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Boomers going with the flow: A Viking River Cruise on the Danube

July 13, 2014
Chain Bridge over the Danube connecting Buda and Pest

Our Viking River Cruise on the Danube was the perfect introduction to the lovely cities, towns and villages that line the banks of the river.

It was a chilly, rainy afternoon when my husband and I boarded the Viking Freya in Budapest, Hungary, for an eight-day cruise along the Danube River to Nuremberg, Germany. After arriving from the U.S. a few days earlier to tour the city, we finally had adjusted to the time change.

We also had discovered that the namesake of Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” isn’t really blue. Far from it: The river that separates the city into two parts, Buda and Pest, is so muddy it’s reminiscent of New York’s East River. Yet we would discover that the magnificence of this water highway, the second-longest river in Europe after the Volga, is better judged by its rich history than its color and by the beauty of the castles, churches, medieval walls, stone bridges, tiny towns and capitals lining its banks.

Boarding Viking Freya

Boarding Viking Freya near Budapest

The rise of riverboat cruising

Riverboat cruising has exploded in popularity over the last decade, especially in the U.S. and Europe. New ships and itineraries are rapidly being introduced in response to the growing number of baby boomers filling their cabins.

“Boomers are active travelers who tend to enjoy the experiential nature of travel, which lends perfectly to river cruising,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief at Cruise Critic.com.

Fleets for AMAWaterways, American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Co., Avalon Waterways, Paul Gauguin Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and Viking River Cruises have all grown last year and this year.

One of the beautiful towns along the Danube

Leaving Passau, one of the beautiful towns along the Danube

Like larger oceangoing vessels, riverboats offer the convenience of packing and unpacking once, sleeping in the same bed for an entire stay and effortless transport between cities, generally overnight. In one week (the typical length of most river cruises), passengers can visit multiple cities and cross national borders as they are introduced to new foods, languages, customs and cultures.

Most river cruises are all-inclusive, covering meals and snacks, shore excursions, lectures and entertainment, and complimentary wine or beer with dinner. Some lines include airfare and airport transfers, gratuities, Wi-Fi and unlimited alcohol. Most boats hold fewer than 200 passengers, making this an intimate form of travel that hugs the shore and brings passengers up close to the destinations they visit.

“Passengers are able to disembark directly from the ship to the center of the action,” Brown said.

What’s more, riverboat passengers don’t overwhelm ports like the hordes descending from giant ocean liners. Viking River Cruises owns and operates 53 river vessels, the largest such fleet in the industry, and is adding 12 more in 2015. Viking Freya is one of 30 longships the company has introduced over the last three years, a design known for its shallow draft.

Ultra modern, high-tech bridge on Freya

Ultra modern, high-tech bridge on Freya

At 445 feet long and three stories high, Freya has the feel of a diminutive ocean liner, with a glitzy atrium lobby and chandelier. The layout is easy to master, with most public rooms, lounges and dining rooms at the bow; cabins are toward the aft.

Staterooms

We were assigned to a 205-square-foot (Category A) stateroom with sliding-glass doors opening to a veranda. The cabin had all the comforts of a luxury hotel: queen-size bed, contemporary furnishings, ample closet and storage space, an electronic thermostat, refrigerator, safe, multiple dual-voltage outlets and a 40-inch flat-screen TV.

Our stateroom

Our Category A stateroom

The bathroom had a full-size stall shower, radiant heated floor and L’Occitane bath products. Flicking a switch changed the glass-enclosed shower (separating the sleeping area from the bathroom) from clear to opaque privacy. 

Meals

With open seating (no reservations), an informal dress code and surprisingly decent dinner wines (often local ones), meals were relaxed. We sat at tables of 8 to 10 people, adding to the air of conviviality and to the sharing of secrets, such as the location of the shower privacy switch. Large windows throughout public areas afforded lovely views of passing scenery.

Making new friends over dinner

Making new friends over dinner

Serve-yourself coffee, juice and pastries were available in the lounge at 6 a.m. for early risers. The informal Aquavit Terrace offered an alternative to the cooked-to-order, order-as-much-as-you-want breakfasts or lunches in the dining room.

At dinner, along with international options, the Bulgarian chef introduced us to specialty foods from each port. In Budapest, a Hungarian goulash and dobos torte were on the menu; in Vienna, Wiener schnitzel. Heading into Germany, we were treated to a buffet with sausages, pretzels and local beers.

