I have taken two river cruises now on two different cruise lines.
Both follow a similar daily pattern but they have completely different personalities.
So while I'm going to tell you what life on a river cruise is like for a solo traveler, I'm also going to tell you what life on board this specific Grand Circle river cruise from the Black Sea to Budapest was like. I'll cover:
- The logistics of river cruise travel
- The daily routine on and off the ship
- Special features I really loved
- My fellow passengers
The Logistics of Travel Made Easy
From the moment I passed through customs in Bucharest to the point of departure through security in Budapest, everything was taken care of for me. This makes life easy for a solo traveler. Typically, I don't mind the logistics of travel. In fact, I enjoy the challenge. However, after many difficult months at home, on this trip I needed a bit of pampering. (Read Eastern Europe: 6 Reasons I’m Excited to Go and 1 Reason I’m Not) So I welcomed the care.
About twenty of us arrived in Bucharest on different flights at about the same time. We were met and taken to a hotel in the city and given keys to our rooms where our bags magically appeared. The next morning we simply placed our bags outside our rooms by 7am so that they could be collected and loaded onto a bus for delivery to the ship. Yes, once I passed through customs in Bucharest I never had to move my bag again except to unpack and then pack to return home. Twelve days of travel and only once did I repack my bag.
All the logistics were this smooth and the timing was impeccable. I was really amazed how every tour, every meal, every event ran like clockwork.
Daily life on a River Cruise
With the exception of the one day when we cruised through the Iron Gates (locks in Romania) we did our cruising at night. This meant arriving in a different port every morning. Here's how a typical day unfolded.
- 7:15am – I would awaken, shower and go to breakfast which was offered from 7am to 9am. There was a full buffet that changed its feature dish every day as well as an egg/omelette station.
- 9:15am – We would depart for the tour of the day which usually ran for the entire morning. The 130 passengers were broken into three groups, each led by a program director. Bojana was director of the yellow (my) group. We would meet our local guide on shore for either a walking or bus tour of our new location. The local tours often included a talk from a local with a particular perspective.
- 1:00pm (isn) – After the morning tour most people would return to the ship for lunch. Again, there was a buffet that was quite adequate for me however, there were also a la carte options and a pasta station if that was your fancy. And, of course, there was dessert.
- 2:00pm – People had choices here. You could go back into the town and explore on your own – the program directors often had good recommendations. You could read in the lounge, nap, take in a movie on your cabin TV (they always ran two movies relevant to the territory we were traveling through) or hang out with friends. On three occasions there were optional tours that people could book for an additional price.
- 5:00pm – Cocktails in the lounge featuring a different cocktail every night.
- 6:45pm – One of the program directors would deliver a port talk in the lounge giving us an idea of the itinerary for the next day.
- 7:00pm – 3-course (or more) dinner in the dining room which always included a fish or meat main dish. If neither suited your taste you could always order chicken or salmon.
- 8:30pm – Entertainment in the lounge.
So you can see that life on a river cruise is straight forward, predictable and easy. But on Grand Circle it's also stimulating and challenging. The brain capacity that was freed by having everything taken care of for me was available for integrating what was learned each day and for discussions with fellow passengers.
Special features I really loved
Grand Circle has a very creative approach to providing fun, enriching moments on their trips. There's
- the school visit
- lunch with a local
- memorable presentations by people who actually lived the history
- theme nights and special events that are just a bit of fun.
The formal name Grand Circle puts to it is “Learning and Discovery.” The job of the program directors is to build as many enriching learning and discovery opportunities as possible into the trip. Naturally, it's all optional but in my experience these opportunities are far more interesting and memorable than any trip to a museum.
My fellow passengers
I was one of the last people leaving the restaurant at almost every meal. It's not because I'm a slow eater, or because I eat that much. It was because the people on board were interesting and the conversations didn't end quickly. With very few exceptions, the passengers were American so politics loomed large in our discussions. But travel did as well as most people on the ship were big travelers and many had lived expat lives for many years. They were a very interesting bunch.
As would be expected, the majority of passengers were retired. Most were in their sixties and seventies. Some in their fifties and one in her thirties. There was a spread. But the one woman who was absolutely extraordinary was Ann, who was ninety – she lived as though she was at least twenty years younger.
Two things to note:
Contrary to my usual requirement that any trip I take have no single supplement, this one has one. Occasionally it is waived but the list prices show a supplement. This is a case when you have to look beyond the rule. I compared the cost of this trip including the supplement to a similar trip through the same territory for the same length of time. Grand Circle was $1,900 less. It is a unique cruise line in that it sells only directly to passengers – your travel agent, CruiseCritic and the like cannot book you on a Grand Circle cruise. And you gain benefits the more often you travel with them. The vast majority of passengers on board had taken at least two or three trips with Grand Circle. Some had taken dozens.
So there you have it. If there's something I've missed, if you still have questions about life on a river cruise, please ask them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them.
My thanks to Grand Circle Cruise Lines for supporting this trip. As always, the opinions are my own and editorial control of the stories is managed solely by Solo Traveler.