Review of my first river cruise and what you need to know to have a fantastic experience
By Kate Blake, Cruise Specialist | May 15, 2015
I had the pleasure this month to experience an all inclusive cruise down the Danube River with Uniworld. Our cruise left from Passau, Germany and followed the river into Austria, Slovakia and ended in Hungary. I am going to split my review up into several sections – first let’s talk logistics. This is what you will need to know to make sure you have a smooth, worry-free travel experience. Then, the itinerary and what you can expect to see, and finally what is included and what the differences are when you take an all inclusive river cruise versus a more moderate one.
Flights and Transfers
River cruises that leave from Passau, Germany all require you to fly in someplace else. If you are going right to your cruise you want to fly to Munich . You can arrive any time the first day of your cruise (like doing a land-first Alaska cruise tour). If you fly in that same day Uniworld offers a free shuttle from the airport to the ship. They had an agent waiting outside baggage claim, and buses left once an hour in the middle of the day. It is a two hour ride through the German countryside. As you head south you will see lots of farms. You are heading into Bavaria which is full of farmers and breweries along with universities.
If you have some extra time I recommend you take the cruise line Prague add-on. The two day add-on is worth every penny and includes tours in Prague, a luxury hotel and transfers from Prague to Passau. Every guest I spoke to that did this loved it.
Post-cruise you can do Budapest in a variety of hotels at a lot of price points if you balk at the cruise line add-on prices. Transfers to the Budapest airport are again included with Uniworld if you fly out the same day the cruise ends, or if you stay over you can get a pre-paid shuttle for about $50 per person. The airport is a ways outside the city and it takes about half an hour at least to get there.
Picking a Stateroom on the River Beatrice
River cruises are not like ocean cruises. When you are docked there may be a ton of other boats docked at the same time and it is not unusual to wake up in the morning and not see outside because another boat is tied up to your boat. DO NOT SLEEP with your curtains open unless you want to possibly flash the unsuspecting people who may be right across from you in the morning.
I would not recommend paying the extra fee for a big balcony for this very reason. A French balcony – which has floor length windows that open for fresh air – is usually a better deal, and if it is blocked you will be much happier than if you paid for the next category and did not have any privacy on your balcony. Consider a suite if you want more room. The larger bathroom alone is a nice upgrade. Lower deck rooms are right at the water level and you will feel like you are peering out of a hole if in one. I got a feel for this while using the laundry room on my trip which was on this level.
Don’t worry where the room is – the boats are not that big and you will not ever have to walk very far.
What kind of people enjoy a river cruise?
Fit people. I cannot emphasize this enough. There are no handicapped rooms on board, the boats require everyone to take stairs and you must be able to walk at least a couple of miles at a go to enjoy the pre-paid excursions. The average guest is in their mid 50’s to 70’s, with a few younger couples in their 30’s and 40’s mixed in. River cruises include free use of bikes on board and offer some nice bike riding excursions which are not for couch potatotes. The ride from Melk to Durnstein was 20 miles and travelers of all ages joined in. Walking tours actually include a LOT of walking . 90 minutes was a short tour – others were more like 2 to 3 hours of walking. My feet were killing me, thanks to not bringing cobblestone friendly shoes. Make sure you have good walking shoes and can handle the uneven surfaces. They do offer gentle walkers options – but they still cover a lot of ground and though they are slower paced they still go for a good 90 minutes each time.
A river cruise in many ways is more like an organized tour than it is like an ocean cruise. The only differences are that all of your meals are included and you don’t pack and unpack each night when you go to a new place. You generally do not get days at sea to relax – every day is a new experience and go go go. This is ideal for those who lament being bored and must be doing something all day every day.
Passau to Budapest is definitely the direction I would recommend for covering this stretch of the Danube. You are traveling through what was once the Austrian Hungarian Empire – the domain of the Hapsburgs and their royal history dominates this region. When you take this cruise you will learn more about them than you ever thought possible. It is important to note – when WWI ended so did the monarchy in this region. The folks in Germany and Austria really prefer talking about the monarchy than WWII and how it affected the region and the people. Hungary was the only place I found that people openly talked about life under the Nazis and the fight to save their neighbors. Their holocaust memorial on the embankment of the Danube is heartbreaking. Hungarians were more positive about life post the Cold War than their neighbors in Slovakia who seemed to miss their shorter work weeks that they had while an eastern block nation.
