Aircraft Carrier vs Cruise Ship: Giant Size Comparison

Want to know how two of the world's largest types of ships compare? Read our aircraft carrier vs cruise ship guide. We will go over everything.

People have always been fascinated by gigantic ships. From history’s largest battleships to iconic passenger vessels, like the RMS Titanic, nothing captures the imagination quite like a sea-faring giant. That’s why we’re stacking up an aircraft carrier vs cruise ship and seeing how these vessels roam our seas.

Although they serve entirely different purposes, these two ships stand out as some of the largest and most intriguing. This guide will take a deep dive into comparing aircraft carriers and modern cruise ships so you can discover that they can actually be roughly the same size!

We’ll even explore how the world’s current largest aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford Class Aircraft Carrier, is only 92 feet shorter than the largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas.

Beyond offering a detailed size comparison, this comprehensive guide will also uncover differences in the purposes, maneuverability, and environmental impacts of these two types of ships. 

So, if you’re ready to learn more about these ocean giants, let’s get started!

How Does a Cruise Ship Compare to an Aircraft Carrier?

The average gross tonnage of a cruise ship is 150,000, along with an average length of 1,100 feet and 180 feet high. A typical aircraft carrier would be at 90,000 tonnes, 1,000 feet in length and 242 feet high. An aircraft carrier can often be much larger than a medium-sized cruise ship.

Aircraft Carriers

The concept of an aircraft carrier was first thought up during the First World War, as air power had demonstrated its significance in warfare. While early aircraft-carrying vessels developed by the British Royal Navy during this time failed to impress, these early aircraft carriers laid the foundations for the development of today’s enormous floating runway ships.

Gerald R. Ford Aircraft Carrier
Gerald R. Ford Aircraft Carrier

By the Second World War, the aircraft carrier had emerged as an essential weapon in naval warfare. Even outside of war, they serve as a stark projection of a nation’s military might. With missions ranging from combat to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, today’s enormous and cutting-edge aircraft carriers hardly resemble the humble carriers of the early 20th century, like the HMS Furious

Cruise Ships

Like aircraft carriers, cruise ships emerged in the early 20th century. While luxury ocean liners and ferries already existed, their primary purpose was transportation. The concept of a large-scale passenger ship explicitly designed for leisure and pleasure cruising was pretty new.

The first modern cruise ship, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise, was launched in 1900, and it featured luxury accommodations and amenities, as well as leisurely voyages to exotic locations.

Icon of the Seas in Miami, Florida
Icon of the Seas in Miami, Florida (Photo Credit: Felix Mizioznikov)

Today, cruise ships have grown in size and complexity to the point that they have almost evolved into floating resorts. By the 1960s, a growing tourism market meant the idea of relaxing on a luxury cruise ship had fully entered popular culture. Today, the cruise industry generates over $150 billion in economic activity and involves numerous cruise lines. 

Aircraft Carrier vs Cruise Ship Size Comparison 

As mentioned, cruise ships and aircraft carriers may serve completely different roles and have distinct backgrounds, but they are fairly similar in physical size. To illustrate this point, we have provided a simple chart that compares the world’s largest cruise ship and the world’s largest aircraft carrier, as well as more general size comparisons of average vessels in each class: 

MetricAverage Aircraft CarrierUSS Gerald R. Ford-classAverage Cruise ShipIcon of the Seas
Length1,000 feet1,106 feet1,100 feet1,198 feet
Width180 feet257 feet125 feet225.5 feet
Depth / Height242 feet250 feet180 feet198 feet
Tonnage90,000 Tonnes100,000 Tonnes150,000 Gross Tons248,663 Gross Tons

As you can see from a comparison of the current record holders for size, cruise ships tend to be longer than aircraft carriers, while the latter tends to be wider. An aircraft carrier’s added width and depth is due to accommodate and store aircraft. Due to tailhook technology, aircraft carriers do not need overly long flight decks, but the width helps with emergency landings and organizing aircraft before takeoff. 

Aircraft Carrier and Cruise Ship
Aircraft Carrier and Cruise Ship (Photo Credit: Peter Titmuss)

On the other hand, cruise ships are far denser, which explains the added weight. Since their many decks are packed with passenger cabins and suites, heavy amenities like swimming pools and restaurants, and so much more, their gross tonnage can be substantial. Plus, their added length, which helps them fit more into a streamlined ship, also contributes to their weight.

Simply put, aircraft carriers tend to be wider and taller than cruise ships, but cruise ships are usually heavier and longer. 

Construction and Cost Differences 

Given that both types of ships are incredibly large and complex, it is no surprise that construction takes years. The following is a basic breakdown of the differences in the processes: 

Cruise Ships

Construction typically takes between two and three years. The design and planning phase involves a collaboration between the cruise lines, naval architects, and shipyard engineers. Conceptualizing the ship’s specifications, layout, and types of amenities it will be outfitted with is an incredibly complex process.

