River Or Ocean: Which Cruise To Choose?

The growth of river cruising may have slowed a bit as worldwide travel safety concerns urge a reasonable amount of caution.  Still, river cruising is one of the most requested topics we experience, sort of like first-timer information about ocean cruises was a decade ago.  The reason?  Unlike their land-based counterparts, mobile cruise ships can and are moved out of harm’s way, often in an abundance of caution.  By river or ocean, travel by ship can make for a great vacation when matched with the right traveler.   For those who have been on an ocean cruise and might be thinking about a river cruise as a possible alternative we take a look at the equivalent features: river or ocean cruising.

Choose either a river or ocean cruise and they both sail on water.  They hope to always ‘have a hand’s width of it beneath their keel’, goes the traditional blessing bestowed on most vessels at christening by the ship’s Godmother.  On the surface, one might think that is about all they have in common.  But a closer look reveals that those who design the overall choreography of either might be working from the same playbook.

River Or Ocean: Unpack Once, See Many Places
This is usually in the top three list of talking points for travel agents, differentiating cruise travel from land options.  Indeed, by river or ocean, ships carry their passengers to desirable places, brining their floating hotel along with them.  Add up the cost of a hotel and transportation to just about any cruise itinerary and via ship almost always comes out costing less.  Throw in that skipping the hotel hopping and transportation involved gives more quality time when we travel for a bonus.

The difference: 

  • When an ocean cruise ship calls at a port, thousands of passengers could potentially get off the ship, overwhelming what they went there to see. On a river cruise, that number is usually less than 200 if everyone went ashore.
  • River cruise ships visit iconic landmarks including UNESCO World Heritage sites and come with an orientation tour that enables passengers to get the most out of their time ashore.


River Or Ocean: An Undeniably Great Travel Value
Compared to land vacations, cruise travel almost always comes out on top.  Assuming travelers are matched with appropriate ships for their interests, both ocean and river cruises deliver what they advertise, often exceeding expectations.

The difference

  • On an ocean cruise, most onboard services are available to all passengers. Those selecting less expensive accommodations naturally end up with a better value.   A $499 inside stateroom has access to the same ship features as a $1499 balcony stateroom.  Top end digs might get butler service and other VIP perks.
  • River cruises include more for the price, increasing the value of all passengers, regardless of their accommodations.  Complementary beer, wine and soft drinks with meals, unlimited Internet access and a shore excursion included with each port put river cruises over the top.


River Or Ocean: Getting There
Cruise travelers sailing from North America have a distinct advantage over river cruisers; they can often drive to the port.  River cruisers (except those who sail on the few river ships available in North America) have to fly a long distance.  Considering the growth numbers noted above, this does not seem to be slowing down travelers from trying an ocean cruise.  Still, the difference between a tank of gas and a plane ticket to Europe is real, big and one of the things river cruises will need to address at some point.

The Difference-

  • Caribbean ocean cruises have a distinct advantage when it comes to getting there.  Even if a flight to the embarkation port is needed, competition among airlines for short domestic flights is fierce, resulting in readily available low fares. Local hotels with ‘Snooze and Cruise’ packages grant more flexibility for travelers coming in before or lingering after sailing too.
  • We think a big reason for the sustained growth of river cruises is that seasoned cruise travelers are tired of the Caribbean and/or do not get into big ship features as they once did.  In reality, not many ocean cruise travelers need to be looking for something different to fill a river sailing.  Booking far in advance, river cruise companies commonly offer 2/1 airfare.


River Or Ocean: The Culinary Experience
This is one area where big ship cruises, with all the space they have to add features, really go over the top.  Celebrity chefs lend their names to signature eateries.  Choices include everything from a hot dog on a bun to fabulous, lifetime-quality dining experiences one would pay far more for on land.  This area is also changing rapidly with complete and total revamps of the ocean dining experience in progress or headed our way.  Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas, for example, will not have the traditional fixed dining available at all.  Instead, passengers will choose from many specialty restaurants, a good number of which are included in the price.=

The Difference-

  • Big ships come very close to having something for everyone between a wide variety of restaurants, 24-hour room service and more.  This is the safe bet for satisfying the tastes of most travelers.
  • River cruise ships include breakfast, lunch and dinner but dock at places where passengers get off the ship on an included excursion. Ashore, they become immersed with the locality they are visiting.  Some linger behind to enjoy a sidewalk café or iconic restaurant.  All see menu items that night in the river ship dining room that reflect the part of the world they have or will visit.


River Or Ocean: Each Has It’s Place
Ocean cruises made a science of enabling us to leave our hectic, work all the time world behind, reset ourselves and come back refreshed, perhaps with a different perspective on our work, home and personal lives.  One of the best pieces of advice one could heed at the beginning of an ocean cruise is to buy into what they offer.  Go to the shows, do the activities, enjoy the top deck features and let them have their way with you.  Truly doing so will reap the big reward that eclipses the ‘great deal’ they got and the cumulative effect of all onboard experiences: You will feel a bit different at the end, in a good way.

The Difference

  • Family-friendly pricing on ocean cruises was one of the big reasons we sailed on Carnival Cruise Line’s Fascination many years ago.  By the end of the first day, our family of four all agreed it was the best vacation ever.  By the end of the short 4-day sailing the only regret was that it did not last longer.  River cruising will never have that claim to fame; family-friendly pricing is simply not what they are all about.
  • The typical river cruise passenger does not have a hectic, work all the time world to leave behind.  They are retired but active 50+ travelers for whom the life clock is ticking.  The family is grown and gone, they may have downsized to a more manageable home, and are actively knocking items off their bucket list.

Many have sailed and will continue to sail on big ships, loving every minute of it, listing river cruising as one more travel option.  Others are trying to move along past big ships full of features they don’t use to a vessel and experience more closely matched to their interests.  They are culturally curious and want to see places they may have heard of or seen in films or on TV in person.  As is common for those who live a half-century or more, they discover an interest in history that is just as fervent in them now as enjoying big ship sailaway to the tune of ‘hot, hot, hot’ was earlier in their lives.




River Or Ocean: Not Even Close To The End
As we see, there are features and experiences that are part of both ocean and river cruises, and worthy of the comparison we have done here. There are elements that are unique to each.  That’s the topic of the next post in this series which will answer a number of critical questions, such as:

  • But how does a mature ocean cruise fan make the jump from a swing through the Caribbean on a big ship with thousands of others to a comparatively tiny river cruise ship successfully?
  • Should they give it a try?
  • Are they ready?
  • How do the economics of each stack up?
  • More importantly,  big ocean ship or tiny river ship, which will yield the most valued experience?

Stay tuned for answers to these and other interesting questions.