River Cruise vs. Ocean Cruise: Which is Right for You

Is a romantic getaway on the water calling your name? Setting sail on a cruise with your love comes with its own special experiences that you just can’t get anywhere else. Apart from the thrilling new adventures that await at every port of call, the time spent on the ship itself will be filled with its own exquisite luxury and delightful nuances.

But before you book your romantic cruise, there’s one important choice to make: river or ocean cruise?

Trying to book a romantic cruise vacation but not sure which experience is the right fit?

We’ve been there before! That’s why we have created a comprehensive guide covering all important factors of river and ocean cruises based on our experience. You can learn about the key differences between the two, their pros and cons, and get a clear understanding of what each experience has to offer. Plus, answers to the internet’s most frequently asked questions!

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River cruise lines and ocean cruise lines offer their own collection of experiences, and each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, it really depends on what type of romantic vacation you and your partner are looking for.

In this article, we’ll go over the key differences between a river cruise vs. ocean cruise to help you decide which is the right choice for your next romantic getaway. Hop aboard!

The Great Debate—River or Ocean?

Let’s be honest: you’re going to have a blast whether you’re on an intimate river cruise or a large ocean cruise ship. Even so, the choice you make will significantly impact your overall cruise experience. That said, it’s important to make a proper cruise comparison to determine what best fits your vibe as a couple. 

Do you want young children running around? Do you want to spend more of your time on the ship or off? Are you seeking something more casual or extravagant? These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself as you explore your options. 

For instance, river cruises are smaller and don’t have nearly as many activities as ocean cruises but stop in more intimate locations. Ocean cruises also have the ability to stop at bigger ports, while river cruises have smaller ports and less to do onboard. Even with these major differences, both allow you to unpack once and enjoy several days exploring different places and trying different things. 

Key Differences Between River and Ocean Cruises

The biggest difference between river and ocean cruises is ship size. River cruises have significantly smaller ships compared to oceangoing ships, typically holding around 200 passengers compared to the thousands that can fit on ocean ships. The smaller scale of a river cruise means a more intimate setting with fewer passengers and smaller crowds in public areas.

Another key thing to note is the differences in the kinds of destinations you get to explore. On ocean liners, shore excursions are usually in bigger cities that feature popular tourist attractions and activities. On a river cruise, you’ll find yourself in smaller towns and villages, allowing travelers to experience off-the-beaten-path cultural experiences that are exclusive for smaller ships. 

When it comes to onboard amenities, ocean cruises generally have the upper hand. With their bigger size comes more facilities, including multiple restaurants and bars, pools, spas, fitness centers, and theaters with Broadway-style productions. River cruises may not offer as many amenities, but their intimate setting helps provide a personalized experience for guests.

Speaking of guests, the demographics that ocean cruisers and river cruisers cater to can be quite different. River cruise passengers, for instance, are generally an older crowd. So, if you and your partner are looking for a party atmosphere with a much wider age range, an ocean cruise might be a better fit. 

How These Differences Affect Your Cruise Experience


Sure, river cruises are a much smaller size, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty to do. Will there be all the bells and whistles of an ocean cruise? No. Don’t expect a large casino, shopping center, or multiple forms of entertainment. But rather, expect cooking classes, wine tastings, and performances from local musicians aboard.

Of course, not all ocean cruises out there are going to be packed with families, children, and partiers. There are many that cater to adults only, giving you a more serene, romantic atmosphere while still offering plenty of activities, shows, and dining options. Just note that these experiences tend to be on the pricier side.


So what about dining? There are plenty of diverse dining options on both river and ocean cruises. River cruises usually have one main dining room that features gourmet, locally sourced cuisine. This is a great way to experience the local culture as you voyage through different towns. 

Ocean cruises, on the other hand, have multiple restaurants with a variety of cuisines to choose from. This can be quite appealing to couples seeking a more diverse dining experience. 

Cup of coffee in front of cabin view on river cruise.
Photo Credit: RomanticWeekendGetaways.com


As we mentioned earlier, the destinations that you’ll visit throughout your journey will vary greatly between a river and ocean cruise. 

Major cruise lines typically stop at well-known beachfront resorts and cities like Rome or Venice, while a riverboat cruise will stop at every port along the way. These consist mostly of charming hidden gems that would otherwise not be discovered. 

