The majority of ships sailing the globe today are ocean liners, but riverboat cruising is a fast-growing alternative. According to Tor Hagen, CEO of Viking Cruises, “Ocean cruising is a drinking man's cruise. River cruising is a thinking man's cruise.” This is an oversimplification, of course, but it can be a useful starting point if you’re completely new to cruising.
In contrast to the floating resorts of ocean-faring ships that sail to the major port cities of the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Baltic, and Alaska, river cruises offer a quieter, more intimate experience while sailing along the rivers of Europe, Russia, China, and the U.S. Let’s take a look at the differences between the two styles of cruising so you can pick the one that’s right for you.
The big advantage of ocean cruising is the unbelievable variety of onboard options for all types of travelers. In recent years, modern cruise ships have turned into floating resorts with a wide selection of dining and entertainment venues, activities, bars, dance clubs, casinos, and more. The majority of oceangoing cruise ships carry anywhere between 1,200 to 5,000 passengers, though many of the small luxury vessels carry only 100 to 500 guests.
Most ocean cruise ships have more than one pool (some even have miniature water parks with impressive water slides), a large spa, and a fitness center. Ships geared toward active cruisers even offer ice-skating rinks, bowling alleys, rock-climbing walls, flight simulators, basketball courts, and more.
Since river ships need to traverse the locks on rivers, they’re often less than 450 feet long and only 40 feet wide. Because of their small size and low profiles, they can only hold about 60 to 200 passengers.
Though riverboats also differ in design and onboard facilities, the distinctions between Viking and AmaWaterways river cruises are much smaller than the differences between Carnival and Celebrity. Some river cruise ships have a salon, an Internet corner, a gym, and even a small pool, but none come close to even the smaller ocean ships in terms of onboard offerings.
Carnival Sun and Avalon Affinity - Photos by Carnival Cruise Line and Avalon
How to Choose: If you want your ship to be just as much of a destination as the ports on your itinerary, ocean liners are your best bet. But if you’re looking for a more intimate experience and don’t care much about onboard experiences, try a river cruise. If you don’t want to deal with the crowds or commotion of a larger ship but still want an ocean itinerary, try one of the upper premium or luxury lines.
Ocean liners have a wide variety of cabin types to choose from. Some ships have upward of 30 cabin categories, but most fall into four distinct types: inside (no window), ocean view (window), balcony (and open-air), and larger suite options featuring concierge and luxury offerings. These rooms can range from modest inside cabins measuring 140 square feet, up to 2,000 square-foot suites — and even a select few that are bigger.
Your choices are much more limited on river cruises as most ships exclusively offer river view staterooms. Some come with floor-to-ceiling windows while others have French (or “open-air”) balconies or traditional balconies, but those are often the biggest distinctions. River cruise staterooms/suites traditionally span between 150 and 445 square feet.
Cabins from Norwegian and AmaWaterways - Photos by Norwegian Cruise Line and AmaWaterways
Guests on ocean liners can range from budget-conscious, contemporary cruisers seeking fun in the sun to upscale guests looking for sophisticated ambiance.
Riverboats interest both past ocean cruisers who want to experience something different and more subdued travelers who would never consider an ocean cruise. River cruisers tend to be well-educated and typically are older.
On both ocean and river cruises, you will find couples and friends traveling together. More families take ocean cruises, though many river cruise lines are offering specific departures aimed at this market.
Everyone from toddlers to seniors sail on ocean cruises, while passengers river cruises tend to be middle-aged to older couples. - Photos by Thinkstock and AmaWaterways
How to Choose: The diversity of ocean cruising options makes it right for virtually any traveler interested in cruising, but the changing and growing markets of river cruising can appeal to those who want a more intimate experience.
Ocean cruises travel all over the world, with the majority of ships sailing to the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Most of an ocean cruise itinerary is spent on the ship. A typical seven-night itinerary stops at three or four ports from the morning to late afternoon/early evening, although some lines have begun overnight port stays to let passengers experience the local nightlife.
On the other hand, most river cruises travel to a new city or town every day. Europe offers the most choices of itineraries, but options in Asia and North America are becoming more diverse as their popularity grows.
