River Cruise or Ocean Cruise - What's the difference?

Are you considering a cruise for your next holiday but unsure which type to choose – Ocean or River (tough decision, I know)? Perhaps you have travelled onboard many Ocean Cruises and you’re ready for a change?
Whether or not you have been on a cruise before (Ocean or River), you may be wondering what the difference is…and believe me – there is a difference!

Let’s start with the most obvious difference – their size. Because of the nature of the cruises – travelling along rivers, through tight locks and under low bridges – river cruise ships are far smaller than your typical ocean ship, holding an average of 150-300 guests, some ever fewer! Let’s put that into perspective… Ocean ships hold as many as 2000-3000 passengers, some even more – the largest cruise ship, Oasis of the Seas, holds an astonishing 6000+ guests!

Ama Waterways and Oasis of the SeasImage above shows a River Ship to the left and Ocean Ship to the right.

But does size matter? Well it certainly affects what’s onboard – If you’re looking for a ship with various restaurants, more than one pool, perhaps even an ice rink or a waterpark then without a doubt you’re looking for an Ocean Cruise! BUT bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better… does it? After all good things come in small packages, right? Repeatedly referred to as boutique hotels on water, river ships provide the comfort and amenities similar to that of a luxury hotel. River ships are known for their intimacy; faces become familiar & passengers become friends. Onboard a large Ocean ship, it’s easy to escape the company of others, in fact you may never bump into the same person more than once!


The size difference not only affects your onboard experience, but also your choice of destination and itinerary; Ocean ships are built to sail across oceans, docking at major ports, occasionally a coach drive away from the town (but don’t let that put you off!!!). There is a huge variation of impressive itineraries, from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, the Greek Islands or even a Transatlantic Crossing from Southampton to New York – there is something for everybody! On the other hand & perhaps self-explanatory, River ships are built to sail smoothly along a river – their size enables them to dock at local, smaller ports (where ocean ships cannot reach), literally a small walk away from the town or city. Again, there are many fantastic itineraries to choose from, but highlights include iconic cities and charming villages, including Budapest, Vienna, Bordeaux and Vietnam!

While we’re talking itineraries, it’s worth mentioning the scenery! Onboard an Ocean Cruise you can go a full day without seeing land (I find it quite absorbing actually, looking out onto the never ending ocean) whereas a river cruise provides new scenery everyday as land is always in sight, and rather than miles away, it is yards away! PLUS the scenery on a river cruise can be magical, from enchanting castles to hillside vineyards. Oh and you can forget about motion sickness when you travel onboard a river ship – there are no waves – just smooth sailing!

Scenic Moselle


Going back to the onboard experience – you will notice that there is more choice of accommodation when booking an Ocean Cruise, from an inside cabin, an outside with a window to a family suite with 2 bathrooms and a balcony (with many grades in the middle also) – so be sure to choose wisely!! Quite different to when you book a river cruise, where there is slightly less choice – most do not have inside cabins and as you would expect, all outside cabins have a window (which means everybody can see the beautiful scenery from their cabin), but you will find that the majority of cabins provide a balcony (it’s often worth asking for the difference in price to upgrade for a balcony).

River Cruising Balcony StateroomsImage above shows accommodation onboard various River Ships. Ama Waterways top left, Avalon Waterways bottom left & Riviera on the right

As I previously mentioned, Ocean ships provide a choice of various restaurants onboard, some complimentary, others for a small supplement & ofcourse the 24 hour buffet! Many Ocean Cruises provide a choice of set dining times; you may choose a set dining time (early or late) - or many now choose ‘anytime’ dining, whereby you can eat when you are ready (of course during the restaurant’s opening hours).  It is a different experience to that of a River Cruise, which has one dining room and they operate an open seating system, which means you can sit for dinner at any point while the restaurant is open. Oh and onboard a river cruise there are no formal nights – so leave the tuxedo at home! – The dress code is relaxed, smart casual. That being said, there are some more relaxed Ocean Cruises, Royal Caribbean for example are introducing Dynamic Dining whereby there are no formal nights as such (but there is an optional formal restaurant). And if you don’t enjoy dressing for a formal night, you may choose to eat in the buffet restaurant!

Riviera - MS Charles DickensImage above shows restaurants onboard a River Ship (the 2 top images) and Ocean Ship (the 2 bottom images).


If you have been on an Ocean Cruise, you will know what great entertainment is provided – from grand shows in the theatre, to cookery classes, afternoon bingo and late night comedy. Very different to that of a River Cruise which is of course, restricted with space - there is definitely no theatre! Entertainment is more relaxed and often more educational - regularly provided by local folk groups who are invited onboard to share their talent and provide a taste of their local culture. There is also often talks and lectures onboard a river cruise, providing an insight to the local cultures and history of the towns you are visiting.

Child Friendly?

A very common question – are river cruises child friendly? Unfortunately they do not compare to that of an Ocean Cruise – which provide Children’s Clubs, activities and even separate meal times. River Cruises do not provide separate amenities for children, however that being said, they are welcome onboard – but it is rare to see many children onboard and if you do, they are very well behaved!


The final, and arguably the most important difference – the price. Yes, River Cruising at first glance, appears to be more expensive – HOWEVER, take a closer look and river cruising has no hidden costs, in fact almost everything is included in the price – including transfers to the airport, return flights (where applicable), accommodation, all meals, complimentary drinks with your meals (sometimes complimentary drinks when and as you please), shore excursions and even complimentary wi-fi!! Compare this to an Ocean Cruise which are more often than not promoted at cruise only price – meaning you will often have to pay extra for your flights, drinks are rarely included (although you can add a drinks package to your onboard account) AND excursions come at an extra cost. Many look for last minute deals – yes sometimes there are last minute offers on Ocean Cruises, however this is rarely seen with River Cruises, it’s quite the opposite actually & most sell out months in advance (remember there are fewer staterooms to fill) – River Cruise Lines often offer an Early Booking Discount, meaning those who book early get the best deal!


So which is better? Well that’s down to personal preference!

Do you prefer intimacy over anonymity? Would you rather sail effortlessly past the river banks, with longer stays at each port of call? Are you simply looking for something more cultural? Then a River Cruise may just be for you….

Looking for a great deal? Visit www.rivercruising.co.uk to find the right River Cruise for you, or www.thecruisevillage.com to find an Ocean Cruise at great value.

Think I’ve missed something – leave a comment, let me know!

Come back soon. Jess Nuttall - RiverCruising.co.uk