Prepare for a review of epic proportions! (sorry, I'm really verbose in my descriptions - but I also try to go into detail for uber planners like myself who want every detail nailed down before a trip starts). Why did I go with Gate 1? Because they were the cheapest. The end. Seriously. I have always wanted to do a river cruise. Unfortunately, river cruises are crazy expensive and the one time I priced a Viking river cruise the subtotal about sent me into cardiac arrest and my dream of a river cruise died. I subscribe to a newsletter whose top 20 deals featured Gate 1's river cruises having a huge sale for some of their sailings. A majority of fall sailings were slashed 50% off, and while it's still not cheap, it suddenly became affordable. They call it the 9 day cruise. It's not. It's a 7 night river cruise. The 8th and 9th days are travel days to and from the States.
I usually research everything to death before I book, but the price was just too good so I literally jumped on it (bargain hunter here) when I found it and booked 2 cabins for our family of 4. That was probably the most impulsive vacation planning I've ever done! Then I started the research. The research ended within 10 minutes. It ended very quickly because there are barely any reviews online about Gate 1's river cruises. No one knew what I was taking about when told them I going on a Gate 1 river cruise, because the few people who knew about Gate 1 kept telling me I must have it wrong because Gate 1 is a travel agency. Except they're not a travel agency who has been expanding into river cruising and buying and building their own ships. Which apparently, only like, 200 people know about. As the months went by, a few reviews trickled in here at cruise critic, but there was still a dearth of information, and Gate 1's website is straight out of 1996 and completely uninformative. They need to go and hire some college student to redesign their website, because it's super NOT-intuitive and sad. BUT - I was encouraged because the few reviews I did find all had pretty good things to say. I resolved to be one of the few who came back to leave a review because I wish more people had done it when I was planning. So here we are.
About me (so you know if you should take my review seriously or not depending on your personality and cruising style): I'm in my 30's and I vacillate between being a lazy vacationer and being over ambitious with what I want to see and do. I've done a lot of ocean cruises via NCL, RCCL and Princess, but this is my first river cruise. I'm an awkward introvert who is generally quiet when I'm not working, so I don't generally partake in the games and entertainment offering on ships. I like cruising because I like waking up in a different location each day, only having to unpack once, and the variety of offerings for different people: you can be as entertained and social as you want, or if your'e like me, find a quiet nook to read and nap or to binge watch shows. So...I am boring. I'm also a super planner and rarely do ship-sponsored excursions. I like doing the research and booking my own excursions because I'm not a fan of big bus tours. If you're an exciting social butterfly, you're going to have a different experience than I did.
We sailed on the Monarch Princess, which as I understand, is a reskinned Avalon ship. Now upon first sight, she's not a lot to look at. The big honking Gate 1 logo is not inspiring and well, she's not as pretty as some of the other river cruise ships. Buuuuut...once you step inside, she's beautiful and immaculate. You absolutely cannot tell from the inside that this is a second hand ship. Whatever they did to renovate her, she looks fantastic. The ship is immaculately clean, everything looks to be pretty high quality and in good condition. The decor has muted neutral colors with clean lines and the overall effect is classy. No bright colors or neon lights here. There were times in port when we were tied up to other ships and had to walk through them to get to ours or reach the port. I rubbernecked a bit when we did the walk throughs and I honestly didn't think these other ships were any nicer than ours. I was pleasantly surprised. I think in the back of my mind I expected it to feel more Holiday Inn than Westin (I would peg it at Westin level - not Four Seasons or Waldorf - but you're also not paying Waldorf prices).
There is one dining room with multiple tables for 4, 6, and 8. There was one large group of 12 on our sailing and the waitstaff put together a few tables together for them and they all sat together every night - so while you can't make reservations, the staff is nice enough to accommodate large groups. Otherwise, it was open seating. We ended up sitting in the same area because 1) we're creature of habit and 2) we really liked the waitstaff there who quickly learned our preferences and were super nice.