Lunch buffet

One of the choices at the lunch buffet

Beer and pretzels: You know you're in Germany

Beer and pretzels: You know you’re in Germany

Daily tours and excursions

Each night, the Viking Daily placed on our bed outlined the next day’s excursions and evening activities, as well as some historical and geographical information about ports. Our program director also held evening briefings in the lounge.

Our highly professional crew

Our highly professional crew

The group was encouraged to self-identify as either regular or “gentle” (slower) walkers, and assigned to knowledgeable, English-speaking local guides. When we needed buses, the cruise line had its own spiffy Mercedes buses waiting at each port. Itineraries offered a perfect mix of being led by a guide and being on your own.

One of the spiffy buses

One of the spiffy buses

But unless you stayed up through the night, there was no spare time to curl up with a book. We traveled to six cities and three countries, through 25 locks, mostly at night, waking up each day to explore a new destination.

Watching Freya go thru a lock on our in-room closed circuit TV

Watching Freya go thru a lock on our in-room closed circuit TV

The flow

With a crew of 49 for 175 passengers, we always felt coddled. Every logistical detail was seamless: Buses, tours and sailings were on time or earlier. As we readied for one lecture, my husband quipped, “With this group, if you’re on time, you’re late.”

Compared with ocean cruising, riverboats are far slower. We traveled at about 7 mph. Though this may sound like a leisurely way to travel, taking a river cruise is like hopping on a train and getting on and off at every station. We could sleep in, but each port offered something irresistible to see or discover; after dinner, live music, dancing or lectures were available.

Bottom line: If ocean cruising bores you, your ship — a small one — may have just come in.


IF YOU GO

Viking River Cruises: 800-304-9616

Check with your travel agent for information on the different offerings of various river-cruise operators.


[This article was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on July 13, 2014 and reprinted in other Tribune papers including the Daily Press (Hampton Roads, Virginia), Sun Sentinel (Florida), the Courant (Hartford), The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania, Orlando Sentinel, Carroll County Times (Maryland) and the Baltimore Sun.]

See our accompanying photoessay – City Highlights of a Danube River Cruise.


Previously on More Time to Travel:

Disclosure: Our cruise was hosted by Viking River Cruises but any opinions expressed in this post are our own.

  • Reply
    Bob
    July 15, 2014 at 1:44 am

    Hello Irene,

    Thank you for your blog on the Viking Freya… it’s very interesting reading!
    We are going on Rinda in December-first Viking River Cruise ever.

    I love the design of this blog.. what program is used to create it? I make a similar one for personal travel but haven’t been able to have a comments section such as the very one I’m using here.

    Respectfully yours,
    Bob

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 15, 2014 at 7:16 am

      The blog is on WordPress with a custom design.
      You are so lucky to be anticipating your cruise. Hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did!
      Best, Irene

  • Reply
    Anne Woodyard
    July 21, 2014 at 10:22 am

    What a relaxing and beautiful way to enjoy this part of the world!

  • Reply
    Michele Peterson
    July 21, 2014 at 10:30 am

    So true about the Danube being a mighty water highway – I was truly astonished to see how wide and fast-flowing it was. Definiately not a river you coudl fall into and expect to climb back out of in a hurry. I took a Christmas market river cruise with my mother on Avalon and loved how easy it was to just step off the boat and be in the heart of a historic village – no buses, no tenders or waiting in line. It truly is the way to see Europe.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 21, 2014 at 10:37 am

      It’s a great way to explore small towns, many of which are only in walking distance from where you dock.

  • Reply
    Donna Janke
    July 21, 2014 at 10:30 am

    I get brochures in the mail about European river cruises and lately have found myself reading them more closely. Your post has made me even more interested. Sounds wonderful.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 21, 2014 at 10:38 am

      Hope you have the opportunity. It’s a great way to travel, Donna!

  • Reply
    santafetrave;er
    July 21, 2014 at 11:15 am

    Would love to do one of these- looks great, but I can’t do boats. Didn’t know you wrote for some many publications. VERY impressive, Irene!!

    • Reply
      Irene
      July 21, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      Thanks, Billie. If you don’t do boats because of seasickness, riverboats are pretty peaceful without strong currents.

  • Reply
    The Gypsynesters
    July 21, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    We took this cruise (going the opposite direction) last December to visit the Christmas markets along the way. It was fantastic and the crew was great!

