(10:40 a.m. EDT) -- The millennial-oriented U by Uniworld river cruise line came onto the scene in late 2017 with a bang, showcasing renovated ships with eye-popping design, youthful programming and technology galore.
As with any new venture, getting started has not been easy. Early in the season, the line dropped its original 21-to-45 age requirement, instead opening cruises on its two ships The A and The B to adults of all ages. As we found last week on a Seine cruise on The B, sales have been slow; six cruises were canceled this season and our ship sailed only half full (and that's with a dozen passengers coming from a sister vessel grounded by low water on the Rhine).
We think that's unfortunate. Our week showed that U by Uniworld is offering something different and exciting in cruising. The experienced staff -- most veterans of luxe parent company Uniworld or the Travel Corporation's youth tour juggernaut Contiki -- were upfront about receiving and incorporating passenger feedback in the ship's inaugural year. Pricing is also being adjusted to find the sweet spot for the tight budgets that many face in the early years of their career; The B fits a solid market for those who are done with hostels or cheap-feeling budget hotels.
Read on for our hits and misses on U by Uniworld:
The B began life as the Uniworld vessel, River Baroness, but you'd never know it. The line transformed the ship completely, giving it a sleek black exterior with neon accents. The public spaces within The B are nothing short of awesome, with geometric-printed carpets and walls, boldly designed furniture, cool artwork and strategically placed neon. Black-and-white photos of pop culture icons line the cabin hallways, themselves of a riot of black-and-white geometric patterns.
On the ship's top deck, the Ice Bar has black-and-white checked flooring and furniture, anchored by a neon bar -- and it can all fold down if the ship encounters a low bridge. Modern music plays in the main lounge, which has vinyl black booths, a dance floor, a foosball table and USB outlets everywhere. All in all, the B feels much more like a hip boutique hotel than a river cruise ship, in a good way.
A special shout-out needs to go to The B's sun deck. Instead of filling the top deck with giant chess boards or putting greens (features you often see on other river ships) that are rarely used, the ship has a graphic striped banquette that wraps around the entire space. Zero gravity chairs and clamshells for couples to cuddle round out the furnishings, and USB outlets are scattered everywhere.
On our August cruise, passengers spent the bulk of their time hanging out up here, taking in the scenery during the day and sipping drinks, playing board games and meeting others at night. It goes to show that if you make a space look stylish while still focusing on comfort and practicalities, you don't need a lot of extras.
Another truly different aspect of U by Uniworld is how casual it is. Breakfast doesn't start until 9:30 (you can get coffee and pastries earlier) and excursions don’t leave until 10:30 or later. Dinners are mostly buffet -- the line got rid of an original "shared plates" concept because passengers wanted more food choices -- and you can come any time during the hours it's served.
Passengers dress how you would on the weekend at home, in leggings, jeans, shorts and T-shirts -- both on excursions and at meals. Wet hair and no makeup were common, as were tattoos and colorful hair streaks. It's a welcoming atmosphere, particularly for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who often find themselves the youngest passengers on other river cruise ships.
Unlike most river cruises, The B serves only two meals a day: breakfast/brunch and dinner. Almost all meals, save one on the final travel night, were buffets. While generally buffets imply quantity over quality, that wasn't the case on The B. Everything we ate onboard was fresh and tasty, while not gourmet, with lots of choices. Menus strayed toward the familiar, with the implicit understanding that if you wanted regional French cuisine, you could find it yourself in a cafe or restaurant in port.
Passengers seem to like the fact that you could come into the dining room whenever you wished, and not stay through multiple courses (we did too). If you really get hungry, you can order burgers and hot snacks in the lounge for a nominal fee, and there's also a vending machine.
Mornings on The B begin at 8 a.m. with an optional group fitness activity such as stretching or yoga. Other daytime activities are offered free of charge when the ship is sailing; originally, these came with an extra cost, but the line dropped the fees to encourage participation -- a smart move and a testimony to how U is adjusting to fit their customer base. A wine and paint class filled up quickly, while mixology classes were so popular that a second session was added.
