I spent 33 days in Europe in October 2015, mostly on Uniworld's River Duchess, sailing an itinerary known as the "Grand European River Voyage." This itinerary (which will be changed for 2016) starts in Amsterdam and sails the Rhine River, the Main River, the Main Canal and the Danube River, and ends in Bucharest Romania, with included air from Bucharest to Istanbul, Turkey. When the 3-day (2 night) pre-cruise extension is added in Amsterdam, and the 2 (included) hotel nights are added at the end, in Istanbul, and you add the one night you sleep on the airplane going from the USA to Europe, you are away for about 33 days total.
In 33 days, you get to know a ship pretty well, you get to know the other passengers pretty well, and you immerse yourself in the ports of call (destinations) so completely that you become one with the scenery.
Not everyone has time or money to drop-everything and take 33 days off and go to Europe, i understand that. But should your circumstances permit, and should you ever have the opportunity, i cannot imagine a better return on your travel investment dollar than taking this particular cruise on this particular line, and even on this particular ship.
The River Duchess is not Uniworld's newest ship, not it's largest ship, not it's showcase ship. But it is in some respects a perfect ship for the journey herein described. There are beds for approximately 134 passengers, and on our sailing (October 2015), we had 95 on board.
95 passengers is comfortable. 134 would have been tight.
With 95 on board, and with everyone understanding that they are going to see their fellow passengers morning, noon and night for a month, there is no shoving, no "me-firsting" at any venue, or any activity. There are no lines to get drinks, no lines to get dinner, no lines to get on the ship, no lines to get off the ship. At 95 passengers, everyone fits onto 2 tour buses (even though at many stops Uniworld had 3 buses available, because of a variety of tour options at different ports). There was never a fight for seats on the tour buses.
Cabins are perfect for one, but (sadly) designed for two. I traveled alone. I was the only person on the ship without a travel companion. Half the passengers were from Australia; half were American. None were from Great Britain (interestingly). Cabins on Deck "4" have sliding glass doors, which create a french balcony. (other decks have non-opening windows). Because this cruise in October (and not in the heat of the summer) and because the ship was traveling Northwest to Southeast, i chose a cabin on the Starboard side of the ship, so that i would have the sun shining in my open french door balcony all day, dawn till dusk. The weather largely cooperated, and many nights, i slept with the french door open, so i could hear the river, and feel the fresh air.
Movement on the ship is so gradual and imperceptible (there are few waves on the river, and the boat travels slowly), that often it was impossible to tell if the ship was moving or still. This created a surreal effect, of one never quite being sure if the ship was traveling down river to meet the new towns, or whether the towns were traveling up river to meet the ship.
The ship and its tours are geared to an English speaking audience (as Uniworld's website goes to pains to point out) and if you do not speak English, this is not the ship, not the line, and not the itinerary for you. One family of 4 on our voyage, who did not speak English, ruined several destination stops for other passengers, by failing to understand what time to be back at the "meeting point" or what time the tour bus would depart. As such, other passengers (all of whom did understand the meeting place and time) were left sitting for many minutes until the tour guide either went out and rounded up the non-English speakers or left the destination without them.
Food aboard ship was excellent to exceptional. Variety was unmatched. Uniworld personnel were perfectly trained, a pleasure to be around. As one of my shipmates put it: "not a weak one among them." Which is saying something, given the number of opportunities there are to screw up a passenger-employee interaction, over a month's time.
The cruise manager on our voyage was German. This meant that talks scheduled for 6:45 pm began at 6:45:00 pm and tours scheduled to depart at 8:30 am left in fact at 8:30:00 am. I found this comforting. Others quickly learned that if you wanted to be on the day's excursion, it was best to be 5 minutes early, rather than 1 minute late.
Issues to be aware of:
Uniworld's contracted local guides (not those who reside on the ship, but those at the destination cities) were sick (with a cough and cold) in Cologne and Heidelberg, Germany, which meant that soon everyone on the ship was either about to be sick, actively sick, or just getting over being sick. The ship's doctor was the busiest man aboard. Be prepared for this. I'm not sure it is (or will be) the same on every sailing, but on my sailing, i was "down" for about 3 days with a cold, acquired from other passengers, or from Uniworld contractors. Uniworld stresses how important it is to use the provided hand sanitizers --- and this i'm sure helped things from being worse. But, even with the hand sanitizers, the ship is an incubator. Others coughed for 7 to 10 days. I was one of the lucky ones.