There are (I think) 2 public restrooms on the ship, but since the ship is so small, it's just as easy to walk to your own cabin to use the facilities! (keep in mind though, I'm a lot younger than the average cruiser there - so perhaps those more aged with more bladder issues would appreciate the restrooms)
There are 2 lounges onboard: the big one at the front of the ship with the bar (most people hung out here) that also had a musician for entertainment, and a smaller one on the back of the ship on the 3rd floor (there are only 3 floors. The 4th is the sundeck, which I never went to). The smaller lounge in the back tended to be quiet. There were a few tables and some club chairs as well as a TV. They have a coffee machine with hot water, tea, and cocoa. They also have a plate of butter cookies that were constantly refilled. There were some board games and books available, and it was where the quieter people on the ship tended to go to chat with their friends, drink coffee quietly, or just read. The reception area isn't very large, but that's where the cruise director and activity host had their desk as well and it was a hub of activity. They had lots of umbrellas we could borrow on our way out if it looked like rain, and it was a small but thoughtful touch I appreciated. There was also ship-wide wifi, which wasn't super fast, but was sufficient for checking emails and social media sites, though definitely not for streaming.
They told us there was a hot tub on the sundeck, but it was closed for the season because it's too cold. Except we ended up with sunny days and weather in the low 70's for most of the sailing, so I don't know why the hot tub remained closed. I think it would've been nice to soak in after a long day of walking around the cities.
I loved my little room. Because of a work engagement, my brother couldn't make the cruise after final payment had been made so I got the little cabin to myself. And the cabin is small, but it's laid out very well and perfectly functional and comfortable for 2 people. for just me - it felt like a palace. A small one.
The rooms have a (small) TV (with HDMI if you want to bring your own DVD player or something), a long desk space with a fridge and lots of cabinet storage underneath, a roomy closet with a safe, and a pretty spacious bathroom. It's not super big, but it was kitted out MUCH more nicely than the standard balcony cabin bathroom on an ocean cruise. With all the wood accents, cabinets and storage space in the bath, it felt similar to the bathrooms in penthouse rooms on an ocean cruise...just smaller and without a tub. My favorite thing about the bathroom is the glass shower door, so there was no shower curtain to molest me. The toiletries were abundant and amazing. The towels while not super plush, were of good quality, clean, and replaced daily.
The bed was a little hard for my taste, but comfortable enough that I slept very well, and there were two twin sized duvets (which seemed a little small. I'm 5'2" and thought the blanket was a little short) on the bed along with a big square pillow and a little pillow for each bed. I don't know how they separate the beds if people don't want to sleep together, every cabin I peeked into had the big bed in the center, and since my brother couldn't come, I had the super bed to myself.
All the rooms on the 2nd and 3rd floor have juliette balconies with sliding glass doors, window sheers, and black out curtains. There are two little nightstands and two reading lights. There's a lamp on the desk that's not very bright, and there's no nightlight. But there's a charger for the whisper units (receivers we bring on our tours using earbuds so the tour guides don't have to yell for us to hear) that emits enough of a glow that was sufficient to guide me to the bathroom late at night. There are hooks on the bathroom door, 2 robes in each cabin, and they gave us 2 bottles of water a day at turn down so we'd have water for our tours the next day.
The rooms were decorated in muted neutrals and looked very clean and high-end. Our steward kept the cabin immaculate and he was always super fast. He didn't replenish the toiletries, but with just me, I still had a whole other set of smelly lotion, shampoos and bath gels left!
Speaking of toiletries, this is the mother lode! They gave out toiletries from Rituals (Happy Buddha) that smelled like oranges, which included soaps, shampoo, conditioner, bath gel and body lotion. And it was a set per passenger so I got 2! There was also a sewing kit (which I did make use of), and a shoe polisher.
The TV had a few English channels like CNN and Sky news - there was a movie channel and a TV channel, neither of which played anything good. I ended up watching movies and shows I downloaded onto my tablet most nights and rarely turned on the TV.
Unlike ocean cruises, there was no feeding trough. We ate well, but there was no gorging like an ocean cruise would usually entail. There's only one restaurant, there's no room service, no buffet, no 24 hour cafes, so you're not constantly eating on this cruise.
There are 3 set meal times, and they said they had late night snacks in the lounge from 10 to 11, but as I was always in my cabin by then, I have no idea what those snacks were.
