How Are Ocean Cruises Different From River Cruises?

Thinking of switching from ocean cruising to river cruising, or the other way around, can be daunting. Those who have ocean cruised often feel like their options will be limited if they try a river cruise. Those who have river cruised often worry that they will be overwhelmed by the number of people on an ocean ship. But how much do these modes of transport actually differ? Let’s find out. 

Size Of The Ships

Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas is the largest cruise ship in the world. Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean

The most obvious difference between river and ocean cruises is the size of the vessels. Ocean vessels can carry thousands of people, while most river vessels carry no more than 200 guests. There are smaller ocean-going vessels, of course. UnCruise Adventures’ fleet is made up of nine ships that all carry less than 100 passengers – with one ship only carrying 22 guests. But when looking at traditional ocean cruise experiences, river vessels have much smaller guest capacities. 

Uniworld’s River Baroness in Les Andelys. © 2012 Ralph Grizzle

Because river vessels are smaller than ocean vessels, staterooms may be smaller, but that isn’t always the case. Oftentimes the staterooms on river ships may be about the same size as the smallest rooms on ocean vessels – around 170 square feet. While you may not have 1,000 square foot suites as you do on ocean ships, river cruise ships, like Crystal River Cruises’ fleet and AmaWaterways’ AmaMagna, can boast suites that are over 700 square feet. 

Options Onboard

When talking about the size of ships, it is also crucial to talk about how the smaller size of river vessels can limit your options onboard. Some river cruise ships may only feature one to two dining venues, while larger ocean vessels may boast over a dozen. There are river cruise ships with more dining options. If we look again at Crystal River Cruises’ fleet and AmaMagna, both have four restaurants available for guests to choose from – and Scenic claims to have five. 

La Strada, a three-piece Ensemble, entertain guests in the lounge on AmaStella. © 2019 Paulette Hannah

Most river cruise ships will have nightly entertainment. River cruise companies may bring local entertainers on board for dance performances or concerts, but there will likely only be one entertainment option for the night. On a large ocean ship, you may have the option to see multiple shows in one night – from comedy shows to musical performances. Entertainment isn’t limited to shows on large cruise ships either, guests can enjoy discos, white parties, karaoke, trivia, and more throughout the day. 

The pools on riverboats may be small, but there is still plenty of room to make a splash. © Ralph Grizzle

Other amenities that you may find on ocean vessels include spas, gyms, pools, casinos, lounges, and bars. On river ships, you’ll typically have one lounge that houses a bar. This serves as the social hub of the ship in most cases. There is also seating on the sun deck of river cruise ships, allowing guests to take in the fresh air as they sail. Cruise ships may house multiple pools, while a river ship may have only have one – if that. While river ships don’t have full-blown spas like many ocean ships, there are often hair and nail salons, and massage rooms on board. Not all river cruise ships have a fitness center, but many do. 

What’s Included?

Inclusions often go unnoticed when people are considering switching from ocean cruising to river cruising, or the opposite. Those who have river cruised that are looking to ocean cruise may be surprised at the lack of inclusions that come with their cruise fares. Conversely, those who are looking to river cruise for the first time might be shocked at how little they owe when their statements come to their cabins at the end of their voyages. 

One of Seabourn’s inclusions? Caviar. Any time, any place. © 2015 Avid Travel Media Inc.

Because there is such variety in ocean cruise companies and what is included, it is impossible to say that river cruise companies include more in their cruise fares than ocean cruise lines. What I can say though is that in most cases, they do. Sure, those looking to cruise with luxury cruise lines can expect beverages and gratuities to be included in the cruise fare. Some cruise lines may even include an excursion in each port, but that is rare. 

On a river cruise, you can generally expect beer and wine to be included during lunch and dinner. You can also expect almost every river cruise company to include a free excursion in every port. Most companies even give you a choice of free excursions, from gentle walking tours to hikes and bike rides. And also important to mention, internet will be included. Internet can be very pricey on ocean cruises. 

Our favorite excursions are always bike rides. On an Active Discovery bike tour of Cologne, Germany. © 2017 Ralph Grizzle

There are some river cruise companies that do not include excursions or drinks in their cruise fare. This is almost always reflected in lower fares. So those who wish to venture out on their own, or those who don’t wish to drink during meals, are not paying for what they are not using. On the contrary, there are cruise lines that include more such as unlimited beverages, gratuities, and port charges. These cruise fares are higher, but may be worth it depending on what you, as a guest, value. 

So, What Does This All Mean?

River cruising and ocean cruising are worlds – or oceans – apart. There are certain people who have done both and after river cruising say they will never do an ocean cruise again; or those who after ocean cruising say they will never river cruise again. The important thing to note is that there is no one type of river cruise or ocean cruise experience. Throughout this article, we have seen that there are differences not just between cruising on the river and the ocean, but also between different cruise lines and cruise companies. The best way to figure out whether a river cruise or ocean cruise is right for you is to try it for yourself. 

Will you venture into unknown waters 2020? 

Thinking about trying a river cruise? 

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