River cruise vs. ocean cruise. Which one is right for you? You’ve biked through fields of tulips in The Netherlands, ridden the TGV through the rolling vineyards of France and driven a cute little stick shift through the hills of Italy. Now you’re yearning to see Europe from a different point of view.
Spurred by the thrill of a multi-destination adventure that comes with the ease of set transportation and accommodations (and the joy of only having to unpack that suitcase once!), you’ve decided water is the way to go.
Most major cities in Europe were built on the water and touring by either river or ocean is a convenient and enjoyable way to make the most of your time. Ships often travel between cities at night so you may be wished “Buona notte,” (Italian for good night) one evening and wake up to “Kalimara” (good morning in Greek) the next, with a full day to explore a new city.
Budgeting is a breeze as well, since you have a good idea of your costs upfront. Of course, you’ll want to leave room in your budget and your suitcase for picking up an item here and there in the fabulous European markets.
I’ve had the opportunity to compare the pleasures and challenges of gliding through international waters on two vastly different vessels: one was a 176-passenger three-story, one dining hall riverboat while the other carried 3,500 passengers on its 18 decks, with five pools, two huge dining halls and three specialty restaurants.
A voyage on the MS River Splendor, one of Vantage Travel’s riverboats, took me from Antwerp to Amsterdam, with a stop in Bruges. My son accompanied me on the trip and we enjoyed the relaxed pace, the Compass Rose restaurant where we ate all of our meals on board, delivered up from the largest full-service kitchen on a European riverboat, and the ability to walk a short way to begin sightseeing right away.
A Mediterranean cruise on the MSC Divina, one of the ships of the Italian cruise line MSC, meant seven days and four shore excursions “the big ship way” – leaving from Venice and stopping in Bari, Italy; Katakolon, Greece; Izmir, Turkey; Istanbul, Turkey and Dubrovnik, Croatia. In this case, while the destinations were treasures on their own, the ship itself contained plenty to explore.
We were lucky enough to be guests in the MSC Yacht Club, an exclusive section where we were quite happily spoiled with our own lounge area, 24-hour butler service, and small swimming pool area with two whirlpools and bar. (Note: MSC Divina has since moved to the US for sailings out of Miami. Please see MSC’s website for current European sailings.)
So which mode of travel is right for you? Meandering along the calm European rivers on a small, intimate vessel, or sailing along the ocean waves on a large cruise ship? How do you pick between a river cruise vs an ocean cruise?
Here are some things to consider. For more information, see below for answers to frequently asked questions.
River Cruise vs. Ocean Cruise: When Size Matters
• River ships carry far fewer passengers than ocean ships. The MS River Splendor takes 176 people at the most and the largest ships on other lines top out at around 200 passengers. There’s no standing in line anywhere and no crowds onboard.
For a truly intimate experience, try one of the options offered by companies such as Abercrombie & Kent, where ships carry as few as six passengers.
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• The disembarkation process on a riverboat is a breeze. When you travel on a river cruise ships you just walk off the boat and in most cases you’re in the middle of the next destination and can start a tour or sightseeing on your own immediately. Many riverboats carry bicycles on board so you can go wheeling around town.
Laura Calk and her husband, Tom, toured Burgundy with French Country Waterways with just 10 passengers on the boat to celebrate a big anniversary. “We rode bikes all day long through villages and vineyards, and loved exploring the countryside on our own,” she said.
• Due to its smaller size, a riverboat can move further inland than ocean cruise ships and visit smaller towns. Taking a riverboat down the Rhine or the Danube is an easy way to see the stunning castles and cathedrals of Europe with history literally passing before your eyes.
• In most cases, the cost of excursions is included in your fare as are gratuities for all members of the crew — expenses that can easily run into the hundreds of dollars. Because of the smaller number of passengers, some excursions are possible that wouldn’t be for large crowds.
Laura said, “We were able to go places you would never be able to with a large crowd,” she said. “We visited a castle where we met the owner, the 10th generation of his family to live there, and we got to go drink wine with him in his kitchen. We had the same tour guide every day, who was really knowledgeable about all the places we visited.”
Mickey Goodman chose a Viking cruise on the Viking Pride, traveling with an art class friend, partially because of the excursions that were offered. “We were enamored with the idea of painting in Monet’s Garden, where we were able to sketch for a while and continue a class back on board,” she said.
• There are no formal nights or assigned seating for meals. You can leave that tux and formal gown at home. You are free to join a large table and meet new people or enjoy dining just with members of your party.
Laura and her husband enjoyed dining on chef-prepared meals with wine included for lunch and dinner at their own table for two. “We went to a five-star restaurant one night, and joked that we should have just stayed on the boat,” she said. “The food was better.”
Mickey raved about the food on her riverboat as well. “The food, prepared by a Portuguese chef, was marvelous and at every meal we could order from the menu, graze at the sumptuous buffet, or both. Free-flowing wine was included with lunch and dinner.”
• There is constant scenery as you are always in sight of land, and there are no days at sea like on Ocean cruise lines. Every room has a water view and usually will have a French balcony. You can’t sit out there to sip your Kir Royale, but you can open up the doors to catch the breezes. While a few riverboats, such as those in the Grand Circle Cruise Line family, do offer some balconies, the narrow dimensions of the riverboats generally preclude them.
• Most riverboat cruises attract globetrotters who are over 50, and it’s rare to find children on board, although a few river cruise lines such as Tauck World Discovery do offer family river cruise options.
“We were in our early 50s, and we were the youngest by far on our ship,” Laura said.
• While there is little opportunity to shop onboard, you’ll find plenty of opportunities just outside your door when you are docked in ports and during excursions, which took us through the heart of the cities with time for strolling through local shops.
