Disaster on the Danube
BACKGROUND: We have traveled on Viking River Cruises three times in total. The first trip was in 2014 (Romantic Danube, Veranda). The second was the Elegant Elbe in 2017 (Veranda Suite). This cruise we chose the Explorer Suite with both pre-and-both excursions. Notes on cruise of the Viking Ullur, 1-8 Sept 2021. Arrived 28 Aug 2021. Paperwork sent by Viking, regarding COVID vague and inaccurate. Implied threat that if we didn’t do what they said we would be delayed or denied the trip. Viking “Strongly Recommended” a COVID Test prior to departure. This was not “Mandatory” and if we had decided against it, we would have been denied boarding in Denver by Lufthansa. Romanian Entry Card supplied by Viking Medical Officer was not the correct form. Nor was there any mention of COVID Screening at Bucharest Airport. The pre-excursion to Transylvania was not even close to the standards we had come to expect from Viking. The Viking Rep at the Marriott Bucharest was more interested in collecting test tubes, then facilitating guests. The first night we didn’t even receive our Welcome Letter with a plan for the coming days. The trip to Transylvania began with a stop near Ploesti, where we could visit a Romanian Mall (Carrefour), and actually change some money. The visit to the Peles Castle was abbreviated and they charged extra if you wished to film inside. The Brasov Visit was also abbreviated and further delayed by travelers who managed to get on the wrong bus and were thus unaccounted for. The following day at Bran Castle was supposed to last two hours. Instead, we were on site for 42 minutes, as travelers on our bus ran up a mini-bar bill and tried to run out on it. The whole bus paid for the delay while these people paid. Throughout this, our tour guide regaled us with stories of life under communism and how we should think about it when tipping. After Bran Castle came a lovely six-hour crawl by bus back to Bucharest. There we found that the Viking Rep. had told the Marriott to lock our Mini Bars. Very professional. The following day we opted out of a Monastery Tour (still haven’t received a refund) and spent a quiet day in the city. Following a city tour on the 1st of Sept, we bussed from Bucharest to the embarkation point for the boat. Somehow, we managed to arrive two hours late. We were met by the Hotel Manager, Eddy, and he apologized for issues we had in the pre-excursion. We also were introduced to Milana, our cabin steward. She was also the Head of Housekeeping. She was clearly not happy with her task and made it well known to us in a myriad of ways, including leaving cleaning materials in our suite (see attachment) and ensuring that her “cleaning” made the most of interrupting our mornings. My wife made short work of that. On the 2nd we moved from Russe, Bulgaria to our first stop, Veliko Tarnova. After breakfast we began a 2.5-hour trek to the town. This was interspersed with more tip begging by the tour guide. When the subject of currency transfer came up, the bus became animated as none of this had been facilitated. The Program Director, Sonya Bakalova, assured the guests that we would be able to change currency and all the Bulgarian shops accepted Dollars, Euros and Cards. That was the last we heard of changing currency in Bulgaria. The stop in Veliko Tarnova was nice, but it was clear that we were being steered where to shop, by the tour guide. The stop for lunch in Arbanasi proved this. I tried to purchased something at a shop “Not on the approved list” and was chased out by the owner for not using Bulgarian Currency. When I reported this to the tour guide, she actually chastised me for not visiting “her” stores. I later reported this to Program Director Sonya. She did nothing, and never did anything regarding currency issues on the ship. What Sonya did do was attach herself all day on the 2nd to a passenger who was feigning disability. She would go on to attach herself to that person for two more days (Belogradchick Rocks and Street Tour of Budapest). This was all at the expense of the other travelers on the ship. September 3rd was the tour to the Belogradchick Rocks, where the same thing with currency happened. Sonya was right there with the “Excuse of the Day”, but she did say that all of the garbage we saw along the road during the drive to the rocks she was going to address. Later in the day the passengers were called together in Vidin, where Sonya and Eddy decided to tell us we had two positive COVID Cases. That day the two cases and four other passengers were evacuated from the ship. That evening we sailed and passed into Serbian Territory. On 4 Sept we were notified in the morning that Serbia had denied us entry into the country. Sonya decided to soften the blow by stating publicly “The trip takes you. You don’t take the trip”. At 1845 that night we were notified that Croatia had also denied us entry. Sonya and Eddy’s excuse for things was that they didn’t have any “pull” in either of these countries, but that things would be much better in Hungary, where Viking had lots of “pull”. And on we sailed, with no word whatsoever regarding what Viking was going to do to make things “right”. Throughout all of this debacle, I would have assumed some leadership from the captain. That was not to be. He was clearly a member of the NBC Club (Nothing But Crickets). And we sailed on. We reached the Hungarian Border on 5 Sept at 1845, where Eddy went forward to exercise his “pull”. We were told that the process at the border would take a couple of hours, followed perhaps by an Identity Parade (Passport photo to Face). At 2308 we were finally called from our stateroom to attend the “Parade”. Shortly thereafter, we were underway to Kalocsa, or so we thought. Apparently, a decision was made without our notification, that we would pass by Kalocsa (scheduled stop) and head straight for Budapest. We pulled in at Gate 7 in Budapest at around 1400 on the 6th. We were then subjected to a brief by Sonya of an impromptu walking tour of Budapest. Following this, we formed up into our groups and off we went. This was not before we had a great display of Viking’s Professionalism. The security afforded by the company in Budapest was pathetic, and this included both day and night shifts (constantly texting or sleeping on duty). Sonya was with one group on the walk, personally attending to the needs of the gentleman previously mentioned. This was the third day on the trip where he was the sole focus of her attentions, to the detriment of any other passenger. As a result of all the fawning attentions of Sonya, the gentleman later in the day had a “miraculous recovery” and was walking around without his cane or wheelchair, a true miracle. The following day, 7 Sept, was spent on tours where Viking obligingly provided lunch. As my wife and I have been to Budapest before, we had been on all the tours and struck out alone. Viking couldn’t even get this right. They gave out cards that we could use with taxis, to facilitate getting back to the ship. They were wrong and gave us cards directing taxi drivers to a dock 800m away! At this point I was pleased that we hadn’t had a collision with another vessel, which Viking did in Budapest in 2019 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hable%C3%A1ny_disaster. That evening was the Captain’s Cocktail Party. Sonya pulled me aside and told me that she had made arrangements that we would have an early check in at the Intercontinental Hotel for our post-cruise excursion. When the time came, in true Viking Fashion, the taxi was late and we sat cooling out heals in the hotel lobby for two hours waiting for our room. One interesting fact was that during our time in the lobby, we observed the gentleman who was the focus of Sonya’s attention throughout the cruise. He was back in his wheelchair, obvious relapse, and was immediately escorted to his room. When I inquired of the Viking Rep in the hotel, she said that he and his wife needed to be immediately quarantined, as his wife had popped positive for COVID (4th case on the Ullur). The irony of this was infectious and makes one wonder how Sonya is fairing with her daily COVID Tests. Viking River Cruises has obvious gone through a paradigm change since our last cruise in 2017. It can be attributed to Torstein Hagen’s contentious divorce, or the selling of 23% of his holdings to a hedge fund, or the hiring of a retired USN Vice Admiral to his staff to handle Health Issues. Regardless, Viking’s Customer Service and operations have taken a fall. I personally don’t invest 20k + for an Explorer Suite and pre/post cruise options to receive this kind of treatment. Clearly, Mr. Hagen’s statement of his work ethic being based on Kindness, Honesty and Hard Work is not being practiced by his employees. We won’t be sailing with this company ever again!