Updated August 21, 2018
These two luxury river cruise lines unashamedly position themselves at the high end of the market. Both come with butler service and a raft of inclusions, such as free-flowing Champagne, room service, imaginative excursions and spa facilities. Uniworld, part of upscale Red Carnation Hotels, sells itself as the "world's only all-inclusive boutique river cruise experience." Newcomer Crystal River Cruises, an offshoot of the Crystal Cruises ocean line, claims to bring "true luxury" to river cruising.
Price, Inclusions and Booking Policies
Both lines come in at roughly the same price point. They cannot be compared like for like, as Uniworld offers cruises of seven days and upwards, and itineraries start from a minimum of 10 days on Crystal. In common with other lines they offer deals and discounts, so prices can fluctuate depending on the time of booking and the departure date. However, on both lines fares include unlimited soft drinks and alcohol (including wine and branded spirits), re-stocked mini-bars, all meals (bar the specialty dining room on Crystal), room service, daily excursions, transfers to and from the ship and all gratuities for onboard staff. Uniworld includes unlimited Wi-Fi and Crystal offers at least 60 minutes free Wi-Fi per person, per day.
Cruises on both Crystal and Uniworld 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. On Uniworld, the deposit is forfeited for cancelations more than 75 days prior to cruising, 50 percent of the fare for cancelling 43 to 74 days before departure, 75 percent for cancelations between 29 and 42 days, 90 percent for 15 to 28 days and the full fare for cancelations two weeks or less before departure. With Crystal, you'll lose your deposit for cancelations between 46 to 90 days prior to cruising, 50 percent of the fare for cancelling between 31 to 45 days and the full fare for cancelations within 30 days or less before the departure date.
Choose Crystal if you want Wi-Fi on the go.
Free Wi-Fi is available in Crystal's motor coaches, used on shore excursions, which does not impact the daily allowance.
Choose Uniworld if you want unlimited Wi-Fi.
If you spend a lot of time online when you're on vacation, Uniworld offers unlimited complimentary Wi-Fi (although it should always be noted that Wi-Fi on all river vessels is never guaranteed, and the connection can sometimes be weak or non-existent). Crystal offers 60 minutes free internet access per passenger, per day. Passengers in Penthouse Suites receive 90 minutes and those staying in the two Crystal Suites benefit from unlimited Wi-Fi. Passengers can buy additional Wi-Fi time for 70 euro cents per minute pay-as-you-go, a one-hour package for €9.99 per day or €39.99 per day for unlimited usage.
Both of these river cruise lines raise the bar when it comes to included shore excursions. Crystal and Uniworld both offer the daily standard walking and coach tours of local towns, villages and historic attractions that you'll find on other river cruises. Led by local guides, passengers are divided into groups and have individual audio headsets that make it easy to hear the commentary without having to crowd around the tour leader. In addition, Crystal offers two free "signature" tours per cruise, one of them a Champagne reception and private concert of Viennese music in Vienna's Belvedere Palace after normal closing time.
Crystal and Uniworld also offer additional for-fee excursions. A standout on Crystal are the Wider speedboats, which are carried onboard. Seating up to eight passengers, they are available for sunset Champagne cruises, trips to places of interest and other custom tours. Many of Uniworld's for fee excursions will appeal to active passengers, such as a guided bike tour around the buzzing Hungarian capital Budapest, or a more leisurely half-day cycle along the banks of the Danube with a picnic lunch.
Both lines operate their own fleet of comfortable private motor coaches used for airport transfers and shore excursions. In Crystal's case, they have been reconfigured to reduce the number of seats to 42, providing a very generous amount of legroom. They also feature a Nespresso machine, fridge with bottled water and a bathroom.
Choose Crystal if you're a foodie.
The second "signature" tour available to all Crystal passengers is the choice of one lunch or dinner per cruise in a Michelin-starred restaurant, including wine, gratuities and transfers. There are four choices of restaurants in both Vienna and Budapest, and passengers are not seated as one big party, which ensures it is always an intimate experience rather than a mass group tour.
Choose Uniworld if you want to rub shoulders with royalty.
Uniworld offers special themed sailings with additional inclusive excursions, such as a reception hosted by Princess Anita von Hohenberg, a descendant of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, on its Monarch Collection of cruises.
Itineraries and Fleet
Crystal entered the river cruise market in the summer of 2016 with one vessel, the completely refurbished 154-passenger Crystal Mozart, which sails on the Danube between Passau and Budapest, as well as down to Rousse in Bulgaria. It has four new-build 106-passenger ships on order, which will sail 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.
Uniworld has a fleet of 19 vessels, including its three purpose-built flagships, called "Super Ships" that carry between 150 to 159 passengers; a fourth Super Ship, Joie de Vivre, will launch in 2017). It offers itineraries throughout Europe and further afield. Both lines offer late season-cruises taking in European Christmas markets.
Uniworld offers a program of family-friendly cruises for multi-generational travelers, with an average of nine special itineraries per year. These include an Italian sailing with gondola rowing, a pasta workshop and Venetian ghost walk, and a Danube cruise with a vineyard treasure hunt and trip to see the Lipizzaner horses at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Although Crystal is not adult-only, and the minimum age to sail is 6 months, there are no dedicated children's facilities, and regular river cruises aren't well suited to young children who would probably be bored by the lack of entertainment.
Choose Crystal if size matters.
Crystal Mozart is a unique, one-off vessel, which started life in 1987 as the River Mozart sailing for Peter Deilmann. It holds the record as Europe's largest riverboat and has been dubbed the "Queen of Europe's rivers." At 77.1 feet, it's double the width of other European vessels, yet carries just 154 passengers, alongside a much higher-than-average crew of 92. As a result, it never feels overly busy or crowded.
