This article is going to tell you the differences between an ocean cruise and a river cruise. It’s a relatively simple task, but it’s not easy. The reason it’s not easy is that there are various levels or styles of cruising and price ranges to go along with them. Each cruise line has its own distinct personality, services, inclusions, and amenities. That makes it hard to make a definitive statement that covers every type of cruise from mass market to luxury.
This article is a general comparison and will not take those distinctions into account but instead includes only the common denominators.
Ship size for both ocean, and river, is expressed in tons. The smallest ocean vessels fall into two categories – expedition and luxury ships. An expedition ship can also be a luxury ship. If you look at the smallest ship size, it’s around 1,200 tons and carrys 106 passengers from the Cruceros Skorpio Line. For the largest ship that is due in 2021 from Royal Caribbean, she will be 228,081 tons and hold about 5,500 passengers. That is a lot of passengers but fear not. Many ships fall in between those two sizes.
River vessels are much smaller in size, and they have to be. In Europe, a ship cruising from the North Sea to the Black Sea on the Rhine, Main, and the Danube, will pass many locks that are 39 – 40 feet wide. Each ship’s width can be no more than 38 feet allowing about a foot on either side to navigate the locks.
River cruise ships in Europe are a completely different story. All of the ships are relatively the same regardless of the cruise line. What does change is the number of passengers on a river cruise depends on the cruise line. Some choose to build with smaller staterooms and more passengers, others choose larger staterooms with fewer passengers. This is one of the differences to consider when selecting a cruise line.
Motion is one of the biggest reasons many people choose not to cruise. I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s experience when I say fear of movement in six different degrees can bring on seasickness. It is essential to know that today, the newer ocean cruise vessels are well stabilized. Even then, for some, it can take a day or two to get their sea legs.
River cruising is usually a very smooth experience. In fact, you may not know you are moving. Rivers are very calm, with no wave action as you have on the ocean. Therefore, seasickness is very rare. Ships often cruise during the night to cover distances and allow for more time in port. Passengers can wake up to find their vessel has changed its position.
Ocean ships have a variety of sizes and styles of accommodations from mega-sized owner’s suites to verandah suites, veranda staterooms, ocean view staterooms, and inside staterooms.
River cruise ships are smaller in size, with fewer staterooms and suite categories to choose from. I know of no ships with inside staterooms. The lowest type of stateroom is on the lowest passenger deck with windows located higher up the wall.
Ocean ships offer a smaller variety of accessible staterooms. Elevators are available to travel between floors easily. Many cruise lines provide wheelchairs on board when pre-reserved. Others may require you to furnish your own or rent from one of the companies catering to individuals with special needs.
River cruise ships are not accessible to those with special needs. There are elevators on some, but they may not go to the bottom deck or the top deck, limiting movement onboard. Also, there is the need to cross a narrower gangplank from ship to shore. In addition to that, many of the ports are not easily navigated by those with a need for a cane, wheelchair, or scooter. These old, historic towns have cobblestone streets and uneven surfaces.
Oceans go to countries. Shore excursions will include the area surrounding a port. When the ship has an extended stay in a port, cruise lines can offer shore excursions to cities further away. That may consist of several hours by train or motor coach in each direction. City sightseeing tours are usually included. Some will give you the option to be on your own in the city and meet for the return at a given time and place.
Rivers flow through the heart of countries and stop in the charming towns and cities along the river. There is usually more time in port to explore the sights, culture, and cuisine if the destination calls for it. Other itineraries may include more than one port in a day.
An ocean cruise by nature can have many ports in many countries. Offering the chance to see many different countries on one trip but unpacking and packing only once.
Oceans take you to countries.
River cruises usually have many ports along the river, that gives you time to enjoy the culture, nature, and cuisine of the locale. Sometimes there is more than one port in a day. River cruise ships usually carry limited numbers of bicycles, walking sticks, etc. with no charge.
For an ocean cruise ship, there are two positions they can be used, depending on the port. The first position is the ship will dock next to the pier and tie up or tether to the dock. Passengers will exit the ship down a gangplank.
Sometimes the port being visited isn’t deep enough, or the waters are too rough for a cruise ship to come all the way to the pier. In that case, the ship will drop anchor outside the port but in sight of the port. Passengers will then be tendered to shore on a tender, which is a small boat.
A river cruise ship will dock at the port. A gangplank will be lowered, and passengers will exit the ship. River cruise piers have limited space to dock and there are often many ships arriving and departing. It is not unusual to go to sleep at night with the vessel next to the pier and wake up with another boat or two between you and the dock. The transition happens so gently you probably won’t even know it occurred.
On an ocean cruise, the shore excursions are available for additional charges in all ports of call. They will offer a variety of options to choose from for many different tastes and interests.
River cruise shore excursions are included for most lines in the price of the cruise. How many excursions in each port differs from cruise line to cruise line. Typically, the tours that are offered by the cruise line take into account the fast walkers or active passengers, slower walkers, late risers, and special interests.
On an ocean cruise, there is a wide variety of entertainment. You’ll have a good variety to enjoy from Broadway shows, to singers, dancers, comedians, dance bands, karaoke, games, bingo, pool games, trivia, etc.
On the river, entertainment is more of a local variety. With local entertainers to provide access to history, culture, cuisine, music, dance. Always a musician on board to provide dance music in the lounge in the evening.
Ocean vessels usually have a variety of swimming pools, hot tubs, both indoor and outside. Fitness centers are traditionally well fitted out with cardio machines, yoga and Pilate’s classes, free weights, and more. They also will offer private training for a fee.
Some river cruises have vessels with a fitness center. However, these usually are smaller in size due to the smaller size of the ship. A pool or hot tub is typically located on the top deck of the vessel. Some have bicycles and walking sticks on board, and others do not.
Ocean vessels have extensive spa areas and services offered for a fee. They often provide services that you have never heard of before. Saunas, pools, even snow rooms, can be found onboard some of the cruise lines vessels.
River vessels will typically offer spa services. However, there are usually fewer treatment rooms, and the services and staff are more limited than on the ocean.
On an ocean cruise, the meals are included in the main dining rooms and buffets on all cruise lines. There are usually alternative restaurants for variety and tastes. Some may have those alternate options available at no additional charge. Others may have a supplemental cover charge.
River cruises also have all meals included. Some may have the main dining room as the only option, other cruise lines may have additional dining venues or use their lounge for early riser’s breakfast and a more casual lunch option. Usually, these alternate venues do not have a cover charge but may require reservations.
On an ocean cruise, coffee, tea, milk, juices are included in the cruise rate. Specialty coffees, bottled water, soft drinks, and alcoholic beverages are additional charges. Most cruise lines have tiered beverage packages that may be purchased in advance or on the ship.
Most river cruise lines include alcoholic beverages during all meals, sparkling wine with breakfast, wine, and beer at lunch and dinner. Most cruise lines will charge for cocktails outside meal hours.
Recently I wrote about the best time to book a cruise. If you missed that article click here to read it.
These are all fundamental differences between river and ocean cruising. Do you want to know more? Maybe you have questions about specific cruise lines, or specific cruise itineraries. Would you like to know which cruise has the best cuisine? Are you looking for adventure on your next cruise and want to be active as possible? I am here to answer your questions and be of service to you.
To get you started, I offer 30 minutes complimentary phone consultations. We’ll discuss what you’re looking forward in your next vacation. I’ll give you some ideas you may not have thought of and we can decide if we’re a good fit to work together. Click here to set up an appointment with me.
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