Editor's Note: The B will be out of commission in 2019. It will return in 2020 on itineraries in Central Europe instead of France.
If you build the coolest ship on Europe's rivers, will millennial travelers interested in a casual atmosphere, independent exploration and hip nightlife follow? That's the premise behind The B, one of two ships in the fledgling U River Cruises (formerly U by Uniworld) river cruise line.
Life on The B is much different than what you'd find on Uniworld, U River Cruises' luxe parent line. The company took one of its older ships, River Baroness, and transformed it completely, giving the vessel a sleek black exterior and eye-popping decor. The public spaces within The B are nothing short of awesome, with geometric-printed carpets and walls, graphic-designed furniture and pops of neon. Technology is in the forefront, with USB outlets everywhere, including in the dining room, so you're never far from a charge. It feels much more like a hip boutique hotel than a river cruise ship.
Beyond its design, The B takes a modern spin with its programming. Excursions don’t start until late morning, and nightlife activities take place every evening. Meals are served twice daily, a brunch and dinner, and both are buffets so passengers can come and go as they please. There's no need to dress up; leggings, jeans and shorts are the norm. Excursions have a twist -- you're more likely to visit the rooftop of the Parisian shopping haven Galeries Lafayette or ride in a motorcycle sidecar than go to Notre Dame -- although there's plenty of free time for you to do the latter if you wish. Emphasis is placed on lounging and bonding with your fellow passengers, as opposed to the hectic schedule that most river cruise lines offer. It feels fresh and fun.
That's not to say that The B hits its target completely. Originally limited to ages 21 to 45 --- capturing millennials, with a few years on either side -- the cruise line lifted its age requirement in early 2018. As a result, passengers in their 20s, 30s and early 40s who are seeking the like-minded, aren't as likely to find them; we think the line would grow more successfully (and better approximate the Instagram-fabulous party people on its website) if age guidelines, as opposed to outright restrictions, were put front and center again. As one fellow passenger put it, it's hard to let loose when your grandma is onboard.
Another area that needs work is communication. We get that no one wants to show up for nightly port talks, but releasing next-day schedules by WhatsApp at 7 p.m. makes it hard to plan your time (particularly in Paris, where the ship spends several days). Some of the ship's cooler features, like an onboard photo booth, were never pointed out, so most passengers never found them. Excursions weren't always the experience that was billed. And while the staff, tattooed bar servers and U Hosts were excellent, we couldn't help thinking that an old-fashioned cruise director could rouse better participation at the DJ nights and silent disco; for a cruise line that stresses nightlife, we were surprised at how dead things were.
Despite these quirks, The B and U River Cruises as a whole offers something different and exciting in cruising, and the staff were upfront about receiving and incorporating passenger feedback in the ship's inaugural year. Pricing is being adjusted to find the sweet spot for the tight budgets that many face in the early years of their career. If the idea of an overplanned holiday where you're the youngest passenger onboard makes you cringe, yet you're done with hostels or cheap-feeling budget hotels, The B is your perfect river cruise.
Originally meant for ages 21 to 45, The B now takes the young at heart. Adults of all ages are welcome and the ship has even had some families in its inaugural year, with passengers as young as 8 onboard.
On our sailing, about half of the passengers were part of the original target demographic. The other half were much older, with many coming from the travel trade; white hair was not uncommon (two passengers were grandmothers bringing their 20-something grandsons). The company expects this will change as word about The B and the U River Cruises line gets out. We hope so, as we feel the concept works best when passengers have similar sensibilitites and are clustered around the same 25 to 40 age group.
Most passengers were American, but there were also people from the U.K, Canada, Australia and New Zealand onboard. Programming and announcements are in English.
The B is truly a come-as-you-are ship, with casual clothes worn at all times. Leggings, shorts and T-shirts, jeans and sundresses are the norm during the day, depending on the weather. Passengers generally do not change for dinner onboard, although you do see people spiff up a bit if they are going out in Paris or Rouen. You'll want a good pair of walking shoes or tennis shoes for walking tours or bike rides over cobblestoned streets. Pack a light jacket or sweatshirt too, as French weather can be unpredictable. If you plan to be active, or even if you just like to stay hydrated, stick in a reusable water bottle (or buy one onboard for 8 euro).
The B includes at least one daily excursion, gratuities for staff and shore excursions and Wi-Fi in its price. Two meals are served daily -- breakfast and/or brunch, as well as dinner; lunch and snacks are on your own. Group and private transfers from the airport to the ship are available for a fee. Water, coffee and tea are always available. The onboard currency is the euro.