Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises – Which is Right for You?

Post originally Published December 5, 2023 || Last Updated December 6, 2023

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Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - The Basics: River vs. Ocean

Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises – Which is Right for You?

When it comes to cruising, the first big decision is whether you want to sail the rivers or the oceans. While both provide amazing travel experiences, there are some key differences between river cruises and ocean cruises that you need to consider before booking.

The most obvious distinction is size. River cruise ships are much smaller, typically carrying less than 200 passengers. Ocean liners can be massive, with some holding over 5,000 guests. This impacts everything from the ambience to the variety of amenities offered. River ships feel more intimate, while ocean ships are like floating cities.
River cruises operate on inland waterways like the Danube, Rhine, Mekong, and Amazon. This means you'll be docking right in the heart of cities and towns. Ocean cruises cover vast distances, often requiring tender boats to get passengers ashore. So river cruising provides easier access for sightseeing.

Speaking of sightseeing, river cruises are more port intensive with daily excursions included. Ocean cruises may spend multiple days at sea traveling between destinations. For some, non-stop port days are exhausting. For others, it's the perfect amount of time onshore.

When river cruising, the scenery is ever-changing as you wind through different regions. Ocean cruising scenery is dependent on your itinerary, but you can expect days where all you see is open water. For nature lovers, rivers show off diverse landscapes from vine-covered hills to verdant wetlands.
Due to size constraints, river ships offer fewer dining options and entertainment venues. But the all-inclusive nature of river cruises makes up for it. Most ocean cruises only cover food, so you pay extra for drinks, shore excursions, and specialty restaurants. River cruises include beer and wine with meals along with daily tours.
River cruise cabins tend to be smaller but more efficiently designed with French balconies instead of verandas. Ocean cruise rooms vary greatly in size and amenities depending on your budget. Both feature outside views for most cabins.
When it comes to price, ocean cruises run the gamut. You can find budget Caribbean cruises for a few hundred dollars or luxury round-the-world journeys for tens of thousands. River cruising is more standardized, so comparison shopping is easier. Typical per person fares range from $2,000-$5,000 for a week-long European river cruise.

What else is in this post?

  1. Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - The Basics: River vs. Ocean
  2. Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Navigating the Waterways
  3. Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Seeing the Sights & Cities
  4. Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Ship Shape: Comparing River and Ocean Cruise Ships
  5. Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Dining Differences
  6. Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Entertainment Onboard
  7. Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Packing Tips for Each Type of Cruise
  8. Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Budget Breakdown: Cost Comparison

Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Navigating the Waterways

Navigating the waterways is a huge part of the river cruising experience. Unlike ocean cruises that spend days crossing open seas, river ships are constantly winding through different rivers and canal systems. This means you get to experience a variety of scenery and landmarks along the way. It also means more time sailing through actual destinations.

One river cruise passenger describes her journey down the Rhine: “I lost count of the medieval castles we spotted towering above the vineyards. Around each bend was another postcard-worthy scene that left me snapping away with my camera.” Beyond the castles, the Rhine cuts through major cities like Cologne, Koblenz, and Strasbourg. River cruises typically dock right in the heart of downtown, allowing easy exploration.
Danube river cruises showcase the historic capitals of Eastern Europe. The ship serves as your floating hotel as you overnight in places like Budapest, Bratislava, and Vienna. During the day, you can stroll across the iconic Chain Bridge spanning the Danube in Budapest or tour the lavish Schönbrunn Palace just outside Vienna. The river also winds through smaller towns and villages with older architectures.

River cruising allows intimate glimpses of daily life along the water. One Danube cruiser describes sipping coffee on her balcony as farmers tended their riverside crops each morning. Others tell of spotting riverside cafes filled with locals or stumbling upon quaint craft markets in small villages. These are the types of experiences impossible to replicate on a large ocean liner.
The winding nature of rivers also means you travel slower and traverse shorter distances each day. On European river cruises, it’s common to cover between 50-100 miles daily. Ocean ships might sail 500 miles in a day. This relaxed place allows more time onshore without lengthy transit days at sea.

Rivers like the Mekong and Amazon showcase remote wilderness and rural villages inaccessible by other means. From fishing communities along the Mekong Delta to Amazonian tribes, it’s a look into hidden cultures. Wildlife watching is also popular with river cruises through exotic destinations.

