Cruises offer plenty of advantages when traveling through Europe, but how to choose between booking an ocean or river sailing? Read on.
If you’re considering sailing in Europe, what vessel comes to mind: a small boat floating on a river or a mega ship cresting across the Mediterranean Sea or Atlantic Ocean? More importantly: Which option gets you excited, and which one makes you groan?
The good news is that when you consider a ship’s itinerary, onboard amenities, shore excursions, and cost, you have a variety of options. You simply have to figure out what suits you best.
Generally speaking, a river boat houses as few as eight people (like European Waterways’ barge sailings) or as many as 250 passengers, while a cruise ship’s guests range from 600 to 5,000 passengers. A larger ship might mean a dizzying array of restaurants and entertainment, but it also means more people to share your vacation with, while most smaller ships lock you into one or two restaurants and the same group of people but often fold in more pampering. Think of these as lodging options. Are you more of a B&B person or a resort person?
As Fora travel advisor Melissa Curtin advises, “It all boils down to having a feeling. What kind of feeling do you want to have while you’re traveling?” River cruises, she says, tend to be more active in port, with walking and bicycling, while ocean cruises’ shore excursions often include a bus tour but with more entertainment and dining on board.
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Before you book your European sailing, consider the pros and cons of each of these four categories.
Let’s face it: a cruise is much more than the ship itself. You book a particular sailing because of the regions it sails to. Unlike the Caribbean and Mexico cruises, where the only waterway is an ocean, European sailings can traverse rivers and the ocean. Do you see yourself experiencing a major city’s pulsing nightlife and world-class museums, or does mingling with locals in villages and towns off the beaten path carry more appeal?
Ocean Cruise Itineraries
Big cities in Europe—like Florence, Barcelona, Venice, Marseille, and Athens—are a part of many large ocean cruise ship’s itineraries. Now you can check off bucket-list items like the David in Florence or Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona.
Pro: This is the way to go for first-time Europe travelers or those who want to check off at least three big cities in one cruise. Another benefit is more sea days to relax onboard because it takes longer to sail between ports. “They travel in a port, and the next day they’re relaxing on the boat,” says Curtin of ocean-cruise passengers in Europe.
Con: You’ll have to look hard to get a true taste of small-town Europe or localized culture being this close to the coast, and expect major crowds during peak season.
River Cruise Itineraries
Due to the size of a small ship, river cruises take you to places big ships can’t access. For example, Christmas markets in Austria and Germany or wineries in Bordeaux, France.
Pro: These are authentic glimpses of a region’s specialty, and because fewer travelers come here you won’t have to wait in lines at attractions or find restaurants booked.
Con: These towns often have limited nightlife and some can be explored in a half day.
Dining reservations. Zipping around in go-carts or down a water slide. Kids’ and teen clubs. Broadway-style musicals. Wine tastings. Spa treatments. Casinos. Chilling on the cabin balcony. These are all activities to do onboard an ocean cruise while it’s sailing between ports. But for those who come alive at midnight, discos and casinos are the ship’s utopia.
Ocean Cruise Amenities
There is no shortage of options for entertainment and wellness experiences onboard an ocean cruise.
Pro: You don’t have to eat in the same restaurant every night (instead, you can hop around), and there are usually a handful of choices each evening for entertainment and nightlife. With more than one pool, you can also try out different pools. “With the big ocean cruises, specialty dining experiences are amazing,” says Curtin.
Con: Reservations at specialty and popular restaurants, as well as the spa, can quickly fill up, and good luck getting a decent seat at the musical if you don’t show up fifteen minutes prior. Another drawback, says Curtin, is that you have to pay for alcohol a la carte or spring for a drinks package. “Otherwise, you just get Coke and water and juice,” she says.
River Cruise Amenities
Just like at a B&B, there are plenty of opportunities to socialize with other guests as the passenger list is quite small. Many river cruisers make lifelong friends with people they might never have met otherwise.
