As the world's largest river cruise line, Viking River Cruises is pretty much a household name, thanks to its extensive marketing and links with television programs such as Downton Abbey. If you're thinking about taking a cruise in Europe -- the heart of river cruise territory -- you might also want to take a look at Scenic, the Australian-owned line that started life as a motor coach tour operator in its homeland in 1986. Since it entered river cruising in 2008. Scenic has offered similar itineraries to Viking on an all-inclusive basis.
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Price, Inclusions and Booking Policies
Comparing like-for-like prices is difficult as Scenic's fares are fully inclusive and Viking's are not. Also, fares on all river cruise lines fluctuate, depending on the date of travel, itinerary and any special early booking deals and other seasonal incentives such as free air travel. On paper, Scenic is more expensive, generally by at least $1,000 or more depending on the cruise.
With both lines, U.S. travelers have the choice of booking cruise-only or fly-cruise itineraries. For U.K. passengers, the fare always includes return flights or, in the case of Scenic, the option to travel by rail. Both lines require a $500 non-refundable deposit with the balance to be paid 90 days before the date of the cruise, or fares paid in full if booked less than 90 days before departure; Viking sometimes requires full payment if the fare is advertised as special.
Choose Scenic if you don't want any hidden surprises
Scenic prices are fully inclusive, covering all excursions, specialty dining, a minibar in every cabin (restocked daily), unlimited drinks throughout the day and onboard gratuities, so once the fare is paid all passengers need to bring is onshore spending money. The included tipping, which reflects the Australian culture on gratuities, is a positive boon for U.K. travelers who are often taken unawares when they discover they are expected to tip on river cruise lines that mainly cater to U.S. travelers.
Viking's fares include most shore excursions, as well as wine and beer at lunch and dinner. (The company's economy of scale means that a travel agent may be able to throw in other add ons and enticements, however). Viking passengers do pay gratuities separately. The recommended gratuity is €12 ($13.40) per person, per day for the ship's staff and crew, and €2 ($2.25) per person, per day for the program director.
Choose Viking if you worry about cancellations
Viking has a more generous cancellation policy compared to Scenic. Passengers who cancel more than 70 days before a cruise forfeit their deposit, 50 percent of the fare for canceling between 30 to 69 days prior to departure and the total fare for cancellations less than 30 days before sailing
On Scenic, you'll lose your deposit for cancellations more than 90 days before departure, 50 percent from 62 to 90 days and loss of the full fare for canceling 61 days or less before departure.
Both Viking and Scenic include daily shore excursions in their fares, which are typically guided walking tours around town and coach trips to visit castles and wineries. Both lines use local guides and passengers are issued personal audio headset systems so they don't miss a word. Viking offers additional excursions, such as theater and ballet performances, for an additional fee.
Choose Viking if you want to focus on the main highlights
In each destination, Viking's included daily excursions take in all the main sights, such as Cologne Cathedral or a city tour with an overview of Hofburg Palace and the State Opera House in Vienna, which is ideal for people who have never visited Europe before. Viking is particularly good about providing the option of slow-paced walking tours for passengers with mobility issues (although in common with all lines, excursions are challenging for wheelchair users).
Choose Scenic if you enjoy flexibility
In addition to the shore excursion program, which often provides passengers with several choices on the same day, Scenic offers GPS guided tours so independent passengers can explore using pre-programed walks and maps on personal audios devices. Available in more than 140 locations, they start and finish at the ship's location so you'll never get lost. Active passengers will also enjoy using the fleet's onboard bicycles for guided or independent trips.
Itineraries and Fleet
When it comes to size of the fleet, Viking stands head and shoulders above Scenic (and everyone else for that matter). The line now has 46 Longships, carrying 190 passengers, which operate in Europe, with two more on order for next year. With other vessels -- including ships leased in Egypt and China -- its total fleet size stands at 60.
Scenic has 11 169-passenger Space-Ships sailing in Europe, with a twelfth being launched in May 2016. Scenic also operates chartered vessels in Egypt and Russia and this year joined Viking by entering the Asian market with two new vessels sailing on the Mekong and Irrawaddy respectively (the latter from September 2016).
In Europe, both sail on the Rhine, Main, Danube, Moselle, Seine, Rhone, Garonne, Dordogne and Douro (Scenic launches its first ship on the Douro in April 2016). Viking also sails on the Elbe. Both lines offer Christmas market cruises.
Many itineraries are similar, and Viking's size means passengers are likely to get the cruise they want on the date of their choice. The large number of Viking vessels mean the company is better equipped to deal with the low water levels that have plagued European rivers in recent years; switching passengers to identical vessels further upstream or downstream to avoid the affected areas and enabling them to continue their cruise with the minimum of disruption.
It should be noted that although the lines describe their vessels as Longships and Space-Ships, they are exactly the same size at 443 feet in length (the maximum allowed on European rivers). Although Viking has more cabins, it has created extra public space at the front of its Longships by blunting the bow to create the Aquavit Terrace; while Scenic has fewer cabins and uses the resulting space for additional public areas such as a gym.
