Executives from the Travel Corporation -- owners of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Contiki Tours -- were looking for a way to fill a gap in river cruising; one that would appeal to a modern traveler who could explore all day and dance all night. Thus, U River Cruises was born.
Originally designated for adults 21 to 45, the fledgling line opened its fresh take on river cruising to adults of all ages when it officially launched in 2018. The fleet consists of The A (formerly Uniworld's River Ambassador), which sails on the Rhine, Main and Danube Rivers. A second ship, The B (formerly River Baroness), originally sailed round trip from Paris on the Seine; in 2020, it will move to the same central European rivers as The A.
Early-to-bed, early-to-rise travelers might feel like the odd ones out on ships that don't really get moving until after 9 a.m. Tibetan yoga or Thera band stretches might begin on the top deck at 8:30, depending on the day, but a traditional breakfast isn't offered. Instead, there's brunch, which typically opens at 10 a.m. and encompasses the first two meals of the day in a lavish buffet spread that lasts about three hours. Announcements are never made over an intercom; instead, passengers and local guides, called U Hosts, stay in touch with a phone messaging app. Morning walking tours sometimes don’t meet until 11 a.m. -- a welcome departure time for the group that didn't get back from their night in Amsterdam until 5 a.m.
For the majority of a U River Cruise sailing, the ship stays docked in port overnight. That means that anyone looking to explore city centers by night -- whether it's the heralded late-night lounges of the Marais or the storied "Peanut Bar" of Koblenz -- can do so without much fear of missing the ship. Post-dinner orientation walks of city nightlife are led by your U Hosts, the people living there, so you'll know how to avoid the tourist traps. Onboard, ships feature hosted DJ nights in the lounge or silent discos in the rooftop bar.
For those who have never cruised, or have only sailed ocean cruises, river ships might seem small; the capacity of U's ships is a maximum of about 80 passengers. Beyond the cozy group size, the onboard atmosphere of a U sailing fosters a sense of comradery that means you're likely to know just about everyone by name -- maybe even their favorite drink. If you're part of the sailing's WhatsApp group, photos and videos can be shared instantaneously over the ship's Wi-Fi. Family-style plates at dinner (no two-tops in the restaurant) and intimate shore excursion offerings give U passengers plenty of opportunities to chat, dine and explore with like-minded travelers. It's possible to keep to yourself, but you'll be the exception.
Beyond the included walks, many river cruise lines rely on buses to transport passengers to additional excursions like castle tours or museums. Because U River Cruises is geared toward a younger, more active demographic, the ships' bicycles are put to good use. Brisk hikes and 10-mile bike rides will replace the views from your coach window. Even at museums like Germany's Zollverein Coal Mine Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, cycling is used to traverse the scenic grounds in addition to a guided tour. Not every excursion is super active, and sometimes you might need to hop on a bus, but at least there are plenty of options to sightsee while getting your blood pumping.
As more and more cruise lines bolster their programs to "Save the Waves," U kicked off their brand with very few disposable plastics and with a focus on sustainability. Passengers will have to request straws and, when they do, they are made of paper. You won't see include programs and menus -- U has made the move to digital-only information. A limited menu is offered each night for dinner, using only fresh and local ingredients. In-cabin bath products are a brand called BeeKind, which supports research into sustainable bee pollination. The line has also promised that reusable water bottles will be provided to guests so they can hydrate without creating waste.
The freedom of choice means you could sleep in till noon and then sail onboard sipping a Lavender Collins from the rooftop lounge. But, when your new travel buddies are all heading to a wine tasting at a "Game of Thrones" filming location or heading out to a converted parking garage that's now a "beach bar" in the center of Frankfurt, it's hard not to have a little FOMO. Much of what makes a U River Cruise so exciting, can also make it exhausting for anyone who needs a break from long days spent touring followed by equally long evenings of socializing.
To keep costs down, there's less included on U than some other river cruise lines. Lunch is never offered, which can be a bit tricky on all-day excursions. There's no beer and wine with dinner, like on some other river cruises, and most activities onboard and ashore require an additional fee. This means that budgeting for extras, like the unavoidable cocktail bill. Still, an alfresco rooftop cinema, a fun photo booth and gratuities are a few things bundled into the cruise fare.