Recent years have seen an increase in the number of river cruise lines positioning themselves at the top end of the market. Crystal River Cruises, launched in the summer of 2016, and Scenic, which started river cruises in 2008, both have well-established pedigrees in the travel industry. Crystal has sprung from the upscale ocean and air brand of the same name. Scenic is part of the namesake Australian-owned land vacation operator. Crystal says it brings "true luxury" to river cruising and Scenic gives itself a self-styled six-star ranking (unlike hotels, there is no official rating system for riverboats).
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Price, Inclusions and Booking Policies
Pricewise, both of these lines are very similar. At first glance, they are slightly more expensive than lines such as Avalon and AmaWaterways, around $25 to $50 per night on some itineraries, and around $1,000 per person, per weeklong cruise higher than lines including Viking. This is due to the all-inclusive nature of their itineraries. It should also be noted that Scenic offers cruises of seven days and upwards, and itineraries start from a minimum of 10 days on Crystal. However, they do offer special deals, so savvy travelers can often snag good discounts depending on the time of booking and the departure date. Crystal and Scenic both include butler service in every cabin, unlimited premium brand drinks, complimentary mini-bars, room service, a choice of included daily excursions, airport transfers and all gratuities for onboard staff. Both lines also offer specialty dining options.
Cruises on both lines can be booked on a cruise-only or fly-cruise basis, although air travel is generally included in the price for U.K. passengers.
Both lines require a deposit at the time of booking, typically around 20 percent of the fare, and have a sliding scale of cancelation penalties that are more stringent with Scenic. With Crystal, you'll lose your deposit for cancelations between 46 to 90 days prior to cruising, 50 percent of the fare for canceling between 31 to 45 days and the full fare for cancelations within 30 days or less before the departure date. With Scenic you'll your deposit for cancelations 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 the date of sailing.
Choose Scenic if you want included specialty dining venues.
All passengers can dine in Scenic's Italian restaurant Portabellos at least once during their cruise, at no additional cost, and the Table La Rive chef's table is complimentary for upper deck passengers.
Choose Crystal Mozart if you're a wine lover.
The majority of lines offer a choice of one red or white wine on a complimentary basis. Crystal offers an extensive selection of included wines and the list features three Champagne and sparkling wine options, 11 whites, 10 reds and a rose.
Both Crystal and Scenic go the extra mile with their shore excursions. The majority of mainstream lines offer one complimentary excursion per day, which is generally a walking tour, motor coach excursion or combination of the two. Crystal and Scenic provide included options for two or more tours per day, which might include the traditional walking or coach sightseeing tour, a guided cycling expedition and an evening concert. Led by local experts, passengers are divided into groups (around the same size on both lines) and are given personal audio headset systems so they don't miss a word of what is being said.
Scenic's daily "Freechoice" shore options are divided into three categories; relaxed, moderate and active. The first will be a slower paced tour, exploring museums and galleries or maybe taking in a canal cruise. Moderate excursions are usually city tours and move at a faster walking pace. Active tours include options further afield, such as a bike ride or brisk hike. Each cruise also features one or two included "Scenic Enrich" cultural experiences, such as an exclusive chateau or castle tour, or a private orchestral concert.
In addition to its daily excursion program, Crystal offers two complimentary "signature" tours per cruise; a Champagne reception and private concert at Vienna's Belvedere Palace, and lunch or dinner at a choice of Michelin-starred restaurants in Vienna or Budapest, including wine, gratuities and transfers.
Choose Crystal if you want to splash out on a James Bond moment.
Crystal leaves other river cruise lines in its wake with its onboard Wider speedboats. Seating up to eight passengers, and available for an extra fee, they are available for thrilling river rides, VIP Champagne cruises, trips to out-of-the-way places of interest and other custom tours.
Choose Scenic if you want a stylish cocktail hour.
The included "Scenic Sundowner" experiences, usually one per cruise, involve passengers being taken to a picturesque and panoramic spot for a pre-dinner cocktail. Venues might include a German castle overlooking the Rhine, a chateau perched on a hilltop in France or the terrace at the Douro Museum in Portugal.
