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Many Ocean cruisers are ‘testing the waters’, so to speak, with River Cruising, with many folks loving it for various reasons. River cruising has experienced huge growth over the past few years with many companies adding a significant # of new ships to their fleets in order to keep up with the demand.


So, what is the difference between a river cruise and an ocean cruise generally…


Actually, there are quite a lot of differences between river cruising and ocean cruising including the following:


1. River ships are smaller than ocean ships with most riverboats carrying approximately 200 passengers or so.  While there are many ocean cruise ships with thousands of passengers, I deal mostly with smaller, more luxurious cruise ships that tend to have passenger counts much less than 1000 – generally in the 400-700 pax range.  Although still much larger than river boats and, of course, much larger in size with many more amenities on board including multiple venues for dining, casinos, larger pools, multiple lounges, ‘show’ venues, much larger workout areas, and so much more. Of course, with this lesser # of fellow passengers, one tends to be able to get to know many more people on board a riverboat vs. even the smaller ocean vessels.

2. River cabins are smaller than their ocean ship counterparts, but they can still be very luxurious and comfortable.  Many of the newer riverboats are either adding balconies or designing the cabins to maximize the space allotted with panoramic windows that slide down at the touch of a button to create that feeling of actually having a balcony in a “French balcony” style way. There are actually some more luxurious riverboats that are now offering suites up to 860 square feet but, of course, these will also be much more expensive

3. River ships tend to have more buffets and fewer restaurant venues as mentioned previously. Most ships tend to have one main restaurant and breakfast and lunch are buffet only except for possibly a few a la carte items and dinner is usually a “served” meal. Although, many of the newer river ships are offering more dining venues with alternative menus and private dining options.  Some are even offering room service which was unheard of previously with river ships. Daily port calls and fewer passengers more often enable opportunities with fresh fish and produce with regional specialization as well.

4. Entertainment tends to be very different between the river and ocean cruising.  For the most part, there will be a lone resident pianist, plus folk singers, dancers or local troupes brought on board for a quick evening show.  During the day there are educational seminars, maybe some cooking demos, wine tasting & quiz events.  The passing scenery and destinations tend to be the main attraction with river cruising and after a busy day of touring, most passengers tend to head for bed rather than stay up until the early hours of the morning as they tend to do on cruise ships more often.  With ocean cruising, there are quality Broadway-style shows, comedians, casinos and karaoke for entertainment until the wee hours of the morning if one so desires.

5. River cruises are highly port intensive and you’ll visit a new destination each day with sometimes even two in one day.  The ports, not the ships, are the key attractions with river cruising and you can pack a lot of sightseeing into a week or two.  On the other hand, ocean cruises often have leisurely ‘at sea’ days enabling some downtime for more rest and relaxation including spa, pool and other ship activity types of days.

6. Shore tours with river cruising tend to be more limited and culturally focused vs. ocean cruise tours.  They are usually walking tours where you follow a guide around while they talk about the town or city’s history and culture followed by free time for shopping or a quick drink in a local café. Although many of the river cruise companies are starting to offer more options including more active ones such as biking, hiking, golfing, kayaking as well as cooking and art classes, music recitals, opera, and ballet. 


7. Full sailing days tend to be a rarity with river cruises as most sailing is done at night.  Most days you’re not ‘on the move’ for more than a couple of hours.  There are a couple of exceptions to this including the Douro River in Portugal where navigating during the night is not permitted so that ships only sail during the daylight.  The other exceptions include the Rhine Gorge and Austria’s Wachau Valley on the Danube River where there are wonderfully scenic stretches of castle laden shores.

8. River cruise fares although seemingly more expensive are inclined to have more items included. You’re less likely to feel as though you’re being “nickel and dimed” with river cruising although that also tends not to happen with the more luxurious ocean ships since they also include more in their fares.

9. Fares on river cruises typically include wine, beer and soft drinks with meals, dinner in specialty restaurants, 24-hour coffee and tea, Wi-Fi and the standard tours in each port. Some river cruise lines also offer all-inclusive fares covering all drinks, transfers, gratuities and even a pre or post hotel night. Most river ships also enable you to bring wine onboard that you’ve bought in local shops and vineyards along the river.

10. River cruises tend not to be for the late-risers as the ‘late breakfast’ starts around 9:30 am and if you’re partaking at that time than you’ve likely missed the morning’s tour.  River cruises don’t tend to cater to those that like to sleep in, lounge about or proceed ashore at too leisurely a pace unless you are prepared to ‘do your own thing’ and skip that morning excursion. Some of the upscale river cruise lines though do have afternoon or evening excursions available as well for that late riser.

11. One of the most wonderful features of a river cruise is the fact that most of the time you’ll dock right in town.  Generally, getting to that ‘main attraction’ is so easy with just a short walk or quick bus ride into the heart of the city or town. Occasionally, the docks can get busier so that the riverboats have to ‘double park’, so to speak, requiring passengers from one vessel to walk through another vessel to get to the shore.  This can make it particularly challenging for wheelchair users or travelers with mobility issues.

12. River cruising won’t cover nearly as much ground as an ocean cruise as oftentimes a 12-hour journey by riverboat could take less than a couple of hours if done via a bus. Distances between ports are much shorter with river cruises.  This gives river cruise lines the flexibility to alter plans if there are issues with high or low water which can sometimes happen depending on the preceding weather.  Sometimes they’ll have to consider moving people via buses and switching vessels in order to maintain the itinerary as planned. 


No matter whether you choose river cruising or ocean cruising, please do think about working with a travel professional so that you can be assured that you’ll be matched with the appropriate cruise line (whether river or ocean), location and overall planning of the vacation.  I’d be happy to help you with this thereby alleviating any negative issues relative to the details of your overall plans.

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