River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate

Post originally Published November 5, 2023 || Last Updated November 5, 2023

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River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - The Size Difference: River Boats vs. Ocean Liners

When it comes to cruising, one of the biggest differences you'll encounter is between river cruises and ocean cruises. River boats and ocean liners cater to very different travel styles, so it's important to understand the size contrast when planning your next cruise vacation.

River cruise ships are built to fit through narrow waterways like rivers and canals. They are much smaller than traditional ocean cruise liners, averaging only 150-200 passengers. Some of the smallest river boats accommodate less than 100 guests. The cozy atmosphere on river cruises makes for a more intimate cruise experience where you're likely to see familiar faces each day. Crew members get to know passengers by name, adding to the boutique feel.
In contrast, mainstream ocean cruise ships start around 2,000 passengers and can be massive floating cities with upwards of 6,000 guests. Mega ships offer amenities like water parks, ziplines, indoor skydiving, multiple dining rooms and performance theaters. You might never run into the same person twice with thousands of other passengers on board. The impersonal nature of mega ships appeals to those looking for a high energy cruise packed with activities.

Staterooms on river boats also reflect the size difference. River cruise cabins run between 150-270 square feet. They are smaller but efficiently designed, with hotel-style beds and panoramic windows or doors leading to French balconies. On ocean cruises, rooms start at around 180 square feet for interior cabins but balcony staterooms can be over 300 square feet. Suites on ships have separate living areas, walk-in closets and oversized balconies.

What else is in this post?

  1. River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - The Size Difference: River Boats vs. Ocean Liners
  2. River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Itineraries: Winding Waterways or Open Seas
  3. River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Ports of Call: Quaint Towns or Bustling Cities
  4. River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Onboard Amenities: Intimate or Grand Scale
  5. River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Accommodations: Cozy Cabins or Spacious Staterooms
  6. River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Cuisine: Regional Fare or Global Flavors
  7. River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Pacing: Leisurely or Action Packed
  8. River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Budget: Affordable Trips or Luxury Spend

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Itineraries: Winding Waterways or Open Seas

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate

When planning a cruise vacation, one of the first decisions you'll make is whether to take a river cruise or ocean cruise. These two cruise styles offer vastly different itineraries that showcase unique destinations. River cruises follow winding waterways with stops at quaint river towns and historic cities along major rivers like the Danube, Rhine, Seine, Nile and Amazon. Ocean cruises cover more ground with wide-ranging itineraries crossing open seas to visit marquee ports and exotic islands.

The constrained nature of river cruises means you'll go in-depth to a region versus the extensive overview ocean cruises provide. River cruises typically visit multiple ports over 7-14 days in a smaller geographic area like Europe, Vietnam or Egypt. You may sail along the Rhine visiting towns in Switzerland, France, and Germany over a week. Or cruise the Danube with stops in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany. Since river boats dock right in town, you can easily walk off ship to explore. River cruises allow immersion into regional food, culture and history.
Ocean cruises tend to be 7-14 days but may extend to months-long world cruises crossing numerous countries. Mainstream cruise lines offer Caribbean, Alaska, Mediterranean, Australia/New Zealand, Asia and Northern Europe itineraries. Mega ships have the flexibility to cover a lot of nautical miles and change up ports across varying lengths. One 7-day Western Caribbean cruise may visit Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Jamaica while another hits Honduras, Belize and Mexico. Even the same itinerary may swap ports, so you always see something new. Exotic small port stops like Bora Bora or Santorini offer a different experience than marquee cities like Barcelona or Rome that both river and ocean cruises visit.

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Ports of Call: Quaint Towns or Bustling Cities

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate

One of the biggest allures of cruising is the ability to wake up in a new destination each day. The ports you visit can greatly impact your experience, shaping everything from the cuisine you sample to the activities you enjoy. River cruises and ocean cruises offer vastly different ports from charming villages to metropolitan hot spots.