Read Also: How Long Does It Take to Build a Cruise Ship?

Once a design has been finalized, the hull is assembled using enormous prefabricated steel plates. This occurs in a dry dock. From there, the ship’s interior can be outfitted with everything from passenger cabins to restaurants and recreational facilities. The vessel must also have the latest navigational systems, massive propulsion systems, fuel tanks, and a heavy cruise ship anchor.

Icon of the Seas Construction
Photo Credit: Niko Alakoski / @finki.22

Unlike cargo ships and other less complex vessels, the ships also need reliable HVAC systems for customer comfort and large-scale electrical systems capable of handling the ship’s immense power demands. 

Once everything has been installed and the ship is fully furnished, rigorous sea trials are conducted to test the ship’s performance, safety, and compliance with maritime regulations

While cruise ships vary in cost according to their size and what amenities are included in their design, most cost just shy of $1 billion to build. With that said, the world’s largest and most expensive cruise ship, the Icon of the Seas, cost Royal Caribbean International an estimated $2 billion!

Aircraft Carriers

Due to their complexity, aircraft carriers take longer to build. For most, the entire process spans 5 to 7 years, with each ship having unique demands according to its operational requirements.

Not only do these ships need to be outfitted with incredibly complex systems, but the entire process involves a shroud of secrecy, as these ships are incredibly valuable pieces of military hardware. 

The process starts with the laying of the keel. From there, the high-strength steel alloy hull is attached. The hulls must be capable of withstanding the hardships of ocean travel and extreme weather, and they also need to be engineered to withstand the demands of a potential combat situation.

Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier
Queen Elizabeth Aircraft Carrier (Photo Credit: Peter Titmuss)

Once the outer structure of the ship has been completed, a vast array of complex systems, like aircraft elevators, recovery systems, firefighting systems, defensive armaments, and navigation equipment, must be installed and tested. On top of that, the enormous flight decks that are such an iconic feature of an aircraft carrier also have to be built.

The same is true for the internal hangars for the various types of aircraft the ship will carry, crew quarters, and the countless other needs of a ship that needs to be ready for both aerial and naval combat.

Gerald R Ford Aircraft Carrier
Gerald R Ford Aircraft Carrier (Photo Credit: Fotogenix)

On top of all that, modern aircraft carriers are even powered by nuclear reactors, so they can stay operational indefinitely. As you can imagine, building a nuclear-powered ship is incredibly time-consuming and demanding. Finally, before the ship can be deemed ready for service, it must be thoroughly tested.

Unsurprisingly, all of this complexity comes with an eye-watering price tag. Most of the latest classes of aircraft carriers, like the Nimitz-Class carriers operated by the United States, cost over $6 billion to build. 

Differences in Purpose and Function 

As we discussed earlier, the two types of vessels serve entirely different purposes. Where an aircraft carrier’s main job is to be a significant source of naval power by being able to act as a floating airfield and mobile base, cruise ships are designed with the passenger experience as the top priority.

Aircraft Carrier and Cruise Ships
Aircraft Carrier and Cruise Ships (Photo Credit: Martin of Sweden)

While aircraft carriers can certainly act as hugely significant weapons of war and as combat command centers, they also work as war deterrents. Demonstrating a nation’s naval and air superiority in the world’s most highly contested waters discourages hostile nations from attacking others. They can also serve a valuable purpose during humanitarian missions by delivering aid and evacuation aircraft worldwide. 

On the other hand, cruise ships enable passengers to experience the adventure and relaxation of a floating paradise that can travel to the most incredible destinations. While they have many of the same features that make a resort vacation so enjoyable, they are mobile, so passengers can visit ports around the world and take in the natural beauty of the world’s coastlines, oceans, and seas. 

Facilities, Amenities, and Systems 

Cruise Ships

Cruise ship facilities and amenities differ according to the specific design of the ship, but most feature numerous restaurants and bars, theaters for live performances and entertainment, casinos, swimming pools and water parks, lounge decks, spas, gyms, and more.

Royal Caribbean's Icon of the Seas
Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas (Photo Credit: lightmax84)

Cruise ships have a wide range of comfortable facilities, entertaining amenities, and luxury accommodations, so their guests can enjoy the unique blend of adventure, fun, and relaxation that is unique to the cruise industry. 

Aircraft Carriers

Aircraft carriers feature a wide array of offensive and defensive systems and all the facilities required to house their enormous crews. They must also function as floating runways for military aircraft, including fighter jets and helicopters.

Nuclear powered aircraft carrier
Nuclear powered aircraft carrier (Photo Credit: Aerial-motion)

On top of military systems and hardware, like missile defense systems, these floating bases also need medical bays, crew quarters, mess halls, gyms, laundry facilities, and storage areas. Think of an aircraft carrier as a mixture of a floating military base, an air force airfield, and a naval vessel.

