River Cruising vs. Ocean Cruising: 23 Key Differences to Know

January 13, 2020

Happy Monday Friends! I hope that you had a wonderful weekend! 

Today I am excited to talk about the major differences between river cruising and ocean cruising for those of you who are thinking and debating between a river cruise (like the Viking River Cruise my mom and I did a in 2018) and an ocean cruise. 

Prior to our Viking River Cruise I had only done ocean cruises and I was excited and delighted to discover the differences and am excited to share them with y'all today! I personally LOVE cruising (as y'all know from this space) and quickly realized that river cruising is a definite favorite and something that I can't wait to do again in the future!

So if you are still debating and would like to know some of the differences, here are the 23 Key differences to consider when looking at a river cruise vs. an ocean cruise:
1. The Waves
For those who struggle with motion sickness on ocean cruises, river cruising may be an option to consider simply because of the lack of waves that can cause sea sickness.

2. Size of the Ships (River Cruise Ships are Much Smaller)
This may sound like a silly one to list but if you have only taken Ocean Cruises then you may be surprised at just how much smaller the river ships are! Most river cruises cap their numbers at 200 while most ocean cruises have thousands of people. Because the river ship is smaller there are not as many offerings of restaurants, lounges, bars, etc. I honestly didn't notice a difference because we felt that the ship we were on (the Viking Eir) was amazing despite being smaller than an ocean cruise ship. You can read my review of the Viking Eir HERE
3. Number of People
Like #2 states- because the river ships are smaller, the number of passengers on board a river cruise are also (obviously) smaller. If you love blending into a large crowd then this will be different, but for those who complain about large groups of people (and waiting in lines) river cruising will be a dream. 

4. Age and Demographics of Passengers
The typical age and demographic of those traveling on a river cruise is a bit different than those who may travel on a quick weekend Caribbean cruise. Typically the age is a bit older, many times people are retired or have a job where they can take off extra time (for the travel to the river cruise and the cruise itself), and many on the river cruises have traveled extensively. I think that this continues to evolve though and I addressed this in more detail in my post, Answers to Your Most Frequently Asked Questions About a Viking River Cruise which you can find HERE
5. Stateroom Differences
Before I went on a river cruise I read that the stateroom size on a river ship is smaller. I think this depends on the company that you travel with. For Viking I felt that the our cabin size was comparable to ocean cruise cabins I had been. (If you would like to read a review on our stateroom on the Viking Eir you can do so HERE!)

6. Easy Embarkation
Unlike the long lines of thousands of people going through immigration, x-ray scans, questions, etc. that happens on an ocean cruise, river cruisers simply walk on and off the ship with minimal wait time. My mom and I literally were dropped off at the ship, snapped some pictures, dropped off our luggage, and walked right in to be greeted in person by the staff. It took all of 5 minutes! 
7. Room Readiness
On an ocean cruise you typically have to wait until 1-3pm (depending on where your room is) to get into your stateroom. On a river cruise it was completely different. We walked on the ship and were able to go immediately to our room to drop off our personal belongings before heading down to a beautiful brunch. This definitely set the stage of a relaxing vacation versus carrying around a carry on luggage item to a buffet lunch. 

8. The Views
On an ocean cruise you may never see land on some of the days you are cruising which (in my opinion) provides a feeling of total escape from everything. On a river cruise you always see land, towns, and places you are traveling through. I have read that for some people this is a negative but I think it is what you want to get out of your experience. For myself, I personally loved seeing so much of the Rhine River and the countries that we were passing through. I felt that I walked away seeing so much of each country and that was a gift. 
9. Excursions
On a lot of river cruises excursions are included into the price (you can read more about Viking's Policies on excursions HERE) and you have the option of purchasing a few "specialty" excursions as an "add on". On a ocean cruise you need to purchase all of your excursions which can add a lot of money to your trip. (As a side note- excursions on a river cruise - getting on and off the ship was SO easy and a dream!)

