River Cruising from a Millennial Perspective
You may have heard of river cruising, you may have seen them on your travels throughout Europe, and you may even know someone who has been on one. As a 31 year old, not many of my friends (outside the travel industry) have experienced this type of travel. And I’m here to tell you, this may be a type of travel you want to explore.
After 2 years of pushing back our trip, originally set for July of 2020 (thanks to the pandemic), we officially set sail on Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette down the Rhine river July 17,
2022. Onboard with me was my husband (32 years old), my three sisters (28, 21, and 16 years old), and my sister’s boyfriend (30 years old). I note our ages here because the average age onboard is about 60 years old. That being said there were a handful of younger kids traveling with their parents or family members. But, we were constantly asked, “What made you choose river cruising?” or “Have you liked this trip?” And even, “Is there enough for you to do?” All we gladly answered with reassurance that we were having a good time, we were having plenty of fun, and that we had originally chosen to do a river cruise on Uniworld’s younger focused cruise line — U by Uniworld. (U River Cruises is no longer operating which is how we ended up with the parent company — Uniworld).
So what did a group of 16-30 year olds find themselves doing on a week long river cruise through Switzerland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, where most of the other patrons are more than double our age? I’m here to break it all down for you.
I want to start out by saying that river cruising and ocean cruising are two completely different forms of travel. If you have done ocean cruising and liked it or disliked it, below may help you decide how you would feel about river cruising. The average ocean cruise can carry around 6500 guests, while a river cruise averages around 150 guests. River cruising is much smaller, and truly feels like a floating hotel. As someone who has done both, I am not a fan of ocean cruising as I find it to take too much time to get on and off the ship and the ports tend to be far away from city centers. River cruising however is simply walking off the ship, often times steps away from the city center. There aren't the options onboard river cruising that you have on ocean cruising. River cruising has one restaurant, a small coffee bar, and bar, often times a lounge with a bar as well or a small cafe.
Accommodations — going into Uniworld and working in the travel industry I was prepared for the lavish accommodations onboard their river cruises. Our boat, the S.S. Antoinette has French touches and nods to Marie Antoinette and Versailles. Overall, this is not exactly my aesthetic that I would decorate my home in, but it is is very fun for vacation. There are other cruise lines that offer more modern, sleek accommodations, however, I thought the overall vibe was fun, great for photos, and something that I liked getting to spend time in. The beds were soft and nice, I love a down comforter when I stay at a hotel (or in this case on a river cruise). The bathrooms were spacious and done in a lovely marble, and the storage for unpacking and storing bags under the bed were excellent. The rooms had phones, and tvs. The television had tons of options for movies and tv shows. Overall I had no issue with the accommodations and didn’t spend a ton of time in my room, as we spent most of our time on the top deck.
Food — the food was one of the main highlights of our cruise. All meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, were included minus two lunches that were spent on your own when off the ship. The breakfasts and lunches were easy buffets with a mix of local and American style choices. Each meal also had a signature item that could be ordered, like eggs Benedict. There is a carving station, gelato, salad bar, fruits, and more. Dinners were definitely a highlight for our whole group. As I mentioned we were quite the special bunch in terms of food needs. My sister is a vegan, and my two other sisters are quite picky. Everyone loved the food. Dinners were presented each night with a menu created to feature local dishes. Everyone is encouraged to choose a starter, often times a salad or a few bites of something like scallops. Then a soup, a rotating option each night, as well as a standard chicken soup each night. The entree, which usually had 3-4 choices and usually encompassed a rice or pasta dish, a meat option, or a vegetarian dish. And finally a dessert. Often times it was a cake or an ice cream. There were always three standard choices each night of steak, chicken, and salmon as well. You could also order French fries and a rotating cheese plate each night. The food was fantastic. We ordered the cheese plate each night and enjoyed trying a ton of local dishes.
Excursions — Our tour offered 14 excursions, 9 of which were free, there was a free option daily. Personally, I am not big on excursions. I don’t like to fill my days when I travel, I would rather wander the streets and find hidden gems. But that is a great reason why river cruising is for everyone. Whether you want to go on all the excursion, go on none, or pick and choose, you totally can. Unlike a tour where everyone is essentially expected to be at everything, river cruising is definitely choose your own adventure. Of the 14 tours my group had booked 5. We went on 2 wine tours, always recommend a wine or a food type excursion. There was one that ended up cancelled due to the low waters of the Rhine while we were there. Some of my group did a bike down the Rhine with stops at a biergarten. And we went on one walking tour.
