Cruising has evolved rapidly over the past century especially in the past decade. What used to only be attainable for the rich who could afford the luxury is now much more of an everyman vacation option. There are cruises to cater to every demographic and interest these days, from family-friendly affairs to spring break blowouts and refined luxury at its best.
But, as ocean liners get bigger and more extravagant, there's another type of cruising that's gaining in popularity: river cruising.
Ocean cruise lines have expanded around the globe, from the Caribbean to the South Pacific. And now you can find river cruises sailing everywhere from the Danube in Europe to the Mekong in Asia. Viking River Cruises is even going to launch river cruises up the Mississippi River in North America.
So what are the major differences? And which cruise type is right for you?
Ocean cruising: Most ocean cruise ships are like floating cities. There are not only staterooms and multiple restaurants, but you'll also find theaters, casinos, swimming pools, discos, and even art galleries on board. These ships are massive and can accommodate thousands of people.
River cruising: River cruise ships are much smaller than their ocean-faring counterparts. Most ships hold 100-175 people, with some of the more luxurious options accommodating even fewer passengers. I went on a river cruise down the Danube, and our ship had about 140 passengers on it, a far cry from the last ocean cruise I went on that had more than 3,500 other guests.
Ocean cruising: You usually have an assigned dining room (and table) for dinner, and then a choice of various buffets and cafes for other meals. Most large cruise liners will also have at least two specialty restaurants onboard that require reservations and cost extra. In the main dining areas, the food is typical buffet fare with the exception of dinner, which is usually a multi-course meal.
River cruising: The dining options on river cruises are less diverse. Since the ships are much smaller, there are usually two restaurants at most per ship. You'll likely eat all your meals in the same place, but there's no assigned seating, meaning you can sit with different people every day if you want. In my experience, the food on river cruises is usually better than what you'll find on ocean liners.
Ocean cruising: On most ocean cruises, the price you pay at booking covers your cabin (plus housekeeping), your meals on board, and all of the entertainment on the ship. You'll pay extra for any shore excursions in port, though, and drinks other than water are rarely included.
River cruising: With river cruising, just about everything is included in the price of your cruise. Your room, meals, most shore excursions, and any onboard entertainment are included, as is wine, beer, and soft drinks at meals. Many river cruise lines even include free wifi. The only things you'll pay extra for are some optional shore excursions and drinks from the bar outside of meal times.
Ocean cruising: The experience of ocean cruising is kind of like going to a resort. You can lie by the pool, gamble at the casino, see comedy and dance shows, and gorge yourself on food, since the buffets are open almost all day. Port calls completely depend on your cruise route, of course, but most ocean cruises will have at least a couple of At Sea days where you won't get off the ship at all.
River cruising: River cruising is more like a sampler of whatever part of the world you're cruising through. You stop somewhere new just about every day (and sometimes twice per day), meaning fewer days on the water. This is one reason why you won't find casinos or Vegas-style shows on river cruise ships; you spend more time off the ship than on it. In my opinion, river cruising is more about the destinations than the cruise itself.
Ocean cruising: You can find some amazing deals on ocean cruises. My family did a weeklong cruise to New England and the Canadian Maritimes for $550 per person. And deals like that aren't uncommon to find. Just remember that the price you originally pay doesn't include any extras like shore excursions or tours once you get to port. Shore excursions through the cruise line usually run at least $100-$200 per person per activity.
River cruising: River cruising is seen as being slightly more luxurious than ocean cruising, and this is often reflected in the price you'll pay. River cruises are usually at least $1500-$3000 per person, and that doesn't include flights. It does include everything else, though, and many cruise lines (especially in Europe) will offer 2-for-1 deals if you book at the right time.
So Which Type Of Cruise Is Right For You?
You can probably tell from this post that I personally prefer river cruising. However, that doesn't mean that it's the right type of cruising for you.
Ocean cruising might be for you if:
- You're looking for a more affordable (or family-friendly) cruise closer to home
- You prefer lots of amenities and entertainment options on board
- You love the idea of throwing your diet out the window and eating all day
River cruising might be for you if:
- You prefer a smaller, more intimate cruise where you can get to know everyone else on board (including the ship's staff)
- You're more interested in the ports of call than sitting by the pool
- You don't mind not having onboard entertainment or shopping
So what do you think? Are you an ocean cruise or river cruise kind of person?
No matter where your adventures take you, make sure you have the right travel insurance coverage for the experience!