River cruising the Rhine Gorge
The Main Differences Between Ocean and River Cruising
You love to cruise and you’re ready for something different. And while you’re interested in a river cruise, you’re likely wondering, “How is it really different from an ocean cruise?” Let’s look at what you can expect, particularly if you have been on an ocean mega-ship in the past, from the size of your stateroom to the experiences you’ll have onshore.
River Cruises Provide a More Intimate Onboard Setting
With just 200 or fewer passengers, riverships offer a convivial, friendly and intimate setting. Given the niche destinations (The Rhine, The Elbe) and sometimes themed voyages (wine, cuisine), you’ll likely sail with member like-minded passengers, guests who become fast friends as you share the experiences of the day over cocktails or dinner. While it means you won’t be battling crowds to get a good spot by the pool, it does mean you won’t have as many amenities as a resort-style ocean ship - instead, you’ll have smaller restaurants, a tiny spa, small fitness center and perhaps a computer center. (This does mean your river cabin may be smaller than what you would experience on an ocean ship, but you’ll likely be spending so much time exploring the area, you won’t even notice. Plus, what most cabins lack in size they make up for with creative design and the addition of balconies.)
Oasis of the Seas is one of the largest cruise ships in the world
River Ships Offer Creative Dining Options
Aboard an ocean cruise ship, you can expect enough dining venues that you could eat at a different one each night. On a river ship, prior to COVID, you could expect buffet-style breakfast and lunch in the main restaurant, with maybe a few items available a la carte, with a served evening meal. On many vessels that has now changed and a la carte will be the main option with full service provided. This doesn’t mean less food and only that the style of service has changed. More and more river ships are also offering a second dining venue, with a more specialized menu, and/or private dining options. You may find breakfast and lunch options in the lounge or out on the deck, in addition to the main dining room, to change things up a bit. No matter where you eat, rest assured the smaller passenger count means that the cuisine is heavily regionally inspired and fresh ingredients from onshore are incorporated as much as possible.
River Cruises Offer Lower-Key Entertainment
The entertainment on a river cruise isn’t in the flashy style of ocean cruises. That means no Broadway-style shows or karaoke. Instead, you may be treated to locally inspired folk dance performances or choir concerts for a quick after-dinner show. There may be one-off cooking demonstrations or wine tastings, or perhaps an educational talk by a wildlife naturalist or a local historian.
River Cruises Offer Access to More Ports
Let’s face it: size matters. When it comes to cruise ships, the modern river vessels can reach places the ocean mega-ships simply can’t. Their smaller, more nimble size means more off-the-beaten-path destinations for you and more authentic shoreside excursions. It also means you won’t be moored out in an industrial port - you’ll likely dock right in town, just a short walk or bus ride away from the center of town.
I was privileged to sail the maiden voyage of the AmaSiena
River Cruises Offer More Destination-Driven Itineraries
While ocean-going mega ships can serve as a vacation destination unto themselves (the pools and waterslides! the shows! the limitless dining!), river cruises tend to focus less on the ship and more on the ports visited. You’ll visit a destination each day, sometimes even two ports in one day, and cover several countries within a week’s time. That’s a lot of vacation packed into one incredible week off! Plan on a lot of walking as you learn each new city’s history and culture, check out the local cafes and shops or take a motor coach tour to a nearby castle. Many river cruise lines also offer more active options, including cycling, golf, music recitals and cooking classes onshore.
The fares for ocean cruises often come with some nickel and diming for all the extras by which you’ll be tempted. Alternatively, most river-cruise fares include just about everything - while this may make it seem more expensive, it’s a lot less to balk at at the beginning, knowing what’s to be included, instead of being faced with an unpleasantly large bill at the end of your vacation. You can expect fares to include wine, beer, soft drinks, dinners in specialty restaurants, Wi-Fi and standard tour options in each port.
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