River Cruising vs. Ocean Cruising: Which Floats Your Boat?

by Perrin Post

River cruises and ocean cruises differ more than you might think. Many of the people I’ve met on the former are refugees from the latter: They chose a river cruise to avoid the crowds, lines, and hassles they’ve encountered on giant ships at sea. But they compare 120- to 160-passenger river boats with mammoth 2,500- to 3,000-passenger megaships, whereas it would be more apt to compare river ships with similarly small seagoing vessels where such crowds, lines, and hassles don’t exist. Personally, when I’m on a river ship, I miss aspects of the ocean experience—from the vast, uninterrupted sea views to the romantic dinners alone with my husband on our balcony. For all you ocean cruisers who may be thinking of branching out and trying a river trip, I thought it might be helpful to lay out the biggest differences as I see them, based on the four river cruises and 20 ocean cruises I’ve taken. Here are 13 things that make a river cruise different:

1 There aren’t waves, and you always see the shoreline.

River cruisers like this because they can’t get seasick and they feel safe. Ocean cruisers might miss that exhilarating feeling of being cut off from civilization, bound for adventure.

2 You’re on land every day.

On river cruises, you’re in port for at least some portion of each day. On seagoing itineraries, there’s usually at least one day when you’re sailing all day and all you see is sea. (If you’ve never cruised before, a day at sea might sound like being trapped in hell. For me personally, though, a day at sea is the ultimate indulgence: Reading a novel on my balcony staring at the ocean all day is literally the most relaxing thing I do in life besides sleep.)

3 Your view changes more often—but it’s not necessarily more scenic.

How scenic any cruise is depends on the itinerary. Some stretches of river are ugly, as are some ocean ports. On a river cruise, between ports you see whatever is on the shoreline; on ocean cruises, between ports you see the sea. I find that sea view to be mesmerizing and restorative—there’s poetry in the ocean—but river cruisers may find it boring or unnerving.

4 You’re dropped off in town.

Small ocean ships often drop you off in town too. Huge ocean ships may dock at charmless, industrial ports that are an hour’s drive from what you’ve come to see.

5 You don’t have to wait for a tender to shore.

River ships don’t have lines to get on and off the ship. When a giant ocean ship anchors offshore, passengers must line up to take tenders to and from land and, depending on the size of the ship, there can be long waits.

6 There’s more forced socializing.

Few river ships have room service and, since tables are for four, six, or eight, you dine with other passengers. This means you spend a lot of time talking to strangers—which can make or break your trip, depending on who you’re talking to. On an ocean cruise, I find, it’s easier to escape other people: There are more hideouts on the ship; you can stay on your balcony without missing any scenery (since the ocean looks the same on both sides of the ship); and, if you don’t want to talk to people at meals, you can order room service or find an empty table in one of the restaurants.

7 You must eat at specific hours.

On river ships, everybody eats at the same time. Usually breakfast is from 7 to 9 am, lunch is from 12 to 2 pm, dinner is from 7 to 9 pm. On most ocean cruises, you can dine at any hour and at a table for two.

8 Everything on the ship is near your cabin.

It takes no more than a minute to be where you want to be.

9 You spend more time with the captain and officers.

On river cruises you see the captain daily, in the wheelhouse or dining room. The hotel director is always in the lobby or otherwise nearby, and the cruise manager is always accessible, either at his or her lobby desk, on shore supervising the tours, or at the daily port talks. The officers’ proximity and attention make river cruising feel more personal than ocean cruising. On the other hand, on small seagoing ships the officers and crew can provide highly attentive and personalized service—especially the butlers, concierges, and bartenders.

10 Shore excursions are included in the price.

On river cruises, guided group walking tours are included, although more in-depth excursions involving buses and admission tickets often cost extra. Few ocean cruise lines include shore excursions in the price, a notable exception being Regent Seven Seas.

11 Wi-fi is free.

It might not always work in your cabin or when the ship is passing a lock or hills, but it usually works in the lounge. On ocean cruises, by contrast, Internet access can cost $1 per minute and be excruciatingly slow.

12 There are no sales pitches.

On river ships and small ocean ships they’re not constantly trying to sell you art, drinks, jewelry, duty-free items, and future cruises. On megaships you can feel like you’re caught in one big floating infomercial.

13 You needn’t pack the day before you leave.

On river ships you don’t have to place your suitcase outside your cabin before going to sleep on the last night of your cruise. You can keep your bags with you till the morning—which makes packing for the flight home easier.

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