While Viking River Cruises forged links with Downton Abbey through its corporate sponsorship of television programs, luxury-oriented Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has butlers that look as though they could have stepped straight out of the series. While Viking is better known for being in the public eye and is the largest cruise line in Europe, Uniworld has been around for longer. It was founded in 1976, and in 2004 became part of the Travel Corporation, which includes upscale Red Carnation Hotels. Both lines sail on all the popular rivers of Europe, and further afield, including Russia, Egypt and Asia.
Uniworld is an upscale line that openly describes itself as luxurious (a term never used by Viking) and this is reflected in the fares, which are invariably higher -- typically around $1,000 more on a seven-night Rhine cruise -- than Viking's. Cruise prices also fluctuate depending on the time of booking and time of year, and both lines offer deals and discounts.
Both lines take a non-refundable deposit, typically $500 in the United States and £250 in the U.K. at the time of booking; on sale fares and specials, Viking often requires full payment at booking. As far as cancellation policies are concerned, Viking passengers who cancel more than 70 days prior to a cruise lose their deposit (with the exception of any special deals), forfeit 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. With Uniworld the deposit is forfeited for cancellations more than 75 days prior to cruising, 50 percent of the fare for canceling 43 to 74 days before departure, 75 percent for cancellations between 29 and 42 days, 90 percent for 15 to 28 days and the full fare for cancellations two weeks or less before departure.
With both lines passengers have the choice to book cruise-only or fly-cruise fares, but air travel is typically included in the price for U.K. passengers.
When comparing similar itineraries, it's important to take into account that Uniworld is all-inclusive, with unlimited drinks -- including premium brands -- additional onboard facilities and gratuities included in the fare. Viking includes wine, beer and soda with lunch and dinner.
Viking's recommended gratuity, paid separately at the end of your cruise, is the equivalent to $13.40 per person, per day for the ship's staff and crew, and $2.25 per person, per day for the program director.
Daily included shore excursions are offered by both lines, and they follow the typical river cruise format of walking tours around ports of call, motor coach excursions into the surrounding countryside and dedicated tours of sightseeing highlights, such as castles and monasteries, along the route. They work with expert local guides, who lead the tours, and passengers have individual audio headsets so they can listen to the commentary without having to crowd around the guide. Viking and Uniworld also offer additional for fee excursions that can be booked with the cruise manager during the cruise. On both lines some optional excursions need a minimum number of participants to operate.
Travelers booked on a cruise can now access the new 'My Viking Journey' website to personalize, plan and manage their upcoming cruise. This includes the facility to browse and book shore excursions and manage the daily schedule in an online calendar.
Uniworld offers exclusive excursions, such as the chance to rub shoulders with royalty at a cocktail reception hosted by Princess Anita von Hohenberg, a descendant of the Habsburg dynasty, during a visit to her Austrian home at Artstetten Castle. It also offers guided bike tours, which are not available on Viking.
Viking, the largest river cruise line, has a fleet of 90 vessels with 46 look-alike Longships that sail in Europe and carry 190 passengers. Uniworld has 19 vessels, including three purpose-built Super Ships that carry 150 to 159 passengers. Its other ships also have a lower passenger ratio than Viking.
Both lines sail the Rhine, Main, Danube, Moselle, Seine, Rhone, Garonne, Dordogne and Douro rivers. Viking and Uniworld also sail in Egypt, Russia and Asia (China, Vietnam and Cambodia). In addition, Uniworld offers two Italian itineraries and in 2016, the company debuted in India with a 56-passenger ship sailing on the Ganges. Viking also sails in Burma. Both lines run Christmas market cruises.
During the year, Uniworld offers special interest cruises, such as music and arts. These often feature special guests, such as a Sound of Music cruise on the Danube hosted by Elisabeth von Trapp, granddaughter of Maria and Baron von Trapp. Uniworld offers selected sailings for family groups.
Viking's culture-rich itineraries are geared toward mature and retired passengers, and the onboard atmosphere is quiet. Although you occasionally see older teenagers with their parents or grandparents this is pretty uncommon and there are no onboard facilities for youngsters.
Viking and Uniworld staterooms are as different as night and day, which can be a major deciding factor for passengers deciding between the two. Minus a few very small design tweaks, Viking's Longships are essentially all the same. This makes for easy planning for first-time passengers and repeat guests have the comfort of knowing exactly what to expect. All the cabins, in every category, reflect the line's Scandinavian roots, with clean, unfussy lines and muted color tones.