Pro: Are you fine retiring to the cabin after dinner with a good book? Fewer nightlife options may not be an issue if you’re looking for a quiet, adults-only cruise. Also, alcoholic drinks are usually included on most river cruises. Curtin praises the educational content on nearly all river cruises. “It’s more intimate, like a talk on French cheeses or local cultural dances You’re gearing up for the next place, and you want to learn,” she says.
Con: Some river cruises have stripped their entertainment down to a piano player or guitarist who plays in the evening. Also, there are usually less than two different pools and restaurants and no kids’ clubs on these types of cruises. “But it’s a fine dining experience,” says Curtin. “It’s white linens. You’re ordering off a menu. What I appreciate is the local cuisine and the local ingredients.” Due to large tables, not two-tops, on river cruises, strangers dine together and become friends. “Maybe you don’t want to eat with someone you don’t know,” says Curtin. “For a single person, it might be hard. You would have to be that type of person that’s strong in yourself and just wind up with whoever you’re going to eat with.”
How you’ll spend time in port should be part of the decision between selecting a river cruise and an ocean cruise. Whether you spring for excursions hosted by the cruise line, travel on your own, or pick a local tour company, do you see yourself exploring more during the daytime (such as bicycling through the vineyards or village strolls) or at night (dinners and live music or the opera)?
Ocean Cruise Excursions
More and more large cruise ships are arranging itineraries to stay in port overnight, which allows for opportunities to check into a hotel, enjoy late-night tapas in Barcelona, or explore the cocktail scene in Athens, for example.
Pro: You can truly get to know a city when you’re not departing before sunset.
Con: You have to choose between onboard amenities and time in port—possibly foregoing a reservation at that cool restaurant you’re dying to experience on the ship. Ports often are far—like up to 90 minutes—from a city. “Say you’re going into Rome, it’s nowhere near the city. People don’t take (that) into account until they start researching,” says Curtin. “On an ocean-class cruise, four or five days in a row, you’ll be getting on buses and bused to activities.”
River Cruise Excursions
Because the ship is sailing on a narrow river, not a huge ocean, it can dock in the heart of small towns and put you right alongside the daily lives of locals.
Pro: Walk right off the ship into towns and not deal with long lines, cruise terminals, and tenders (boats taking passengers from the ship to port when there isn’t a pier or gangway). Excursions include Christmas markets, winery tours, and immersive experiences with locals. The number of passengers on an excursion tends to be less than on ocean cruises—and the excursions are more active. “It was really exciting to get off the boat and bike for 17 miles a day. And there were only eight of us,” says Curtin.
Con: If you’re looking to check off major museums, markets, and other attractions in Europe, you may be disappointed as they aren’t typically found in these ports of call. But it can also be exhausting, says Curtin: “Typically, on a river cruise, you’re in a different port every day.”
According to Affordable Tours, the average cost of a seven-day sailing on a large ship in Europe is between $1,000 and $1,500 per person. Conversely, expect to pay between $250 to $1,500 per night on a river cruise, says CruiseCritic.com.
Ocean Cruise Cost
Due to the size of the ship—and a higher passenger-to-employee ratio—these cruises are almost always less expensive than a river cruise.
Pro: Traveling to a handful of large European cities via ocean cruise is an incredible value and costs much less than if you were to fly to and book hotels in each city. Curtin just booked her mom and friends on Norwegian Jade, traveling from New York City to Portugal. “For a two-week cruise, they paid $2,400 for two weeks,” she says. For another client, they paid $2,200 for a 10-day Barcelona to Rome sailing on an ocean-class ship.
Con: Larger ships like to nickel-and-dime passengers by charging extra for WiFi, drinks, and fine-dining restaurants. The base fare may be only a fraction of what you’ll actually pay.
River Cruise Cost
With a focus on keeping things intimate and small, which includes more pampering and luxury amenities, a river cruise almost always costs more than an ocean cruise.
Pro: Most river cruises include shore excursions (at least one is free while some carry an additional fee), WiFi, and drinks in the fare.
Con: Flying to the arrival and departure cities—because they are small towns and not major gateways in Europe—can cost more than flying to, say, Lisbon, Barcelona, Southampton, or Rome.