Ocean Cruises vs River Cruises: Three Big Differences

Written by Joel
Posted in: Cruise

When you read something like, “three big differences between ocean cruises and river cruises,” you begin to understand why my friends say I have a knack for stating the obvious. In this case, I’ll ask you to come up with what you would call the three big differences, and try to guess what they might be. I’ll go with oceans versus rivers (duh), where in the world the cruises generally sail, and the size of the ships.

Those are obvious differences between river cruises and ocean cruises, but today I want us to think about less obvious but no less major differences between the two. It’s important for you to understand because, especially if you’re planning your first cruise, it’s important to avoid the main reason people have bad experiences on cruises. Even if it isn’t your first cruise, you still want to have a great experience since you’re spending money and taking time from your schedule to go.

 3 Important Differences Between Ocean Cruises and River Cruises

  • What’s ​included
  • ​Onboard experience
  • ​The ​age of passengers
ocean cruises vs river cruises
AMAMagna on the Danube River (Photo: Joel)

​There is a misconception that river cruises are much more expensive than ocean cruises. At first glance, AMA Waterways, Avalon, Viking, and others may cause you to do a double take but the price difference is not that great when comparing river to ocean cruises​. Just like anything else there is a wide variety of price points in both types of cruises, so it’s important to compare companies in similar price points. Think good, better, best, luxury.

Another reason prices between ocean and river cruises ​appear to have a large gap is what’s included in the cost of the cruise. While there are some ocean cruise lines that include things like WiFi, drink packages, etc. many do not and river cruises include all those things (to varying degrees based on the itinerary and cruise line) ​and​ excursions. Those add on items for ocean cruises bring the cost right in line with river cruises.​​​

Another big difference between ocean cruises and river cruises is the onboard experience. I often tell my ocean cruise clients they’re booking two vacations in one. The main ocean cruise lines (Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival, etc.) have multiple pools, lots of activities for all ages and interests, more bars than you can visit in a week​ and multiple places to find food​; they also have plenty of spaces to hear live entertainment or just sit quietly and relax.

River cruises have a restaurant or two (maybe three on some ships), a couple bars, and some live entertainment in a lounge. ​There are ​three main reasons for having ​fewer onboard options: ​the ships are much smaller​, the type of excursions offered keeps you off the ship for longer periods of time, and there are very few children on river cruises.

River cruise food
Food on a river cruise is extraordinary. (Photo: Joel)

​I referenced food, but to expand on that, you’ll have a more “fine dining” type of experience on a river cruise. The service is a step up, the food is ​presented differently and tastes better. That’s not to imply ocean cruise food isn’t good, but with fewer guests onboard and fewer options, the staff is able to offer a luxury experience from beginning to end. By the way, along with the upscale dining on river cruises, the dress code you’ll be expected to follow is also upscale. Most of the river cruise lines suggest an “elegant” dress code (some go as far as to say, “as if you were going to a 5 star restaurant,”) and they mean it. For the sake of clarity, that’s a lower standard than their formal (or captain’s) night where, depending on the cruise line black tie is the standard.

​Cruising is a great way to see the world and many families with children of all ages are taking advantage of the value cruising offers to do just that. ​A few cruise lines don’t accept children​ and a handful (including river cruises) don’t specifically say, “no kids” but ​don’t have much to offer ​​them. But the vast majority of ocean cruise lines have activities and accommodations for kids of all ages.

All that to say, there are few (if any) kids on river cruises. I have a teenager ​who ​loves history and interacting with different cultures but ​would be bored to tears on a river cruise. There’s not much to do onboard, no other kids to hang out with, and very few active excursions. What you’ll find — in general — on a river cruise is active adults between 50 and 75. There are older, there are younger, but no matter what the brochures (or websites) show, that’s who you can expect to sail with on the river.

Understanding these few (but major!) differences ​and being honest with your preferences and expectations will ​ensure you choose the perfect ocean or river cruise vacation.

Joel - Partner at JJ Travel Associates

About The Author

Joel is a co-owner of JJ Travel Associates (a Dream Vacations franchise) and a history geek fascinated by world cultures and what we can learn from each. His specialty is planning vacations that combine history, culture, and fun.

You May Also Like…

MSC Meraviglia: What You Should Know

MSC Meraviglia: What You Should Know

My first cruise with MSC was on MSC Meravigila out of Brooklyn, NY in December 2023 and since I’m familiar with the brand and it’s ships, and you very likely aren't, there are some things you should know about MSC Meraviglia before you get onboard. Jump...

Cruise Line Drink Package: Worth the Money?

Cruise Line Drink Package: Worth the Money?

Cruising is a fantastic way to see the world. What other type of vacation allows you to unpack once, visit multiple destinations, and provide entertainment options for every interest? None that I'm aware of. I love cruising for all those reasons and because of the...

It’s Time To Plan Your Next Getaway

Limited Time Offer:

Download A Free Copy

Prices so good even the cruise lines can't beat us!

Our roster of exclusive cruise savings has over 1,700 cruises sailing in 2024.

Grab your copy today and save on your next cruise!

Check Your E-mail For Your Download Link