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Ocean Versus River Cruising Guide – Which to Choose

  • Discover ocean and river cruise holidays – both wonderful ways to experience a new travel destination
  • What to expect on an ocean cruise and river cruise – cabin differences, ship sizes, onboard facilities and itineraries
  • Our guide compares the best of both options to help you choose your next cruising holiday – ocean, river or both!

Cruise holidays are on the rise, and it’s no great surprise. River cruises visit fascinating destinations along the Danube, Rhine, Rhône and more. Ocean cruises sail to destinations in Europe such as Norway, Italy and Croatia, and even further afield to New YorkSouth Africa, and Japan. In both cases, there’s a fantastic choice of cruises available.

Ready to explore the world in 2020 from the luxury of a cruise ship? Our European river cruises and worldwide ocean cruises are a wonderful place to start. We also have a fantastic range of river cruises for solo travellers.

What’s the best cruise for you – ocean, river or perhaps both? Read on to help you decide.

best cruises diamond princess

Diamond Princess ship

Cruise comparison: ship size

One of the main differences between river cruises and their ocean counterparts is ship size. River vessels are much smaller than ocean cruisers as they have to navigate shallow rivers and locks, whereas ocean ships, as the name suggests, are large enough to sail effortlessly across vast stretches of water. The Azamara Journey is a great example of a small ocean cruise ship, with fewer than 700 guests on board during a cruise. A large ocean liner such as the Queen Mary 2 has 12 decks and can accommodate 2,620 passengers. River ships often have just three or four decks and cater for a maximum of 170 guests, although some sail with as few as 86 passengers. The MS Geoffrey Chaucer is a prime example of a river cruise ship.

Cruise comparison: cabins

First-class accommodation can be enjoyed on all cruise holidays, and you’ll sleep in a luxurious, well-appointed cabin with a private en suite, regardless of whether you embark on a river cruise or ocean cruise. River ships have no inside cabins however, so all passengers are guaranteed a window or balcony to watch the ever-changing scenery outside. Ocean cruises offer more cabin category choice. Prices vary depending on the size of the cabin and its position on the ship. Ocean cruise cabins range from intimate inside cabins through to spacious staterooms with balconies and even a private butler.

best cruises river cruise cabin

An upper deck suite on the MS Oscar Wilde

Cruise comparison: on-board dining

When deciding on the best cruise for you, it’s worth comparing dining arrangements – though you’ll receive five-star service whatever you choose. Ocean cruises tend to have several restaurants so that you can choose between buffet-style meals or more formal fine dining. You may need to reserve a table on an ocean cruise, but you’ll often have a choice of seating times. Many river cruise ships have a single elegant restaurant, and possibly a bistro, where tables can be reserved. Evening dining is a relaxed, intimate affair – you can sit wherever you please. As chefs are able to go ashore daily, expect local specialities on the menu of a river cruise.

best cruises life on a river cruise

Bistro on-board the MS Lord Byron

Cruise comparison: itineraries

Whether on a European river cruise or ocean adventure, the best cruises have meticulously planned itineraries. River cruises tend to focus on cultural experiences and escorted tours. Every day you’re able to go ashore somewhere new to explore a historic capital city, for example, or visit a vineyard. It’s worth noting that some ocean cruises, such as our Cruising Italy & Croatia on the Azamara Quest, also include exclusive shore excursions.

There are often greater distances to travel between ports on ocean cruises. Depending on the destination, you may spend several days at sea where the focus is on enjoying life on board, such as time spent aboard the Queen Mary 2 sailing directly from Southampton to New York. Other ocean cruises have a packed itinerary of port visits with very few sea days, such as our Cruising Norway’s Fjords on the Azamara Pursuit. With both ocean and river cruises, passengers may need to board a coach to join some sightseeing tours. On some ocean cruise stops, you may need to take a tender boat to transfer to the shore.

Cruise comparison: entertainment and onboard facilities

As you’d expect, large ocean ships can provide entertainment on a grander scale than river ships. From West End-theatre style performances and cabaret shows, to dance floors, cinemas and even a full-scale planetarium, guests are never short of things to do. Some ocean cruise ships have swimming pools, steam rooms, casinos and even art galleries. Entertainment is more low-key on river cruises. Expect evening quizzes, talks from educational speakers, local dancers and musicians and perhaps food demonstrations and wine tastings. River cruises also feature a sun deck and in some cases a plunge pool and fitness room.

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The Sun deck of the Diamond Princess

The cost of cruises

If you’re watching your budget, cruise holidays represent excellent value for money. River cruises are exceptional value as they typically include return flights or train journeys in the price, along with all meals, the services of a cruise director and concierge, complimentary tea, coffee and Wi-Fi, and fascinating tours and excursions with expert guides. The price of ocean cruises includes flights, full-board on the ship, including complimentary drinks and the services of an experienced and insightful tour manager. Accommodation is often included for nights ashore and guided tours, too.

Cruises for solo travellers

River cruises and ocean cruises are both ideal for solo travellers. The friendly, relaxed atmosphere on board a river ship means there are plenty of opportunities to make new acquaintances. On larger ocean ships, there are more people to meet, broadening the opportunity to get to know fellow travellers. Solo travellers are welcome on all cruise holidays. On selected river cruises and departure dates, you’ll find no single supplements.

Exclusive solo traveller river cruises in Europe are popular, and you’ll easily make travel buddies on trips along the Seine, Danube, Rhine and Rhône – and further afield cruising down the Nile. Some escorted tours, such as a Grand Tour of China also includes a Yangtze River cruise.

How to choose the best cruise for you
Choose a river cruise if…
  • You’re new to cruising and want to test the waters, so to speak. Short breaks are available, and you won’t need to worry about being seasick. You also want to enjoy staying in a luxurious suite as you sail.
  • You’re at your happiest learning more about the culture and history of a destination, but you’re also content relaxing with a book in hand on a sundeck.
  • You’re keen to cruise along Europe’s iconic rivers, visiting one captivating city after another. And as ships usually dock close to destinations, in most cases you simply walk ashore.
  • You enjoy five-star dining and a relaxed and inclusive atmosphere, sampling regional specialities and local wines.
best cruises river cruise

MS Charles Dickens

Choose an ocean cruise if…
  • You’re eager to embark on a more extended holiday and visit exotic destinations further afield, and perhaps spoil yourself with a spacious suite to celebrate a special occasion.
  • You’re attracted to ocean cruising, but want something a little closer to home such as cruising Croatia or Norway.
  • You like the hustle and bustle of being aboard a large, luxurious floating hotel, and want to make the most of all the excellent entertainment and facilities provided.
  • You prefer dining in a variety of restaurants, with more menu choices and styles of cuisine – fine dining in elegant surroundings is more your style.
  • You’re keen to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime transatlantic voyage on board the elegant, romantic Queen Mary 2.
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Queen Mary 2

Hopefully, this summary, comparing the difference between ocean and river cruising, will help you choose your next memorable trip away. Tempted by our river cruises in 2020, or our ocean cruising collection? There’s a fantastic selection of wonderful holidays waiting for you. Looking for alternatives to ocean or river cruising? We also offer yacht cruises in Croatia, coastal and island cruises on our exclusively chartered wooden schooners, and adventurous expedition cruises such as our incredible Voyage to Antarctica.


If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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