Each experience comes with its own advantages. Ocean cruises allow you to see all the “must-see” destinations in one trip, while river cruises give you a more authentic cultural experience. It really depends on what you prefer as a couple. 

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Just how many people are on an ocean cruise vs. a river cruise?

Cruise ships often have the capacity to accommodate around 6400 passengers. That’s almost like a small city floating on water! River cruises, on the other hand, will carry around 100 to 200 guests. This makes for a more intimate and personalized experience compared to the massive ocean liners.

The Case for River Cruises

River cruises often have a charming, historically rich atmosphere featuring exquisite wines and other local delicacies. Portugal’s Douro Valley is a great example of this, with its picturesque landscapes dotted with vineyards and ancient villages. 

So, what kind of couple would totally dig a river cruise? Couples that…

  • seek a more intimate and personalized vacation
  • have an interest in local culture and cuisine 
  • enjoy slower-paced travel and less crowds 
  • don’t mind spending more time off the ship than on it  
  • appreciate a more relaxed, romantic atmosphere

Grab our list of what to pack for a river cruise before you go!

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

The Case for Ocean Cruises

Ocean cruises often have a more exciting, fast-paced vibe with endless entertainment options and larger-than-life amenities. The Caribbean is a popular choice for ocean cruises, with its stunning beaches, crystal clear waters, and endless activities. 

An ocean cruise may be more your style if you’re a couple that…

  • is looking for a wider range of activities and entertainment options 
  • seeks a more all-inclusive experience with lots of amenities 
  • wants to explore popular tourist destinations and attractions
  • doesn’t mind larger crowds and more people on board 
  • enjoys a younger and livelier atmosphere  

Cruise Packing Essentials

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Versatile clothing

You want to make sure that you pack items that can be worn multiple times and styled in different ways. This will not only save space in your luggage but also help you avoid overpacking.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Walking shoes

Comfortable shoes are a must for any cruise, as you’ll be doing a lot of walking during excursions and around the ship. Make sure to bring a pair that is broken in and suitable for different types of terrain.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos


While most purchases on board a cruise ship can be made with a credit card, it’s always a good idea to have some cash on hand for tipping and small purchases at ports of call.

Terraces of the Douro river speckled with houses.
Photo Credit: RomanticWeekendGetaways.com

Making Your Choice

Now that you know the key differences between river and ocean cruises, it’s time to grab your sweetie and weigh out all the pros and cons. 

Where do your fantasies take you? Do you dream of sipping wine as you sail by ancient castles along the Danube? Or do you see yourself lounging in the sun on a tropical beach in the Caribbean? 

Consider what kind of experience you want as a couple, and don’t be afraid to try something new! 

Remember, your cruise experience is what you make of it. So whether you choose a river or ocean cruise, embrace the journey and take this special time to be fully present with one another. And don’t forget to share your own experiences and preferences in the comments below! 

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What’s the price difference between a river and an ocean cruise?

In general, river cruises tend to cost more than ocean cruises. This is because river cruises are much more intimate and offer a more personalized experience, with smaller ships and fewer passengers. On the other hand, ocean cruises often have larger ships that can accommodate more passengers, making them a more affordable option for travelers.

That said, the cost of a cruise ultimately depends on personal preferences and budget. For some, the initial cost of a river cruise may seem higher, but the amenities offered may be of higher value in comparison, depending on the experience they’re looking for.

Can I expect seasickness on a river cruise?

Getting seasickness on a river cruise isn’t very likely, as the waters are much calmer compared to ocean cruises. So expect nothing but smooth sailing!

Are river cruises more environmentally friendly than ocean cruises?

Yes, river cruises are generally considered to be more environmentally friendly than ocean cruises. They are more fuel efficient compared to ocean cruises, as they have less powerful engines and travel at slower speeds. 
River cruises also have an advantage when it comes to waste management. Because they operate in smaller bodies of water, there are stricter regulations on waste disposal and treatment.

What types of special interest cruises are available for each?

For river cruises, you can find many special interest experiences. For example, Avalon Waterways offers culinary cruises, photography enthusiast cruises, European history cruises, wine lovers cruises, and much more. 

Ocean cruises also offer unique special interest cruises that are more broad in category. Celebrity Cruises, for instance, has holiday cruises, culinary cruises, music-themed cruises, and LGBTQ+ cruises. 

View off the bow of MS Infante Don Henrique.
Photo Credit: RomanticWeekendGetaways.com

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