Updated September 21, 2017
For years, Grand Circle has been known as the "affordable" cruise line -- but don't mistake affordable for budget. The line spares no expense when it comes to its hallmark: learning and discovery.
Onboard program directors take it to the top when it comes to education and enrichment. Not only do they provide an insider's perspective on history and culture but they foster connections with locals and spearhead candid discussions on controversial topics. After a Grand Circle cruise, you'll have memories of magical places but you will also carry away an understanding that is very much rooted in the real world.
Grand Circle's river ships, accommodating 46 to 164 passengers, sail in Europe on the Danube, Rhine, Mosel, Main, Elbe, Rhone and Seine. (Its small ships, serving 24 to 98 passengers, offer itineraries that include the Baltic states, British Isles, Mediterranean, Panama, China and Antarctica.)
Grand Circle will float your boat if you like...
A Nice Price Point
Unlike its rivals, Grand Circle doesn't advertise -- the chief reason its fares tend to be so economical. How economical? A shoulder season fare for a seven-night Danube cruise can be as low as $2,590 -- and that includes international air and a modest single supplement fee. The line also offers onboard credit for paying in cash (Notably, the company does not work with travel agents, instead booking travel directly through its Boston headquarters.) Grand Circle has also caught up with other lines when it comes to amenities. Complimentary offerings include onboard Wi-Fi; gratuities for local guides and motor coach drivers; an included tour at each port; and wine, beer and soda with meals.
Inner Circle members -- those who have traveled at least three times with the cruise line or affiliates Grand Circle Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel -- receive additional perks. Among them: a continental breakfast delivered to the cabin and 10-percent discounts on purchases from the bar and laundry expenses. Inner Circle members are serious Grand Circle loyalists: on one recent cruise, there were 55 Inner Circle members onboard, accounting for a total of 472 trips. That's a number that speaks volumes about traveler satisfaction.
Experienced Program Directors
When it comes to program or cruise directors, the template for most lines works like this: There's an onboard director that coordinates shore excursions, which are then led by local guides. Not so with Grand Circle.
Resident program directors from the region lead groups of no more than 47 passengers throughout the duration of a cruise. My group consisted of 38 passengers -- half retired, half not. Not only do the program directors design the shore excursions, they conduct them (sometimes with an auxiliary guide from the port of call.) The program directors are world travelers themselves and are encouraged to broach any and all topics. There is nothing scripted or sugarcoated about their approach, a refreshing departure from some of the other lines. Topics under discussion might range from the refugee crisis in Europe to the rise of far right political parties in the region to the merits of gluhwein, a mulled wine popular at Christmastime.
A Deep Culture Dive
Grand Circle connects the dots when it comes to cultural immersion in ways big and small. In advance of a tour of Nuremberg in Germany, the in-cabin TV featured the movie classic Judgment at Nuremberg, which was terrific prep for that visit. During guided walks, program directors routinely stop locals on the street and ask them about how they live their lives. And Grand Circle pioneered the now widely copied home-hosted lunch, an opportunity for passengers, in small groups of six to 10, to dine with local residents.
Onboard meals are also part of the cultural deep dive in that they feature wines from the region along with locally inspired menu selections like linzer torte, an Austrian favorite; kohlroulade, a German variation of stuffed cabbage rolls; and wiener backhendl, Viennese fried chicken.
Each cruise includes onboard lectures ranging from cultural customs (holiday traditions and cooking demos, as examples) to ripped-from-the-headlines topics like the European refugee crisis. An example: On a Danube cruise, the speaker was Ahmad, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, who talked about his harrowing journey (in a rubber boat with 60 others, on a ship, on foot, in cars) from Syria to Austria, where he was granted asylum.
After every cruise, Grand Circle sends out a 13-page questionnaire to assess traveler satisfaction. Two of the questions: Were you exposed to controversial topics? Did you get the opportunity to experience everyday life? Oh yes.
Grand Circle will probably not float your boat if you like…
Each ship has a modest sauna and workout room with a treadmill and elliptical machine. The "Health Club," as it is called, is not well used, in part because it doesn't open until 8 a.m. To the good, Grand Circle now has massage therapists on its Danube, Rhine and Main itineraries.
The new river ships are often grand affairs, as much hotel as ship with sleek lobbies, an alternative restaurant and swanky cabins that are comparable to rooms in a boutique hotel. That's not the case with Grand Circle, whose newest river ship launched in 2003.
A Grand Circle ship looks and feels just like what it is: a ship. Nothing wrong with that -- but you won't mistake it for a boutique hotel. The cabins, though roomy enough, might be a deal breaker for some due to the beds. Twin beds are attached to facing walls. During the day, they are converted to small (54 inches in length and 20 inches at the widest and 14 inches at the narrowest) sofas. So if the aim is a romantic holiday, the cabin might not make the cut.