Ocean Cruises vs. River Cruises: Everything You Need to Know

— Which cruise will you choose?

Choosing the type of cruise vacation you want to take can be an overwhelming process. Maybe you have a specific destination in mind, or maybe you have a specific budget. Maybe you would prefer a ship with plenty of on board activities and entertainment, or perhaps you’d rather focus on exploring new port destinations. 

No matter what type of cruise you’re after, one question you’ll have to ask yourself is whether you want to sail on an ocean or river cruise. While there are pros and cons to each type of cruise, the following tips will help guide you towards picking the right one for you.

Ship Size

Unsurprisingly, one of the main differences between ocean cruises and river cruises is the physical size of the vessel. Since river cruise ships need to sail safely and comfortably on a smaller body of water, they are typically much smaller than most ocean vessels, with the average river cruise clocking in at around 400 feet in length with 4 decks in height. In comparison, ocean style cruises have an average length of more than 1,000 feet and an average height of 12 decks.

Taking this into account, the number of passengers on each type of cruise varies considerably. While most ocean cruises can accommodate 3,000-5,000 guests, river cruises tend to limit their capacity at around 500. This makes quite the difference in the social atmosphere of each cruise, as ocean cruises tend to feel more like entire cities on water, whereas river cruises have a more laid-back, intimate feel. 

Another thing to consider is that ocean cruises also typically offer more diverse accommodation options than river cruises. In addition to interior staterooms and cabins, ocean cruises often offer a number of upgrade options if you want or need extra rooms or a luxurious ocean view. 

River cruises, on the other hand, tend to exclusively offer outward-facing, common staterooms. No matter the package you choose, you are almost guaranteed to have a room with a view, and many modern river cruises have started including balconies with their staterooms as well. 

Food & On-Board Entertainment

Now, in terms of food and beverage options, both ocean and river cruises have a lot to offer. River cruises tend to focus on providing their guests with a number of buffet-style options, in addition to a limited number of restaurants that provide meals inspired by the local cultures you’ll be visiting. 

Ocean cruises have a much more diverse selection, offering everything from buffets to bar & grills to five-star restaurants. Many of these options, however, come at an additional cost, as opposed to most river cruises which include the price of meals in the overall vacation package. 

In terms of on-board entertainment, ocean cruises tend to have a wider array of options in order to accommodate their larger number of passengers. While on-board entertainment varies ship to ship, it is common to find at least one pool, a fitness center, a number of bars and casinos, and other recreational activities such as rock climbing walls and ice skating rinks. 

River cruises often can’t compete with these offerings due solely to the size of the vessel. Instead, these cruises tend to emphasize more cultural and educational entertainment, with a number of river liners offering on-board lectures and group classes that supplement port excursion activities.

Port Excursions

Speaking of port excursions, ocean cruises and river cruises tend to differ in the type of land activities they offer to their passengers. Based on size alone, most ocean cruises are limited as to which ports they can dock at. They not only need to ensure that the dock can accommodate the size of the vessel, but they also need to ensure that the port city can accommodate the sudden influx of tourists. 

This is not much of a problem with river cruises, as their smaller size allows them to dock at smaller towns and cities, giving guests a more intimate port experience. These experiences tend to be culture-focused and prioritize educating passengers about local history, customs, and other points of interest. Furthermore, as many on shore excursions are included in the initial cruise costs, many of these experiences are shared with the other passengers. 

On the other hand, ocean cruises tend to offer excursion experiences for additional fees, meaning that unless you’re willing to pay for these offers, you will be responsible for entertaining yourself in your port destination. Yet given that ocean cruises dock exclusively in larger, more tourist-friendly places, these port destinations have a lot to offer to individuals and groups alike, including but not limited to hiking, walking tours, beaches, and award-winning restaurants.


Now, one of the most important factors in determining which type of cruise vacation you choose is the cost. These costs will depend not only on whether you choose an ocean vessel or a river vessel, but also on the specific cruise company, the destination, the season of the year, and included travel packages. While these prices vary, river cruises are generally more expensive than ocean cruises. 

The main reason is that river cruises often include meals, drinks, entertainment options, and port excursion activities in the voyage price. On ocean cruises, these offerings are typically a la carte, meaning passengers can choose which options to pay for. 

List of Recommendations

Still undecided? Here is a list of a few ocean cruises and river cruises that will give you more insight into the pros and cons of both types of cruise experiences. 

River cruises: 

Viking River Cruises are well-known for both their ocean and river cruise options. Offering voyages throughout Europe, Northern Africa, and part of Asia, Viking River Cruises are the perfect option for those hoping for a luxurious and elegant vacation with destination-focused dining and a plethora of onboard and offboard enrichment activities. 

AMA Waterways offers a wide variety of river cruise vacations, sailing through much of Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. Aboard their state of the art ships, you will find world-class service and award-winning, local entertainment. AMA Waterways also offers a number of port extension packages, allowing you to spend more time exploring new destinations. 

American Queen Voyages sails exclusively throughout North America, offering river, lake, and ocean voyages in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. These all-inclusive experiences offer passengers the trip of a lifetime, allowing them to explore the rich cultures of North America in luxury and style. 

Ocean cruises: 

Carnival Cruises have something to offer for everybody, with numerous voyages traversing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Their ships offer a near-infinite amount of entertainment options, from pools to spas to nightclubs. Furthermore, Carnival Cruises have a plethora of personalization options, allowing guests to curate the perfect trip for themselves. 

Disney Cruises is where magic meets the sea. Offering destinations throughout Europe, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and, of course, Disney’s own private island, Disney Cruises are the perfect option for those looking to maximize their enjoyment. Disney Cruises also offer plenty of customized itineraries according to your personal preferences, meaning you can enjoy you stay whether you’re a couple, a family, or an individual adult. 

Norwegian Cruise Line sails all over the world, from Scandinavia to South America, Alaska to Asia, and almost everywhere in between. Norwegian Cruise Line emphasizes what they call “freestyle cruising,” allowing you to cultivate your own schedule without any stress. With a number of diverse dining and entertainment options, Norwegian Cruise Line allows you to personalize every moment of your voyage.  

At the end of the day, the cruise that’s right for you will wholly depend on the type of person you are and the type of vacation you’re after. Both cruises have incredible experiences to offer with  a variety of options. The best way to make this decision is to test out the different experiences for yourself and see which you prefer. After all, there is no such thing as taking too many cruises. 

By Tyler Jeremiah

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