While river routes are fixed based on geography, companies try to differentiate itineraries as much as possible. On the Danube, for example, alternate trips run in opposite directions between the Upper and Lower Danube. Others only cover certain sections like the stretch through Austria's Wachau Valley wine region. Pre- and post-cruise land extensions also help customize trips.

Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Seeing the Sights & Cities

River cruising offers easy access to cities and sights in a way ocean cruises simply can’t match. Docking right in the heart of downtown areas means you can walk off the ship and immediately start exploring. No need for shuttles, trains, or taxis to reach the main attractions.

Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest – hop between these regal capitals of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire in a matter of days.docking steps from St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, strolling across the Danube on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge linking Buda and Pest, or touring the ornate Hungarian Parliament Building.

The efficient proximity to cities and sights means most river cruises include daily guided shore excursions. Hop from UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Regensburg’s medieval city center in Germany to fairy tale Austrian villages like Dürnstein straight out of a storybook. Marvel at mountain-top castles like Veste Oberhaus looming over Passau or take a walking food tour sampling local delicacies at riverfront markets.
Rhine river itineraries unlock the historic grandeur of the upper Middle Rhine Valley dotted with 40 castles. Traverse storybook towns overlooked by the hilltop Marksburg Castle near Koblenz and the imposing Ehrenfels Castle ruins across from Rüdesheim’s lively Drosselgasse wine lane.

The lower Danube showcases the diverse blend of Eastern and Western influences. Tour Romanian capital Bucharest’s eclectic architecture, blend of Parisian grace and Communist monumentalism. Experience the cosmopolitan blend of Turkish and Bulgarian cultures in Rousse.
Exotic river cruises heighten cultural immersion, taking you deep into the heart of remote villages and tribal communities inaccessible by other means. Mekong river cruises visit rural Khmer villages where life hasn’t changed much in centuries around Cambodia’s Angkor temple complex. Amazon cruises venture into true wilderness, with Zodiac excursions taking you into the rainforest to spot pink dolphins, sloths, and exotic birds.
Those opting for ocean cruises sacrifice proximity, with most ships unable to dock right downtown. You’ll often face a lengthy tender ride just to reach the outskirts of the port city. Quick drive-bys of highlights just aren’t as satisfying as leisurely strolls through atmospheric neighborhoods and hidden backstreets. Independent exploration can also prove more daunting, with sights scattered across a sprawling metropolis versus concentrated around the dock.
While extended transit days at sea provide needed downtime on ocean cruises, some itineraries feature multiple consecutive days without stops. This means long stretches without setting foot on land to explore new sights.

Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Ship Shape: Comparing River and Ocean Cruise Ships

River ships certainly can’t compete with ocean liners when it comes to size and scale – after all, they have to fit through locks and under bridges! But their small size creates an intimate, cozy atmosphere you won’t find on massive floating resorts.

Most riverboats carry 100-200 passengers, making for a boutique hotel ambiance where you get to know fellow travelers. There’s open seating in the lounge and restaurant, facilitating mingling at breakfast or over evening cocktails. The small capacity also means fewer crowds and queues - no big theater shows with hundreds packed in or fighting for pool chairs. You enjoy a more relaxed, exclusive experience.
Despite compact dimensions, clever design features prevent river ships from feeling cramped. Floors are staggered with cut-outs to increase light and create airy social spaces. Cabins maximize space with efficiently designed storage and bathrooms. Many companies use sliding glass doors instead of tiny portholes to enhance views. Cabins usually run between 150-270 square feet. Sure, ocean cruise suites are lavish in comparison, but you won’t find many inside cabins without windows like on massive vessels.
River cruise cabins also showcase regional décor, like artisan Hungarian embroidery on headboards for Danube sailings. Attention to design details creates an inviting living space. Ocean ship cabins tend to be more generic.
For foodies, limited dining venues on river ships encourage culinary immersion in regional cuisines, ingredients, and wine. Menus showcase seasonal ingredients from destinations like white asparagus in Germany or Austrian schmankerl small plates. Enrichment activities like food demos and wine tastings connect you to local culinary traditions.