Meal wise, the food was phenomenal. The serving portions were not large. They're European portions, not American. But the chef told us that we could always order more if we were hungry. Sometimes my mom requested another soup, and my dad requested another entree once - and it was never a problem. There was always a choice of soup (from 2) available, a salad/appetizer of some kind that everyone got, a selection of entrees (usually a meat, a fish, and a vegetarian choice, though they always had baked chicken breast with sautéed vegetables or a Caesar salad available) and a choice of desserts. A cheese plate and a fruit plate were always available. Wine (2 generous glasses) and soft drinks were free at dinner.
The quality of the meals was very, very good. My parents, who don't enjoy much beyond Asian food, enjoyed all their meals onboard. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style, and each day they would have a special you could order from the waitstaff. It wasn't a large buffet, as the ship itself isn't large, but there was plenty of variety for everyone. There was always an egg/omelet station in the middle for breakfast. They also had assorted breads with a toaster, spreads, pastries, charcuterie for the sophisticated continentals among us, smoked salmon, bacon, sausages, scrambled and hard boiled eggs, and fruit.
Lunch buffet varied, but there was always a choice of meats, fish, salad, roasted/sautéed veggies, and plenty of breads and meat and cheeses for sandwiches. You could also order soups or sandwiches as available from the waitstaff.
While there was no gorging until I hated myself (my basic state on a cruise), I never went hungry. I had purchased some snacks for my room from the market before boarding the ship because I was afraid I'd be hungry without being surrounded by food 24 hours a day, but I didn't need to raid my stash. (I did, but just because I like snacks, not because I was hungry).
I can't say much about this because I almost didn't partake of any of this. I'm in my thirties. Most of the passengers are in their sixties and seventies. And man, they could party! While I'm tired at the end of the night and almost falling asleep during dinner, I could hear them dancing and singing and playing games in the lounge.
I'm a weird awkward introvert, so the extent of my socializing with people I don't know is generally limited to smiles and nods, but everyone genuinely seemed to have a lot of fun. Because there's only one lounge, everyone gathered there for drinks and games. My cabin on the 3rd floor (room 304) was close to reception, so I could hear them at night. I went to my cabin and didn't venture out after dinner. I opted to catch up on TV shows and movies I missed and read books and sleep. But if you're a social person there are things to keep you entertained.
There's a reception on the night we board the ship where they pass out mimosas, champagne and hors d'oeuvres where the captain, hotel manager, and cruise director spoke at length. Every day 15 minutes before dinner we'd gather in the lounge for port talk, where the cruise director would give us a rundown of the next day's schedule and an introduction of what we're going to see. Then everyone would troop downstairs to dinner.
They had a piano/keyboard player named Attila. He's...not to my taste. And I listen to just about every genre of music. But his music...it sounded like the background tracks to karaoke songs from the 80's and 90's. The ones on laser discs. It wasn't inspiring, but the rest of the passengers had fun and danced to it, so it's probably just me.
Gate 1 has a city tour available for every city, and some optional tours you could add on. These are all big bus tours. I don't like big bus tours because the group moves as fast as the slowest person. And people who go on the cruises I do are generally not in their 20's. Case in point: we had someone in a wheelchair on this trip - and that made some of the walking tours difficult because Europe is paved in uneven cobblestones - and her party had a hard time maneuvering her around a lot of the times. Which meant the whole group of 30 was slowed down significantly. It's not her fault, and the guides were super nice and accommodating - but as I'm a fast walker and impatient by nature, big bus tours are just not something I go for. But that's all Gate 1 does - and river cruises, unlike ocean cruises - are not conducive to private touring at all.
We had 135 on our sailing, and there's no way we could tour a city with a group that size, so they generally split us up into 4 groups. In the morning before you get off the ship you have to get your boarding pass. It's a laminated card with your room number on it. They are low tech on river cruises - they count who is onboard based on the boarding passes they have. So no swiping of ID's, no security...you just walk on and off. You also pick a colored tag from one of the baskets, and that designates which bus and tour group you're in so they can evenly distribute us among the buses and tours. It's a super easy process, and it worked very well. If you make friends on the ship you just have to coordinate which color to grab before that basket runs out of tags.
