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River Cruise vs. Ocean Cruise: 12 Differences That Impact Your Vacation

When planning a cruise, you’ll have to decide between whether you want to take a river cruise or an ocean cruise. To decide, you might think, are ocean cruises better than river cruises? Why take a river cruise? Which is better? Here are 12 differences between a river cruise vs. ocean cruise that will impact your sailing experience and help you decide which cruise is right for you.

What’s the difference between a river cruise and ocean cruise?

  1. Size of Cruise Ships
  2. Staterooms
  3. Amount of Passengers
  4. Guest Wait Times
  5. Typical Passengers
  6. On-Board Entertainment
  7. Restaurant & Cuisine Options
  8. Eating Times
  9. Port Visits
  10. Excursions & Costs
  11. Sailing Time
  12. Seasickness

blue circle with white number 1 in middle Size of Cruise Ships

Cruise ships need to be much smaller to navigate rivers. On the other hand, the ocean can handle the biggest cruise ships in the world. You’ll see that “bigger” doesn’t always mean “better,” but rather, the ship size will impact many factors of your cruise.

Symphony of the Seas Royal Caribbean ocean cruise ship at dock
Example of an Ocean Liner: Symphony of the Seas, Royal Caribbean

blue circle with white number 2 in the middle Staterooms

Cabins on a river cruise will often be smaller than cabins on ocean cruises. Additionally, staterooms on a river cruise typically line the perimeter of the ship. This means every room likely has one or more windows with a view you can enjoy. 

On the other hand, ocean cruises have many staterooms that are considered “inside cabins;” those are located toward the inside of the ship and won’t have windows or an outside view.

If you want a stateroom with a window or a balcony, you will likely pay extra for that. If you’re on the hunt for an outdoor or “step-out” balcony, we recommend checking out AmaWaterways cruises, which offer what’s called “twin balcony” staterooms. 

blue circle with the white number 3 in the middle Amount of Passengers

Because river cruise boats are much smaller, they can only handle so many passengers. Generally, a riverboat cruise can accommodate around 200 passengers. Having fewer passengers means you have a higher chance of seeing the same faces again and again. This means making friends while you travel can be easier on a river cruise. 

On the contrary, ocean cruises are floating behemoths that can carry thousands of passengers for each cruise. Connecting with the same passengers can be more challenging, but you can get acquainted with many different people instead.

blue circle with the white number 4 in the middle Guest Wait Times

Fewer people on a river cruise often means shorter wait times. This applies to getting into restaurants and shows and disembarking the ship. The time you save on leaving the ship alone can give you more time to enjoy the port and its shore excursions. 

Contrarily, these waits can get long on ocean cruises, where thousands of passengers must show their passports when getting on and off the vessel. Getting into onboard entertainment might also require reservations or longer wait times to get inside.

blue circle with the white number 5 in the middle Typical Passengers

River cruises tend to attract an older audience because river cruises are usually more low-key and educational. People who opt for river cruises are often well-educated and interested in the culture of their port cities. Although kids can sail on most river cruises, there is less for them to do, so there are generally fewer children aboard river ships.

Ocean cruisers are all over the map. The wide range of available experiences and the large number of sailors on ocean cruises means the demographics vary greatly on each cruise ship. If you decide to go for an ocean cruise, you can research what’s available on the ship to get a better sense of what people might be on the vessel. For example, if you’re looking for a low-key and relaxing experience, we’d recommend steering clear of ships with bustling amusement options for all ages.

blue circle with the white number 6 in the middle On-Board Entertainment

This is one of the big ones. On ocean liners, you’ll often find a variety of shows and performances — from comedy, to song and dance, to magic shows. You’ll also likely have access to a casino and an assortment of bars and lounges onboard. On a river cruise, the activities are much more low-key. For example, local musicians will often come while the ship is at port to put on a show in one of the ship’s lounges, or the cruise might host a cultural program meant to enrich your travel experience.

Because of the ship size, ocean cruises are able to house on-deck pools and other activities like rock walls and games, amongst other amenities. River cruises, in contrast, are generally too small for those things. Both types of ships usually have spaces for libraries, gyms, and spas onboard.  