Passau – Day 1
My photos – including the May Day parade that we had to wait for to get to the boat when we arrived: https://fabwanderings.shutterfly.com/pictures/4342
Passau sailing to Linz – Day 2
Passau is a charming village – a UNESCO heritage site at the convergence of three rivers in the middle of Bavaria. Your first day is your arrival day and you can head into town on your own, or do as I did and crash on your bed until dinner trying to shake off jet lag. Your first full day is spent with the morning touring the town – walking over cobblestone covered streets and feeling like you have gone back in time. My guide was an archeology student who was able to give a great history of the area and how it had evolved over the years. Southern Germany and Austria are very Catholic with abbeys, churches and monasteries galore, and your tours will include a lot of churches that provide dramatic photo ops. That afternoon you cast off and head toward Linz in Austria which is the jumping off point for tours into Salzburg.
Linz – Day 3, Jumping off point for Salzburg
Linz is a modern industrial city – it was pretty well bombed almost beyond recognition at the end of World War II thanks to it being a favorite of Hitler and his men. The US and Soviets jointly occupied the city for some years after the war and they do not really like talking about how their rail yards were key to the Nazi “solution”. I opted to spend my first day in Austria following the paths of musical genius and wonder. My tour into Salzburg included a stop in the scenic lakes district at Montsee which lived up to my lifelong picture of what a village in the alps should be – ginger bread trimmed roof tops, playful dogs, snow capped mountains and the church that Maria and Baron Von Trapp were married in in the movie The Sound of Music.
After a brief stop here we continued to Salzburg. It was an uncharacteristically hot spring day – close to 90 degrees and humid, so we were all making sure we kept our Uniworld water bottles full. Our guide Irme took us through the city into the old town, pointing out key Sound of Music and Mozart landmarks along the way . We had a good chunk of free time here which I spent having a cheesy brat from a street vendor in the marketplace, then walking along the river in the city, and finally going to the world famous Sacher Hotel for a decadent piece of Sacher torte.
Salzburg pics: https://fabwanderings.shutterfly.com/pictures/4571
Melk and Durnstein – Day 4
The next day we awoke to some needed cooler temps and rain in Melk – home to a world famous Monastery.This was the day when the go getters could skip sailing and take a 20 mile bike ride from Melk to Durnstein after lunch. They had a truck go with them in case anyone had any problems, so they were well taken care of. In the afternoon we went to Durnstein for your choice of a wine tasting tour or a visit to a saffron farm. I chose wine – as all sane people do – and saw a wine cellar that has been in use for 2000 years, since the Romans first settled in Austria (Ostria as it was then) and set up their initial monasteries which were used to make wine which was used as currency.
Photos – check out the 2000 year old wine cellar: https://fabwanderings.shutterfly.com/pictures/4911
Vienna – Day 5
Sailing if not stated otherwise was over night. The next day was one of the best – Vienna, aka Wien.
This gorgeous city is filled with culture, history and arts. I did the city tou r- but if I had this to do over would have opted for the “Like the Locals” option which took you to more places. Vienna is a busy, crowded city and their Gothic Cathedral towers over the heart of it, along with a grouping of Parliment buildings and the original royal palaces which are part of the city scape. Again, plenty of free time here with a free shuttle to take you to and from the boat in the afternoon. Lots of options for taking out a bike for a ride. We had an overnight here and an optional chamber orchestra concert which most folks who went counted as the highlight of their trip. I hung out on board enjoying mojitos and a stunning sunset.
Vienna / Bratislava – Day 6
The next morning one of my highlights was the optional tour (extra 40 Euros) to the Schonbrunn Palace. A huge sprawling complex it includes a garden maze, the national zoo on the premises and gorgeous rooms befitting a palace. Lots of gold gilding everywhere – and more reasons I really prefer yellow houses!
Photos from Schonbrunn and Bratislava: https://fabwanderings.shutterfly.com/389
Afternoon you could either sail or take a bus to the next stop. If you took the bus you got a full tour of Bratislava. This village was cute as can be and is proof that years of communism did not erase the hundreds of years of local flavor that are maintained here. We were there on VE day celebrating 70 years since the end of the war and there were celebrations all over. I caught a performance by a band in the town square – brought to you by T-Mobile by the way.
Budapest – Day 7
My video of sailing at sunrise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gxvy5lFqmcE&list=PL-TWU-mY1K14Vzqa4c8eKnFT_h7tbUPsA&index=3
Our week was wrapping up and we sailed away from Slovakia toward our final destination Budapest, Hungary. They do not call it the pearl of the Danube for nothing. It is gorgeous! The city tour here was spectacular – lots of good info, time for pictures at Heroes Square, and a tour of their big cathedral up in the castle district. This is where fairy tales come to life. Castles and buildings with round pointy turrets and amazing views. The Hungarians are not afraid to talk about their history. They fought the Nazis and communists hard and are very proud they are managing to rebuild a solid post- communist economy – one that includes a lot of tourism. They accepted euros and US dollars everywhere along with their local currency.
In the afternoon you either had free time or could do an optional excursion – I paid my extra 44 Euros to do a trip out to a horse farm where they gave us an amazing exhibition of Hungarian horsemanship, including a guy who demostrated shooting arrows from horseback at targets. The farm itself reminded me of the fancy horse farms I have seen in upstate New York or in Kentucky.