Every Uniworld ship is different, including cabins that are individually decorated in a hugely diverse range of styles and with color schemes varying from deck to deck. On one vessel, the cabins might have a chic monotone look, with striped black and white walls, while on another ship, there will be opulent chandelier-lit interiors in rich jewel tones, with four-poster beds and lavish brocade drapes tumbling onto the floor.
Decor aside, cabins on both lines have comfortable beds (handcrafted Savoir of England on Uniworld), large TVs with on-demand entertainment systems for films and music, WiFi and complimentary water. Uniworld provides robes and slippers in the cabin, and they are available on Viking on request. From 2016, all Uniworld's bathrooms feature both L'Occitane and Hermes toiletries. Viking recently switched from L'Occitane to its own Freyja brand. A nice touch on both lines is the heated bathroom floors.
Viking Longships have 95 cabins in five categories. The lower river-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. Two-room Veranda Suites are 275 square feet and the pair of two-room Explorer Suites measure 445 square feet. There are no single or disabled cabins.
Uniworld's trio of Super Ships -- SS Catherine, Antoinette and Maria Theresa -- have 64 to 73 cabins in five categories. Lower-deck cabins with fixed windows measure 162 square feet, French Balcony and Balcony cabins are 195 square feet, one-room Suites with balconies are 295 to 305 square feet and the two-room Royal Suite -- one on each ship -- is 391 to 410 square feet, depending on the ship. There is a single cabin on Catherine.
Older and refurbished Uniworld ships on the main European rivers have 54 to 63 cabins and the majority of vessels have four stateroom categories, none with walkout verandas. Cabins typically measure 151 square feet with fixed, panoramic or French balconies. Suites, with French balconies, are 214 square feet. These ships do not have single or disabled cabins.
A unique perk on Uniworld's ships are the butlers, who are trained at the Ivor Spencer Butler School to the standards required by Buckingham Palace. From 2016, butler service has been extended to every suite-category stateroom across the European fleet (except Russia and Portugal).
If you can't abide chintz and ornate interiors, you'll definitely feel at home in Viking's sleek, contemporary cabins.
If you hanker for a lavish Downton Abbey lifestyle with all the trimmings, you'll sail down the river in style with Uniworld.
Viking and Uniworld both offer buffets at breakfast and lunch, with made-to-order items off the menu. At lunchtime, Viking offers the option of a three-course served meal. Food on both lines is imaginative and well presented, and includes vegetarian choices and healthy options. Special diets can be catered for with advance notice. Uniworld has a greater choice of food, which is generally served with more finesse than Viking. For example, women will always be served first.
Both lines have alfresco dining areas -- the Aquavit Terrace on Viking and Sky Lounge on Uniworld. Uniworld's Super Ships have a sumptuous Leopard Bar, situated aft, and older vessels have the Captain's Club. The line uses both of these areas for special dinners for suite guests. Both lines have complimentary tea and coffee stations available 24/7 and Uniworld serves daily afternoon tea and has a bistro menu for all-day snacks. It also offers room service for suite guests as part of its butler service. Viking does not offer room service.
There are none of the formal evenings that you get on ocean ships, but both lines have a welcome cocktail event and captain's gala dinner on every cruise. Although there is no dress code on either line, passengers tend to dress a little more smartly for dinner on Uniworld.
Both lines have immersive cultural enrichment programs that reflect the destinations being visited. Local entertainers might come on board to provide an evening of classical music or opera, or there might be a demonstration of local crafts, such as glassblowing. While sailing there will be commentaries on the passing landscape and points of interest, and activities such as language and cooking lessons.
Viking places the emphasis on destinations and, aside from a walking track on the sun deck, the ships don't have pools, gyms, bikes or a spa. The onboard concierge can book hair appointments and spa treatments at various ports of call.
Uniworld offers fitness centers, yoga and exercise classes, complimentary bikes and Nordic walking poles, spas and, on certain ships, indoor heated swimming pools and cinemas. The majority of Uniworld ships also have a guest laundry, a rarity on river vessels. Both lines offer a laundry and pressing service, which is free for Uniworld suite guests.
Viking is an excellent choice for passengers who prefer to pay for facilities and services they want, rather than subsidise the cost of alcoholic drinks, sports facilities and other amenities they might not require. For those who want to go all-out, Uniworld's one-of-a-kind ships are an integral part of an all-inclusive river cruise experience.
Updated August 21, 2018