Number of Passengers and Crew 

Aircraft carriers usually carry a complement of over 5,000 individuals. This number includes sailors, naval officers, pilots, and countless support personnel responsible for maintaining the ship and the complex systems and aircraft it carries. On top of that, you have engineers, navigators, doctors, cooks, and more.

Royal Caribbean Passengers
Royal Caribbean Passengers

On the other hand, the passenger capacity of cruise ships sits at an average of about 3,000 passengers. The average ship will also travel with a crew of nearly 1,000 people. That said, the number can fluctuate depending on the size of the ship. Take, for example, the Icon of the Seas, which was designed to hold 5,610 passengers and a crew of 2,350

Fuel Source, Top Speed, and Maneuverability 

Modern aircraft carriers are powered by nuclear reactors that can propel their powerful engines at a speed exceeding 30 knots (roughly 55.5 km per hour). On top of that, these enormous ships are also incredibly agile, as they need to be able to pivot direction and respond quickly to threats and new orders.

Icon of the Seas Sailing and Wake
Icon of the Seas Sailing and Wake

On the other hand, cruise ships rely on diesel-electric propulsion systems. A cruise ship’s top speed is generally 18 to 22 knots. Since these vessels were designed for passenger comfort rather than military action and rapid transit, they move at a slower and more consistent pace.

Their propulsion systems are also designed to maximize fuel efficiency, as this reduces operating costs, environmental impact, and the amount of diesel fuel they need to carry. 

Environmental Impacts

Since aircraft carriers use nuclear reactors that generate steam to drive their turbines, they emit less emissions than you get with fossil fuel-powered ships. Although reducing greenhouse emissions was not the intention, it is a major plus, given these huge ships travel enormous distances and stay at sea for months at a time.

Disney Cruise Line Ship
Disney Cruise Line Ship (Photo Credit: Just dance)

On the other hand, the diesel engines used by cruise ships need to burn a significant amount of fuel as a power source for their propulsion and electrical systems. This does contribute heavily to air pollution, but the cruise industry is working to improve its environmental image by introducing more fuel-efficient ships, and other tactics, like using onboard waste reduction and recycling systems. 

Safety and Security Measures 

Since aircraft carriers are military vessels, they face extreme security challenges. Defensive systems, like anti-aircraft missiles and close-in weapons gun systems, help protect the ship from aerial threats. Sprinkler systems and firefighting crews also help reduce the threat of fires.

Large Aircraft Carrier
Large Aircraft Carrier (Photo Credit: apiguide)

Traditional safety measures are also used to protect the crew, including adequate lifeboats for all personnel and incredibly complex navigation and communications systems.

Worth Reading: What to Expect During a Cruise Ship Muster Drill

Cruise ships are outfitted with fire suppression systems, CCTV systems, complex weather detection and communications systems, and lifeboats to keep their guests and crew safe. Plus, the entire crew and security staff are trained to follow the safety procedures needed to keep everyone safe in any situation.

Typical Routes                  

When it comes to aircraft carrier vs cruise ship, both types of ships traverse waters around the world, but aircraft carriers tend to prioritize strategic choke points and high-traffic waterways. This allows them to contribute to global stability and react to various situations around the globe.

PortMiami Cruise Ships
PortMiami Cruise Ships (Photo Credit: Felix Mizioznikov / Shutterstock)

On the other hand, cruise ships usually have itineraries that take them to areas with a booming tourism sector, like the Caribbean and Mediterranean, as well as places with picturesque natural beauty, like Alaska. With that said, cruise lines are operating all over the world, each offering unique itineraries that visit exciting destinations and offer memorable excursions. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

Which is bigger, an oil tanker or an aircraft carrier?

As the world’s largest ships, typical oil tankers tend to be bigger than aircraft carriers in terms of length and width. They also weigh more, especially when fully loaded with their liquid cargo. Take, for example, the largest ship ever built, a super oil tanker called the Seawise Giant. It measured over 1,500 feet in length! 

Which is bigger, a container ship or an aircraft carrier? 

A container ship is usually bigger than an aircraft carrier, as they are built to be as large as possible to carry cargo across the world’s oceans and largest seas. 

What is so special about an aircraft carrier?

Aircraft carriers are one of the most important symbols of power and tools of military might in a nation’s arsenal. These mobile air bases can react to threats worldwide while safeguarding the world’s oceans.

Emrys Thakkar
Emrys Thakkar
The founder of Cruise Hive which was established in 2008 as one of the earliest cruise blogs in the industry. Emrys has been reporting on the latest cruise industry news since the site first launched. Expert insights and tips featured on a number of publications including The Express, Business Insider, and more. Worked for Carnival Cruise Line for 8 years and is well and truly dedicated to cruising! Has also been on a number of cruises so can offer an insight into the industry that many will not be able to do. What's even more impressive is that Emrys has traveled the world by visiting more than 34 countries, lived in China for 8 years, and cruised the Caribbean, Baltic, Mediterranean, Asia, and Europe. Find out more about us here.

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