Without a doubt, the most visible presence in the river cruising world is Viking River Cruises, thanks to effective TV, radio and direct mail advertisements. In contrast, Tauck -- an upscale tour line that offers river cruises -- is a well-kept secret; unless you've already become familiar with the company's organized land vacations or seen its ships on Europe's rivers, you might not know it exists.
Beyond advertising budgets, the lines offer vastly different experiences. Viking provides a shore excursion daily, along with beer and wine at meals, in a casual environment, while Tauck is all-inclusive, with a fair number of luxurious extras. Read on for our look at Tauck vs. Viking river cruises and some ideas of why you should pick one over the other.
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Price and Inclusions
Let's start with the inclusions. On a Viking river cruise, you receive a fair amount in your fare: a daily shore excursion with more elaborate options available for a fee; Wi-Fi; beer, wine and soda with meals and bottled water; and some entertainment and enrichment. Tauck is a much more deluxe experience, with alcohol and spirits included at all times, plus an in-room mini-bar stocked with bottled waters and sodas; all excursions; Wi-Fi; bikes onboard; gratuities; money to buy lunch in port; and special events such as dinner at a one- star Michelin restaurant.
The difference comes with a significant impact on your wallet, particularly in the lower categories. On a similar eight-day June 2017 cruise on the Rhine, Tauck is about $3,882 more expensive than Viking (for two people), although the gap lessens at the higher category to $1,291 per person (or $2,582 total). Viking has a top suite category that is pricier than anything you'd find on Tauck, however.
Choose Viking if you are more a do-it-yourself person on shore and with tips, and don't mind paying for your Happy Hour and after-hours drinks. The pours at lunch and dinner are generous, so if you're not a spirits drinker -- or don't like alcohol at all -- you might not need all the extras that Tauck provides.
Choose Tauck if you don't want any extra charges at all when you leave the ship, love the convenience of having everything set up for you or want the feeling of a more deluxe experience.
Shore Excursions and Enrichment
Viking River Cruises includes at least one shore excursion in every port you visit. These are guided by local experts who know the history and culture; since Viking has so many river cruises going at any one time and provides a more stable stream of employment, the company is often able to scoop up some of the better guides in a town. Viking also has optional shore excursions that it sells in some ports; these excursions generally are limited to small groups and take you into smaller venues or provide immersive experiences that expose passengers to a port's culture and traditions on a deeper, often hands-on, level. Some of the shore excursion options are truly special, such as truffle hunting in Bordeaux, visiting Highclere Castle where "Downton Abbey" was shot or cognac blending in Camus.
Tauck's shore excursion program is a little more comprehensive (although oddly, the guides themselves and the berths where the ships dock aren't necessarily better and, in some cases, are worse). Passengers often get a choice of excursions, both of them included. The line also hands out 20 euro (or francs, in Switzerland) per person if the tour takes place over lunch. One of the Tauck tenets is "lagniappe," or a little something extra, such as a Champagne reception in the Baden-Baden casino or roses to put on the graves of veterans at an American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg. Tauck also makes sure there's at least one special event in the evening per cruise, where passengers are taken to a castle, restaurant or historic venue for a dinner or concert performance.
Tauck carries fewer passengers onboard so its tour groups are, by definition, smaller. At least one Tauck director comes on each shore excursion so if you want to ask what time the bus leaves for the umpteenth time or your QuietVox battery dies, help is a few steps away. Finally, Tauck carries bicycles onboard so if you want to spend the morning exploring paths along the rivers instead of taking a tour, you can.
One thing that Tauck and Viking have in common is that they use modern coaches branded with the cruise line's logo and photos of the ships or exotic locations (making them easily identifiable in a crowd of coaches). Both cruise lines use a QuietVox system during excursions, where the tour guide speaks into a headset while passengers listen on receivers. This allows passengers to go at their own pace while still hearing the guide.
Onboard enrichment on both lines is based around the destinations visited. There will be talks by the Tauck directors or lecturers hired by Viking and activities such as a wine tasting. Local entertainers will also come aboard to perform music, song and dance from the region.
Choose Viking if you want a good introduction to a port without a lot of handholding, don't mind paying for special excursions and want the best berthing in town.
Choose Tauck if you want the feeling of five-star service while still having the freedom to explore.
Itineraries, Demographics and Fleet
Viking has the largest fleet, by far, in Europe, with 46 nearly identical Scandinavian-inspired Longships. The boats are relatively new, and vessels can accommodate up to 190 passengers. Viking ships sail all of Europe's major rivers, including the Rhine, Danube, Rhone, Main, Moselle, Seine, Dordogne, Garonne, Gironde and Dutch waterways. Viking also has five smaller "Baby Longships," which sail the Douro River in Portugal and the Elbe River in Germany. Then, there are the ships in Egypt, China, Vietnam, Russia and Myanmar (Burma), which the line either owns or charters. (The Russian program in particular is one of the best out there.) All told, the fleet stands at 64.
In contrast, Tauck has nine ships, with its four newer Inspiration-class vessels carrying 130 passengers -- the lowest number of passengers for a ship its size. (The Longships are the same size, 443 feet, but carry 190). Starting in 2017, the line is revamping its five older Jewel-class ships, which are smaller than the Inspiration vessels, and reducing the capacity from 118 to 98. The line sails only on the major European rivers: Rhine, Main, Danube, Rhone, Seine and Moselle. Another difference is that Tauck ships are actually owned and run by Scylla, a Swiss-owned company. The only Tauck employees onboard are the four cruise directors.
