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River Cruises Vs. Ocean Cruises

8 Key Differences Between River Cruises and Ocean Cruises

River cruises and ocean cruises certainly sound similar: You’re spending several days on a cruise ship traveling between destinations and enjoying a mix of local flare and onboard entertainment.

But there the similarities end.

Ocean cruises are popular for their wealth of amenities, exotic destinations, and variety of entertainment choices. By contrast, river cruises offer a slower pace, with fewer amenities and a narrower focus on engaging with that region’s history, culture and attractions.

Because each type of cruise offers a vastly different experience, it’s worth digging into what makes each so unique — and why one might be right for you. So if you’re wondering which might be ideal for your next vacation, here are eight differences between river cruises and ocean cruises.

1. Size

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River cruise ships are almost always smaller than their ocean-going counterparts — the byproduct of having to navigate narrow, shallow waterways — and the cruise lines tailor their passenger loads accordingly.

Many ocean cruise ships carry enough passengers to fill a high-school gymnasium, but river cruise ships generally have room for 100 to 250 passengers on any given trip. The smaller size means a quieter, close-knit experience where you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get acquainted with fellow passengers.

2. Amenities

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These days, ocean cruise ships offer amenities that wouldn’t sound out of place in a newly gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood: Spas, fitness centers, yoga studios, movie theaters, and a hodgepodge of eateries are all common on mega cruise ships.

It’s not that river cruises are Spartan affairs, by comparison, but you won’t find that laundry list of luxe amenities aboard river cruise ships; rather, the smaller ships work to focus your free time on that day’s destination.

3. Onboard Entertainment

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Ocean cruise ships are famous for onboard entertainment, from karaoke bars to casinos to live performances.

On the other hand, river cruises eschew the party-like atmosphere for something more subdued. In lieu of stand-up comedy or live music, river cruises typically host lectures and discussions, cooking classes, workshops and other events designed to connect passengers with local culture or history.

4. Dining

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The largest cruise ships typically host myriad restaurants, some open all day and night, and room service to sate your late-night cravings.

River cruises, on the other hand, must contend with far less space — and, as a result, fewer dining options. Many river ships host one main restaurant or dining room, where diners gather at fixed times for each meal, along with a smaller café and scattered snack stations that serve coffee and pastries. Room service is uncommon aboard most river cruise ships.

5. Cabins

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Given that river cruise ships are much smaller than the multi-deck behemoths traveling Central America and other popular destinations, guestrooms are sized proportionally.

River ship cabins are generally 150 to 200 square feet — roughly the size of an averaged bedroom — and include a queen-size bed (or two twin beds), a television, dresser, closet, and some kind of seating (such as a couch or a couple chairs). Increasingly, river cruise ships are offering suites with a slightly larger footprint, as well.

Many river cruise cabins offer some kind of view, and some include French balconies — where you can open the window and enjoy the breeze, but there’s no deck to walk out onto.

6. Trip Length

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You can find Caribbean cruises as short as a few days or as long as a week — whatever fits your budget, schedule, and desired trip experience.

River cruises, however, demand a bit more commitment and generally last a week or more. The longer trip gives passengers more opportunities to learn about a region’s history, connect with local culture, and — should they choose — relax and unwind. That said, the longer the itinerary, the more expensive the trip.

7. Costs

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Upfront, river cruises cost more than some ocean-going trips. For example, some Caribbean cruises may cost as little as $400 or $500, river cruise passengers should plan to spend $300 to $500 per day for their trip.

Naturally, costs vary by company, route, and whether you want a suite. But river-cruise costs usually include a host of amenities that might run extra on ocean cruises–including on-shore excursions, Wi-Fi, wine or beer with meals, gratuity, airport shuttles and more.

8. Offboard Excursions

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Depending on the length of the trip, many ocean cruises spend multiple days at sea, with limited opportunities for enjoying different ports and connecting with local communities.

With river cruises, however, you’ll wake up almost every morning in the heart of a new city, town, or port that’s ripe for exploration.

Along the way, river cruise passengers might have the opportunity to take a walking tour of a city, visit a museum, ride bikes, pick up souvenirs at local shops, and travel to historic sites.

— By Matt Wastradowski

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