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The river cruise ship Viking Rinda sails France's Seine River from Paris to Normandy.

James Tarpley / Creative Commons BY-SA

The river cruise ship Viking Rinda sails France's Seine River from Paris to Normandy.

How river cruises differ from ocean cruises

5 key distinctions to help you decide which type fits your style

If you’ve never taken a river cruise, you may be wondering just what about it is different from ocean cruises.

The overall concept is certainly similar. You board a ship and sail round trip or one way, visiting several ports during a week or so after unpacking only once. Your journey, though, runs up or down an inland waterway instead of across the seas. So, let’s take a look at what sets the major differences that set the two styles apart. Here are five key differences.

AmaVenita offers sailings on the Rhine, Main and Danube, visiting cultural and historical hotspots such as Cologne, Wurzburg and Vienna.
Courtesy of AmaWaterwaysAmaVenita from AmaWaterways offers sailings on the Rhine, Main and Danube, visiting cultural and historical hotspots such as Cologne, Wurzburg and Vienna.

Size & capacity

1

The most obvious distinction will always be vessel size. Ocean ships have the room to get increasingly larger — the largest ships now can carry more than 6,000 passengers! — but riverboats are limited by narrower rivers and smaller river canal locks. As such, most river ships are much longer than they are wide and do not exceed four decks in height or carry more than 200 passengers total. 

One notable exception is Crystal River Cruises’ Crystal Mozart, which is twice as wide as most other riverboats, but it is only capable of traversing a shorter route accordingly. Regardless, even the Mozart is more intimate than small ocean cruise ships, providing a quieter, less crowded atmosphere on board. Of course, a downside to any riverboat is fewer venues and restaurants to sample as well as limited or no entertainment.

 

The 164-passenger AmaPrima sails through Passau in Bavaria, Germany.
Courtesy of AmaWaterwaysThe 164-passenger AmaPrima sails through Passau in Bavaria, Germany.

Smoother sailings

2

Perhaps the single greatest selling point of a river cruise over an ocean one is its lack of wave action against the hull. Rivers are inherently calm with a nearly glassy surfaces, eliminating any concern of seasickness. There is hardly any rolling, pitching or yawing to ever contend with.

The only peculiar motion that is unique to a riverboat is when it is entering and exiting a canal lock. Clearances are so tight that the vessels often bump up against the sides. They are designed for this, with bumpers along their length to protect the exterior paint, but the sensation is a bit like a mild earthquake tremor, although still more pleasant than stormy seas. That said, all modern ocean ships now have stabilizers, and in some cases you can barely tell you're out on the open waters. 

 

The world-famous State Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper) in Vienna, Austria.
Daxis / Creative Commons BY-NDThe world-famous State Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper) in Vienna, Austria.

Easy access to major attractions 

3

Another benefit of river cruising is its closer proximity to points of interest. On an ocean ship, you may have to tender to shore, or you may find that the cruise pier is a long way away from the main city you want to see. On a river cruise, you disembark in a river port right in the heart of the metropolis. That means you are usually within walking or biking distance of local attractions, whether you want to see museums in Budapest, the opera building in Vienna, Austria or hundreds of other locations.

 

A tour guide for Uniworld tells the tale of Pont du Gard, the ancient Roman aqueduct bridge that crosses the Gardon River in southern France.
Courtesy of Uniworld River CruisesA tour guide for Uniworld tells the tale of Pont du Gard, the ancient Roman aqueduct bridge that crosses the Gardon River in southern France.

Free excursions

4

As great as it is to explore on your own, one of the greatest differentiators from most mainstream ocean cruises is that river journeys often offer a free shore excursion in every port — a perk that Viking Cruises has been wise to extend to its new ocean ships as well, matching it only to the likes of luxury lines such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises. On the rivers, that does not mean every tour is complimentary, however. Typically a basic overview tour will be included, usually more than adequate for most passengers, but other more elaborate excursions will be available for an optional surcharge.

 

Crystal Mozart sails the Danube past the Chain Bridge in Budapest, which connects the two historic sections of the city.
Courtesy of Crystal CruisesCrystal Mozart sails the Danube past the Chain Bridge in Budapest, which connects the two historic sections of the city.

Other inclusions

5

Besides excursions, river cruises tend to be more inclusive overall than ocean voyages. Free Wi-Fi is the norm, and it’s not uncommon to have house beers and wine included at mealtimes. In fact, because of such free perks, there is probably a greater similarity between Viking River Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises than any other two river and ocean brands.

The most inclusive on the river are the likes of Crystal Cruises' pricey new fleet of river yachts, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Scenic. Crystal, for instance, additionally includes gratuities, unlimited beverages, 24-hour room service and airport transfers.

Be aware that river ships, with far fewer passengers (think 160 people rather than 3,000), tend to be quite a bit pricier than ocean ships and may have a different age range and passenger makeup, depending on the cruise line and itinerary. But most travelers who've done one or the other tend to come back again and again.

Interested in a river cruise?

Keep in mind there are quite a few important differences between each of the river cruise companies, beginning with price, itineraries and service — some even include a personal butler. Contact Cruiseable at 1-877-322-3773 if you'd like to examine some river cruise options and we'll help you on your way — at no cost.

— adapted from Cruiseable news services

Cruiseable team
The Cruiseable editorial team consists of award-winning travel writers, cruise bloggers and journalists.

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