Itineraries and Fleet
Crystal is the newest river cruise line, launched in the summer of 2016 with its first vessel, Crystal Mozart. Unusual in more ways than one, the riverboat is not a newbuild but a completely refurbished vessel that dwarfs others on the Danube. Crystal has four brand-new 106-passenger ships on the order books, which will offer itineraries on the Rhine, Main and Danube. Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler will launch in 2017 and Crystal Ravel and Crystal Debussy will join them in 2018.
Scenic operates 12 "Space-Ships" sailing on the main rivers of Europe. The name refers to larger than average public areas, rather than the size of the ships; most European riverboats (Crystal Mozart aside) are restricted to a set length and width so they can navigate low bridges and narrow locks. Both lines offer late-season cruises taking in European Christmas markets. In 2016, Scenic also launched three ships respectively in Portugal, Vietnam and Cambodia, and Myanmar (Burma). It also charters a ship in Russia.
Choose Crystal if you think big.
Dubbed the "Queen of Europe's rivers," Crystal Mozart is unlike any other river vessel. Previously named River Mozart, and sailing for the Peter Deilmann line, it was originally built in 1987 and, at 77.1 feet, it is double the width of other European vessels. As such, it holds the record of being Europe's largest river vessel. However, it carries only 154 passengers (less than some vessels half its size) along with a much larger than average crew of 92. Its size means it can only sail on the stretch of the Danube between Passau and Budapest.
Choose Scenic to sail further.
Scenic offers a choice of global itineraries. In addition to sailing on the Danube, the line has cruises on the Rhine, Main, Rhone, Seine and Douro, along with cruises in Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia, and Myanmar (Burma).
The cabins on both Crystal and Scenic contain plenty of luxury touches and both lines stand out as being equipped with more high-tech gadgets and gizmos than any other. They also both include butler service for every stateroom.
The staterooms on Crystal Mozart come in four categories and start at 219 square feet and go up to a huge 860 square feet. They are all decorated in a tasteful blue-gray color scheme. Cabins on the new ships entering service in 2017 and 2018 will range from 188 to 759 square feet.
Scenic has five cabin categories on its 85-cabin "Space-Ships" which range in size from 160 square feet to 475 square feet. Although they are called suites, Scenic does not have any two-room cabins. Compared with Crystal, the cabins are decorated in a more modern and contemporary style, and feel airy and spacious due to the liberal use of mirrors and reflective panels. Scenic offers one single cabin measuring 129 square feet on each of its "Space-Ships." There are no single cabins on Crystal.
Bathrooms on both lines are a very good size. Crystal provides passengers with generously sized Etro toiletries and Scenic has L'Occitane products.
Neither line has walkout balconies. Crystal has French balconies with full-length glass doors that enable passengers to enjoy the fresh air. Scenic has "sun lounge balconies," which are an integral part of the cabin. They comprise floor-to-ceiling windows that drop down halfway at the flick of a switch and can be shut off from the main cabin area with folding glass doors to create the feel of a balcony.
Crystal's high-tech amenities include a programmed iPad in every cabin to order room service, a TV set into the bathroom mirror (plus a 40-inch HDTV in the main cabin), USB outlets and lighting that can be customized to a variety of settings from very dim to very bright, and switching off straight away or gently fading. Most noteworthy are the remote controlled Toto toilets with heated seats, lids that open and close automatically and various bidet settings for male and female users. (They can be turned off). In addition to its innovative in-room balconies, Scenic has a TV that also features a soothing fireplace effect and a gray "cube" on the bedside table that is a clock. Clap or make a noise and it bursts into life.
On both lines, passengers in every cabin get butler service -- a standout luxury touch. On Crystal they are all dedicated butlers, and they don't double up with other duties. They also provide the same level of service in every cabin, which includes unpacking and packing bags, serving drinks and pre-dinner canapes and making bookings for optional tours. Scenic also offers butlers for every cabin, but with set services according to the cabin category. These range from shoeshine, concierge service and restocking the mini-bar in standard cabins, to packing and unpacking, arranging in-room cocktail drinks and even running the bath in the top suites. They also carry out other regular duties, such as working in the bar and lounge, and will carry out butler duties on request.
Choose Crystal if you want to spread out.
All 77 cabins have king-sized beds, which are huge and comfortable but can take up quite a bit of the space in the smallest cabins. The pair of two-bedroom Crystal Suites are vast and comprise a 645-square-feet suite that connects to a second French balcony suite -- 860-square-feet in total. Each suite can sleep up to five, with two double or twin beds plus one pull-out sofa bed. The master bedroom includes a separate shower, bathtub, double sinks and a walk-in closet.