10. Excursion Options
Most river cruises offer more culturally oriented excursions than "fun" excursions that you may expect on an ocean cruise. In addition to this there are a lot less options on a river cruise then there are on an ocean cruise for. If excursions are something that is a big deal to you, you will definitely want to consider this.
11. Time on Land versus Sea
On a river cruise you are on land every single day for at least a portion of the day. For ocean cruises that are the same length you typically have at least one day where you sail all day and all you see is the ocean. Both have their benefits, but do bring a difference to your experience. 

12. Tenders
On ocean cruises you may have to wait for tenders to take you back and forth to shore, with river cruising there are no tenders. The ship pulls up and docks and you walk off and back on easily.
13. Dining
On a river ship everyone eats at the same time while on an ocean cruise you can typically choose the seating you desire along with a choice of a number of restaurants. On the flip side, the creativity, the menus, the 5-star presentation of meals on a river cruise is hard to beat simply because of the low number of people that are being served. It was truly amazing! 

14. Entertainment
Unlike ocean cruises that have heavy entertainment schedules, most river cruises do not have lots of entertainment options. Instead a lot of the entertainment on the river cruises is culturally appropriate to the area that you are at. This wasn't a disappointment for us, in fact it was actually quite amazing. There was incredible variety that was offered and I found that I enjoyed both the ocean and river cruising entertainment alike. 
15. Ports
On a river cruise you will dock right in town while on an ocean cruise you typically are docking in a port and then go to the town or city. I loved the way that we could go on an excursion in one area and then come back and still walk right into the town that we were docked in later on in the day. This really gave us the opportunity to see so many different things and places on our river cruise. 

16. Distances Between Ports
Traveling from port to port on an ocean cruise may take a lot of time (sometimes even a whole day or night), depending on your cruise paths, while the distance between ports on a river cruise is rather short. Some of our ports were only about an hour apart. 
17. Hours
Typically on an ocean cruise people are sleeping in and breakfast starts later in the day. On a river cruise the day starts early and if you choose to go on the guided tour than you will be starting breakfast around 7-7:30. It varied on our cruise, but we definitely were fitting in much longer hours than we did on any ocean cruise I have been on! 

18. Children's Programs
Unlike an ocean cruise there are very limited options on a river cruise for kiddos. On Viking I didn't see any children or teen programs and the only river cruise programs that I have researched and found are family river cruises (like Disney's Adventures). 
19. Alcohol
Most ocean cruises require you to purchase an alcohol package while river cruises often have inclusive deals. On our river cruise with Viking house alcohol was included (you can read more about it HERE)

20. Staff
On an ocean cruise you typically get to know your waiters and your stateroom attendant. On a river cruise you interact with all of the staff often and know them by name. We even got to know the captain of our ship as he spent time greeting us coming back from excursions, joined in on the happy hour, and was frequently around talking with each person. In that way it definitely gives a more personal feel to your experience on a river cruise. (Update: The exception to this would be cruising with Holland America (you can read more about our experiences with them HERE - because they are phenomenal with staff/guest relations!)
21. Wi-fi
It may not always work well, but the wi-fi is free on river cruises. On most ocean cruises you do have to pay a small fee. 

21. Pools
Most river cruises do not have pools or a hot tub on board while ocean cruise ships can have several. 
23. Disembarkation
Unlike needing to frantically pack your bags and relinquish your luggage the night before on an ocean cruise, a river cruise will have you putting out your bags the morning that you are leaving. This made packing much easier and the disembarkation entire process easier. 

I hope that this helped those of you who are comparing and debating between a river cruise and an ocean cruise! If you have any is questions please let me know in the comments and I will be happy to answer them for you! 

PS- These pictures were from our beautiful New Years Evening in G
ermany on our Viking River Cruise in 2018


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. This is definitely true- I didn't include it in the list because it would fall under the category of both having those advantages but you make a wonderful point! Thank you for stopping by and sharing!

      Rebecca :)

  2. Generally the earlier you book the better the cruise deals you will get. Cruise lines offer everything from special early bird prices to huge on board credits to pay for drinks and excursions.

    1. As I have said above to your original comment- This is definitely true- I didn't include it in the list because it would fall under the category of both having those advantages but you make a wonderful point! Thank you for stopping by and sharing!

      Rebecca :)