The core passengers for both lines are Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians and passengers from other English-speaking companies, aged 50s to 70s. In general, you'll find a less international crowd on Tauck than Viking, simply because the latter is better known. Given the price point, the passengers seem more well-heeled on Tauck.
Choose Viking if you want lots of itinerary choice. Viking has more weeklong cruises than Tauck and sails in more places and on more dates. If you want flexibility, the line is hard to beat.
Choose Tauck if you like a more intimate ship. Having fewer people on the same size ship does make a difference in terms of seating, service and overall vibe.
Both Viking and Tauck have well-thought-out cabins with an understated decor. On Viking, Scandinavian design rules the day, with light wood tones and a modern, clean look throughout. Tauck is equally non-fussy, but the overall feel is a little more elegant.
Viking Longships carry 190 passengers and have 95 cabins. Cabins with French balconies are 135 square feet and standard cabins with a true balcony are 205 square feet (balcony inclusive). Lower-deck rooms, which have a window, are 150 square feet. One nice perk: heated floors in the bathroom. Toiletries are Viking's own, Freya, and they are quite nice.
On Tauck's four Inspiration ships, you'll find 67 cabins; the line is revamping its Jewel-class ships in 2017, so they will have 49 cabins. Because the Tauck Inspiration ships are the same size as Viking ships with fewer passengers and cabins, the staterooms are larger. Window cabins are 150 square feet to Viking's 135, and most of Tauck's cabins have a French balcony and are 225 square feet (while the standard on Viking is 205 square feet). The line claims the ship offers more suites than any other European river vessel and these cabins -- while not true suites -- are 300 square feet.
Another thing that sets the Inspiration class of ships apart: "loft" design cabins, which have a raised platform seating area that provides extra space in lower-level cabins. Most cabins also have a French balcony, which allows the rooms themselves to be larger than full balcony cabins, while still letting in fresh air. In French balcony cabins, the beds generally face the window for better views.
One place where Viking shines, however, is with its Explorer Suites. At 445 square feet, they are among the largest on the rivers with wraparound balconies, a separate bedroom and living room and another French balcony. This cabin is more expensive than anything on Tauck, but if you're a luxury lover who wants to take an itinerary only operated by Viking and not an upscale line, it might be a good substitute.
Choose Viking if you want a true balcony and don't mind sacrificing space to do it.
Choose Tauck if you're fine with a French balcony and want a larger standard cabin.
On both lines, the main restaurant setup is very similar, with buffets at breakfast and lunch plus live cooking stations and made-to-order menu items. Dinner is served to the table and, on both lines, staff are very attentive. Ships offer a wide choice of dishes to suit all tastes, including healthy choices and simpler "always available" dishes, although Tauck had more vegan and vegetarian options. Special diets can be catered for with advance notice, and menus are labeled for people with dietary restrictions. Viking does seem to pay a little more attention to making sure dishes are regional in nature.
Tauck differs in that the main restaurant is open seating, meaning you can go down and have dinner whenever you like. On Viking, everyone eats at the same time, which can create a "herding" effect that some people dislike.
Both lines provide generous pours of wine during lunch and dinner, mostly regional varietals. On Viking, you can pay extra for a better bottle of wine, whereas Tauck has a wine cellar with some special bottles that are included in your fare (although they don't exactly volunteer these premier offerings; you have to ask). On Tauck, complimentary hot and cold canapes are passed during happy hour.
Tauck's alternative restaurant, Arthur's, is currently on the Inspiration-class ships and it's being added to the Jewel-class ships during their refurbs. The restaurant has evolved into a casual grill, with a menu offering everything from hamburgers and salads to pastas and steaks. It's open for lunch and dinner, and it's free for everyone. The line also offers a "bite to eat" snack menu that can be delivered to your cabin as room service, or to any of the lounges as a small plate.
Viking also has an alternative restaurant, the Aquavit Lounge, but it's much more limited in its menu and only serves food during certain hours. There is no room service on Viking.
Choose Viking if you like dining alfresco. The Aquavit Lounge is glass-enclosed and it can open to the elements in nice weather. When it's open, there's still a buffer, so your hair and food don't blow around. Tauck has outdoor seats at Arthur's but there's no glass buffer, so it's a windier experience.
Choose Tauck if you like open seating and want the choice of having room service and a true alternative dining venue where you can get casual, hot food.
Viking River Cruises has built its name on destination immersion, and the company doesn't provide extras such as casinos, spas, bikes or pools on its ships. Concierges can arrange services while you're in port at various hotels or providers along the way.
Tauck does have a few high-end extras onboard, including a fitness center, complimentary bikes and a plunge pool on the top deck. There's a salon that provides hair and nail services, as well as a small spa for massage treatments. Keep in mind that the itineraries are still destination-immersive, so you might not have as much time to use these as you think you will.
Choose Viking if you don't need a gym or a lot of extras onboard.
Choose Tauck if onboard spa, beauty and fitness options are essential to your vacation.
Choose Viking if you want what has become the industry standard for river cruising, a semi-inclusive experience with a line that does more sailings on more rivers than anyone else.
Choose Tauck if you want an all-inclusive river cruise with more extras and a higher-end feel -- and don't mind paying for it.