The ship has wifi of sorts. When in a port, and when the ship is stationary, the wifi is good, and can be relied upon. When the ship is moving, and/or in a lock, not so much. Especially maddening is the several days when you sail the danube, which is the border between two countries. The internet (and your cell phone) will say you are in Croatia for 20 minutes, until the ship drifts 8 feet to the right, and then you are in Serbia, with a completley different set of roaming rules and reuglations, and then you drift over into Romania, and then you drift over into Bulgaria, and every time you change countries, (my experience, anyway), you lose your signal, and it needs to be re-established. As a solution, i brought with me 2 back-up internet MiFi (wifi) hotspots, one provided by the new company Glocalme, and the other provided by Verizon. That meant that at all times, i had 3 different ways to get on the internet. And i always was able to be on the internet (because it was important to me, and to the job i was trying to keep in america). Glocalme (i am not employed by them, have no stake in their success) is about 10% the cost of Verizon. In 30 days of being connected nonstop, i used about 200 Euros worth of connect time from Glocalme, compared to thousands of dollars of connect time from Verizon. Bottom line: if having internet is important to you, it's doable, with effort, and advance planning.
At the end of 33 days, my final bill ("my balance due") with Uniworld, that i had to pay at the end of the cruise, was 254 euros (about $275 USD). If you have ever cruised before, on a voyage of any length, you know how easy it is to rack up thousands of dollars in on-board expenses, and that is why many travel agents and cruise operators offer "on-board" credits. With Uniworld, i had signed up (over 30 days) for 2 optional tours and had paid the ship's staff to do my laundry for me, and that added up to only 254 Euros. (Had i instead gone downstairs to use the free washers and dryers, which many passengers did, my closing balance would have been about 89 euros). Everything else was included in the pre-paid, all-inclusive up-front fee.
No review (short of a small book) can capture all that goes on, on a river-ship over the course of 33 days. Bottom line is: things that are annoying become REALLY annoying over the course of a month. And things that are soothing, relaxing, perfectly executed, become really expected and appreciated over the course of a month. Fortunately for Uniworld, and for the staff of the modest River Duchess, there were almost no annoying things, and almost everything was soothing, pampering and perfectly executed.
Last, and this was news to me: i wondered before i put down money on this cruise, whether i would be happier on one of Uniworld's brand new ships, and on a brand new ship from one of the other river cruise lines. It turns out, i would likely have been miserable, and here is why: any boat that drew more water (draft) than did the River Duchess, could not sail during the summer of 2015 between Regensberg Germany and Passau Germany: the water in the Danube was too shallow, because of drought, and/or climate change. As such: when the River Duchess got to Regensberg, they asked everyone to get off the boat, and we were bused briefly downstream to Passau. This permitted the Duchess to empty its water tanks (drawing less water, still), and without the weight of the 95 passengers on board, the ship floated down the shallow stretch of river with "centimeters to spare," according to the ship's captain, Captain Mike. During this stretch of river, we observed many other passengers on OTHER cruise lines, especially Viking (with it's long ships that draw more water) packing up their suitcases, and being forced to "shuttle" from one ship to another, because no ONE ship could get through the Regensberg-to-Passau passage. Those of us on the Duchess felt blessed: we had the little engine that could. A ship that was not too big, not too small, but a ship that was just right for the task at hand.
I would choose this exact cabin again. It was (for me) perfectly situated at the end of the hall, with no through traffic except at meal times (and those were the times when i was not in the cabin). Make sure you consider what side of the boat the sun will be on during your cruise, and make sure you consider how hot it will be outside when selecting your cabin. In the summer months, i would want to be on the "shady" side of the ship. But since our sailing was in October, i wanted to be on the "sunny" side of the ship. There are 4 suites on the ship, which are slightly larger than a stateroom; every other cabin (including mine) is the same size.