Choosing a river cruise company isn’t for the faint of heart. While it’s absurdly simple to get your name on email and physical mailing lists for a wide variety of cruise lines (and then watch out!), it’s not so easy to discern which company might work best for you if you’ve never tried any of them.
Mom and I asked friends who’d taken European river cruises and each one offered a different name. And each also offered to give me their customer number to get us a discount on our cruise and a referral credit for themselves. [Side note: I’d be happy to talk with you via email about our experience with Viking and offer you my ideas–and a referral number–so you can save $100/person off each of your fares if you’ve never cruised with Viking before. Then I can go on another Viking cruise–and I promise I’ll blog it with oodles of details]
We narrowed it down to two companies based on itineraries and each company’s reviews (thank you, CruiseCritic.com!). Our final choice of Viking River Cruises seemed just right for us with its “pretty much everything is included” pricing as well as the ship’s aesthetics (we prefer Scandinavian simplicity over red-velvet elegant). When we discovered that we could purchase the tickets through Costco with a significant discount (shipboard credit as well as a pretty hefty Costco gift card upon the trip’s completion), we figured we’d made the right decision.
We still feel that way and, in fact, I’m just a few weeks’ away from leaving on a Baltic cruise with Mom on Viking’s new sister company, Viking Oceans. We definitely wouldn’t spend more money with Viking if we hadn’t felt they’d earned our business.
But that doesn’t mean everything was hunky-dory. In this post I’ll detail those areas where Viking earned a less-than-stellar grade from us–and in the next post I’ll provide some personal insight about the good things Viking did.
Let’s start with the bad…
Pre-trip communication with Viking’s customer service department stunk. Seriously.
I’m not sure if every cruise company has it set up this way, but if you purchase your Viking cruise through a travel agent (in our case, Costco), Viking pretty much considers that they’ve washed their hands from you personally. Any questions you might have of the arrangements specific to your trip (including questions about Viking Air) must be directed to you travel agent who then takes them to Viking and then gets back to you. It kinda feels like that old “Telephone Line” game in which one person whispers something to the person next to them, that person passes it along and when it gets to the end of the line, the original message is barely recognizable.
That’s how it felt dealing with Viking. Costco did a great job but it was just plain awkward having to relay questions back and forth in this manner. It appeared that Viking River customers could discovered some information about their cruise online, but this option, again, was only available if you’d booked directly with Viking. Sigh…
For example, after reading about a lock workers strike during one European river cruising season as well as the previous year’s record-high water levels, I had some specific questions about how Viking would handle those types of situations if they occurred the year we were cruising with them. Since we’d paid good money for the “cancel for any reason” insurance. I figured it would be good to know if the current conditions were necessitating a ship and bus tour (to get around the bridges we might be too high to float under) versus an all-ship tour. Good luck getting an answer from Viking’s phone-in or email customer service division. I called and then I emailed, figuring I’d have a written response to refer to in case anything went contrary to what I’d been told. And, yes, I understand that river cruising is, by its nature, dependent upon those variable river water levels–I just figured I’d prefer to cancel ahead of time and re-schedule the trip if it looked as if this itinerary was going the bus route.
While I received thoughtful responses from Viking’s email customer service, the responses were not very information-packed. I truly don’t think Viking’s customer service department gets very detailed or even current information from the navigation department. My questions were all answered with assurances that everything looked fine and the representatives weren’t aware of the difficulties I was already reading about on Cruise Critic (with bus bypasses between locks and bridges).
I was left feeling that Viking was withholding information from us. Not a good first taste of Viking.
My overall assessment is that Viking doesn’t really have its game together for customer service information pre-cruise. It doesn’t leave a new river cruiser feeling very comfortable–or at least that was the feeling of this newbie river cruiser.
