Ocean cruise or river cruise? Here are the 10 key differences

Tried one but not the other, or hesitating over which one to choose? Here's the lowdown on the differences between ocean and river cruising to help you decide. 


At first glance, river cruises appear more expensive. Count on $200-500 per person per night. Ocean ships can cost less than $100 per night, particularly South Pacific cruises out of Australia, where huge capacity results in stiff competition. Once on board, though, you'll be pestered to spend on drinks, artworks, duty free and souvenir photography. There's no commercial hard-sell on river ships, though this applies to top-end ocean ships, too.


All but the most upmarket ocean cruises charge for shore excursions, mealtime alcohol, Wi-Fi, specialty dining and gratuities, though this is slowly changing. All are included in river-cruise fares, and sometimes airport transfers and open bars are too. In short, you can't ocean cruise without spending more. You'll disembark with a much lower (or even non-existent) bill at the end of a river cruise, making it much easier to budget in advance.


On any cruise, last-minute bargains are now rare, so book well in advance for the best deals. High seasons differ, however. May, June and September are the most expensive time for European river cruising, November-March for south-east Asia. For ocean cruises, the high season is Christmas and school holidays, plus July-August in Europe and summer in Australia and the Pacific. Only ocean ships have cheaper repositioning cruises as they move between cruise regions.


If you're after a high-octane atmosphere, Broadway-style shows and entertainment, casinos, kids' clubs and water parks then megaships are for you. Even smaller ocean ships have a wide choice of dining venues, full-service spa, theatre and decent swimming pool. River ships emphasise the destination, and at most might have a hair salon, massage room, fitness room and hot tub. The pool is for wallowing, not swimming. Entertainment is confined to lectures and small-scale music ensembles.


Because river ships have limited space – hence no cinema, water slides or other fun spaces – they don't cater well to children, though there are a few family-oriented river cruises. Young children are better off on ocean ships, where there's a choice of dining venues and eating times, more varied entertainment, better family cabins, and packages aimed at multi-generational families. Ocean ships can also provide quiet adults-only spaces and a bigger choice of shore excursions.


The largest river ships carry about 200 passengers, megaships more than 6000, yet river ships can be more sociable. You get to know people quickly in a more intimate environment, especially with just one main dining venue and shared tables. On the downside, you can't vanish in the crowd or have a quiet dinner for two. Ocean ships, though, have a better nightlife thanks to multiple bars, larger passenger numbers and less intensive itineraries. River cruisers sleep early.


River cruises are surprisingly full-on. There are no days at sea, only very occasional scenic cruise days. Because ships sail at night, you're nearly always in port all day. You'll certainly pack in the sightseeing and off-ship time, and shore excursions begin early – you won't get many sleep-ins. Ocean cruises are usually more leisurely, which will suit those keen on enjoying the shipboard experience or just relaxing, but disappoint those eager to be out and about exploring.


Ocean passengers are all too familiar with ugly industrial ports, endless walks through cruise terminals and shuttle transfers into town. Big-name ports such as Rome, Beijing or Los Angeles can see you commute for hours. That's rarely the case with river cruises, where passengers hop off ships docked right in town centres and simply start walking, saving time and energy to enjoy the destination. If you're an impatient traveller determined to see as much as you can, think river cruising.



While you do enjoy scenery at sea – destinations such as Norway, Alaska or Vietnam's Halong Bay are stunning – for the most part you just see distant smudges of land or, on days at sea, nothing but waves and seabirds. Up-close scenery is, however, a big joy of river cruising. Ships' decks are a great vantage point to watch passing castles, temples, vineyards and pretty villages float by. Gorges on the Rhine, Danube, Yangtze and Columbia rivers are among the world's great landscapes.


Ocean cruising does have the edge, though, when it comes to variety of destinations. Simply put, you can cruise far more coastlines than rivers, and most of the world's truly great ports are on the sea. Also, river cruises just don't get remote (the Amazon in Peru-Chile and the Brahmaputra in India among rare exceptions). If you're after something less than tame, from PNG to Antarctica, the Russian Far East to the Galapagos Islands, only ocean-bound expedition cruises can take you there.

See also: The seven biggest myths about river travel, busted

See also: Nine stunning European rivers you'd never heard of