    • Reply
      Irene
      July 21, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      We loved the crew and our program director, too!

  • Reply
    Shelley
    July 21, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    I would love to try a river cruise like this some day! Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply
      Irene
      July 21, 2014 at 6:53 pm

      Hope you have the opportunity! Definitely worth writing (home) about~

  • Reply
    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru
    July 21, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    Aloha Irene, I’m going to share this with a friend who is taking this cruise next Spring. Looks like a lovely experience. Definitely on our list as we loved Budapest, so now we are conflicted between the Rhine and the Danube. Maybe we should go twice? Congrats on the Chicago Trib and other newspaper syndication. 🙂

    • Reply
      Irene
      July 21, 2014 at 6:54 pm

      Haven’t been on the Rhine but I don’t think you can go wrong!

  • Reply
    Doreen Pendgracs
    July 21, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    This is one trip we’ve been wanting to do for a very long time. What’s not to like!

  • Reply
    Johanna
    July 21, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    What an awesome cruise 🙂 We contemplated a river cruise but instead booked on a cycle cruise in Croatia. Next year though I think a river cruise will be on my must-do list. Thanks for some great information 🙂

  • Reply
    Nancy Thompson
    July 22, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    Great post! I think small ship (boat?) cruising is a great way to go. We’ve looked at Viking a couple of times but went on to do something else completely. Your post has enticed me back for a more serious look. Thank you.

  • Irene S. Levine
    Reply
    Irene S. Levine
    July 22, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Check out some of the river cruise catalogs. There are so many great itineraries to explore!

  • Reply
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    July 22, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    Riverboat cruising along the “blue” or brown Danube sounds incredibly romantic! The towns lining the river are very picturesque and I would love to go on a riverboat cruise someday.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 22, 2014 at 3:31 pm

      Each one is so different with a personality of its own. A riverboat tour allows you a “once over” so you know which ones you would like to return to.

  • Reply
    Suzanne Stavert
    July 22, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    Your photos really gave me a great sense of the ship. I loved seeing what a room would look like. The food looked amazing as well. My husband says “He won’t do a cruise.” But never say never! Thank you for the virtual cruise!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 22, 2014 at 7:23 pm

      My husband started out thinking he would never go on a cruise…until he went on one!

  • Reply
    Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    July 22, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    I want to go! My destination of choice right now is Russia, though the news is changing my interest.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 22, 2014 at 8:37 pm

      Earlier this evening, I was lamenting about how many places seem to be “off the map” this week.

  • Reply
    A Cook Not Mad (Nat)
    July 23, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Cruising doesn’t really appeal to us but I remember seeing the ships lined up on the Danube and thinking, this I could get into. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    Jackie Smith
    July 24, 2014 at 10:54 am

    You’ve made river cruising seem very tempting Irene! Someday maybe we’ll give up the oceans and head to the rivers. . .great information here.

  • Reply
    Cathy Sweeney
    July 25, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Although I’ve never been very tempted by the idea of an ocean cruise, I’ve been very open to river cruising — just haven’t had the right opportunity yet. I especially think the Danube would be ideal, especially if it stops in Budapest, a city I’ve come to love. Your stateroom looks nice and would be large enough (I think) as long as it’s as nicely appointed as yours was.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 25, 2014 at 7:02 pm

      If I hadn’t taken the cruise, I might never have fallen in love with Budapest:-)

  • Reply
    Cathy moore
    May 19, 2015 at 8:00 am

    I want to go on the 8 day cruise-romantic Danube in Sept. My mom is 89 years old and is pretty good but does have some trouble walking and stairs! What do u think? I am scared this might be too much! Thank u!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      May 19, 2015 at 9:09 pm

      It depends on your mom’s health, mobility and agility. Even if she doesn’t participate in every excursion, there are many aspects to the cruise she may enjoy, both on the ship and ashore. Viking does a nice job of making special groups for “gentle walkers.” My best advice is to call the cruise line and be candid about your concerns and get their input. They may suggest accommodations that will allay your concerns.

  • Reply
    David
    August 18, 2016 at 9:00 am

    Great post, we just finish up two viking river cruises the Elegant Elbe and Russia. Two great river cruises a little slow but good stuff. I would do the Elegant Elbe again however Russia was way to touristy.

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