The difference between river and ocean cruising and how to choose

River or ocean cruise?

Would you rather ride a giant floating city with roller coasters, surf simulators and enough equipment to keep you busy for days, or hop on and off a luxury hotel to the action, just steps away from your room to historic townships and hard-to-reach villages?

Size matters here. The largest ocean liners in the world can accommodate more than 6,000 passengers, while the elegant river vessels accommodate 200 on board, much more intimate. If you don’t like crowds, you probably already have your answer, but there are several other variables to weigh when choosing between river and ocean cruises.


It takes a certain order to process passengers in the thousands, so boarding an ocean liner is a multi-level operation.

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Expect to leave your luggage tagged for departure and not see it again until later outside your cabin. Just like air travel, you will also need to present travel documents and pass through security before stepping on the gangway. Passengers enjoy a generous baggage allowance, often up to two suitcases.

You're never far from dry land on a river cruise.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

You’re never far from dry land on a river cruise.

At smaller ports with limited access for larger vessels, you’ll board a tender and then be transported to land – often going through border security processes again if you disembark in an international destination.

Boarding a river cruise is often a much simpler experience, and paperwork is usually completed before departure, so all that keeps you from getting to your cabin is checking in at the ship’s reception. Depending on the ship and your ticket, you will only be allowed one piece of checked baggage plus one piece of hand baggage.


Charming villages can be found at every bend in the Danube.

Stephen heard

Charming villages can be found at every bend in the Danube.

Compact river liners have the ability to navigate smaller, shallower waterways and then moor just off the curb at smaller port destinations.

When I cruised with U River Cruises along the Danube from Hungary to Germany, we floated between medieval castle ruins, Bavarian villages and 800-year-old restaurants. Elsewhere, you can see the pyramids, ancient cities and temples on the banks of the Nile, or explore the hard-to-reach pagodas, floating markets and fishing villages of Asia.

It’s also common to wake up in a new place each day, and in some cases you’ll have the opportunity to get off and explore more than once. You are never far from dry land.

Ocean liners can travel effortlessly over much larger bodies of water for much longer – you can be at sea anywhere from 1 to 10 days. Ever wanted to venture beyond the subantarctic islands to the white continent, hop between islands in the Caribbean or follow the length of New Zealand’s coastline? There are ocean cruises for that. The Greek Islands, the Middle East, the Galápagos Islands, and Alaska are other far-flung destinations you can explore.

Excursions and entertainment

Roller skating is just one of the activities aboard the Ovation of the Seas.

Stephen Heard/Stuff

Roller skating is just one of the activities aboard the Ovation of the Seas.

With more time at sea, ocean liners have become a destination in themselves. Broadway theater shows, water slides and trampoline parks are just the beginning of the many highlights on board.

Aboard Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas, I tried sea skydiving in an indoor simulator and roller-skated around a stadium-sized arena that doubled as a bumper car rink and flying trapeze studio. There were ballroom dancing classes, Pilates classes, towel folding workshops, and a life-size rock climbing wall. Good luck running out of things to do. There were also kids clubs.

With shorter distances between ports and more opportunities to hop on and off, river cruises are best known for their shore excursions – from guided city tours to hands-on cultural experiences.

Catch a Broadway show at sea.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

Catch a Broadway show at sea.

Take a bike ride by the river and finish with a beer made by Trappist monks, take a private walking tour through the grounds of a historic palace or visit the local sausage dog museum. Entertainment on board is minimal.

Food and drink

If your vacation usually revolves around food and drink, Ocean Ships are for you. The largest passenger ships in the world can have up to 25 dining options compared to one or two dining rooms on river vessels.

Think of all the possible cuisines, from gourmet restaurants in collaboration with top chefs to food hall style restaurants, bars manned by robotic bartenders and 24-hour fast food stands. And you can’t forget the classic cruise buffet. Some restaurants include the cruise fare, while others can be added as part of food and beverage packages.

Features like teppanyaki night cost extra.

Sabin Creek

Features like teppanyaki night cost extra.

The more intimate nature of river cruises and seating schedules mean it’s not uncommon to join the same guests for breakfast, lunch and dinner and build lasting relationships.

Buffets are common for breakfast and lunch to allow for quick dining, while dinner is usually served at the table. Snacks and hot drinks are available throughout the day, and some alcoholic beverages may be included. More premium operators offer fine tasting-style meals.


Ponant's Commandant Charcot runs on liquefied natural gas and on battery power.

Mike Louagie/Ponant

Ponant’s Commandant Charcot runs on liquefied natural gas and on battery power.

River and ocean cruises impact Earth’s waterways. With several operators committed to being carbon neutral by 2050, sustainability is the big question on everyone’s lips.

Large ocean liners use giant engines to cover great distances, so look for operators that use more sustainable fuel or choose a cruise line that uses shore power to minimize their impact on the environment. Ponant’s Commandant Charcot runs on liquefied natural gas and on battery power. Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten is building ships using hybrid technology to reduce fuel consumption.

The compact nature of river cruises and smaller passenger capacity allow for smaller engines and lower emissions. Stopping more regularly also allows ships to buy local products and recycle solid waste – one of the biggest environmental issues. Look for hybrid-powered vessels and those looking to reduce waste.

Before booking: Many parts of Europe have been affected by a heat wave leading to a sharp drop in river water levels. This has resulted in the cancellation and postponement of some river cruises.

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