River cruises dock right in the heart of quaint towns and smaller cities along major waterways. Wandering cobblestone streets, you’ll feel transported back in time to Old World Europe. Along the Danube, stops may include Passau, Germany with its Baroque architecture and medieval lanes. Sail through the Wachau Valley to Melk, Austria and tour the 900-year-old Benedictine abbey overlooking the river. Other classic ports like Bamberg and Regensburg in Germany showcase well-preserved history from Roman walls to Gothic cathedrals.
River cruise ports in France delight with provincial charm. Stroll through the terraced vineyards of Bordeaux’s wine country or peruse the gardens of Giverny that inspired Monet. Provincial life continues in Macon, a hidden gem in southern Burgundy oozing small-town appeal. Around every corner is a photo opp you’ll want to capture.
While river cruises dock in some larger cities like Budapest, Vienna and Amsterdam, exploration stays intimate with walking and public transit tours. You won't contend with massive tourist crowds in these great European capitals when visiting with a river cruise. Shore excursions focus on each city's old quarters, top landmarks and local culture for an insider's perspective.
Ocean cruises call on marquee global hubs and off-the-beaten-path gems. In the Caribbean, you may start the day wandering Old San Juan's blue cobblestone streets in Puerto Rico before sailing to sun-drenched St. Maarten for beach time. Northern European cruises could take you from postcard-perfect Bruges to cosmopolitan Amsterdam boasting world-class museums and nightlife.

The Mediterranean offers top international cities like bustling Barcelona with Gaudi's whimsical architectural creations. Or soak up la dolce vita along Venice's winding canals before stepping ashore in postcard-perfect Santorini and Mykonos in Greece. Enjoy home bases in marquee ports plus hidden island escapes.
Alaskan cruises sail from Seattle to scenic wilderness ports like Ketchikan and historic Gold Rush towns like Skagway. Enjoy glacier viewing and dogsled adventures straight from ports before unwinding onboard. Australia/New Zealand itineraries provide nature immersion from the Great Barrier Reef and Komodo Islands to the fjords of Milford Sound paired with lively nights in Sydney.

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Onboard Amenities: Intimate or Grand Scale

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate

When it comes to onboard amenities, river cruises and ocean cruises are worlds apart. River boats provide an intimate cruise experience with amenities tailored to smaller groups. Mainstream cruise ships go grand scale, packing in options from casinos and cinemas to surf simulators and skydiving.

On river cruises, amenities cater to enrichment with small libraries, presentation spaces and sun decks. The cozy spaces encourage mingling with other passengers. You’ll find a charming lounge serving as the social hub versus a bevy of bars and nightclubs. There may be a tiny fitness room and hair salon but no spas or gyms. The dining room retains a casual café ambiance with buffets or family-style dining, although seats are still assigned.
Food quality focuses on regional specialties featuring local ingredients. You may taste Swiss chocolates while sailing the Rhine or sample Hungarian goulash cruising the Danube. Though menus change daily, don’t expect extensive choices. Packed schedules balancing port time with cultural entertainment leave little time for lingering onboard.
Mainstream cruise ships transform into floating resorts with amenities for action-packed days and entertaining nights that encourage you to stay onboard. You'll find multiple restaurants from upscale dining rooms to casual buffet-style eateries along with various bars and entertainment venues.
Splashy stage productions in state-of-the-art show lounges feature Broadway-style shows, musical reviews, magic acts and comedy sets. Night owls flock to lively piano bars, dance clubs pumping pop tunes and Vegas-style casinos. When you need to refuel, venues from pizzerias to upscale steakhouses satisfy.

Sprawling Aqua Parks with waterslides, surf simulators and rock climbing walls cater to thrill seekers. Kids clubs and teen hangouts ensure every generation stays entertained. Adults enjoy some “me time” at expansive spas and salons offering indulgent treatments. Nightly entertainment options make mega ships ideal for groups with diverse interests.
Though ocean cruises still offer enrichment like cooking demos and port talks, activities emphasize fun and relaxation versus cultural discovery. You can be as active or laidback as you choose with multiple amenities included. Splashy additions like skydiving simulators continually up the onboard offerings.

