They are the words everyone now dreads: “You’ve tested positive”.
As a triple vaccinated and careful traveller, catching COVID was the last thing we expected when we flew to Germany to join Viking’s ‘Elegant Elbe’ river cruise from Berlin to Prague.
We first booked the cruise for 2021, but it was COVID cancelled. This year, however, a green light, ship waiting, and Silver Spirits package booked.
Elegant Elbe kicked off with two days in the Berlin Grand Hyatt Hotel, day two including a city coach tour. We then transferred to Wittenberg and our ship, the Beyla, for what should have been five days sailing to Děčín in the Czech Republic. Finally, there were two days in the Prague Hilton Old City hotel before the flight home.
Viking takes great care to ensure its passengers are healthy. We had to take a COVID test at a UK government-approved medical centre within 48hrs of our flight to Berlin, and another when we arrived at the Grand Hyatt. All negative.
Aboard ship, mask wearing was compulsory other than when eating or drinking. We’ve always thought COVID respected the latter and either hovered up near the ceiling or lurked down on the floor.
We joined Beyla in the early evening after a coach journey that visited various interesting sites, including Frederick the Great’s wonderful Sanssouci palace in Potsdam. A great day, followed by excellent food and wine aboard a very comfortable ship.
Beyla, named after a servant to Norse god Freyr, was custom built for the River Elbe with a necessary shallow draught, a 28-strong crew, and caters to just 98 guests.
We visited Wittenberg, famous as Martin Luther’s home, with an excellent guide whose insights were enjoyed by all.
We were also asked to take another COVID test on that day.
Again, a wonderful evening and we even managed to win a box of chocolates and a bottle of wine to share for coming second in a music quiz organised by Beyla’s programme director Taraneh Meen.
At around 7am next morning we were woken in our cabin: I had tested COVID positive my partner was still negative.
Obviously, this was not the first time Viking has had to deal with this situation and they explained in detail what would happen.
Firstly, we both had to remain in our cabin, on the basis my partner could well be COVID positive by then. Meals and drinks would be brought to us and left outside the door.
We rang our travelling companions to tell them the bad news. They’d both tested negative and indeed, continued to do so throughout the holiday.
With no symptoms, feeling fine, and knowing how flaky some COVID tests can be, I suggested that a retest might be in order. Sorry, can’t do that. We were told we’d probably be driven back to Berlin and would need to isolate in a hotel there. Beyla, however, continued to sail throughout the day.
By the early evening, and approaching Meissen in Saxony, we were asked if we’d like something more to eat and drink. I ordered a bottle of red and a rare fillet steak, My partner had chicken salad: we both felt like condemned prisoners ordering their last meal.
Plan B, we were told, was that we’d now be driven to Prague to isolate at the main Hilton hotel. There was no choice of hotel, but it would be a normal room and not some bare bones isolation cell. Fine by us.
Viking gave us a detailed letter explaining what would happen during the ensuing isolation: “Our primary concern is your and your travel companion’s health and well-being,” it stated, but making very clear that, “Isolation means: i). Remain in your room at all times. Do not let anyone in, no visitors are permitted; ii). Unless instructed to do so, or in a real emergency, do not leave your room.”
The continuing testing strategy was explained, along with arrangements for returning home once we’d completed the isolation—all sorted by Viking bar the GBP30 taxi to the airport that our insurance company wouldn’t pay for either.
Viking noted that we’d have to pay for the room, lunches, dinners, drinks, and anything else we might want, and also gave us the email and ’phone number of our guardian angel, Sandra Balduque, who would be on call for us should any problems arise.
Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but Sandra and her Viking colleagues Fruzsina and Balint Mihok (brother and sister) were real lifelines, ’phoning to check on us daily and sending little parcels of Czech goodies that really brightened up our days.
Once docked we were disembarked along with two other COVID-positive guests and their partners. Viking organised, and paid for, the two taxis, and while we all wore masks, cab drivers included, no other special precautions were taken.
It was a pretty gloomy two-hour+ drive to Prague though, no-one felt like talking. Given the UK is no longer part of the EU, we wondered about border checks. After all, passports were asked for and stamped in Berlin. But no border, no checks.
Once at the Hilton, check in was absolutely as normal, bar the fact we carried our own luggage and weren’t escorted to our perfectly normal room—number 7104 which, unlike most of the dozens of hotel rooms I’ve stayed in throughout my professional life, will remain etched on my memory—along with the exact timing of every single BBC One daytime TV show.
Viking paid for breakfasts, but as said, lunches, dinners and drinks were down to us. All were delivered on a trolley left outside the door and it was part of the daily fun to find out what was missing from our order—eg: two coffees but only one milk, toast but either no butter or no marmalade. We finally made friends over the ’phone with Josef in room service who’d ring us to confirm that yes, we had our full order, and no, the toast wasn’t burnt this time.
COVID, inevitably, descended on both of us. Very runny noses, sore throats, headaches and tiredness. But the vaccines worked their magic; those symptoms only lasted about three days. We were really surprised when on Friday we still tested positive.
We were in room 7104 until the following Tuesday when we were given the all-clear. Viking booked us on a late evening flight and we arrived home around midnight.
So, what have we learned?
Firstly, never skimp on travel insurance. When we renewed ours earlier in 2022, full COVID cover was a $51 option. Taking it meant we’ve been reimbursed for most of the CZK78,859 ($4729) the Prague Hilton charged us.
Had we not, ‘basic’ COVID would have paid us a mere $35 per day.
Secondly, set a routine you both agree on and stick to it, with something to look forward to daily. For example, one bottle each of good Czech pils over lunch as ‘treat one’ of the day, and a bottle of wine with dinner as ‘treat two’.
Thirdly, this is where your smartphone, tablet or laptop is worth its weight in gold to stay in touch with friends and family. OK, for the workaholics among you, what a great chance to earn brownie points by staying in touch with the office.
Fourthly, pick a good company to cruise with. For the missing days of our Elbe holiday, Viking gave us vouchers towards a future cruise worth $5,015 per person and valid for any river or ocean cruise.
Did this experience put us off cruising? No. I have no idea how I caught COVID or where, quite probably not aboard the ship. Anyway, vouchers already used, we’ll be sailing with Viking again along the Mississippi in 2024 when we celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.
Fifthly, we both take medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol and we always take at least double the number of pills we’ll need on any holiday. Had we run short in Prague, we’d have needed a doctor to examine our UK prescriptions (now available to us on a smartphone app), write the equivalent in Czechoslovakian, and then have them collected from a Czech pharmacy. Cost? GBP250.
Finally, what happened to that box of chocolates and bottle of wine we won aboard Beyla and were supposed to share with our companions?
We smuggled them into the Hilton. I’m sure everyone will understand.