The staterooms on both lines have a modern vibe, with Viking favoring minimalist Scandinavian style and Scenic leaning toward boutique hotel-style chic. Both are well equipped with comfortable beds, large TVs with on-demand films and entertainment, WiFi and complimentary water. Scenic provides robes and slippers in the cabin and they are also available on Viking but you have to request them from the front desk. Scenic's bathrooms feature L'Occitane toiletries, which were previously offered by Viking but have recently been changed to its own Freyja brand.
Viking Longships have 95 cabins in five categories. Water level cabins, with a fixed window, are 150 square feet; French Balcony cabins measure 135 square feet; and Veranda Cabins are 205 square feet in total. Veranda Suites are 275 square feet and the two Explorer Suites are 445 square feet. There are no single or disabled cabins.
Scenic also has five categories on its 85-cabin Space-Ships; while they are called suites, they all comprise one room in varying sizes. Standard Suites on the lower deck are 160 square feet, and Balcony Suites are between 205 and 250 square feet. These cabins, and ones in higher categories have "sun lounge" balconies, which are fully retractable glass windows that lower to let in fresh air and can be closed off from the rest of the cabin with folding glass doors. Junior Suites are 240 to 250 square feet, Royal Suites 305 to 360 square feet and the two Royal Panorama Suites measure up to an impressive 475 square feet, among the largest you'll find on rivers. For solo travelers, there is one single cabin that is 129 square feet. There is also one wheelchair accessible cabin.
Choose Viking if you want walkout balconies and two-room suites
If you want to step outside your cabin and sit on a "proper" balcony, or want a suite that lives up to the name and is made up of two rooms rather than one large space, then go for Viking.
Choose Scenic if you want to be pampered
On Scenic, all passengers have butlers, with the level of service depending on the cabin category. Butlers in all cabins will shine shoes, arrange shore excursions and bring drinks, and services for passengers in higher suites include room service breakfast, laundry and suitcases packed and unpacked.
When it comes to the overall standard of food, both lines are about the same, although Scenic has more choice in dining venues and options. Both serve well-presented, tasty dishes that showcase regional specialties as well as familiar dishes. There is buffet breakfast and lunch, with the option to order menu items served to the table, and dinner is always served. Both have a set lunch and dinner time and operate on a free seating basis (aside from Scenic's specialty restaurants). Viking fares include wine and other beverages with lunch and dinner.
The attractive indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace at the front of Viking Longships is available for a lighter breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is a similar set up in the lounge on the Space-Ships, plus a cafe serving sweet and savory snacks outside dining times.
Choose Scenic if you like specialty restaurants and want all drinks included
Each evening, the forward section of the Scenic lounge becomes the Italian restaurant Portabellos, and every passenger can dine here at least once during their cruise. In the main restaurant is Table La Rive, a 10-person chef's table exclusively available to upper deck passengers. Scenic offers all passengers a limited 24-hour room service and passengers in Royal and Royal Panorama Suites benefit from full in-suite dining options. Passengers can order unlimited drinks throughout the day and there is a minibar in every cabin (restocked daily).
Choose Viking if you are fine with a la carte drinks and no room service
Viking does offer the Silver Spirits Beverage Package, costing around $30 per day (Australian passengers have the Silver Spirits Beverage package included in their fare), which covers unlimited premium wines, beers, cocktails and juices for the duration of the cruise. Passengers are also welcome to bring wine and other drinks to consume onboard. Viking does not offer room service.
Both lines offer an enrichment program when the ships are sailing and on some evenings in port. On both lines these include cooking demonstrations, talks and performances by local musicians, singers and dancers. Viking errs toward more in-depth sessions, such as illustrated talks on a country's history and geography, while Scenic often presents participatory activities that might include an onboard Viennese waltz lesson when the ship is docked in Vienna.
Choose Viking if you don't need a fitness center or spa
With Viking, the destinations are the stars of the show, so although passengers travel in comfort they won't find any onboard extras such as pools, gyms, bikes or a spa. The only nod to fitness is a walking track on the upper deck. If required, the onboard concierge can book hair appointments and spa treatments at various ports of call.
Choose Scenic if you want more fitness amenities and a spa
Scenic goes the extra mile on the fitness front. In addition to a walking track on the sun deck, its ships have small gyms with cardio equipment and free weights. Electrically assisted bicycles, which passengers can use on a first-come-first serve basis and on guided tours, are also available. There is a splash pool on the upper deck and a massage room, offering for fee treatments.
Viking is a good choice for passengers who are happy to hand over the day-to-day organization to the line and go with the flow rather than be faced with too many choices. Scenic is great for travelers who are happy to pay higher fares for more inclusions and not be faced with a large bar tab, a bill for additional excursions or tips at the end of their cruise.