This Is Officially the Coolest Way to River Cruise

With silent discos, pub crawls, kayaking, and glamping under the stars, U River Cruises is the hip new kid on Europe’s inland waterways.

This Is Officially the Coolest Way to River Cruise

The dining room on “The A” is designed to maximize mingling.

Coutesy of U River Cruises

From the moment I pulled up to U River Cruises’ sleek, all-black ship, The A, in Budapest, it was clear this was not your grandmother’s cruise line. But she’d be welcome. And she’d probably have a blast.

Just ask my friend, Sue, a grandmother who accompanied me on a hosted sailing this past fall to see just how two old(er) but young-at-heart women who fit squarely into the more traditional river cruise demographic would fare.

Spoiler alert: It was a hands-down success and a trip that ranks among my all-time favorite travel experiences.

You can’t miss the ships' all-black exteriors.

You can’t miss the ships’ all-black exteriors.

Courtesy of U River Cruises

But before I get into why the trip was so great, some background on how U River Cruises joined a market that typically served up extremely pleasant sailings—what’s not to love about drifting past Europe’s most beautiful villages, having your meals and outings taken care of?—but was missing a certain edge.

Originally developed for millennials, the two-ship, lower-priced sister line to the more upscale Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection dropped its age restriction before it even launched in 2018. It inadvertently ended up as a river cruise line offering a tastefully hip alternative for independent and active travelers of all ages.

Sleek design, friendly and social vibes

On boarding in Budapest, I noticed that the ship was sleek, both inside and out, and reminiscent of a W brand hotel. The main lounge on The A featured silver ceiling panels and mostly gray and white furniture and decor accented by a few colorful neon signs and a foosball table in one corner. The dining room promotes mingling, with a combination of bar seating and other communal tables. The mood onboard was casual, with the staff dressed in black T-shirts and black jeans.

The cabins were small but well-designed to maximize storage space. They had plenty of luxe touches handed down from Uniworld, which is known for its opulent interiors, including marble baths and Uniworld’s trademark Savoir beds (a London-based brand that specializes in bespoke bedding).

The vibe on “The A” is markedly casual and social.

The vibe on “The A” is markedly casual and social.

Courtesy of U River Cruises

Most of my fellow travelers were first-time river cruisers who were adding it to a longer trip through Europe. And unlike standard river cruises, known for attracting a more homogeneous 55-plus crowd, the 90 or so passengers on board were the most diverse group of people I had ever traveled with, representing a host of nationalities, ethnicities, ages, and sexual orientations.

Many of the other passengers were seasoned travelers, and all were there to mingle and have fun. One way the ship makes it easy to do just that is through a WhatsApp group chat that passengers can join both for updates on daily activities as well as to interact with other guests to find out where the action is, on and off the ship.

I’m not sure whether to blame my age or jet lag, but I missed the first night’s pub crawl through the famed ruin bars in Budapest (dilapidated buildings that have been transformed into lively watering holes). I also skipped the following evening’s late-night DJ dance party in the bar on the top deck. But from the videos and messages that were posted in WhatsApp, this clearly was a fun-loving bunch. And as the week wore on, there wasn’t a night where you couldn’t find someone who was willing to stay up late and prolong the party.

That inclusive feeling of adventure and camaraderie carried on throughout the sailing. And perhaps at no time was it more evident how comfortable everyone felt together than during our onboard karaoke tequila night, when even those who outwardly seemed the least adventurous clamored to belt their hearts out in public.

Not your average cruise excursions

The excursions offered similar activities to those you might expect from traditional river cruise lines sailing the same stretch of the Danube between Budapest and Regensburg, Germany—but with a unique twist.

For instance, our first outing started with a hike up a hill on the Buda side of Budapest then ended at St. Gellert Thermal Bath and Swimming Pools, where we found ourselves in a pool with a wave machine. It was the last thing I expected at a historic bathhouse.

A wave pool at the St. Gellert Thermal Bath and Swimming Pools is a good example of the U spin on standard excursions—there’s always a fun or surprising element.

A wave pool at the St. Gellert Thermal Bath and Swimming Pools is a good example of the U spin on standard excursions—there’s always a fun or surprising element.

Photo by Shutterstock

U’s sailing schedule has more overnight stops than most other river cruise lines—meant to encourage evening explorations of the cities and towns along the way. And its pricing is based on fewer inclusions (namely fewer included excursions), another attempt at urging guests to get out more on their own.

Many of the free excursions are designed to inspire solo exploring as well, which I prefer to the guided group bus tours that are a staple of traditional cruises. For instance, in Vienna, our cruise director walked us from the dock to the subway, then guided us to the center of town where she pointed out which direction to head to see the different landmarks. We were then free to venture on our own and return at our leisure.

I only saw a larger coach once during our sailing, the evening most of the ship’s passengers opted to join the after-hours private tour of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Instead of coaches, U makes an effort to use public transportation, bikes, and good ole shoe leather.

My favorite excursion was a 20-mile bike ride through the picturesque towns of the Wachau Valley, where we were able to stop on a bridge and wave to the ship as it pulled in to meet us in Melk, Austria. While similar rides are offered on other lines, I liked that we had three guides, one up front for the competitive set and two more to keep pace with the slower riders.

The itinerary also offered onboard painting and cocktail mixology classes, a ’70s-themed costume and dance night, kayaking, and an Oktoberfest-style party in Regensburg, all of which made the week-long sailing along the Danube an intriguing combination of fun, informative, active, and did I mention fun? And ultimately that’s really where U thrives, in never taking itself too seriously and weaving in ample opportunities to let loose, socialize, be active, and relax, too.

In 2020, U is offering even more variety as it brings its second ship, The B, back into service—the line admittedly got off to a slow start after it launched in 2018 and ended up pulling The B for the 2019 season and has repositioned it from France’s Seine River to Central Europe’s Rhine for the 2020 season. The A is sailing the Danube and Main Rivers this year. In addition to more capacity and new destinations, there will be new activities as well, such as waltz- and crime-themed cruises.

If you’re wondering if this line is too cool for you, if it’s designed for party animals or is basically a booze cruise—it’s not. If you’re into food, fitness, and wellness, there is plenty of that, too. Ultimately, its greatest strength is its informal atmosphere and lower, à la carte prices that cater to the more independent travelers.

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Jeri Clausing is a New Mexico–based journalist who has covered travel and the business of travel for more than 15 years.
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