Passau: lead by a local university student, the tour of the old town lasted an hour. Unfortunately, it was a national holiday in Germany so almost all the stores in this little town were closed. After the hour long city tour we had free time to look around and we could walk back to our ship, which was docked right in the city. The tour was OK. He was a nice kid, but it's a small city, it was bitterly cold, and it's not his fault that nothing but the church was open for us to look at. After wandering the town for awhile we went back to the ship for lunch.
Regensburg: a 1.5 hour bus ride to get to, and one I was contemplating skipping because I was still jet lagged and tired. However our waitress at lunch told us that we shouldn't miss it because it's beautiful, and I'm glad I went. The buses were clean and comfortable coaches and I ended up napping on the way there, which meant I had enough energy to get through our tour there. We split into even smaller groups once we got to Regensburg and we ended up with a fantastic guide named Daniel, who is British but who grew up in Germany. He had a dry wit, had great stories, was efficient and fun, and he was one of our favorite local guides of the trip. We had almost an hour of free time before our bus left, so we wandered into the big church to take a look, took some photos while wandering around, and then ate gelato. There were free restrooms at the tour bus stop, but my mom said they smelled terrible, so I didn't partake of the facilities.
Linz/Salzburg: I paid for the optional tour of Salzburg, as did a lot of the passengers, so I don't know what people did in Linz, though I know Gate 1 had a city tour available. We started with a 1.5 hour bus ride to Salzburg, then toured the city with a local guide. We got lucky and had a fantastic one who was from Linz, went to school in Salzburg, but was also an exchange student to the States so she spoke almost perfect English. The city tour was about an hour and moved at a pretty fast clip. Lunch was included as a part of the tour and while the restaurant was historic and beautiful - the schnitzel was dry with just some potato wedges. It was dry (I was a barbarian who longed for ranch sauce), and no one at our table finished ours. We looked over at another table from another cruise line and they had much better food! They had soup, and a chicken dish that had root vegetable accompaniments. We had food envy. Our dessert was some kind of meringue thing that was okay. We had just over an hour of free time after lunch, which with all there is to see, is just too short!. We shopped (thank God for H&M because I brought alll the wrong clothes for the cruise), then sat and had coffee and cake at Cafe Tomaselli like Mozart did.
I did wish we had more time in Salzburg. You had to pick one activity in your free time: if you wanted to go up the funicular and see the castle, then you didn't have time for anything else. If you wanted to wander around the Mirabell Gardens (from The Sound of Music), your didn't have time for other stuff because the walk there and back to the meeting point would take too long. I would have liked to visit the museum that's in Mozart's birthplace but we just didn't have time. The tour was a very brief surface overview of the city, which is necessary because of time, but I can't help but wish we had an extra hour or so in Salzburg.
Melk: while our ship was docked in Melk, the Benedictine abbey we were visiting was a very steep hike, so we all loaded into buses for a 5 minute bus ride instead. The abbey was beautiful, the local guides are people who work at the abbey and are incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the history of the abbey. It was gorgeous. Sooo beautiful. The downside? No photos allowed inside. Which made my soul cry a bit because there was so much I wanted to take photos of - especially the library! It's like walking into the Beast's library in real life. Once again, free time was very limited, I think less than half an hour, and we didn't have time to look at the gardens. Our cruise director Karol told us to just rush in for 2 minutes to take a look at the very top, so that's what we did. We have pictures at the very beginning of the garden, like the other passengers who rushed in, grabbed a few photos and then had to rush for the bus.
Vienna: we were docked in the suburbs, so we couldn't just walk into the city center. We had to be bused into the city and it was just under a half hour. The city tour was okay. Our guide spoke in a monotone voice and with her accent, it was harder to listen to. We did a tour that lasted just over an hour before we were given under an hour for free time. We went for cake and coffee (like good Austrians do) at Cafe Sluka as recommended by our guide, then wandered the shops and bought more t-shirts, since the weather went from freezing cold to warm.