I tend to choose excursions that are focus on wine and food, because its great to sample the local flavors. Often times the walking tours begin with a bus ride into the city center, which is free transit, and a good way to get to where you want to go and then head out on your own. Although I, myself, did not go on the biking excursion. The two members of our group who did, said it was the highlight of their trip. So, even if you aren’t super active, you can find out from your tour manager onboard what activity level some of the tours are made for and choose accordingly. Other tours on our trip included a tour of a WW2 bunker, tours of cathedrals, a Black Forest walk, Vinegar tasting, cable car ride, castle tour, and vinegar cooking course.
Dress code — As I noted in the accommodation section, Uniworld definitely has a fancier feel in their accommodations and their well dressed and superb staff. I have had questions from others on the dress code while on board. While many ocean cruise lines require jackets for men, this is not the case onboard Uniworld. The only noted request I heard was no shorts or sandals for men at dinner. There were two captains dinners and a theme night. Less than 1/3 of men had on jackets. Overall the feeling was casual, with people dressing up a little more for dinner. But a collard shirt and slacks, or even a nicer t-shirt is totally fine. If you prefer to dress up, you won’t feel uncomfortable. With the theatrics of the nightly plated dinners it is fancy enough to wear what you like.
(photo from the 1920s theme night. Not many dressed up, but the ship provided a 1920s through the 2020s dance night to accompany the theme).
Ports — All of the ports that we stopped at on the cruise were fantastic. I particularly like Strasbourg and Koblenz, as well as Mannheim. All excellent stops in my opinion. I do think that if you are looking to spend a good amount of time anywhere you need to be prepared that most of the stops only last about 4 hours before sailing. It is also important to know that the beginning and end stops are actually not part of the itinerary and will require a pre-night or a post-night to be able to actually explore. I spent about 2 hours in Amsterdam at the end of the tour before having to get on a flight. I would have like to have more time in both Amsterdam and Basel. However, if you are prepared for this you will know how to plan. I also think that overall river cruising could benefit from cutting out a few of the stops along the route allowing more time in a couple of the ports with some over nights for anyone looking to go out at night or have dinner off the ship.
WiFi — this was my main point of contention with our river cruise. I have been on another line before several years ago where the wifi was not an issue at all. I would say the wifi onboard was spotty at best and I was glad that my phone has an international plan. I was almost unable to work, which was hard, as I had planned to work about one hour per day. It can be a nice excuse to disconnect a little bit, but it is hard when you are trying to check in with family, post to social media, or work a bit on vacation. I hope in years to come this will only improve, but definitely my biggest downfall of the trip.
Staff — a true highlight of the trip was the staff onboard. Everyone from the cruise director to the room attendants were a dream. We had a bartender who would find us anywhere where we were on the ship and always knew our orders. One of my sisters follows a vegan diet and is used to being offered, plain potatoes, french fries, salad without dressing, and a lot of dinners roles. This was not the case onboard Uniworld. She had the dining room manager walk her through the options each day that could be made vegan and most days had special entrees and desserts made for her by the kitchen staff. Truly 5 star service. Also special shout out to the bus drivers because driving those large coach buses through the small streets of Europe is no joke, and they do it with ease, while making you feel completely safe.
Other details -- One thing that really added to our trip were the small touches onboard. We loved spending time at the pool, having drinks and hanging out on the top deck as late as we like, the option to swim in the Rhine at our port in Basel, as well as the small movie theater onboard. These little pieces were so special and so easily useable because of the small amount of passengers onboard.
We loved that our rooms were cleaned up to three times throughout the day, as they were small and got cluttered up very quickly. It was lovely to be able to go to any of the staff for truly anything we needed.
Unlimited wonderful experiences on and off the boat really allowed us to have a fantastic vacation and made our age a truly non-issue.
Overall Experience — Overall experience was really good. I would totally river cruise again with a group, especially a family. It made being able to do whatever we wanted really easy and was a great way to get back into traveling again post COVID. You have to go in with the right mindset and like the relaxed nature of this style of traveling. And with that you will have an excellent time.