River Cruise vs. Ocean Cruise: What's the Difference? (2024)

Deciding whether to take an ocean cruise or a river cruise can be a challenge for many travelers, considering the different onboard lifestyles, costs, and other contrasts between these two exciting vacation choices.

After sailing on three Rhine River cruises through multiple countries and 18 ocean cruises across the globe, I know that both types of vacations have plenty to recommend them, and it’s interesting to compare the pros and cons of each experience.

Indeed, there are lots of differences when it comes to a river cruise vs. an ocean cruise. Here are things to consider when contemplating which cruise is right for you.

In This Article:

  • 1. Destinations Hold The Spotlight on River Cruises
  • 2. River Cruises Offer an Intimate Atmosphere
  • 3. Ocean Ships Feature More Dining Venues
  • 4. River Ship Cabins Tend to Be Smaller
  • 5. Fewer Children Sail on River Ships
  • 6. River Cruise Fares Cover Shore Excursions
  • 7. Little Chance For Rough Water on Rivers
  • 8. River Cruise Fares Are Higher But Include More
  • Closing Thoughts on Rover Cruise vs. Ocean Cruise

1. Destinations Hold The Spotlight on River Cruises

The largest mainstream ocean cruise lines, Carnival Cruise Line,Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, and MSC Cruises, go to great lengths to make their ships feel like at-sea resorts, and they succeed, providing virtually every conceivable experience a vacationer could want.

The mega-ships operated by these cruise lines — 97 vessels in all, have multiple pools and sun decks, heart-pumping thrill rides, spacious casinos, lively sports bars, luxury spas, elaborate stage productions, and dozens of restaurants and lounges.

River Cruise vs. Ocean Cruise: What's the Difference? (1)

But on river ships, while the vessels are comfortable and in some cases luxurious modes of transport, it is the itinerary and port call destinations that are the star attractions. This is the most obvious and important difference in the river cruise vs. ocean cruise question.

During a river cruise, guests are less focused on the ship and more on the riverside scenery and port of call destinations. In Europe, that means cobblestone streets, open-air cafes, and an Old World ambience, with churches, ramparts, and buildings that can date back 1,000 years or more.

Even onboard entertainment on river ships is tied to the destinations on the itinerary, as the ships routinely invite local musicians, dancers, storytellers, and others to perform in the main lounge after dinner, before the ship departs for the next port.

2. River Cruises Offer an Intimate Atmosphere

One of the top differences between river and ocean cruises is the size of the vessels. River ships are substantially smaller, typically rising just two or three decks above the water line, while ocean ships usually have around a dozen decks, and closer to 18 decks on mega-ships.

River ships are long and narrow, roughly 40 feet wide and 400 feet long, although exact measurements will vary. Compare that to a mega-ship, which will sport a beam of at least 100 feet and a length of about 1,000 feet.

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Inside a river ship, guests typically find a reception/concierge desk midships; this is the hub of the vessel. Usually, but not always, staterooms and suites line the stern, while public areas, such as the dining room and main lounge, are forward.

Worth Reading: What Are the Best Cruise Lines for Couples?

Most river ships accommodate between 160 and 220 guests, a tiny fraction of the number that contemporary ocean ships can carry.

Ocean ships welcome an average of 3,000 guests, but many vessels, particularly the newest ones, have capacity for more than double that number. Royal Caribbean’sIcon of the Seas, theworld’s largest ship, can accommodate 7,600 guests, for example.

With so few people onboard a river ship, the atmosphere is downright intimate, and guests are more likely to interact with each other on these vessels vs. the big ocean ships. I was a solo traveler on two of the three river cruises I sailed on, and in both cases I quickly met and became friends with other solo cruisers, enjoying meals and excursions with them.

3. Ocean Ships Feature More Dining Venues

Meals are an important part of any vacation at sea, and there are vast differences in the river cruise vs. ocean cruise dining experience.

River ships have one dining venue, which seats all guests at the same time, while ocean ships have main dining rooms plus several venues offering specific cuisines. Some of these are included in the cruise fare and others are specialty restaurants that charge an extra fee.

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On river ships, breakfast and lunch are served buffet style in the dining room, and dinner is a multi-course event with full service.

Some river ships have a small, second dining area for private parties and special chef’s table-style dinners, but for the most part, guests will eat in the single dining room, and often at the same table, for the duration of their cruise.

River cruise ship menus typically offer continental cuisine that features the local specialties of the region a ship is sailing in — goulash while traveling through Hungary, bratwurst while in Germany, and fresh cheeses from villages across The Netherlands while sailing to or from Amsterdam.

A river ship’s main lounge is sometimes the setting for light lunches, should guests wish to avoid the full luncheon buffet. Self-serve coffee, tea, and water stations are available 24/7, and all meals are covered by the cruise fare.

Moreover, virtually all river cruise lines include beer and wine with lunch and dinner. Guests pay for other alcoholic beverages. This is a major difference from the mainstream ocean lines, which typically do not include any alcoholic beverages in the base cruise fare.

4. River Ship Cabins Tend to Be Smaller

Ocean-going cruise ships have a wide range of accommodation options, from small inside cabins with no windows to grand, multi-level suites with panoramic water views, and everything in between. The cruise fare is directly tied to the stateroom category selected.