There was a shuttle back to the ship for lunch at around 11 am, with a shuttle back to the city at 1:30pm and shuttles back to the ship at 3 and 4:30 for people who wanted to stay longer. Some people opted to have lunch in Vienna instead of returning to the ship, and I don't blame them, except we had to go because we booked the optional Schonbrunn Palace tour.
The drive to Schonbrunn Palace was about 45 minutes. We took a tour of the Palace with an excellent guide, then we had about 45 minutes of free time. We wandered the gardens, then went to the cafe for apple strudel before boarding the bus. The optional tour of the Palace wasn't very expensive, and as I'm interested in history I thought it was well worth it. But it was sooooo crowded. There were numerous tour groups as well as independent travelers in there all kind of shoving at each other.
Bratislava: we were supposed to sail to Bratislava, but because the Danube River was at record low levels given the dry and hot summer, our ship couldn't go any further than Vienna because the captain didn't want to get stuck in a sandbar the way some Viking ships had been. So we bused 1.5 hours to Bratislava. I knew this was a possibility since I'd been monitoring the Danube levels all summer in anticipation of the cruise, but I do think Gate 1 handled it well. Bratislava is a very small town. We also happened to visit on a Sunday where all the shops other than souvenir shops for tourists were closed. I think if they had been open, it would have been a more interesting visit because there wasn't anything to do there. We saw the old churches and memorials, walked through the town squares, and after our hour tour, we had almost 3 hours left in the city. I would've been ecstatic to have 3 hours in Salzburg or Vienna. But uh, there's nothing to do in Bratislava for 3 hours with all the stores closed. That's a pity because they don't have department stores - they're all mom and pop shops. There's a generations old bookstore that's owned by a family who reclaimed it after one of the sons survived the concentration camps that I would have loved to browse in. The pharmacy owned by the same family for 100 years - yes please. Unfortunately, none of those fascinating stores were open - just kitschy souvenir stores. I know one couple made the hike to the castle up the hill. I didn't do anything that active. I found a cafe, had soup and a latte and some dessert, walked around more, and ended up on a city bench eating gelato. Actually, a lot of people from the tour ended up in adjacent benches on the city's promenade eating gelato because that's where all the seating was. The free time there was just too long. Now, had we been able to port in Bratislava, we would've been able to return to the ship for lunch. Because we couldn't, Gate 1 gave each person 15 Euros for lunch. I thought that was pretty generous of them!
Budapest: we also couldn't sail into Budapest, but no one was sailing into or out of Budapest. Instead, on the 6th morning, we had to disembark. So our cruise was cut short by a day and was 6 nights instead of 7. HOWEVER, Gate 1 did everything they could to smooth our way and ensure we still had a good time. We had to bus into Budapest, and the bus that left Budapest at 4 am did not make the 8 am departure time from Vienna - instead, we left Vienna well after 9 am. That pushed everything back. We had a "comfort" (bathroom) stop halfway in, and continued to drive to Budapest. Upon arrival, the 4 buses split off into tour groups. Unfortunately, because we already had a "gala" dinner planned for us with a Danube River cruise and we all still had to check into the hotel, we didn't get to do a walking tour. Instead, as the bus circled around the city (a necessity because the Turkish president was in town and a bunch of street and bridges in Budapest were closed) our phenomenal guide who'd been up since 2 am narrated a tour and pointed out places of interest and stories. She told us where to eat, how to purchase souvenirs, etc. She was fantastic. Gate 1 gave us each 5,000 HUF (about $17) per person for lunch and that more than covered our traditional Hungarian lunch at the restaurant she recommended (which was really good and very reasonable). After 2 hours of free time (which included lunch), we were bused to our hotel (we were assigned to the Hilton in the Castle District in Buda, which was FANTASTIC) where we checked in, and had about an hour and a half to rest and refresh ourselves before our dinner.
