One of the first ships in the U River Cruises (formerly U by Uniworld) cruise line, The A is a pioneer in the company's entirely new river cruise concept: Attract a younger demographic with a laidback style of cruising that places a strong emphasis on active exploration and what to do after the sun goes down.
From the outside in, there's nothing like The A sailing the Rhine, Main or Danube Rivers. Formerly Uniworld's River Ambassador, the ship has been painted black with neon accents, and completely updated with hip decor and public spaces designed to appeal to millennials (although the ship itself is geared for adults and has no age limit).
You won't encounter nautical terms onboard. In an effort to appeal to first-time cruisers, phrases like "cabin" or "starboard" translate to "room" and "right." Reference to decks is all but eliminated with directions given as "upstairs" or "downstairs," "lounge" or "rooftop lounge." Even the dynamic between passengers and crew is more relaxed; uniforms for the staff consist of all-black jeans, T-shirts, hoodies and Converse sneakers. Local guides are called "U Hosts" and beyond leading orientation walks and answering questions, they occasionally dine with passengers and can be seen grabbing drinks with a group at their favorite local bar.
The organized tour feeling you often get on excursions is stripped away as much as possible, which presents both challenges and opportunities to passengers on The A. There's not a ton of hand-holding, and the line encourages flexibility. Want to spend the night off the ship or take the train to catch up with the vessel in the next port? Go right ahead. This is a boon for independent travelers worried that they will be marked as tourists following a guide's lollipop. But on the flipside, passengers should feel comfortable enough to be dropped in the middle of a bustling plaza in Amsterdam and find their way back to the ship using some loose walking/public transportation directions. Expect to be self-sufficient.
Those who want to lounge onboard will be met by attentive and friendly service, and up-to-the-minute programming like painting with wine or camping on the top deck under the stars (extra fees apply). On a seven-night cruise, only one night was spent sailing; the ship is usually split between those spending every free moment in port and those enjoying some of the onboard offerings like DJ nights or a "silent cinema."
A late-morning brunch instead of breakfast or lunch, digital-only schedules and menus, a WhatsApp group for socializing and USB outlets at every turn are other striking differentiators for those who have taken a more traditional river cruise.
When designing the ship, execs were careful that "youthful" didn't read "cheap." The cheeky sketches of nude figures lining cabin hallways? They are original Matisse prints. The multicolored Marilyn Monroes who watch your every move -- on the dance floor or sashaying through the lobby -- they are all limited editions signed by Warhol. Nor is the cruise a cheap venture for many in their first decade of a career; starting prices are close to $300 per day, when you factor in added expenses.
Skeptics have mocked some aspects of U, wondering if a river cruise originally intended for millennials would get off the ground. But the flexibility that The A promotes could appeal to anyone looking for a break from the rigid days and early nights of many river cruises. We agree they're on to something. You get the benefit of unpacking once, with a built-in support crew and social atmosphere, plus farm-to-table meals each morning and evening that make the idea of backpacking hostels less and less attractive. The A is for travelers who are still eager and adventurous, but have aged out of the idea of "schlepping."
The A is designed to attract like-minded travelers who want more flexibility, nightlife and a chance to socialize and engage with other cruisers. The target demographic primarily falls between travelers in their 30s and 40s (with some in their 20s), including many who have never cruised before, or at least not on the rivers. Passengers are primarily North American with a smattering of Brits, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans.
On the U River Cruises website, the dress code is listed as "Come as you are, as long as you have clothes on. No shirt, no shoes, no service." To help you narrow it down, dress for the weather (light windbreaker or jacket if the forecast looks rainy). A comfortable pair of shoes are always a must for river cruises as lots of walking, biking and exploring is involved. Yoga pants, leggings or joggers are comfortable and functional for hanging around the ship or embarking on an active excursion. While there are no designated formal nights, most passengers did spruce up during the evenings, so a cute dress, jumper or a button-up should help you feel ready for a night on the town or dancing onboard.
The A provides value, but it's not all-inclusive. Gratuities for onboard services and shore excursions are included in your cruise fare. Water, tea and coffee are available all day, every day, but other beverages (with the exception of juice at brunch) are additional. A drink package for a seven-night cruise runs about 299 euros per person. Brunch (late morning to afternoon) and dinner are included each day, but lunch is on your own.
At least one excursion is included in each port, and consists of a morning or nighttime orientation walk. We found the names of these tours to be misleading, however. An "espresso walk" around Cologne had some passengers banking on an included cup of early-morning caffeine, only to find that it was marketing speak and they had to march on without coffee in hand. The same applies to a "bottoms up" tour of Frankfurt by night -- sure, you get to see where Germans like to drink, but your stein of weissbier is on your own dime.
Wi-Fi is included, and works well enough to check email, social media and to keep up with the onboard WhatsApp group. But beyond that, many sites were blocked, videos wouldn't load and we had trouble sending or receiving photos over iMessage. For a stronger signal, portable devices called Mi-Fi are available to purchase onboard for 8 euros per day, and work off the ship while exploring in port. Depending on your international phone plan (or lack thereof) this might be a good deal for anyone who never wants to be out of touch.
Private or group transfers are available to book through the cruise line, but for an additional charge.
Substitute ship, quirks of river cruising
The A - a good concept, but needs refining
Danube Flow: Beautiful ship, interesting stops, okay food, very uneven service
Cruising the Rhine - Amsterdam to Frankfurt