GRAND CIRCLE TOURS CRUISES TRAVEL GUIDE

Once you realize that Grand Circle Tours (GCG) began life in 1958 as an off-shoot of the American Association of Retired People (AARP), you’ll begin to understand more of the Grand Circle ethos. The company, which has been operating river cruises since 1997, caters almost entirely to the 55-plus set and GCT is all-American, all the time (the company won’t even mail a brochure outside of the U.S.). That means travelling with American guests, eating largely American food, and taking tours that cater to “American interests and perspectives.” That’s either going to float your boat… or not.

Still, with its affordable pricing and attractive solo-traveler offers, GCT has amassed legions of loyal travelers (known as Inner Circle members) that come back to sail with the line again, and again, and again.

Pros

Affordable Pricing: GCT’s pricing, and frequent special offers, make for cruises that cost substantially less than most other lines.

Enrichment: Prior to the cruise guests can expect to receive a lot of detailed information regarding destinations. Onboard guests get daily enrichment lectures from local experts in history along with various cooking demonstrations and even the occasional folk dancing troupe. Solo-Traveler-Friendly: GCL has a large supply of small cabins designed and priced for one; it also provides a roommate matching service for those sailings where solo cabins aren’t available (solos bunk with another passenger of the same gender and pay the double passenger rate without a singles supplement.). Best of all: It offers reduced-rate single-supplements for those who want their own larger room

Cons

Homogenous Guest Profile: More of a quantifier than a con. Your fellow guests will be exclusively from the United States, and all over 50 years of age. If you like a diverse passenger base, this isn’t it.

Uneven Fleet: The GCT fleet features ships that are very different from each other, and all may not offer the same amenities. It’s important to thoroughly research your itinerary and ship first before you book.

Small Staterooms: Some ships in the GCT fleet, like the 1991-built River Allegro, feature staterooms that are a crunchy 120 square feet. Ouch!

Designed exclusively for American retirees, GCT is a basic, entry-level river cruise line that manages to provide a good number of inclusions in their fares; and unusual shore excursions (see “Activities”). Prices include beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, and can even include economy-class flights to and from Europe. Crews are mostly European, and provide a good level of service. Mindful of the line’s elderly clientele, it’s not unusual to see a GCT crewmember assist passengers up the gangway and onto busses, or go out of their way to ensure that guests are comfortable and well taken care of.

EXPERIENCE

GCT features a fleet of six very diverse European river cruise ships. Comfortable but not luxurious, they feature accommodations that range in size from a snug 120 square feet to over 200 square feet. Beds are mostly Pullman-style berths that fold up to create two small sofa-style seats during the day. A few accommodations feature either French or step-out balconies, while most staterooms have simple window views. Bathrooms are plain-looking, but clean, efficient, and do what they were designed to do.

Shore excursions are where GCT really shines and have a strong educational component (see “Activities”). Because of the average age of GCT’s guests, expect fewer walking tours and more bus tours.

PASSENGERS

Your fellow guests will all be from the United States, and almost all will be over 50 years of age, though GCT doesn’t prohibit younger folks from booking.

ROUTES

Europe is the main area of focus for GCT, with numerous itineraries of varying lengths that ply the Danube, Elbe, Main, Moselle, and Rhine rivers. \byages to France, including Paris, Burgundy, and Provence, are also offered. In the winter months, GCT runs special “Christmas Market” river cruises that highlight the famous outdoor markets that line the squares of Germany, Austria, and other countries from late November to mid-December.

DINING

Everyone eats in the main dining room at the same time daily. Snack options are sparse though there may be cookies sometimes at the coffee station. Breakfast and lunch are a combination of a decent buffet spread and made-to-order entrees. Regional specialties are available and for those who get homesick you can always order a burger and fries. Dinner is a full-service, sit-down affair. The food is solidly tasty, but is more basic comfort-food than anything cutting edge. Select wine, beer, and soft drinks are complimentary during lunch and dinner, but cost extra out of the dining room There is a coffee, cappuccino, and tea machine available 24 hours. Special requests are an area where the line seems to struggle, particularly when it comes to vegans (entrees arrive late and can be tasteless). There is no room service.

ACTIVITIES

Grand Circle places great emphasis on immersive travel as a form of enrichment. The line takes great

Pride in not “sugar coating” destinations by embracing cultural differences and controversial topics. Included tours go beyond the norm. On signature excursions, for instance, you visit local families in their homes or stop by a school to meet with local kids.

Personalization is another thing that sets Grand Circle apart. To enhance the onboard and destination experience, guests are divided into color-coded groups of no more than 45 persons and assigned to an onboard, English-speaking Program Director. These affable directors are chosen for their knowledge of history, geography, politics and local culture. So they act as tours guides, but they also are true hosts, there to make sure no guest gets lost in the crowd: In addition to answering questions about the destination, he or she also is the go-to person for everything from special diets to extra care for passengers with physical limitations. The relationships starts a week before departure when an e-mail is sent to each guest from their Program Director, discussing the itinerary along with important reminders and offering to answer any questions.

CHILDREN’S PROGRAMS

None. While GCT permits kids over the age of 13 to travel with adults, we don’t recommend the line for kids. GCT offers no multi-generational river cruise programs.

ENTERTAINMENT

The emphasis is on enrichment lectures and demonstrations from local experts brought on board. Most guests turn in early, but there is evening musical entertainment provided by a solo keyboard singer/musician. The musical stylings are akin to Bill Murray’s character from Saturday Night Live, “Nick The Lounge Singer.”

SERVICE

Service on board is good, and designed to meet the needs of the line’s older clientele in a friendly, genuine manner. We particularly appreciate the Program Director initiative on these ships (see above).

FLEET

Grand Circle owns and operates 12 river ships (though one in Russia was parked for 2016), as well as several ocean-going vessels. The fleet is older, but well maintained. Decor is best described as dated but comfortable with dark woods, colors, and heavy rich fabrics think 1990’s Marriott hotel. Not all the ships have elevators (the ones that don’t are a difficult choice for those passengers who have a hard time with stairs).

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