So you’re thinking about a cruise vacation this year and you see a deal on the Norwegian Epic for a 7-day Mediterranean cruise, sailing roundtrip from Barcelona with calls at Naples, Rome, Livorno (Florence and Pisa), Marseille and Palma de Majorca. The ticket price per person for a balcony cabin with sailings in September runs between $1,000 and $1,100. Depending on where you shop, there may be some discounts in the form of onboard credits or upgrades.
Compare this with an 8-day (no 7-day options available) Viking river cruise sailing on the Danube River in September, from Budapest to Nuremberg, with calls in Vienna, Melk, Passau, Regensburg and Main. The per-person price starts at around $3,000 for September sailings in a non-balcony cabin. At first glance, the ocean cruise seems like the better buy by far. Not so fast. Let’s see what each ticket price includes, not just in terms of price, but also in total experience.
The ocean cruise includes your accommodations, onboard meals and some beverages (coffee, iced tea, unbottled water, but no alcohol or soft drinks) and scheduled daily activities. It does not include shore excursions, personal expenses (like Internet and spa treatments), government fees and taxes or gratuities.
The river cruise price includes accommodations, onboard meals, wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, a total of six guided tours with audio headsets, Internet and all port charges. The price does not include gratuities. Allowing for the additional day on the river (and the fact that we’re comparing different cruise experiences), the river cruise could easily turn out to be the better buy, depending on the kind of vacation you want.
Consider first the big ship experience (the Norwegian Epic carries about 4,200 passengers), with all the glitz and glitter that comes with a big ship: formal nights; cocktail parties; Broadway-style shows (including Blue Man Group and Le Cirque); indoor and outdoor pools; a two-story sports complex that includes a full-size basketball court, batting cage, rock climbing wall, the first rappelling wall at sea and a 24-foot enclosed climbing cage; a teen center, a bowling alley, a full-service spa, salon and fitness center (with classes); multiple bars, lounges and dining venues, casino gambling and a water park for kids.
With all this come the hassles of sailing with thousands of other passengers: boarding the ship; disembarkations at ports, where big ships may require the use of tenders to get to shore; long lines at buffets and activities that everyone else wants to try, etc.
If for you, the attractions outweigh the inconvenience, and if you stick to the included dining options, avoid ordering cocktails, wine, soft drinks and premium coffees and non-included snacks in the lounges, manage your own tours in the ports, pass up the ship’s photographers, skip the spa treatments and visit Internet cafes in port, then an ocean cruise can indeed be a very big bargain.
The Viking river cruise carries fewer than 200 passengers , so the onboard experience and service will be more personal. There is no formal seating at meals, which allows you to choose your dining companions. You will have regional wines (or beers) at no charge to complement your meals and when weather permits, you can choose to dine outdoors on the Aquavit Terrace. Internet (which is spotty on both ocean and river cruises) is free. Your onboard entertainment will include multimedia talks on the destinations you visit, as well as complementary hands-on demonstrations (such as tastings of local wines and cheeses and cooking classes on regional specialties).
River ships dock right in the heart of the cities and towns they visit and they spend more time in port, which gives you more time to sightsee, explore and shop. The included tours are of a high quality with experienced guides. Boarding and disembarking are relatively simple and quick.
There is one more cost element to consider before you choose: getting to the cities where these cruises start. If you’re doing a European cruise, where on an ocean ship or river boat, you will need to book air to your starting destination.
However, if you’re doing an ocean cruise that departs from a U.S. (and many do, to destinations in Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda), you may be within driving distance, which will save you money and the hassles of air travel.
And finally, there is the demographic, the people who will be your fellow passengers. On an ocean cruise, there is a greater mix of age/income/education groups. If you’re traveling as a family, the ocean ships provide many more services. The Epic offers fee-based babysitting and Port Play and lLate Night options, as well as the complimentary programs for ages 2-27 and Nickelodeon at Sea™ events. The Norwegian ship also attracts singles because the ship has Studio Staterooms for single occupancy and a private Living Room where singles can meet and join activities coordinated by the cruise staff.
The river boats tend to attract higher income older guests who are well-traveled and well educated. Younger guests are rare unless they are part of a multi-generational family group. So if you are older and would prefer a quiet, hassle-free experience, the rivers could be more appealing.
So with all this information at your disposal, choose the better cruise option for you. Bon Voyage!