Several passengers mentioned that they wouldn't mind other daytime activities added, such as trivia. The U by Uniworld experience encourages bonding, and fun onboard programming goes a long way toward setting up a group dynamic.
Can you go overboard on USB ports? In a day of multiple devices, we don't think so -- and neither did U by Uniworld. Outlets for charging were everywhere, from the lounge and sun deck to the dining room and cabins. We also loved the Bluetooth capabilities of the cabins' flat-screen TVs. It was super easy to hook up our phone wirelessly to the room's speakers, so we could play our favorite songs while we were relaxing after excursions. We consider ourselves officially spoiled.
Nightlife (Off Ship)
U by Uniworld schedules its cruises to maximize nights in port, and we found this extremely popular with the passengers. A late-night bar crawl in Rouen kept cruisers out until 3 a.m., and extended time in Paris gave people the opportunity to view the sparkling lights of the Eiffel Tower and get drinks afterward. (The B spends two nights in Paris, as opposed to other Seine itineraries.)
The cruise culminated with a rollicking 11 p.m. excursion to the famed Moulin Rouge show, where champagne bottles, included in the price, popped constantly. We found ourselves out much later than we are at home -- isn't that what a vacation is all about?
On the Fence
We're of two minds on The B's excursions. On the one hand, we loved that the ship offered a twist on the destinations. In Paris, for example, passengers visited the rooftop of the famed Parisian department store Galerie Lafayette and rode around the city in a motorcycle sidecar instead of going to Notre Dame -- although there was plenty of free time to do the latter if you wanted to. Active excursions such as kayaking and biking were popular.
But many of the excursions that were in the brochure didn't run because not enough people signed up. The descriptions also weren't clear. For example, a Versailles excursion went to the gardens only, not the main palace, and the D Day Normandy trip ended up being more of a bus tour than actually spending time at the beaches (and it skipped the Bayeux Tapestry completely, even though that was name-checked in the description).
U by Uniworld should be more up front in their shore excursion materials so passengers aren't unpleasantly surprised.
Confession: we are not millennial; we're solidly in the Gen X camp (although Cruise Critic sent millennial staffers on The A when it first launched). And while the company says that anyone who feels "young at heart" can board, our week onboard made us wonder if the millennials themselves would have more fun if us oldsters weren't around. Only half the passengers on our cruise were in the original 21-to-45 demographic. The rest ranged from mildly outside that age bracket to much older (two grandmothers were there with their grandsons).
For the most part, the younger people onboard came together and socialized, while the older passengers stayed in their original groups. We understand that U by Uniworld is trying to fill ships at this stage, but gently steering older passengers, particularly those with mobility issues, to Uniworld instead might make the new line more successful.
U by Uniworld wants to give independent-minded cruisers space to do their own thing, without a lot of handholding. But we found that the line veered too much the other way, and didn't give passengers enough information to plan their days or choose their excursions.
Because there's no port lecture onboard, the daily program for the next day is released around 7 p.m. via email and WhatsApp; U by Uniworld is entirely paperless. That's fine when you're in a small town, but it made advance planning in Paris, where the ship spends its two final days, difficult. Add in several canceled excursions and the vague descriptions, and we found that the reality of our ports stops was often quite different than what the brochure promised. Cruise lines have the right to change their schedules when needed, but we saw a lot of confused passengers.
Nightlife (On Ship)
Nightlife on the ship is a highly touted element of U by Uniworld, but on our cruise, the guest DJs, brought in twice, and a silent disco night were met with a resounding meh. Granted, our ship skewed older than you'd expect, but even the younger set seemed more content playing board games than dancing the night away. It made us wonder that U by Uniworld is overestimating the party-hardy intentions of millennials taking a river cruise; after all, you can't paint such a large generation with one brush.
If the ship does want to promote a party vibe after hours, perhaps getting the U Hosts or more outgoing bartenders involved might shake things up, too. But remember, millennials invented Netflix and chill, and research shows that they don't drink as much as their Boomer parents. More laid-back nighttime activities that take advantage of the excellent sun deck and the underused Ice Bar might be more successful.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Managing Editor