Ocean cruise buffets showcase international variety but often lack strong sense of place. Specialty restaurants provide alternatives but usually come with surcharges. River cruises feature fewer venues but include beer, wine, and soft drinks with lunch and dinner. And you won’t get nickeled and dimed with extra charges.
When sailing Europe’s rivers, wraparound promenade decks become open-air lounges passing under ancient hilltop castles. Settle into a deck chair with quilt and blankets as the ship glides along the romantic Rhine. Outdoors areas on ocean ships tend to be more functional while lacking the ever-changing scenery of winding waterways.
For active travelers, most riverboats feature a small fitness area and bikes to use ashore. Ocean cruises tempt fitness buffs with rock climbing walls, surfing simulators and massive gyms. But refreshingly active shore excursions on river cruises provide outdoor exercise, keeping you moving through hillside vineyards and medieval city centers.

Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Dining Differences

Where the cuisine really shines on river cruises is in its celebration of regional flavors and local ingredients. Menus rotate daily to highlight seasonal specialties and regional delicacies from the destinations you visit. Savor white asparagus with hollandaise sauce while cruising along Germany's Rhine, sample Austrian schmankerl small plates like Wiener schnitzel and apfelstrudel on the Danube, or try Scottish smoked salmon when docked along the United Kingdom's riverways. Chefs source as much as possible from local producers, farmers markets, and artisanal food makers, bringing true authenticity to the plates.
The intimate nature of river dining also fosters engagement with the culinary team. Watch cooking demonstrations from the ships' expert chefs, chat with the pastry chef while enjoying after-dinner sweets and coffees, or enjoy wine and cheese tastings led by the sommelier. You gain a deeper connection to the cuisines being celebrated. Ocean cruise buffets often lack this sense of place, offering more generic international variety. While specialty restaurants provide diversity, you miss out on the regional immersion and have to pay extra fees for these venues.

River cruise dining is also more inclusive. Beer, wine, and soft drinks accompany lunch and dinner at no additional charge. Ocean cruises typically only cover standard meals, so you pay a la carte pricing for drinks and incur added fees at specialty restaurants. With river cruising, you avoid the nickel-and-diming.
Meals highlight quality over quantity. While ocean cruise buffets tempt you with endless options, river cruise menus are carefully curated by expert chefs. Presentation and preparation demonstrate refined techniques versus just mass production. And open, communal tables facilitate mingling with your fellow foodie cruise-mates. For those with dietary needs or restrictions, river cruise chefs pay extra attention to accommodating individual needs in consultation with each guest.
Dining on a river ship also provides ever-changing scenery thanks to panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows. Savor your morning cappuccino as rolling vineyards glide by along France's wine regions. Take in views of the illuminated Budapest skyline while enjoying a four-course dinner as your ship overnights docked in the city center. Ocean cruise dining lacks this fluid sense of place, often confining you within generic, windowless restaurants in the ship's interior.

Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Entertainment Onboard

Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises – Which is Right for You?

River ships can’t compete with the flashy production shows and rollicking casinos of massive ocean liners. But is that necessarily a bad thing? After days packed with walking tours and sightseeing, river cruisers often relish lower-key evenings sipping local wines on the sundeck versus queued up outside a bustling show lounge.

The smaller stages and cozier venues on riverboats lend themselves to more intimate performances from regional musicians, vocalists, and dancers. On European itineraries, you may experience an authentic Austrian chamber quartet in Vienna or traditional Bavarian folk dancers performing alpenhorn tunes and yodeling. Hear soulful gypsy-inspired violin melodies while docked along Hungary's Danube.

Enrichment activities also tap into destinations, with wine tastings, cooking demos, even language lessons delivered on board by local experts. Guest lecturers like professors and historians share insights into the culture and history of the regions you’re cruising through. For example, delve into the Middle Ages hearing tales of robber barons and castles dotting the Rhine. Learn about Balkan geopolitics from a Romanian expert sailing the exotic Lower Danube. Port talks prep you on key highlights at upcoming stops.
River cruise entertainment catalyzes meaningful passenger interactions versus just passive spectating. Beer and wine tastings on the sundeck spawn new friendships. Card sharks find their niche in the lounge. A piano man accompanies lively sing-alongs. Socializing becomes the entertainment, rather than scripted stage productions. Those craving Vegas-style excitement or Broadway glam may feel disappointed. But river cruising provides plenty of local cultural flavor for travelers seeking meaning over amusement.

