Ocean cruises have been popular for years. However, the popularity of river cruises has been on the rise. To meet the demand shift, cruise companies have upped their game recently. The best-rated European river cruises, for example, compare very well if not outshine their ocean counterparts.
Choosing between a river and ocean cruise may seem to be a challenge, but it all comes down to your personal preferences. To help in the decision, we share below our insights on some of the essential considerations you should take into account.
The Ships and Their Facilities/Amenities
Ocean ships are massive, carrying thousands of passengers. Our last Alaskan cruise ship, for example, accommodates between 2,800 – 2,900 passengers. Caribbean cruise ships are even more significant in size, with a passenger capacity of over 5,000. Because they are larger and cater to more passengers, ocean ships offer lots of amenities. They can include several pools, multiple eating places, theatre, shops, casino, gym, spa, to name a few.
Cabins of ocean ships are slightly more spacious compared to their riverboat counterparts. Most of the rooms would have windows, but there is also a good chunk of them being inside cabins and thus do not offer any view. If you feel claustrophobic with view-less rooms, you will have to book early for your cabin of choice, and of course, be willing to pay the premium.
Riverboats are smaller, with passenger count in the low hundreds. We were only around 190 passengers in the last river cruise we took at the Danube. As such, riverboats typically would only have one main restaurant, a couple of smaller dining venues, a small spa or gym, or a business center (if any). As the passenger count is much lower, you do not have to “fight” for space in the dining places and other common areas. The atmosphere is also quite social, and you can quickly make new friends.
Cabins or staterooms of riverboats are slightly smaller. But they are comfortably laid out to allow you to relax and enjoy your private time after a full day of the excursion. The bonus is most (if not all) staterooms have windows and outside views, even those on the lowest decks.
The cabin we had during our Danube River Cruise was on the lowest deck, which sits in part below the waterline. Yet we had two tall windows. It was compact but efficiently designed, with just the right minimalist aesthetics. Smart touches such as heated bathroom floors, large, interactive TVs and mini-fridges stocked with water and can chill bottles of wine, helped us unwind in comfort.
The Sailing Days
By their very nature, ocean cruises involve a significant number of sailing days relative to the overall journey. Our last cruise to Alaska, for example, had several full days sailing either along the Inside Passage or in the open seas before we reach the next port of call.
River cruises, meanwhile, typically sail during the night and reach the next port of call early the following morning, allowing you to spend the days for onshore excursions. There are some exceptions. The Danube cruise offers scenic cruising along stretches of Austria’s UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley. The Rhine cruise, meanwhile, would have a day of scenic cruising along Germany’s Rhine Gorge, with all the beautiful castles dotting the view.
The Dining Options
Colossal ocean cruise ships provide a lot of dining options, and cuisine is more international. You can eat dinner in a different venue every night during a weeklong cruise. Our Alaskan cruise ship is not the largest of the various vessels that ply the route. Yet it offered lots of dining venues, some specializing in a particular cuisine.
Riverboats, on the other hand, usually have one main restaurant. You can choose from the buffet (commonly available during breakfast), order a la carte, or even ask if the chef can make something that you are craving. They seem to be more accommodating on the latter (as compared to the ocean cruises), owing to the smaller crowd. To make up for having one main restaurant, most of the riverboats offer secondary venues. They may use the lounge/bar or the deck to serve as casual breakfast and lunch venues. We enjoyed the stunning views of the Wachau Valley while dining al fresco at the deck.
Another significant advantage for river cruises is the fresher ingredients they use, as they are almost at port every day. As such, regional or local cuisine usually is part of the menu. When we were cruising along the Danube, for example, we had Hungarian goulash. We also had a taste of some of the other authentic dishes of the region.
Ocean cruise ships offer great entertainment productions. During the day, you can expect educational seminars and maybe the odd cooking demo, wine tasting or quiz.
River cruises also provide lectures from knowledgeable speakers, mostly focused on the ports to be visited. These are helpful, as it gives you a better appreciation of the places you will visit, and help you use your time effectively while there. However, the main star for river cruises are the destinations itself and the scenic landscapes during cruising days.
After a busy day for the onshore excursions, most people head for bed after dinner and to recharge for the next day. For those who may want to spend a few hours before heading to bed, they may stay in the lounge to hear a pianist or small groups of singers or maybe watch a quick evening talk show.
Itineraries and Onshore Excursions
Ocean and river cruises both provide at least one excursion in every port of call. The difference is that river cruises have more ports of call, thus offering more tours. As mentioned earlier, river cruises regularly sail at night, so there’s a full day of exploring!
Riverboats, being smaller, can dock right in town, near the places of interest. Typically, most of the included excursions involve walking tours around the various attractions of the city, followed by some free time for shopping. You can also sample local coffee or similar offering and continue the visit on your own. Information from the lectures come in handy at these times.
You might get the impression that river cruises, being more intimate and exclusive, are expensive compared to their ocean cruise counterparts. That may be the case since ocean cruises benefit from economies of scale. However, you will find out that the comparison maybe not be as straightforward.
You will soon realize that the best river cruises are value for money. River cruise fares typically include wine, beer and soft drinks that come with the meals, Wi-Fi and the standard tours in each port. The service level also sets them apart. Some ocean cruises with smaller passenger capacities can also achieve this.
River, ocean, or why not both?
Ocean and river cruises individually offer unique experiences. Your purpose for taking the cruise and personal inclinations should help guide your decisions. We hope our comparison between the two will help you choose… or maybe take both.