My wife and I had the pleasure of cruising for 15 days (10-24 Sep 2012), on the relatively new (at the time), MPS "Scenic Crystal" (owned/operated by Scenic Tours), from Budapest in Hungary, to Amsterdam in Holland. Since disembarking, I have been very keen to write a review on this magnificent vessel (to share some of our excitement with you); but before I could do so, we had another cruise on a completely different new ship, the Celebrity Reflection. It is very hard to compare "apples with oranges" on ships that are like "cheese and chalk", but I will try my best to do so.
There's probably little point in preaching to the converted (those who love river cruising), so I shall write this article primarily for ocean cruisers who might be thinking about river cruising, and in doing so, I will compare each ship against the other.
At sea, when the weather turns bad and the seas get rougher, you leave your balcony and go into your cabin and close the balcony door, and possibly even the curtains. On the Crystal, where the river never gets rough, if the weather turns bad, you just press a button and close the outer glass window (which lifts up to the roof) while you can remain on your balcony. If you want fresh air, the outer window can be opened or adjusted to any height. As far as I know, this is an Australian innovation which has never been implemented on any other ship, anywhere (as yet anyway).
On Celebrity's Reflection, the "fun police" (as some CCers call them) x-ray your bags and carry-ons, and can even open your toothpaste, in a determined effort to prove that you are indeed a dangerous criminal trying to smuggle alcohol on board. On Scenic Crystal, you are most welcome to bring on your own drinks and store them in your own fridge. There is no x-ray machine, sniffer dog or armed guard and there is certainly no "naughty room" for you or your confiscated alcohol. Such is the mentality of the Australian cruise line, Scenic Tours, and the reason behind this is that alcohol is FREE on board (it's included in your cruise fare), so if you drink your own alcohol, then you are in fact doing them a service! This also makes for much happier passengers, as I heard so many complaints on Reflection about this.
With only 171 passengers, the Crystal's crew gets to know everyone's name by Day 2, and the service is much more personal; while on cruise liners with approximately 3,000 passengers, you seldom see a crew member more than twice (except for your cabin attendant), let alone expect them to remember your name. The same applies to passengers. The down side to that, is that if you have a really annoying passenger on a river ship (which we did), it can be quite difficult to avoid them!
On Celebrity Reflection, on Day 2 of our cruise, we waited in a line/queue for two (2) hours to embark at Venice, while at other ports, the wait was at least 15 minutes (to get on, be x-rayed & frisked, etc.); however on Scenic Crystal, it never took more than 2 minutes to get back on board (with no frisking or body searches) and another 2 minutes to get back into my cabin. Getting off at ports was also a very quick process, unlike on Reflection, where we had to wait in the Reflection Theatre for up to 1 hour to go ashore for tours.
Regarding ports and shore excursions, both ships provided excellent shore excursions and we were very happy with them all. Scenic provides their own buses which actually follow the ship, so you get used to seeing the same drivers, although you have different local guides at each port. We were very happy with all of our tours, except two (one tour on each of the two ships, at Nuremberg and Dubrovnik) when we were left with no time to shop for souvenirs. Shore excursions from Crystal were "free" (well, actually included in your cruise fare - and with no tipping), while some of the Reflection's excellent shore excursions seemed a bit expensive to me. Both ships visited amazing ports; however, only Crystal provided free e-bikes to use ashore, and VOX headsets to allow you to conduct your own self-guided tours. Scenic Tours also provided terrific backpacks to all passengers (prior to boarding), along with a large travel wallet, both proving to be perfect and which we used on Reflection, in the absence of anything at all - not even a travel wallet - being provided by Celebrity Cruises.
