The company we chose was Uniworld - based on recommendations from friends and some special 'last minute' discounts for cruises starting in September. The 17-day cruise we eventually signed up for was on the "River Princess" from Paris to Vienna, including 2 nights in a hotel in Paris at the start, the coach transfer from Paris to Trier where the 'river' part began, and the 15 nights on the 'boat' (this is the term Uniworld uses for its vessels, and I will do likewise). This boat can accommodate a maximum of 136 passengers. The cruise passed through four rivers - the Mosel, Rhine, Main and Danube, and one canal - the Main-Danube canal built as recently as 1992.
In summary, we couldn't have asked for more! Uniworld claims to be a "boutique" operation, and while there is no ready definition of what this means, they really lived up to our expectations of personal service and catering to individual needs - which the big ocean cruise lines cannot possibly match - or even come close to. If you want to find out the details which led us to this conclusion, please read on.
Staterooms: Definitely smaller than on an ocean cruiser, but all the basics were there and the quality of the beds, sheets, duvets and towels couldn't have been better. The toiletries provided were from L'Óccitane and the shower mixer was thermostatically controlled (a step up from the common hot/cold mixers which never seem to be able to maintain a constant temperature). There were five categories of staterooms starting from Cat 1 to Cat 5 and included 4 suites. All staterooms were the same size (except for the suites) and the main difference was deck level and the size of the window - ranging from a shoulder high narrow window on Cat 4 and 5, to a floor to ceiling picture window in Cat 1. We had a Cat 4 stateroom on the lowest deck and did not hear any engine noise or vibration, and hardly felt any movement. The only 'disturbance' came from fellow passengers having noisy conversations in the passage way!
Facilities: The boat had excellent facilities including a laundry (you pay only for the detergent), a fitness centre with a sauna and 3 exercise machines (didn't seem to be used much, especially considering the amount of pastries consumed!), free bicycles for riding at each port, a well-equipped and reasonably priced shop, and 24-hour coffee and tea.
Internet: The most popular service on the boat seemed to be the on-board internet. The charge was very reasonable - €20 for unlimited use over 14 days. Having signed up, you could use either one of the boat's two terminals or log-in with your laptop using WiFi. The WiFi was only available at the front of the ship and not from staterooms. This is probably the only service that could be improved - the speed of the internet connection was consistently slow and often unreliable. While being able to provide any internet at all on a moving vessel is commendable - considering the difficult terrain, frequent entry into locks, passing under bridges, and passage through some almost uninhabited stretches of river - there were times when even in the middle of cities, the internet was down. The boat seemed to rely on satellite links for the data connection; perhaps, a combination of 3G and satellite may bring about an improvement, since our GSM mobile phones always had a good signal. Extending WiFi coverage to all the cabins and improving the speed and reliability of internet will be a worthwhile investment for the company.
Entertainment: The on-board musician Fredy provided excellent music in the evenings and the small dancing area was frequently occupied. He had an excellent repertoire from waltz, to rumba, to fast and furious disco and rock. On some 4 occasions a local musician came on board for a short performance. They were all good and gave Fredy a well earned break - and the passengers some variety. On one evening, I hasten to add, when the ship was docked for the night, the Captain assisted Fredy with some good Satchmo imitations.
Excursions: At every city or town visited (including Paris) there was some kind of included tour - making a total of 15. Often it was a walking tour, sometimes a bus tour, and once a wine-tasting expedition. Each tour was allocated a specialist local expert guide - and all tours included the use of a Quietvox receiver for each participant - which meant that every word was heard. The guides, without exception, were all very knowledgeable, and the majority spoke good English. These 'íncluded' tours sometimes involved a fee, which Uniworld always paid. In addition to the included tours, Uniworld offered some 'optional' tours which had to be paid for. There was no pressure at all to join these and some passengers only did 2 or 3. We joined two of these optionals - and they were really fantastic value for money. For instance, there was a concert at the Kusalon, Vienna, on the last night which cost €49 each and this amount included return transport by coach, entry ticket to the concert, and a glass of wine during the intermission. The return coach journey back to the boat was diverted to include a mini Vienna-by-night tour to re-visit some of the city's main sights at night. To top it off, on return to the boat there was a lovely cup of hot goulash soup and a bread roll waiting! It was touches like this that made us very appreciative of Uniworld's policy of never cutting corners, and instead of adding many extra small but generous touches throughout the journey.
Cruise Manager: We all know what a difference the experience, knowledge, dedication, and passion of the CM contributes to the experience. The CM on our cruise was Piet who not only excelled in all these departments but also had a cheeky sense of humour! He took it upon himself to be ever present on all the tours and was never impatient with the many questions and difficult situations that arose. For example, when a passenger developed a severe eye infection, he not only arranged for the passenger to be seen by a doctor and an eye specialist at the next port - but also went along to act as interpreter during the consultations. Whenever the boat traversed an area with some historical or other significance, he was always in the wheel-house giving a commentary.
Meals: In the restaurant, Uniworld again proved they had every right to call themselves 'boutique'. The breakfast buffet had a choice which was equivalent to a 5-star hotel. And every day there was a made-to-order specialty - on one day it was my all time breakfast favourite - Eggs Benedict (If this was a specially planned manoeuvre to hook this particular traveler - they certainly succeeded!). Wine was included with dinner - and it wasn't just basic wines - it was always high quality - according to some of the wine connoisseurs on board (I am sadly not a wine drinker). Seating was open plan - which meant you often shared a table with complete strangers. And by midway, you had established some good friends from the USA, Australia and Canada.
Tipping: We have never been fans of the ocean cruise liners' policy of debiting your onboard account a set amount for gratuities (Carnival claimed the daily rate was set with the help of Amex??) and you were free either to lower or to increase by visiting the Purser's Desk at the end of the cruise. The Uniworld policy is to suggest some daily rates and then leave it to individual guests how much they contributed - in cash, and in two envelopes - one to be shared by the whole crew and the other for the CM. These envelopes were dropped into a box at reception on the last day; the whole process being quite anonymous. This is by far a fairer method but would probably favour those who wanted to sneakily opt out and not partake in this gesture of appreciation for a job well done. While I have no idea what the final outcome was on our cruise, there was much evidence of passengers passing folded notes to frontline staff in all departments in the last 2 days of the journey. Without exception, every staff member we came across showed genuine concern and went out of their way to meet our needs. For example, when it became known I only liked ice cream for dessert - it simply appeared in front of me at every meal - irrespective of what exotic dessert was on the menu.
Timing: Deciding on how much time to spend at each port, whether to visit one or two places each day, whether to sail at night or by day, and at what time to leave a port, are some of the tricky decisions a river cruise operator has to make. Uniworld seems to have mastered this well. For instance, those parts of the river with scenic stretches - with important castles, or the vineyards of the Wachau valley - were traversed during the day, and at the ports that had some good nightlife (e.g. beer halls in Rudesheim) departure times allowed plenty of time for late night revelers to get back on board (e.g. at Rudesheim, the boat left at 1 a.m. and not at the usual time of 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.). This is another example of Uniworld putting the passengers' needs as the first priority. While it is hard to compare ocean and river cruises, there is definitely huge advantages in being on a small boat with a small number of fellow passengers - and having the thrill of being in a different place every day.