Things to Know About River vs. Ocean Cruises

Posted by Brian Corbett on 23 July 2017



Few Things to Know About River vs. Ocean Cruises

Ocean cruisers are trying their first river cruises these days -- and with good reason. River cruising is the fastest-growing sector of the cruise industry, with 18 new ships on order for 2017 alone. Even though river cruises have been operating for decades, they have come on in leaps and bounds in the past decade. Modern ships with expanded amenities offer intriguing itineraries to places oceangoing vessels can't reach, tempting fans of seagoing vessels to jump ship. So what's the difference between a river cruise vs. ocean cruise? Plenty. In some ways, river cruising is more similar to a land tour than today's ocean cruising experience -- and experienced tour companies run many river lines. You'll find there are better benefits, though, such as only having to pack and unpack once. Mega-ship staples like pools, multiple lounges, specialty restaurants, spas and endless activities are available on some riverboats, although on a very, very much smaller scale. And you won't find any sea days, although there are periods of scenic cruising. Best of all, most river cruises include shore tours -- and many other inclusions in their fares -- making it easier to budget. To keep the culture shock at bay and to give you a sense of why you should be shipping out on a river or ocean cruise, here's our list of key things experienced seafarers should know before their first river cruise.

River ships are smaller.

Ocean ships have passenger counts in the thousands, while riverboats carry 200 passengers or fewer, with some exclusive hotel barges catering for just eight. On the plus side, you won't be elbowing strangers to get to the salad bar or the gangway, and the atmosphere is quite social so you quickly get to make new friends. As a minus, you can't hide in a crowd. The small size of the boat means there is likely just one lounge (maybe two), one main restaurant with a couple of smaller dining venues, and a teeny-tiny spa, gym or computer center -- if there is one at all.

River cabins are smaller.

River ship staterooms are smaller than their ocean ship counterparts, but they're not short on home comforts. River ships eschew inside cabins and all accommodations face the water. Newer riverboats are getting very creative, adding balconies and cleverly designing cabins to make the most of the space allotted. Many have panoramic windows that slide down at the touch of a button to create the feeling of a balcony, even though you can't actually step outside. They're even adding suites, with luxury river lines boasting staterooms of up to 860 square feet (although you'll be paying thousands of dollars for that extra personal space).

There are more buffets and fewer restaurants.

If you've been spoiled by mega-ships where you can eat dinner in a different venue every night during weeklong cruise, you'll need an attitude adjustment to embrace riverboat dining. Most ships have one main restaurant, and breakfast and lunch are often buffet-only (or buffet mainly, with a few items to be ordered a la carte) with a served evening meal. An increasing number of river ships have intimate secondary venues -- some vessels up to four -- offering alternative menus and private dining. A handful of lines now provide room service, previously a rarity. To make up for having only one big dining room, ships get creative, spreading casual breakfast and lunch offerings on the bar in the lounge or setting up BBQs out on deck. Plus, the small passenger count and daily port calls mean the venues are better able to bring in fresh ingredients like fish and produce or offer regional specialties at mealtime.

Entertainment is low-key.

You'll find no splashy production shows on the river ... or guest comedians ... or karaoke. You will find a lone resident pianist or small ensemble on most ships, plus folk dancers, singers or other local troupes brought onboard for a quick evening show. During the day you can expect educational seminars and maybe the odd cooking demo, wine tasting or quiz. With river cruising the passing scenery and destinations visited are the main star of the show -- and after a busy day most passengers head for bed rather than stay up into the early hours.

Itineraries are port-intensive.

Unlike ocean cruises that have leisurely sea days, river cruises are port intensive, and you'll visit a new destination each day -- sometimes two in one day -- and up to four countries in a week. The ports, not the ships, are the key attractions, and you will certainly pack a lot of sightseeing into a week or two. This kind of travel can be exhilarating but also exhausting. Bring comfortable shoes, and don't be embarrassed to take a day off if you're getting overwhelmed. The tours might be included, but there's no obligation to go on all of them.

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