Choose Scenic if you want unlimited Wi-Fi.
Scenic offers unlimited complimentary Wi-Fi in cabins and throughout the ship (although it should always be noted that Wi-Fi on all river vessels is never guaranteed, and the connection can sometimes be weak or nonexistent). Crystal offers 60 minutes of free internet access per day to all passengers. Passengers in Penthouse Suites receive 90 minutes and those staying in the Crystal Suites have access to unlimited Wi-Fi. Additional Wi-Fi time can be purchased for 70 euro cents per minute pay-as-you-go, a one-hour package of €9.99 per day or €39.99 per day for unlimited usage. Note: Free Wi-Fi is available in Crystal's motor coaches, which does not affect the daily allowance.
Both lines serve consistently good food in a variety of venues in addition to the main dining room. As well as wine and drinks with meals, Crystal and Scenic offer an open bar, soft drinks and tea and coffee throughout the day, specialty dining and room service.
Crystal is best for its choice of stand-alone restaurants, which all have a different atmosphere and range from casual eateries for a quick bite to its exclusive fine dining room. There is a relaxed bistro -- which replicates the one featured on its ocean ships -- a grill that's open for lunch, and a pantry with self-service snacks and drinks. Menus are based around a "farm-to-table concept," with dishes created from seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.
Every evening on Scenic, the forward section of the lounge becomes the Italian restaurant Portabellos; every passenger can dine here at least once during their cruise at no extra cost. In the main restaurant is Table La Rive, a 10-person chef's table that is exclusively available to upper deck passengers, once per cruise and again at no additional cost.
Both lines feature lighter meal options, "always available" menus such as steak, salmon and Caesar salad, and can cater for dietary requirements. Crystal and Scenic both offer all passengers a limited 24-hour room service menu. Scenic additionally offers full in-suite dining for passengers in its Royal and Panorama suites.
The selection of complimentary wines is more extensive on Crystal, which also offers wine-lovers (in particular those with money to spend) an upscale "connoisseur" wine list that includes a bottle of Chateau Petrus, Pomerol 1994 for €4,500.
Choose Crystal if you want exclusive specialty dining.
The private Vintage Room on Crystal Mozart seats up to 12 passengers for tasting menus and is available for a fee. It can be booked as a group, by individual passengers or rented out exclusively for a private dinner for two or more.
Choose Scenic if you enjoy snacks and vegetarian fare.
For passengers who enjoy snacking, or prefer lighter meals, the all-day cafe in the lounge offers a beautifully presented array of freshly made sweet and savory items. The light lunch option, also served in the lounge, features tasty and imaginative individual salad items and small plates, many of them vegetarian.
On Crystal and Scenic the onboard enrichment is very similar to other cruise lines, and is mainly centered on the destinations visited on the itinerary. There will be talks by the cruise director, cooking demonstrations, wine tastings and visits by local entertainers including dancers and musicians.
Both lines have amenities that you won't find on other vessels. Due to the space available, Crystal Mozart has the best spa you'll find on any river ship. There is an indoor pool big enough to swim in, a hot tub, spacious relaxation area with loungers, men's and women's changing areas with their own sauna and steam rooms, a hair and beauty salon, treatment rooms and a fitness center divided between two rooms -- one area for aerobic equipment and the other for weights.
Scenic ships have walking tracks on the sun deck, splash pools, small gyms and massage rooms. Both lines have a fleet of e-bikes -- pedal bicycles with small motors that make peddling easier, particularly uphill. Both lines offer dry cleaning and pressing services, and Crystal has a guest laundry; a rarity on river vessels.
Another unusual amenity is Crystal's Connoisseur Club, a cigar and smoking lounge. (All other river cruise lines ban smoking from all areas inside the ship, including balconies). It is the only place where passengers are allowed to smoke and, as such, it is a pretty airless and smoky environment. Curiously, smoking is banned on the outside sun deck, even though the crew members' smoking area is clearly visible. On Scenic, smoking is allowed in a designated area on the sun deck.
Both lines offer a different type of upscale vacation experience. Crystal has introduced a raft of new-to-river experiences, and its first ship breaks the mold in terms of size and amenities. Scenic will hit the spot with passengers who like to be pampered in more contemporary surroundings.