“We loved our riverboat cruise,” Laura said. “We’ve traveled a lot but my husband says it’s the best trip we ever went on. And I agree.”
Riverboats may not be for you if …
- You prefer a degree of anonymity and privacy. While you are welcome to sit at dinner with only your traveling companions, you will be seeing the same people for the length of your cruise.
- You can’t imagine a vacation without access to a spa. The smaller size of riverboats just don’t allow for the larger areas needed for a first-class spa.
When Amenities Are Important to You
• Large cruise ships are able to offer many more onboard amenities, some of which are detailed below. With 18 decks and capacity for 3,500 passengers, the MSC Divina could have practically floated the MS River Splendor in one of her pools. Think about the amenities you want when considering whether to take a river cruise vs. an ocean cruise.
• Cruise ships tend to cover more territory and allow you to visit more countries. Julie Catherman sailed from Barcelona on a Royal Caribbean ship, with stops in Nice, Rome, Florence, Sicily and Naples. “I chose this trip to introduce my teenage boys to Europe,” she said. “We got to see a lot, even though each stop was only for a day. I knew if they loved the cities as I did, they could go back and spend more time later. In fact, my son Grant returned to Italy to study in college and went back to Rome and Florence as I hoped he would.”
• Ocean cruisers often choose this method of travel for the variety of dining experiences. In addition to the main dining rooms where passengers are assigned to eat dinner each night, there are generally a few specialty restaurants where dining is available for an additional fee. The MSC Divina has seven restaurants, including multiple buffet areas so guests have a variety of choices for venues and menus for dining. And most cruise liners offer free room service.
• You’re never at a loss for entertainment on a large cruise ship. In addition to pool time, daytime activities can include scheduled events such as card games, dance lessons, Bingo and karaoke. At night you often have your choice of attending a large show extravaganza, going to a movie or enjoying live entertainment at one of the many bars. For example, the MSC Divina has a whopping 19 bars and lounges.
Think about whether a variety of entertainment is important to you when choosing between a river cruise vs. an ocean cruise.
• Other amenities available on large cruise ships include a casino and a large workout room. The spa was located just below our cabin and we enjoyed a Thermal Suite package one day, which included 20 minutes each of a Turkish bath, sauna and lounging in the Spa Relaxation Room.
• Shoppers can chose from logo items, candles, perfumes and plenty of clothing and accessories from the seven shops on board.
• In most cases, taking the kids is okay and encouraged! Cruise ships have dedicated kids’ areas and kids’ clubs with plenty to keep the little ones entertained, while teens often have their own spaces as well.
• While excursions do cost extra on a cruise ship, you will have a larger selection to choose from. For example, when we visited Istanbul for a day onboard the MSC Divina, we had 13 excursions to choose from. For example, if you wanted to focus on shopping you could choose from “Tokapi Palace and Shopping,” “Culture, Art & Shopping” or “Istanbul: Antiquity, Traditions & Shopping.”
We had never been to Istanbul, so after much debate, choose the “Istanbul by Land & Sea,” as it included a cruise across the Bosphorus where we could sail under bridges that link Europe to Asia, visit underground cisterns, tour a gorgeous mosque and bargain with the vendors at the Gran Bazaar.
“I love cruising,” Julie said. “The convenience of unpacking once, seeing many places and sailing at night, having all the meals and entertainment and excursions taken care of all make it a great vacation.”
A cruise ship may not be for you if …
- You don’t like crowds, waiting in line for meals, riding on a lot of buses for excursions and going on tours with large groups.
- You enjoy a more intimate setting for your meals.
For more information on cruising, visit the Cruise Lines International Association
When to book and how to find a deal on a river cruise or ocean cruise
The season for riverboat cruising begins in spring, usually around late March, and goes through November although the market for Christmas market cruises is growing and you can find a few cruise lines offering these in December. For cruise ships the season is roughly the same, from April to November.
The summer is the high season so for best deals, try to book during spring or fall. Look for specials. Laura Calk and her husband took advantage of an anniversary special where you got a percentage discount for how many years you’ve been married, so they got 25 percent off when they booked.
Thanks to the Euro you won’t have to exchange money too often, depending on where you are traveling. Most ships do have the option for U.S-style electric plugs but it’s always a good idea to travel with a small adaptor.
There are many things to consider when deciding on taking a river cruise vs. an ocean cruise. But why limit yourself? Try them both!
Please note: As we updated this in spring 2020, many cruises lines are not operating and will resume with reduced schedules. Be sure to check with each cruise line to find out more information.
– Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief, writes about river cruises and ocean cruises.
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FAQ: River Cruise vs. Ocean Cruise
Which is the better value: river cruise or ocean cruise?
Because of the larger ships and ownership by larger companies, you’ll find ocean cruises can be a lot more affordable than river cruises. The average number of passengers on a cruise ship is around 3,000 while the number of a river cruise is just 150.
Of course you can find ultra-luxury cruises ships that are smaller and include more in the cost, while you can find river cruises at lower rates.
What is the main difference between a river cruise and an ocean cruise?
We go into several of the differences in this story, but the main difference is the primary focus of the ships. While river cruises are more focused on the destination, ocean cruises focus on the experiences on board the ship.
Cruises ships are much larger and generally include multiple restaurants, entertainment options and amenities like large spas and exercise classes.
What are the pros and cons of a European cruise?
While there may be many answers to this question depending on who you ask, I love river cruising because you only have to unpack once, you don’t have to worry about transportation while you travel and you can see a lot in a short period of time.
One con may be you dine on the river boat for every meal and are not experiencing the best restaurants in every destination you visit. Depending on the schedule, you can opt to dine in the destination rather than on the boat.
Would you recommend a river cruise for your first cruise?
Absolutely! Just do your research so you understand what the experience will be like.
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