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Accommodations: Cozy Cabins or Spacious Staterooms

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate

Accommodations are where you'll spend a good chunk of time eating, sleeping and unwinding, so it's key to pick the right cabin style for your needs. River cruises and mainstream ocean cruises approach accommodations quite differently.

River cruise cabins run from 150-270 square feet. They make efficient use of compact spaces with designs tailor-made for riverboats. Lower ceiling heights add to the cozy feel. Though tight on square footage, river cruise staterooms feel bright and airy thanks to large windows and sliding glass doors leading to French balconies. Hotel-style beds are preferred over bunks, and cabins often have sitting areas or convertible sofas. Those needing more space can book adjoined cabins.

I've found river cruise cabins are ideally laid out for solo travelers or couples. Families may find them cramped. Storage is well designed with space under beds and plenty of shelves. En suite bathrooms are on the snug side but functionally designed. Solo cruisers should note that single cabins book up fast.

Ocean cruise cabins start around 150 square feet for windowless inside rooms. But they quickly get more generous, averaging between 200-300 square feet. Of course, suites get downright palatial. For comparison, my last balcony stateroom on Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas was closer to 300 square feet. And that was a mid-range cabin!

Cruise newbies may suffer sticker shock at the starting prices for mainstream cruise cabins. But you get more acreage than a typical hotel room. Ocean cruise cabins utilize space efficiently but still feel open thanks to large picture windows or private balconies. Even inside rooms seem spacious thanks to virtual balconies with real-time ocean views on some ships.

When it comes to design, expect a sparkling Vegas feel with crisp lines and neutral tones punched up with colorful accents. Those prone to seasickness appreciate natural light pouring through floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open onto private verandas on most staterooms. Treat yourself to a balcony for fresh ocean breezes.

Storage space abounds with double closets, dresser drawers and under-bed storage. Plus, there's shelving galore for toiletries in the en suite bathrooms. I find cruise ship bathrooms laid out smarter than most hotels. Families have more room to spread out with quad rooms, interconnected cabins and multi-room suites available.

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Cuisine: Regional Fare or Global Flavors

Cuisine provides a tasty window into local culture, which makes it a highlight of any cruise vacation. River cruises emphasize fresh regional specialties that immerse you in the destination, while mainstream ships expand your palate with more global offerings.

On a European river cruise, you’ll savor authentic Old World dishes using local ingredients. Menus change daily to highlight specialties of each port city. Along the Danube, Hungarian goulash, Wiener schnitzel and apple strudel may be served when docked in Vienna. Sample Germany’s sausages and pretzels in Passau or indulge in Swiss cheese fondue after a day in Basel.
Many times, river cruises source ingredients right from each port, creating the ultimate farm-to-table dining. In France, onboard chefs shop at outdoor markets in Lyon, picking up olives and herbs. River cruising provides better access to each country’s true flavors before they get watered down for tourists.
The intimate nature of river boats also means cuisine is served fresh versus being mass-produced. With only 150-200 passengers to feed, items are made to order. Expect lots of cooking stations at breakfast, including custom omelets and crepes. Lunch and dinner often take on a casual, family-style vibe. Service feels more personal.
Ocean cruises expand your culinary horizons with more diverse global options. But you sacrifice that hyper-local experience. Mainstream ships sail all over the world, so one day’s Italian fare may be followed by an Asian or Mexican buffet. Of course, menus shift in certain regions, but the variety is endless.
These floating resorts aim to be everything to everyone with up to 20 dining venues. Grab a made-to-order omelet at the buffet before having surf and turf at the steakhouse. Later, sample sushi or Indian food, all included. Celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver bring elevated offerings like upscale Italian. Food quality tends to be more consistent thanks to skilled on-staff chefs versus locally sourced ingredients.
However, the mass volume of food needed for thousands of cruisers reduces the emphasis on freshly prepared dishes. While menus change daily, a lot of cooking happens in advance. Expect more braised, stewed and roasted dishes that keep well versus grilled favorites.