By pure coincidence, our cabin (BA223, a Balcony cabin) on Scenic Crystal was exactly the same one that was reviewed by Noreen (Love2Travelalso), whom we've never met (be sure to read her excellent review too). The cabin is approximately mid ship, on the starboard side, of the middle (Rhine) deck - there are 3 decks - and it was extremely well appointed, with everything that we had on the ocean cruise line, plus quite a bit more. Something that I really enjoyed (maybe because I'm a male, or maybe because I'm young at heart) was the disco shower. As we showered, we could have a spectacular light show which changed colours and patterns, as we wished. Apart from the lights, this shower was much better than the one on Reflection, as it had 3 separate shower heads: lower, middle (on a cable), and high; as well as being much more variable in pressure, water direction, etc. (My wife was happy with the magnification mirror that was provided in the bathroom. To be honest, I couldn't tolerate the smell of the L'Occitane toiletries (I won't say here what it smells like to me), but the products did work very well, especially the conditioner and the body lotion. I know that they are well-known products, however the Hydro-Minerale bathroom products supplied on Reflection also worked very well, but they smelt much nicer (to me anyway)!
On board Reflection, we paid a lot of money to dine in the specialty restaurants; while on Crystal, the one specialty restaurant (it is a much smaller ship) was included in the fare - albeit on a rotational basis. However the service was exemplary and the standard of food was extremely high, as was the ambience of that smaller dining space.
On the subject of decor, Scenic doesn't go "over the top" with fancy decorations and expensive artwork/sculptures. The ship looks very smart, clean and fancy enough; while on Reflection, no expense was spared. There is no comparison in this matter. However we did walk through several other river ships, many of which were very ornate, and in my opinion, "over the top" to the point of being ridiculous. Being slightly critical, I could say that Scenic Crystal appeared to have mismatched furniture, from a colour/color perspective, but it was certainly very comfortable to sit in.
The food on Scenic Crystal was superb, with plenty of variety and options/alternatives, and several courses. Our wine or beer glasses were never empty. In addition to the MDR (main dining room) there was also the River Cafe, which served delicious ice creams, cakes, sandwiches & snacks - all at no additional cost. Similar cafes on the Reflection (except for the Ocean View Cafe) charged extra for their snacks, coffees & ice creams. I found the wait staff in the MDR on Crystal to be friendlier and more caring than those in the MDR on Reflection (not that there was anything wrong with Reflection's wait staff; this is more to do with ship size).
Of the two ships, on board WiFi was much cheaper (50 Euros for 14 days' access) and it was much more frequently available on Scenic Crystal than on Celebrity Reflection (USD 400 for only 27 hours' access; however it took 40 minutes to send one (1) email!). Mind you at home in Australia I get one month's unlimited, broadband access for AUD 50. Someone is making some money here, don't you think?
In my opinion, Reflection isn't really a child-friendly ship, but (sadly) there were some kids on board; while Scenic has a no-children policy. This was a welcome relief to us, as our adult children have long since left the nest & we now much prefer a peaceful, relaxing holiday (without any kids).
The Crystal has no pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, steam room or relaxation beds (like the Reflection), but she does have a small, but quite well-equipped gym and beauty treatments/ massage/ hairdresser.
I could continue with many more comparisons, but I won't at the risk of boring you. I must say that my wife and I really enjoy both types of cruising and despite some of the above comments, we really enjoyed being on both ships.
Hopefully, you'll now see that river cruising is equal to, and perhaps even slightly better than, ocean cruising. It could be that we had the right ship, with the right crew, at the right time, and that others might not be so lucky; but we really loved the Scenic Crystal and would highly recommend the ship to anyone. Although more expensive upfront, the two cruises worked out to be about the same cost in the end (after all the add-ons that we incurred on Reflection, like drinks, spa, excursions, haircut, specialty dining, tips, etc.).
Sadly, we were not happy with our (incompetent) local travel agent (for several reasons) and we'd prefer to be able to book this ship/cruise via the Internet, which is currently not an option, as far as I know. You might want to check this for yourself.
I hope I've covered all the required points, but to summarise, Scenic Crystal is a beautiful, modern river ship and we loved everything about her. The entire crew was really terrific, the ports and shore excursions were exceptional, the food was delicious and varied, our cabin was fantastic (especially the shower!), and the on-board activities were more than adequate for our needs, noting that the size of the ship prohibits any large, Broadway or West End productions. Embarkation and disembarkation was quick, easy and painless. Finally (to reiterate), my wife and I would gladly recommend this ship and the cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam; and would remind you that although quite a bit more expensive up-front, almost EVERYTHING is included in that price, which results in terrific value for money.
Cheers & Bon Voyage, Chris (GreyFunnel)