Flexibility is also something that Viking doesn’t seem to specialize in. I understand because they’re booking a lot of people at once-but when you pay a premium price (or at least it seemed that way to us) for travel, it would have been nice to think that we had some say in our Viking-arranged travel. Never having been to Europe before, we used Viking’s air arrangements from our home airport (Los Angeles); we were given a decent departure and arrival time, but I heard of some folks whose incoming flights arrived quite late in the day on the first day of their cruise itinerary. And, again, I understand we could have paid a premium (but it seemed pretty darn pricey) to have more “control” of our flights, including seating options.
And, if you haven’t arranged your air with Viking, don’t count on being able to add a Viking airport transfer at cruise’s end even at your own cost. We had friends who were in the same post-cruise hotel our extension was in and, even though three Viking-arranged airport shuttles were nowhere close to being full, Viking did not permit them to purchase a shuttle ride. Period.
Flexibility, again, is not a hallmark of Viking once you’ve made all of your trip arrangements.
Early deposit and Viking-provided insurance: Yep, Viking wants your money pretty darn soon after you make your initial reservation, especially compared to other river cruise lines, it seems. When asked, they counter it with the availability of their own Viking travel insurance which allows you to “cancel for any reason.” But that insurance doesn’t get you your money back–instead you get credit on another Viking cruise in the next year. That’s hardly helpful, if say, you had to cancel because of the sad discovery of a cancer which needed treatment and you couldn’t anticipate being able to travel at all in the next year. And, not to be tacky, but I asked what would happen if one of the traveling partners passed away before the “replacement” trip was booked; would the credit go to the remaining passenger to be transferred to someone else? I didn’t really get a clear answer. That’s why I suggest getting your trip insurance outside of Viking. Although that still doesn’t alleviate the early deposit issue…
On board the ship, passengers did a bit of grumbling about the “tip messaging” as the cruise drew to its close. Yes, we’d all read about the “standard/expected” tip suggestion and I’m guessing all passengers (except those from Britain and Australia, whose tips were included with booking) were planning on at least the suggested amount, but the messaging, especially about how the tips were to be divided amongst staff, caused a bit of resentment and consternation as the two final onboard days dawned. Do the cruise directors get a salary at all or is their “pay” entirely dependent upon the separate CD tips? Frankly, there was a lot of passenger debate about the “value” of the CD (and he was a great, personable and helpful guy) compared to the remainder of the staff. I think a bit more information about pay vs. tips might have helped passengers to accept the suggested tipping amounts–or at least not be so upset about it.
Old-school technology to share trip details with passengers. This may not be a big deal to you, but it was for Mom and I: we pack lighly (so, okay, I *did* take an extra pair of sandals–but they were so cute!) and tote our iPads instead of reams of paper. The iPads each hold copies of our trip arrangements, our passports/ID, health cards, etc. (plus it enables me to do all my work emails and blogging as I watched the swans paddle by us on the Danube…but I digress…).
A month or so before your trip begins, Viking sends you a nifty ittle black neoprene zip bag (perfectly sized for an iPad–as long as you don’t have a case on it 😉 ) as well as the luggage tags and, most importantly, a great little pair of books with your personalized trip itinerary and the points of interest on the rivers along your cruise. Fine and dandy, right? But why can’t they also supply that same “print on demand/personalized book” as a PDF? That way we could leave the books at home and just use the PDF to refer to the info and river information.
Grrrr…as a print provider, I *know* this booklet was created using electronic means–how difficult would it have been for Viking to convert it quickly to a low/medium-resolution PDF so we could carry that (and leave one at home for those unlucky enough to be stay-behinds)? I made the trip details booklet work by carefully scanning just those pages and electronically inserting them into a PDF I found online with the day-by-day itinerary from Viking, but it was lots harder than it needed to be–and I couldn’t find the river points of interest booklet anywhere as an electronic file. It’s time, Viking, to embrace modern technology! (Please?)
Fortunately, though, the “less than good” issues with Viking were overwhelmed by the great things the cruise line did. Look for my next post for details on that!