When U River Cruises pulled one of its two ships for the season, many saw it as a validation of industry skepticism about the viability of a line designed specifically for millennials and the young at heart.
At the time, I questioned whether the concept, which resembles that of the now 20-year-old W Hotels brand, was dated or an idea before its time.
After getting a chance to sail the line’s second and currently its only operating ship, The A, this month, I am firmly convinced it’s the latter.
While initial efforts to limit the line strictly to millennnials was clearly a misstep, the diverse range of ages, nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientation and socioeconomic backgrounds mingling and having a blast on my sailing last week from Budapest to Regensburg made it clear there is a market to be tapped.
The challenge remains in finding that widely varying audience and, of course, that very daunting task all lines face in overcoming the widespread perception that river cruising is for old people.
Most of the passengers on my ship had happened upon rather than sought out the brand, or even a river cruise, for that matter. A 39-year-old professional from Australia, for instance, said he spotted an ad for it at a travel agency next to his grocery store as he was planning a last minute trip to Europe.
Like many of the other non-American travelers on the ship, it was just part of a longer vacation in Europe.
And save for one retired couple from Ireland, who said they were urged to sample the less expensive brand as a test of river cruising over their preferred ocean trips, all said they were eager to recommend it to all of their friends.
Nothing helps sell a brand better than word of mouth. It just takes longer.
And in the American market, one of the challenges of selling river cruises to younger travelers is their lack of vacation time compared to counterparts in Europe, New Zealand and Australia. With less time off, they are hesitant to commit to one ship for a full week or 10 days.
Many of the younger travelers (meaning in their 30s or 40s) on my cruise were from Australia and New Zealand, and this cruise was just a week of a multi-week vacation.
Still there were plenty of Americans, mostly in their 40s, 50s and early 60s, including one couple who had previously sailed Viking and Uniworld. When they first saw the price for two, they said they thought that was the per person rate.
Guests on U River Cruises ship The A enjoy karaoke night on a recent sailing. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jeri Clausing
Because of the lower price point, the dining options are more limited, drinks are not included and many of the excursions have upcharges. And while in return, you get a much more laid back atmosphere, hip decor and lots of late night partying on and off the ship, (think silent discos, pub crawls and tequila karaoke) you also get the benefits of Uniworld, whose luxury influence is clearly there in the attentive service, food quality and Uniworld's trademark Savior beds and marble baths.
I also loved that we rarely saw those big motorcoaches so often associated with dull group excursions. As our cruise director said at the outset, "We will not take you on a bus to see church No. 35." Public transportation is used whenever possible, and many of daily outings are focused around outdoor activities, including walking, hiking and biking tours, even kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding.
While I am still a huge fan of a good luxury river cruise with gourmet cuisine and unlimited fine wines, sailing the U proved to be a fun, casual alternative that I would recommend to any and everyone who is active and adventurous.