River or ocean? That question pops up frequently in travel forums, with potential cruisers asking seasoned veterans which is better.
The answer? It all depends on your personal traveling style and what you’re looking for out of your vacation on the water. River and ocean cruises offer surprisingly different experiences.
For starters, river cruise ships are substantially smaller, built to hold 200 passengers at the most. Ocean-going vessels, on the other hand, typically carry thousands of passengers. The largest, for example, has a capacity of more than 6,700 passengers. But that’s just one difference. The following are five other ways that a river getaway will differ from an ocean cruise.
Because a river ship is smaller, it has less room for big frills. So you won’t find huge water slides, ziplines or glitzy Broadway-style plays aboard these vessels. Instead, river cruise ships tend to offer entertainment and excursions that are more culturally enlightening. So think performances by local musicians and folk dancers or interesting talks about the culture and the history of the areas that you’ll be visiting.
The size of a river cruise ship isn’t the only reason why you won’t find big entertainment options aboard. On an ocean cruise ship, you’ll typically spend more time traveling from one port to another. You may, in some cases, even spend a full day or two at sea. So it’s important that ocean cruise ships offer plenty of entertainment options. On the other hand, river cruise itineraries are more jam packed with at least one — sometimes two — port visits a day that include excursions. Thus, it’s not nearly as important for a river boat to offer its passengers a multitude of entertainment options.
In addition to offering local cultural experiences, most river boats also try to showcase regional dishes and wines on their menus. And one of the reasons they can do so is because these vessels can pick up fresh local produce, meats, fish and regional wines during their daily stops along the river.
Interested in an even more in-depth feel for one of your local ports of call? Then consider asking your river cruise line if they carry bicycles aboard or if they can arrange for you to rent one from a local vendor. For example, with advance notification, the concierges on Viking River Cruises have been known to set up bike rentals and tours for their passengers. And depending on the itinerary and the cruise line, there are some instances where you can even ride a bike from one port to meet the ship at its next stop.
You’ll typically find fewer kids aboard a river boat for several reasons. One, most river boats just don’t have the room to offer kid-specific amenities, such as children’s clubs. As for swimming pools, if there is one, it will be smaller.
The rooms aboard a river cruise ship are also smaller, so you might feel a bit squeezed if you add a third albeit little family member to your cabin. The bottom line? If you prefer going on a vacation with fewer kids around, a river cruise may be better suited to your needs than an ocean getaway. On the other hand, if you would love to take your children on a river cruise, don’t fret. Some cruise lines are now offering family-friendly itineraries that are designed specifically to please the wee ones.
At first glance, a river cruise might seem more expensive than one on the ocean. But comparing the two is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Why? Because most river cruises include unlimited wine and beer with your dinners and — in some cases — also with your lunches. River cruises also typically include at least one shore excursion a day.
On an ocean cruise, there will be days when your scenery will just be the endless blue of the sea and the sky. Some ocean cruisers absolutely love the feeling of being out in the middle of this vast expanse of wide, open ocean. Other travelers, though, prefer river cruises where there is almost always something new and different to see while sailing from one port to another. The one caveat — because passengers spend the majority of their daytime hours on shore, most of the boats cruise at night. This means that you may not see as much scenery as you might expect.