Regarding spas, an ocean cruise will likely have a greater range of available treatments than a river cruise. So keep that in mind if a spa experience is something you want to include. 

pool deck on a cruise ship with colorful lounge chairs and palm trees

blue circle with the white number 7 in the middle Restaurant & Cuisine Options

You can expect luxury food on both river and ocean cruises, but the cuisine will vary greatly. While ocean liners offer diverse cuisine options and dining experiences, river cruises typically only have one or two dining rooms aboard and offer cuisine that is local to your destinations. 

Sometimes, when you stop at the port, river cruise chefs will pick up fresh ingredients at the local markets. This way, you’ll really get a taste of the destination. As a trade-off, river cruise meals and cuisine won’t have the variety that you would experience on an ocean liner.

Although ocean cruises have many dining choices, not all of them are included in your basic cost. So, if you want to eat at one of the specialty restaurants, you may need to pay extra for that dining experience. And those meals are often quite pricey.

blue circle with white number eight in middle Eating Times

Food is available around the clock on ocean cruises. If you’re an early riser and want to enjoy coffee and a bagel at 5am, you probably can. If you want dessert between meals, you can probably find it somewhere. If you’re craving a slice of gooey pizza at midnight, you can probably get one.

However, most river cruises don’t offer 24-hour food service. Meals are at set times, and their limited dining choices are only open at certain times. So, you’ll need to come prepared if you’re a late-night snacker.

blue outline with white number 9 in middle Port Visits

On a river cruise, you’ll often visit more ports and travel to a new destination each night. Because river cruise ships are smaller in size, they can also reach farther inland, which offers a unique way to see and experience smaller towns in a more intimate way.

This is a big reason why less entertainment is available on river cruises. People spend much more time at port than they would on the boat. That’s a good thing to remember because you’ll spend more time on land exploring the destinations than you would on the boat when taking a river cruise.

On the contrary, ocean cruises only visit a few ports throughout the sailing experience. Those stops will also be at bigger, perhaps more “touristy” destinations.  Because they have fewer port stops, ocean cruises have more onboard entertainment so that you can enjoy your time spent on the ship.   

river cruise sailing next to Japanese cherry blossom tree

blue circle with white number 10 Excursions & Costs

When at port, river cruises tend to offer ethnic experiences and walking tours or excursions to travelers. You’ll also have the liberty to explore the city at your own pace if you prefer. These tours and shore activities are generally covered in your basic fare on river cruises. 

When you do dock at a port on an ocean cruise, though, a wide amount of excursions will be available to you. These will vary depending on the destination you’re cruising. You can schedule these excursions before your trip, and they will cost an additional fee, beyond your basic fare, if you choose to participate. 

It’s unlikely the cruise will refund the cost of these activities if there’s a sudden change in course or bad weather cancels the excursion. So you want to make sure you protect these nonrefundable expenses with cruise travel insurance. That way, you can be reimbursed if your cruise itinerary experiences a change for something out of your control. 

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blue circle with the number 11 in white text overlay Sailing Time

On an ocean cruise, you will often have allocated “sea days” when you are sailing between destination ports. Only a few days of your ocean cruise will involve being on land. Otherwise, ocean cruise ships sail during the day and while you’re sleeping to reach the next port destination. This means you’ll spend a lot of time enjoying all that the ship has to offer. 

As we’ve mentioned, river cruises spend much less time sailing and more time at ports for you to enjoy a variety of destinations. 


If seasickness is an issue for you, this is an important factor. Those aboard often experience less seasickness on river cruises. This can be because ships on the river are more stable than ocean liners. Rivers are also less turbulent than the ocean, which can cascade into massive waves at any point. You’re also sailing less on a river cruise, which means you have longer stints of sea time on an ocean liner–and a higher chance of getting seasick. 

So, when it comes to a river cruise vs. ocean cruise, which one intrigues you the most? If a river cruise is right for you, here are a few things you should know before insuring your river cruise. If you think ocean cruises would suit you better, check out our guide to choosing the right one based on what type of vacation you want!

Did you know your regular health insurance usually doesn’t cover you in international waters?

Whether you choose a river cruise or an ocean cruise, you’ll want to make sure you’re insured–especially if you’re cruising internationally. We put together all of the information you’ll need to get covered while cruising on a river cruise or an ocean cruise here to make it as easy as possible for you to travel safe and sound.


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