but have been to Amsterdam at that time, and the temperatures average about 55-60 degrees. I think long pants and a light jacket will be fine. You should have the same excursions I had on the longship Eir–definitely do all the daily included excursions, including the windmills, Cologne Cathedral, etc. For optional tours, the Top of Cologne Cathedral is a must (unless you are afraid of heights), the beer dinner, the cheese tasting in Kinderdijk, and the military museum near Strasbourg.

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Sharon 04/10/2018 at 3:40 am

Thank you for great information! Getting ready for our first cruise in July (Amsterdam to Budapest and adding Prague) and sooo excited! Just a couple of questions… regarding tipping, can you estimate how many “favorite crew” you tipped? Seems like we’d be interacting with several. I had read another post where it said tips were shared. Just want to be prepared. Also, is there a retractable clothsline in the bathroom?

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Julie Cohn 04/10/2018 at 4:31 am

Sharon: Hi and welcome! Your trip sounds wonderful! I believe I tipped about 4-5 people — our main waiter, the housekeeping staff (which was shared I believe), the program director (which is tipped less–about 3 Euros a day). We may or may not have slipped our waiter a little extra because we know they share the tips. 😉 Also, I tipped the tour guides for each excursion, 1-2 Euros per. There was a retractable clothesline in the shower on my ship–I know because I washed some linens in the sink and hung them on the line to dry. I just checked with a friend who has been a Danube river cruise (the cruise you are taking) and she said there is clotheslines in the bathrooms on those cruises too!

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Judith Beyer 09/21/2018 at 2:51 pm

Thank you for all your wonderful tips. My sister-in-law and I (widows) are going on our first Viking River Cruise – Romantic Danube in a few weeks. We are both turning 80 and this is our Birthday gift to us from us!! We are very excited, as we love anything that is educational, historical, and restful!! All that you have indicated certainly fits the bill, perfectly.
It was recommended to us, by a friend who is a Viking Cruiser…….that we bring along walking sticks for stability on the cobblestone streets. We are healthy and very capable of walking and we don’t need canes, but what are your thoughts about the walking sticks??
My only concern about this trip…… is that they do not allow curling irons and my hair will be horrible and unmanageable without a curling iron. Have you any suggestions regarding that dilemma??

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Julie Cohn 09/21/2018 at 5:14 pm

Judith:

Hi! I am so excited for you, you will truly have such a wonderful time! The cobblestone streets are definitely uneven, so if your friend recommended a walking stick, I agree that it might be a good idea for balance. Amazon sells collapsible walking sticks, so you could always bring one and just keep it in your purse, just in case. As far as the curling iron, yes, they did not allow them for safety reasons, but I just heard that Viking changed their policy and allows them now. To be sure, please check with the travel agent that booked your trip or call Viking directly to confirm that this is true. Have a great trip!

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