Ocean cruises can sail to any coastal city, but river cruises will dock in the heart of inland cities like Budapest. - Photos by Celebrity Cruises and Viking Cruises
How to Choose: The world is open to you in terms of choice with ocean cruising, but if it’s small towns and exploration you crave then river cruising is for you.
Most river cruises include a hosted shore excursion in each port as part of the cruise fare (usually with both an active and slower-paced option), while ocean cruising features a large choice of shore excursions at an additional per-person cost.
River ships dock in the heart of the cities they visit, allowing for hosted small group excursions to off-the-beaten-path, charming villages and locations. Bicycles are often available — and complimentary — for those who wish to explore on their own during a river cruise.
You’ll find a lot more variety when it comes to ocean cruising excursions. Not only can you purchase excursions directly through the cruise line, but you can also buy from any number of independent vendors before your cruise — or even right on the dock when you arrive. These activities range from standard sightseeing tours to more active options like hiking, snorkeling/scuba diving, and parasailing.
You can do just about any excursion on an ocean cruise, while river cruise excursions are more educational and cultured. - Photos by Royal Caribbean and AmaWaterways
How to Choose: River excursions are geared toward cruisers who prefer exploring and learning, while ocean cruise excursions offer a much wider range of activities to choose from. Not having to pay additional fees for most river cruise excursions is a definite plus.
Foodies need not worry as the dining on both river and ocean cruises is typically a highlight. Most riverboats have one or two dining options with open seating at a set time. Breakfast and lunch are usually buffet-style — although main courses may be ordered from a waiter — with dinner boasting a la carte gourmet dining.
The food on river cruise ships emphasizes local cuisine, including regional dishes served with local wines, beers, and soft drinks. While you’re ashore, you might even spot your riverboat chef in the local market, picking out ingredients for that evening’s dinner.
Ocean ships have a wide selection of dining options. The a la carte main dining area serves a little bit of everything, and there are plenty of snack and quick-food venues if you’re in a rush. Drinks are usually not included, though drink packages can be purchased.
If you want something a little different, cruise ships are including a growing number “specialty” restaurants. You can expect these venues, which range from steakhouses to sushi bars, to be a bit more like traditional restaurants, with better decor and higher-quality dishes, but they’re typically not included in your cruise fare.
Ocean lines have started hiring celebrity chefs Guy Fieri to spice up their dining, while river lines use local ingredients to cook up native fare. - Photos by Carnival Cruise Lines and Avalon
How to Choose: You can eat at a new restaurant every night on many ocean cruise ships, but river cruisers are treated to fresh, local ingredients and included beverages.
The majority of ocean cruise lines have children’s programming divided by specific age groups and activities supervised by well-trained personnel on every departure. Most river cruise vacations can be suitable for mature teenagers, given the dining and experiences offered. However, a number of river cruise lines do offer a few family-friendly departures on select itineraries.
Younger kids are typically more comfortable on ocean cruise ships, but the more mature ones may like river cruising as well. - Photos by Disney Cruise Line and UniWorld
How to Choose: Families with young children will be happiest on ocean liners. Those with older children who can appreciate cultural experiences might consider a river cruise, but the pace may be a bit slow for younger passengers.
The greater space on ocean liners allows for more venues and a wider range of entertainment options. On mainstream lines, choices vary from piano lounge singers and comedians to acrobats and Broadway-style productions, though premium and luxury ships have more low-key entertainment.
The river cruise experience is more focused on immersion in the destination, with a number of evenings spent in the port cities and local entertainment being brought onboard for performances.
Ocean lines often have Broadway-caliber entertainment, while river cruises will bring on sophisticated offerings from the port. - Photos by Norwegian Cruise Line and Avalon
How to Choose: Ocean cruising offers far more choices, but the local, cultural entertainment on a river cruise stands out.
How to Choose: Due to their size, ocean liners feature the most choices in accommodations, dining, entertainment, and activities, as well as worldwide itineraries. River cruising offers a more intimate, authentic, and immersive experience, often with an all-inclusive price tag. Check out this chart to compare ocean cruise lines, or this article detailing the differences between river lines.