And they did goofy tricks with the horses – like getting them to sit like dogs.
Video of the horse show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qn2g7223qs&index=1&list=PL-TWU-mY1K14Vzqa4c8eKnFT_h7tbUPsA
Our final evening was a formal night and I had the honor of sitting next to our charming captain!
He is from Bulgaria and offered some interesting insights into his 20 plus years of captaining river boats. He loves Australians and Americans because we are just not complainers.
The night ended with the highlight as far as I was concerned – a cruise down the Danube to see all of the beautiful buildings lit up like Christmas. If I had started my cruise like this and ended in little Passau I would be pretty bummed.
Tons of photos: https://fabwanderings.shutterfly.com/552
My video slide show of sailing at night: https://fabwanderings.shutterfly.com/pictures/4988
Video from sailing at night: https://www.facebook.com/wanderverses/videos/vb.607268835971948/932604263438402/?type=2&theater
End of Cruise – Day 8
If you have flights out the same day the cruise line will take you to the airport no problem. I had booked a hotel in the city for an extra night and had pre-arranged a transfer using Viator, which the concierge was wonderful about confirming for me. She also confirmed my transfer from my city hotel the next day to make sure everything was set for me. That is service! Speaking of which – you have to be out of your room by 8:30 am but you can hang out onboard until noon if you like, even enjoying an extra lunch if your flights are late. No mad rush out the door. Very civilized. I spent an extra day in the city and will write that up separately.
What is Included and Why Choose the Uniworld Experience
I have mentioned two tours which cost extra – that was the only money I spent on the ship. 84 Euros, not a bit more! Unlike other cruise lines where tipping is extra (Viking River Cruise guests told me they were paying out about $300 per couple), and drinks beyond basic wine and beer for dinner are extra ($150 pp on Viking for the week for a premium drinks package), and transfers are extra (rates varied by port) – all of these things are included with Uniworld. Everyone enjoyed the pre-dinner cocktail hours where the drink of the day was served up on trays and handed out by friendly waiters, or you could order whatever you wanted. Nightly wines from the local region were announced right before dinner by our young wine steward. I met folks on Viking who complained about no Chardonnay on board – we had it or some other nice dry white every night, plus options by the glass if you wanted something else.
Breakfast and lunch were buffets but also included freshly made items prepared in the dining room – omelets in the morning, panini sandwiches at lunch and a pasta of the day. You could also order from a menu. I fell in love with their eggs benedict and my pants are now snug as a result. Did I mention there was fresh-made ice cream too? You get plenty of food to balance out all that walking. Menus were locally influenced. Schnitzel in Vienna, Goulash in Slovakia and Hungary, and fresh local fish along the way. They put out late night snacks the night when folks went to the concert, and anything you ever wanted the crew did all they could to help.
Little touches: Uniworld has complimentary self-service coffee and tea stations where you can get a cappuccino whenever you like. They also have a 24-hour open laundry room with free detergent. I was happy with this as it was warmer than I expected for most of the trip, and I washed everything I had that was lighter twice so I brought home minimal dirty clothes. I was up around 5 every morning to enjoy coffee and quiet on the deck which meant I could do wash and dry before 6 when other early risers were getting up.
Big thing: Uniworld ships are the same size as the other lines but have far fewer guests and larger staterooms. Viking and AMA Waterways ships had 150-180 people to the 109 we had for the week. Our tours were smaller and when we went out on buses I always had my own seat. Did I mention they usually had both water and beer on the bus?
My bed was amazing – firm with a feather bed on top, super high thread count sheets, super soft robe in the room, with big fluffy towels and good climate control options. On demand movies are free – I think every one on board watched American Sniper during the cruise.
I met many guests who had cruised other lines before discovering Uniworld who now cruise them instead. They love the better guest to staff ratio, bigger rooms and better alcohol choices. Uniworld offers nice extras for their past guests too – stateroom upgrades, little bonuses in their room like tins of local cookies, a handy tote bag – little things that every one liked. Uniworld is a family owned boutique line – their owners are South African and really try to offer a unique experience on every sailing.
More room, more amenities and no unexpected extras when you go with the truly all inclusive option from the start.
Uniworld’s key markets are Europe with the Danube, and an eastern Europe one from Budapest to Bucharest which is supposed to be amazing. I think I would start that one in Bucharest and end again in Budapest if given a choice. They also offer great choices in France including a 21-day cruise that is a wine lovers delight. Rhine options, Tulip cruises from Amsterdam , and of course winter markets. They also have gorgeous boats in the Far East. Uniworld is still doing Russia – guests must get their own visas to do this. Book early as your visa may take months to finalize.