River cruises let you immerse in a region’s distinct flavors while ocean cruises provide endless global choices. On both, the convenience of having meals included makes cruising a great value. Just one dinner in Paris could break your budget. Instead, you can sample French delicacies all week long onboard a barge drifting along the Seine.
The variety on mainstream ships also satisfies diverse palates. With up to 20 dining options, even the pickiest eater finds something appealing. Of course, you sacrifice that authentic regional fare. But there are pluses to enjoying your favorite comfort foods far from home.

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Pacing: Leisurely or Action Packed

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate

The pace of your vacation time is precious, so deciding between a leisurely river cruise or action-packed ocean cruise experience depends on your travel style. River journeys let you ease into new destinations at a relaxed pace while mainstream ships pack in opportunities for adventurous pursuits and late nights.

On European river cruises, days blend sightseeing with downtime for reading up on the next port or socializing with your small group. Shore tours typically kickoff mid-morning after a leisurely breakfast, avoiding an rushed start. Excursions average about 3 hours of walking between top sights like cathedrals and castles with ample time to linger. Back onboard, stretch out those legs on the sundeck before an early dinner hits the spot.

Evenings harbor cozy piano concerts, enriching lectures on regional history, or lively local folk dancers coming aboard. With most passengers turning in by 10 pm, river cruising evokes a classic old-world travel vibe. You disembark refreshed and renewed without that frantic feeling. River cruising skips flashy production shows and hot nightclubs catering more to boomer travelers. The pace suits those looking to deepen cultural connections.
Meanwhile ocean cruises burst with round-the-clock activities from adrenaline-pumping adventures to glitzy shows keeping night owls entertained into the wee hours. Embarkation day excites with blaring pool music as crowds cheer down the Twister water slide.

The daily barrage of sensory stimulation hardly lets up with back-to-back shows, theme parties, comedy acts and crowded bars pumping trendy dance music. Late-night munchies help keep energy levels up with pizzerias and snack spots open 24/7. Forget FOMO with nonstop options from sunrise spin class to midnight movies under the stars.

Shore days start early to allow time for unwinding back onboard or doing that shore excursion trifecta. Zip lining through rainforests, swimming with stingrays, or dune-buggy racing pack in stories. You’ll welcome the hot tub back onboard after all that heart-pumping fun.

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate - Budget: Affordable Trips or Luxury Spend

River vs. Sea: Navigating the Great Cruise Debate

Whether you're penny-pinching or practicing luxury indulgence, cruising offers something for every budget. River cruises traditionally appeal to more moderate spenders, while mainstream ocean cruises run the gamut from affordable options to lavish suites and amenities.

The intimate nature and simpler onboard offerings of river cruises make them a great value. Cabins run smaller but efficiently designed, and though public spaces feel cozy, there's room enough to mingle comfortably with 100-200 fellow passengers. Regional menus, enriching excursions, and cultural entertainment perfectly suffice without expensive flashy additions.

Mid-priced river cruise lines like Viking, Avalon and AmaWaterways offer 7-night European sailings from around $200 per day including meals and most shore tours. Toast beautiful vistas from your French balcony with budget-friendly regional wines. Upgrade to a suite for more space but avoid nickel-and-diming with inclusions. Take advantage of 2-for-1 cruise deals many lines offer making river cruises ideal girlfriend getaways. Share stories dockside with engaging local guides rather than celebrity chefs.

Meanwhile, mainstream ocean cruises range from affordable quick getaways to lavish experiences with price tags topping $1000 per day. Inside rooms on shorter Caribbean or Bahama cruises cost as little as $100 per night including meals and entertainment. Escape winter blues basking poolside without breaking the bank.

Conversely, suite life on luxury lines like Crystal, Regent and Seabourn approaches private yacht extravagance. We're talking hundreds of dollars per person just for speciality dining and premium beverages. Opportunity costs add up between zip lining adventures, couples massages, and exclusive ship lounges. Top shelf liquors, butlers, and cushy robes affirm your elite status.
of course, more inclusions justify the higher fares on luxe ships. But those craving Vegas-style excitement will find plenty of action on mainstream lines like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Carnival without paying through the nose. Per day costs average around $200.

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