How To Choose Your Cruise: River vs Ocean

When it comes to cruising, you can’t really go wrong. There are so many different options available these days that you can basically tailor your experience to your preferences.

One of the first big decisions you’ll have to make when planning a cruise is whether you’ll travel on a river or on the ocean. Before you make that decision, there are some important things you should know about the similarities and differences between the two options:

Size & Number of Passengers

As you might expect due to the difference between the two bodies of water, river cruise ships are smaller than those that set sail on the ocean. This is true for both the size of the ships themselves, as well as the ships’ cabins. The difference in ship size means that there will be fewer passengers on river cruises, which generally accommodate around 200 passengers, while ocean cruises often carry thousands.

As a result of the difference in size, ocean cruises are able to house on-deck pools and other activities like rock walls and games. River cruises, on the other hand, are generally too small, though both types of ships usually do have libraries and gyms on board. Fewer passengers means shorter wait times to get on and off river cruise ships, making it easier for you to make the most out of your time at port. These waits can get long on ocean cruises, where thousands of passengers have to show their passports when getting on and off of the vessel.


In terms of demographics, river cruisers tend to be slightly older than ocean cruisers. Because river cruises tend to be more of a cultural experience than ocean cruises, those who opt to take them are often well-educated as well. Though kids are allowed on most river cruises, there is less for them to do, so there are generally fewer children on board than there are on ocean liners.

Ocean cruisers, on the other hand, are all over the map in terms of age and education. The wide range of experiences available and large number of passengers on ocean cruises means that the demographics vary greatly on each cruise ship. If you decide to go for an ocean cruise, be sure to do your research around what your particular cruise entails, so you can get a better sense as to what types of passengers might be on board. If you’re looking for something low key, for example, we’d recommend steering clear of the more entertainment-oriented options.

Entertainment & Spas

For many, the type of entertainment offered on cruise ships is key. On ocean liners, you’ll often find a variety of shows and performances, from comedy, to song and dance performances, to magic shows. You’ll also likely have access to a casino and a variety of bars and lounges on board. On a river cruise, on the other hand, the entertainment is much more low key. Local musicians will often come aboard while the ship is at port to put on a show in one of the ship’s lounges, for example, or the cruise might host a cultural program meant to enrich your travel experience.  

Though the live entertainment is quite different, both ocean and river cruises generally have spas on board, so you won’t miss out in that regard no matter which option you choose. That said, keep in mind that the range of treatments available on board will likely be greater if you opt for an ocean cruise.

Port Experience

Part of the reason there is less entertainment available on river cruises is because passengers spend much more time at port than they would on an ocean cruise. On river cruises, you’ll often visit a larger number ports, traveling to a new destination each night. This means you’ll spend more time on land than on the boat itself on a river cruise. When at port, river cruises tend to offer cultural experiences and walking tours to passengers, or you can choose to explore the city you’re visiting on your own if you prefer. These tours and experiences are generally covered in the fare on river cruises.

On an ocean cruise, you will generally spend days at sea in between ports, and only a few days on land. Most of the time, ocean cruise ships travel during the day, so you’ll spend a lot of time enjoying all that the ship has to offer. When you do dock at a port on an ocean cruise, though, a wide variety of excursions will be available to you, which vary depending on where you’re cruising. You can schedule these excursions in advance of your trip, and they cost an additional fee if you choose to participate.


On both river and ocean cruises, you can expect great food, though they will look different. While ocean liners offer a variety of 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, river cruise chefs will even pick up fresh ingredients at local markets when you stop at port! But, as a trade off, the food options will lack the variety that you’ll experience on an ocean liner.

Another important note is that, on ocean liners, food is available to passengers around the clock. On the other hand, most river cruises do not offer 24-hour food service, so you’ll need to come prepared if you’re a late night snacker.

One more noteworthy difference between river and ocean cruises that we want to mention here in case it’s an issue for you: Passengers often experience less seasickness on river cruises, as ships are more stable than ocean liners.

Whether you end up choosing a river cruise or an ocean liner, you’ll want to make sure you’re insured if you’ll be cruising into international waters, where your domestic health plan no longer covers you. We put together all of the information you’ll need to get covered while cruising here to make it as easy as possible for you to travel safe and sound.

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