Choose Uniworld for more choice.
Uniworld offers a much wider selection of sailings around the world. In addition to the rivers cruised by Crystal, it sails on the Moselle, Garonne, Dordogne in France and the Po in Italy. Uniworld also has itineraries in Egypt, Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), China and India.
The cabins on both Crystal and Uniworld are extremely well equipped and comfortable, and both feature suites with two separate rooms. The staterooms on Crystal Mozart come in four categories and range in size from 219 to a whopping 860 square feet -- the largest on European rivers. Cabins on its four new-build ships will range from 188 to 759 square feet. All cabins have king-sized beds, which take up quite a bit of the space in the smallest staterooms.
The 64 to 73 cabins on Uniworld's Super Ships are available in five categories, and range in size from 162 to 410 square feet; there is a single cabin on SS Catherine. There are also balcony cabins. Its older ships have 54 to 63 cabins in four categories, and range in size from 151 to 225 square feet.
Cabins on both lines feature sumptuous decor. On Crystal, the rooms have an elegant gray and blue color scheme. Uniworld is known for its boutique ships, and no two are the same. The decor can vary from a sophisticated monotone to a very ornate Downton Abbey-style design complete with chandeliers. So if you're not a fan of chintz, it's well worth checking the furnishings and color schemes on the respective ships before you book.
Bathrooms on both lines are large (by river cruising standards) and feature upscale fittings and amenities, including generously sized Etro products on Crystal and L'Occitane and Hermes toiletries on Uniworld.
Choose Crystal if you're a techie.
Crystal cabins come with a plethora of high-tech gadgets, including an iPad that you can use to order room service, a TV placed in the bathroom mirror (plus a 40-inch HDTV in the main cabin), USB outlets and customized lighting that can be set from very dim to very bright. Most notable of all are the remote controlled Toto toilets with heated seats, lids that open and close automatically and various bidet settings for male and female users. (If all of that sounds rather scary, they can be turned off).
Choose Uniworld if you like real balconies.
If you want to be able to walk out of your cabin and sit on a veranda then go for Uniworld, which has balcony cabins on its Super Ships. Crystal has French balconies, where you can open the full-length glass doors -- but you can only lean out of them, rather than step outside.
Both lines come with dedicated butlers, a relative rarity on river vessels. All cabins on Crystal Mozart have butler service (and this will be the same on the new ships). They are available to unpack and pack bags, serve drinks and pre-dinner canapes in your suite and make bookings for optional tours. Uniworld offers butler service to passengers traveling in suites on its European fleet, with the exception of itineraries in Portugal and Russia. They offer similar services to Crystal and look the part as they are immaculately dressed in tailcoats, pinstriped pants and white gloves. On both lines, they do not double up with other jobs and only carry out butler duties.
Food on both lines is excellent. Crystal and Uniworld offer more dining options and inclusions than is the norm, such as unlimited drinks throughout the day, specialty dining and room service.
As far as choice is concerned, Crystal comes out on top with its range of eating venues, several of which are based on those found on its oceangoing ships. In addition to the main dining room, there is a casual bistro, a grill that's open for lunch, a for-fee dining room for tasting menus and a pantry with self-service snacks and drinks. The line operates a "farm-to-table concept" with menus showcasing seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.
Similarly, Uniworld places a great emphasis on its food offering, with many recipes created by Beatrice Tollman, the president and founder of Red Carnation Hotels and a cookbook author. Aside from the main restaurant, suite guests benefit from one special dinner per cruise that is served in the Leopard Bar on Super Ships and Captain's Club on its other vessels.
Both lines feature lighter meal options and can cater for dietary requirements. Crystal offers a limited round-the-clock room service menu to all passengers, and Uniworld's butlers provide room service (during their normal working hours) to suite passengers.
In addition to the large selection of wines included in the fare, oenophiles will appreciate Crystal's extensive, upmarket "connoisseur" wine list that includes a bottle of Chateau Petrus, Pomerol 1994 for €4,500.
Choose Crystal if you want exclusive specialty dining.
The 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 Uniworld if you favor formal dining.
Unlike ocean ships, river vessels do not feature any formal nights. However, the elegant dining rooms on Uniworld ships encourage many passengers to dress up for dinner (although this is not required).
Onboard enrichment on both lines is based around the destinations visited and included talks and demonstrations by members of the crew, such as cookery classes, and visiting guest speakers and entertainers.
Both lines score in this category with a range of onboard amenities that you will only find on upmarket vessels. Due to the sheer size of Crystal Mozart, this vessel offers outstanding spa facilities that you won't find on any other river vessel. It includes an indoor pool, hot tub and relaxation area, 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.
Uniworld has smaller spa and fitness areas and, on certain ships, indoor pools and cinemas. Both lines offer fitness classes and carry complimentary bikes for passengers to use. In addition to dry cleaning and pressing services, both lines offer a guest laundry; something that's very unusual on riverboats.
In another break from the norm, Crystal Mozart has a cigar and smoking lounge, the Connoisseur Club (all other river cruise lines ban smoking from any areas inside the ship, including balconies). That said, the cigar lounge is the only place where passengers can smoke on Crystal Mozart, and even for dedicated puffers it feels airless and smells pretty smoky. Smoking is banned on the outside sun deck, even though crew members have a clearly visible smoking area. On Uniworld ships, smoking is allowed in a designated area on the sun deck.
Both lines are undeniably class acts, and will appeal to passengers who appreciate the best things in life (and have the budget to pay for them). Crystal has raised the luxury bar with amenities such as James Bond-style speedboats and all manner of gadgets and gizmos. Uniworld will appeal to traditionalists who want to sail in the equivalent of a floating country house hotel.