On river ships, there are no inside staterooms, but there are a few levels of accommodation. Virtually all have floor-to-ceiling balconies, but the sizes of the balconies can differ.

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In some suites, for example, the balcony comprises the full width of the exterior wall, and some staterooms have a traditional balcony and a smaller French balcony to boot.

Depending on the cruise line, guests can expect river ship cabins to be slightly smaller than their ocean ship counterparts, offering between 150 and 170 square feet of indoor living space, with suites rising to about 220 square feet. (For comparison, a balcony cabin on a Royal Caribbean ship can be as large as 298 square feet.)

A bonus in river cruise cabins is often the location of the bed; it is usually placed directly opposite the balcony windows, giving the guest an eye-level view of the water from the bed.

5. Fewer Children Sail on River Ships

The roughly 10 leading river cruise lines have varying policies on minimum ages for children onboard their ships. Unlike ocean ships, river ships do not have dedicated spaces for children’s programming, nor do they offer supervised, age-appropriate group activities.

On ocean ships, parents can sign up their youngsters to attend programs with others in their age group, knowing they will be supervised by trained staff. The mainstream ocean cruise lines have programs for babies and toddlers, as well as for older kids and teenagers.

River cruise lines generally provide none of these services, except for AMA Waterways, which partners on some sailings with Adventures by Disney, and a few other lines that sail a limited number of “family” themed cruises, where special services are added.

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One major river line,Viking, does not accept guests under 18, but most of the lines do allow children, with minimum ages varying from 4 to 12 years old.

It is not common to see children on river cruises, by and large, and daily activities and shore excursions are geared entirely toward adults.

Of the three river cruises that I experienced, two of the sailings had no children onboard and the third had two youngsters, both around 12 years old. When I asked, the cruise director on that sailing told me it was quite unusual to have guests that age.

Children who long for water slides, pools, sports courts, zip lines, and other adventurous activities will likely be bored spending time on a river ship, which will typically have one small pool on the top deck and a modest library with books and board games.

6. River Cruise Fares Cover Shore Excursions

Unless you are booking an ocean cruise with one of the ultra-luxury cruise lines, expect to pay extra forshore excursions. These add up quickly and can cause the overall cost of a cruise to skyrocket.

Not so on a river cruise, since all of the major brands include shore excursions in the cruise fare. These tours typically feature a guided walking tour, or choice of tours, in each port.

Some river cruise lines offer different levels of walking tour — slower ones for those who might have mobility issues, faster ones for those who want to stride along at a brisk pace.

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Since river cruise ships dock in or near the city centers or old towns of the destinations being visited, no bus transport is required. Guests step off the ship and stroll into town, following their assigned guide.

Besides walking tours, the river lines also have started to expand into cultural excursions —focused on food or wine, or beer in the case of Germany, for instance, in recent years. These also are included in the fare, with the only stipulation being that each guest book just one excursion in each port of call.

Along with guided tours, many river cruise ships have a small fleet of bicycles that guests can use during port calls.

7. Little Chance For Rough Water on Rivers

Ocean cruising always comes with a risk of turbulent seas. The risk is mostly based on region and season —a North Sea cruise from Scotland to Norway in the fall is more likely to encounter a rolling sea than a spring cruise in the Southern Caribbean. But the idea of encountering rough seas keeps many vacationers away from ocean cruising.

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That’s why river cruising is a fantastic option for those who want to try out a ship-based vacation but want to sail in calm waters. In Europe, it would be very unusual to hit a rough patch along any of the rivers that ships typically sail. Ditto for North American river cruises in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, and in other regions.

Read Also: The10 Roughest Seasin the World forCruise Ships

River ships move at a slow, easy pace, always within sight of land, and are extremely stable, with virtually no unexpected movements. An encounter a cruiser might experience along the Rhine, for example, is with one of the cargo ships that ply the busy waterway. I can recall just slightly feeling the wake of a passing cargo vessel from time to time.

8. River Cruise Fares Are Higher But Include More

At first blush, ocean cruise fares on the mainstream cruise lines can appear affordable to many travelers, with a 7-day Caribbean, Alaskan, or Mediterranean sailing often priced under $1,000 per person, depending on stateroom choice and dates of travel.

However, that base fare usually does not include alcoholic beverages, specialty dining, WiFi, shore excursions,crew gratuities, and even basic supplies like bottled water.

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Adding on these expenses can easily double the cruise fare, even if a guest buys a package that covers, for example, dinners at three specialty dining venues during the voyage, or a set number of co*cktails per day. The packages can save money for some, no doubt, but these extra costs add up.

Read Also: Cruise vs All-Inclusive Resort – Choosing Your Dream Getaway

Depending on the river cruise line, a 7-day sailing can easily exceed $2,500 – $3,000 per person — sticker shock for many people. However, there are many standard inclusions, such as excursions at each port, wine and beer with lunch and dinner, internet access, and all gratuities.

Once the various extra expenses are added onto an ocean cruise fare, the gap between the cost of a river cruise vs. ocean cruise begins to close.

Closing Thoughts on Rover Cruise vs. Ocean Cruise

While ocean cruising and river cruising are completely different vacation experiences, they both attract travelers who have an adventurous spirit and the love of exploration, and bring like-minded people together. Whichever cruise you choose, enjoy!

River Cruise vs. Ocean Cruise: What's the Difference? (2024)
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