Top Picks For You

10 Ways a River Cruise Is Different From an Ocean Cruise

Both ocean cruises and river cruises promise a unique way to travel and meet new people, but what are the benefits of booking one type of cruise over another?

Taking a cruise is not only a means to a great sun-filled vacation, but it’s also an amazing way to explore the world. Cruisers enjoy the luxury of unpacking their luggage once but awake each day in a different destination, ready to relax, seek adventure, learn about a new culture, or all of the above. Unlike ocean cruises, river cruises allow travelers access to smaller ports and destinations that larger ships simply can’t reach, and although there are similarities, river cruising is a completely different experience.

1 OF 10

Easier Boarding

River Cruises often make the boarding process more like checking into a hotel rather than boarding a ship. Upon arrival at the embarkation port, guests are greeted by staff who quickly take their luggage and escort them onboard the ship. Once inside, the check-in process is simple and easy. After verifying your travel documents and vaccination status, guests are handed room keys, brought to their stateroom, and shown various features.

2 OF 10

Your Room Key Is Just Your Room Key

If you thought the boarding process was easy, disembarking the ship to explore a port of call is even easier. There are no long lines to wait in or tender boats to board, and you don’t need to scan your room key to get on or off the ship. To disembark, guests simply visit the main reception desk to obtain a “boarding pass.” Each booked cabin has two paper boarding passes assigned to it. If guests wish to leave the ship, they must obtain their boarding pass before doing so, and when returning to the ship, hand in their passes back to the reception desk. Generally, on ocean ships, your room key also serves as your “boarding pass,” which needs to be scanned each time you embark and disembark the ship, but on river cruises, your room key is just to access your stateroom.

3 OF 10

Fewer Passengers

River cruise ships are much smaller than ocean vessels, carrying fewer passengers. For the cruiser, this means they’ll find more personalized attention, less waiting to embark and disembark the ship, and overall less crowding in public spaces. That attention to detail isn’t possible onboard larger ships with thousands of passengers.

4 OF 10

Smooth Sailing

When you think of cruising, your mind immediately goes to ocean-like waves, but you won’t find that on a river. If you’re prone to sea sickness or generally don’t fancy the idea of being out to sea for days on end without the sight of land, river cruising is for you. The river waters are smooth and calm unless a heavier vessel is passing you by, at which point you still won’t feel a thing. Throughout the journey, you’re able to see land off of both sides of the ship and that’s half of the excitement of taking this trip in the first place. When sailing between ports, a river cruise has the ability to sail through small towns and villages and pass historical sights such as castles and cathedrals that you may not have been able to see otherwise.

5 OF 10

Included Excursions

On a regular cruise, you may find your bill quickly adding up as you book shore excursions to explore the destinations along your itinerary. But on some river cruises, there’s a shore excursion included in every port of call, free of charge. In my experience, everyone on board partakes in the included tour, then some also book optional (extra fee) excursions to see more of a city or enjoy a particular activity. The included tour generally takes guests around a city’s historical landmarks, points out must-see attractions, and always includes a knowledgeable local tour guide well-versed in the history and culture of the destination.

INSIDER TIPIf you’re looking to enjoy an included excursion with some new friends you’ve met on board but are in different groups for the tour, just ask the Program Director or the main reception area if you can join one another.

6 OF 10

Start and End Your Day in a Different Port

With less distance between ports, it’s not uncommon to be able to visit two ports of call in a single day. In many cases, when guests disembark the ship in one port for their excursion, they’ll re-board in a different port when their excursion completes. This maneuvering is done to keep the ship on time, moving along the river. It also allows guests to see more of the cities along their route and, in some cases, choose afternoon excursions and tours to relax during the morning.

7 OF 10

Double Docking  

In larger cities, it’s not uncommon to have multiple river ships in port at any given time, but with limited dock space available, river cruises do something larger ocean ships could never do, double dock. River cruise ships have the capability to dock right alongside another river cruise ship, even if they’re not from the same cruise line. A ship will slowly, and very gently, approach another ship already docked in port, and align itself perfectly alongside each other. Then using small metal walkways, staff will “bridge” access from one ship to the other. Passengers on the outermost docked ship will need to pass through the ship docked at the port in order to access land and reboard their vessel.

8 OF 10

Meals and Snacks

River cruise ships are designed to fit the narrow waterways they sail on and therefore are much smaller than ocean ships. This means there’s less space for a traditional cruise line buffet or specialty restaurants. Food is prepared to order with ingredients sourced from the ship’s ports of call, if you’re late or miss the seating entirely, your only option for a snack on board is usually something like cookies and pastries at self-serve coffee bars.

9 OF 10

No Room Service

Looking for a midnight snack or your morning coffee to be delivered to your stateroom? Not on board a river ship. Because of the space limitations and limited crew on board, most river cruises don’t offer room service. Guests are welcome to enjoy a meal in their stateroom “to-go” during meal hours, but when the kitchen is closed, it’s closed!

INSIDER TIPPack some snacks before boarding the ship, or buy some local favorites in your first port of call if you’re prone to becoming hungry in the middle of the night, or need a snack between meal times.

10 OF 10

It’s Easier to Make Friends and Meet People

When you take a river cruise, it’s much easier to meet fellow cruisers with shared interests and make new friends. One aspect of the reduced size of the ship is the use of community seating at mealtime. A table for two doesn’t exist. Guests are encouraged to join a table, meet someone new and share in conversation.