Comedy shows, trivia contests, and D-list musical acts dominate mainstream ocean cruise entertainment. While production shows dazzle with glitz and acrobatics, the entertainment often lacks a connection to the exotic destinations you’re exploring. Beyond casinos and clubs, enrichment options lag compared to river cruises. Shore excursion talks tend to be generic, lacking immersive insights from genuine local experts.
For multi-generational families, river cruises score bonus points when it comes to accommodating diverse interests. While teens and young adults may be bored by the lack of disco parties and wave pools, active shore excursions keep them engaged with hiking, biking, even kayaking and painting workshops. Grandparents enjoy wine tastings on the sundeck. Port talks and tours excite history buffs. And the lack of casinos and smoke-filled lounges creates a more family-friendly environment overall.

Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Packing Tips for Each Type of Cruise

When it comes to packing for a cruise, river cruises and ocean cruises actually require some surprisingly different strategies. Follow these tips to make sure you’re prepared for your journey, no matter which type of cruise adventure you embark on.

For river cruises, the big thing to remember is that space is limited. Cabins on riverboats are cozy, so you’ll want to edit down and pack light. Stick to essentials that can multitask, like pants that transition from day tours to evening dinners or dresses that go from casual to dressy with a quick accessory change. Scarves add fashion flair while taking up minimal space. Foldable shoes like ballet flats or loafers save precious real estate. Refillable toiletries like shampoo bars eliminate disposable bottles. A few carefully chosen accessories in a color palette that mixes-and-matches will take your capsule wardrobe even further.

Many river cruise passengers caution against overpacking winter gear, even for Christmas market sailings. “I brought huge sweaters and a big coat that I never even took out of my suitcase,” says one Viking Cruises passenger. Light layers work better. Long underwear and a warm scarf help you bundle during brisk scenic cruising or chilly castle visits. Save the space-hogging parka for your pre- or post-cruise travels.

While river cruising means scaling down, ocean cruises are all about options. Take advantage of your more spacious cabin to indulge all your vacation fantasies. Pack the lacy formal gown, tailored tux, and costume jewelry for themed balls. Toss in your favorite little black dress for upscale evenings and comfy jeans and tees for lazy days. Swimsuits, cover-ups, and beachy accessories support shore excursions in tropical climates. Just beware of going overboard. “I found I kept wearing the same few outfits even with a stuffed suitcase,” shares one Caribbean cruiser. “Half my clothes never even left the closet.” Ask yourself if you’ll really wear everything before cramming in extras.
Sturdy, casual walking shoes serve you well on both river and ocean cruises thanks to port-intensive itineraries. Waterproof styles provide airflow and dry quickly for humid destinations. Add gel inserts for all-day comfort traipsing historic sites and city streets. If visiting cooler northern climates, warm socks, water-resistant boots, wool hats, and gloves make braving the elements more pleasant during active explorations.

Cruise Face-Off: River Cruises vs. Ocean Cruises - Which is Right for You? - Budget Breakdown: Cost Comparison

When it comes to cost, river cruises and ocean cruises can vary widely in price point. But comparing base fares isn't necessarily illuminating. You need to look at the total value based on what's included.

River cruises feature fairly standardized pricing, averaging $150-$500 per person per day. This covers your cabin, all meals, beer/wine/soft drinks with lunch/dinner, daily tours, transfers, and port charges. Destinations, ship category, and season cause some variation - summer Danube cruises and Christmas market Rhine sailings fall at the higher end. But you can budget $2,000-$5,000 per week.
Ocean cruise fares seem cheaper at first glance, sometimes starting under $100/day. But that only includes your basic cabin and meals. Expect to pay another $20-$60/day, per person, in port fees, taxes, and gratuities. Then pile on extras like shore excursions ($50+ each), drinks, WiFi, and specialty restaurants. “With bar tabs, photos, and extras, our ‘cheap’ cruise ended up costing over $5,000 for two,” reveals one Caribbean cruiser. You think you're getting a deal, until annoying fees start mounting.
However, sales can bring big ocean cruise savings. Leverage aggressive discounting, especially on Caribbean and other mass market itineraries. Europe, exotic destinations, and new ships carry less generous promotions. Avoid nickeling-and-diming with perks packages or suite bookings including drinks, WiFi, credits, and gratuities. Could you do a 10-day Caribbean cruise for $700 total? It’s possible if you watch for flash sales and stack perks.

For families and groups, base ocean cruise fares may beat river pricing with more beds to spread costs. But factor in hefty single supplements for solo travelers and extras kids require. River cruises waive singles surcharges on some sailings. And their all-inclusive structure prevents surprise charges. “No fighting over who ordered the fancy dessert that showed up on our bill,” says one parent describing the river cruise experience.

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