The gala dinner was held in a ballroom at the Radisson Blue (one of the 3 hotels we were split into because no single hotel could hold all of us with 4 days notice) where there was a large buffet spread with drinks (wine, beer and soft drinks) included, a coffee machine, and dessert. Our cruise director called in a favor from a friend who brought a string quartet, and a few opera singers from his troupe to come and perform for us for an hour (they were due to perform at the state opera house at 9 am, so they performed from 7-8 and had to run across town) during dinner. About 2 hours into dinner, we all got onto our buses and were driven to where the Marriott is on the Danube and we got onto our own sightseeing boat that took us up and down the Danube for about an hour so we could see the city all lit up. After the cruise, we were all sorted back onto our buses and taken back to our hotels. Our hotel was for independent travelers (we were sorted by people who had flights home immediately, people taking the extended land tour with Gate 1, and independent travelers who made their own plans - us) and check out was at 11 am. Our booking with the hotel included breakfast - and the breakfast was PHENOMENAL.
As stated above, we had to leave our ship a day early as we couldn't sail beyond Vienna, so we had some long bus rides. But Gate 1 tried to make the process as smooth and easy as possible. They gave us lunch money for Bratislava and Budapest, booked us hotel rooms in Budapest, arranged a goodbye dinner at one of the hotel ballrooms and booked performers during dinner, got us onto a river cruise so we could see Budapest lit up from the Danube and even hosted an open bar on the ship for an hour (not just wine and beer, everything!) on our last night and had an open bar at the Gala dinner.
We were split into 3 separate hotels because of the short notice. We had thought the ship would be able to make it to Budapest when we started sailing, but conditions changed very quickly and a plan B had to be implemented. We were at the Hotel Hungaria, Radisson Blue, and Hilton in the Castle District on the Buda side.
The service on the cruise ship was fantastic. All the people who worked there were fast, efficient, and super nice. The receptionists were super sharp and just about memorized where everyone was staying within a day because she always handed me my boarding pass before I could tell her my cabin number. She also knew the cabin my parents were staying in and would hand me their boarding passes too when she saw me picking up colored tags for our excursions. We sat in the same area of the dining room throughout the cruise and the servers there knew our preferences and would anticipate our needs. My room was always clean and my steward Bowo was amazing.
Would I cruise with Gate 1 again? Yes I would (provided they have a sale. Wouldn't be able to afford it otherwise). There are distinct differences from ocean cruising though. There are less choices and options with regards to EVERYTHING, but the convenience of having your room so close on a small river ship cannot be overstated. The meal times are set with very little flexibility (the only flexibility really, is breakfast) which is usually not my thing on vacation, so flexibility for lunch and dinner is something I miss. I missed being able to hit the buffet whenever I wanted to for a snack, or even for a meal as opposed to a sit down meal. I wasn't always hungry during meal times, and sometimes I wasn't in the mood for a 4 course sit down dinner in a nice dining room. There's no dress code on the river cruise and no formal nights - everyone wore their touring clothes to the dining room.
The disadvantages of going with a small company on a river cruise is that they can't ship swap the way Viking does when they have problems with the water level (either too low or too high), but Avalon doesn't ship swap either and we heard from one of the passengers that Viking didn't secure hotel rooms for their guests, so they were being bused 4 hours to tour Vienna, then 4 hours back to Budapest. Even though we were on the "value" ship it never felt like a value ship. Like my analogy earlier - we were paying Holiday Inn prices, but it felt like we were traveling in the Westin. Maybe the Viking ships and Avalon ships were like the W or the Four Seasons, but honestly, I didn't find anything lacking in our ship. Could we have had more than 3 (really it's 5 with the always available items) choices for dinner? Could we have more choices in excursions instead of everyone going on the same tours? Yes - but that would cost significantly more and those didn't matter to me as much as I thought it would. Because I had a good time - and Gate 1 ensured I had a good time - so I didn't really miss what we didn't have. The experience never felt cheap and we never felt like we were being nickeled and dimed at all. Gate 1 gives a good product at a base price and you can choose to pay more to tailor it how you want. And since I don't (can't) drink, I'm happier it's not all inclusive otherwise I'd feel like I was subsidizing someone else's alcohol consumption. I hope this sheds some light on the Gate 1 experience. I would recommend them - they took good care of us, the ship and staff are fantastic, and most importantly, I had fun on my vacation and they delivered on their promises. Read Less