Ocean Liner vs Cruise Ship – What are the Differences?

While often used interchangeably, the differences between an ocean liner vs a cruise ship are stark. They are two different vessels that, while similar, still offer a world of difference when it comes to size, build, and experience.

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Often, the words cruise ship and ocean liner are used interchangeably. Most people don’t realize that there are significant differences between the two types of ships. Some are fundamental, while others are measurable. We delve deeper into what constitutes an ocean liner as opposed to a cruise ship.

Differences Between Ocean Liners and Cruise Ships

Ocean liners are used to go from one destination to another. There tend not to be arrivals at multiple ports as they usually run across larger spans of ocean, including from the U.S. to Europe. Since they can experience various changes in weather, they need to be strongly built by using large amounts of steel in the hull.

Bows on these ships are tapered and long, allowing them to cut through waves. Deep drafts allow them to be more stable while still being designed for speed.

Cruise Ship Wake
Cruise Ship Wake (Photo Credit: atm2003 / Shutterstock)

Ocean liners can be used as passenger ships or carry cargo overseas. Cargo ships are often referred to as ocean liners. They carry cargo, pallets, and containers to various destinations. Ocean liners will sit lower in the water than cruise ships, making them more capable of handling poor weather conditions.

Cruise ships, on the other hand, make several stops at various ports. They have multiple destinations, and the purpose is recreational rather than business. Cruise ships also tend to embark on shorter voyages.

Physical Differences

Since both ships have different purposes, they are designed very differently.

  • Primary Function – Cruise ships were built for leisure activities, whereas ocean liners were created for multiple purposes like transporting passengers, goods, containers, pallets, and large quantities of items from port to port.
  • Shape – A cruise ship will sit higher in the water and be more subject to differences in weather. An ocean liner rests lower in the water with a pointed bow. This makes it better able to withstand inclement weather. The bow tends to be longer to protect the vessel against the waves.
  • Thickness of the Hull – A cruise ship will have a standard thickness, whereas an ocean liner is designed to be extra thick to improve its durability and support the weight it is carrying. The steel tends to be several inches thicker than that found on a cruise ship.
  • Speed – Cruise ships move at a standard speed due to the passengers on board. There are detriments to it moving quickly through the water. An ocean liner moves quickly through water. Ocean liners go on scheduled voyages, which require more speed. Schedules on an ocean liner need to be maintained despite changes in weather.
  • Experience Onboard – Since a cruise ship is designed for leisure and carries thousands of guests, the onboard experience is luxurious, fun, and elegant. On an ocean liner carrying cargo, the atmosphere is varied.
  • Bridge is Higher on the Ship – Navigation bridges on an ocean liner rest on the top of most decks. This provides a good view and acts to protect the navigation equipment in the event of a storm.
  • Location of Lifeboats – Since ocean liners experience heavy seas – especially when crossing during the winter months – the boat deck is closer to the top of the ship, allowing the boats to be better protected from moisture.

Design Difference

As mentioned, ocean liners sit lower in the water and have a pointed bow. They are better equipped to handle bad weather and minimize the sensation of movement aboard the ship. Cruise ships, on the other hand, are more raised and are not as aerodynamic.

Ship Design
Photo Credit: shaineast / Shutterstock

They are not well-equipped to handle bad weather at all. The captain of an ocean liner will be able to successfully navigate through a storm due to the ship’s build. A cruise ship captain will need to be able to change the course and navigate around a storm because the ship will not be able to withstand the force against the boat.

When confronted with bad weather, a cruise ship will slow down, whereas ocean liners will go full steam ahead.

When it comes to materials, ocean liners contain stronger hulls comprised of a durable steel. Cruise liners are generally made of steel; however, they aren’t as strong or as thick as ocean liners. A cruise ship, because of its destinations, doesn’t need to be made as durably as a vessel crossing the ocean.

Speed Differences

Ocean liners are designed to go faster than a cruise ship. The quickest ocean liner, the SS United States, traveled at 39 knots, or 45 miles per hour. Currently, the fastest ocean liner is the Queen Mary 2, which goes at 30 knots (35 miles per hour).

SS United States
Photo Credit: Felix Mizioznikov / Shutterstock

Recently, cruise ships have been increasing in speed. Some cruise lines conduct repositioning cruises that begin and end in different ports. Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas travels at 22 knots at full speed.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Jade, Pearl, Dawn, and Gem can cruise at 25 knots (29 miles per hour). Its fastest ship to date is the Norwegian Jewel, which has a maximum speed of 26 knots.

Variations in Atmosphere

Cruising on an ocean liner is like traveling on a modern cruise ship. The luxury cruise line Cunard Line strictly enforces dress codes and has established times for dining. The overall ambiance includes touches of elegance.

Cruise ships are designed specifically with onboard activities in mind. Their goal is to create an overall experience for guests. This is what is detailed in their design. Cruise ships contain several bars, restaurants, swimming pools, choice in cabins, casinos, theaters, gyms, and spas.

When going on a cruise, passengers look forward to the experience, which is equally important as the destination.

Ocean Liners

Today, there aren’t many ocean liners still in service. The only one still in operation is the Queen Mary 2, which is owned by Cunard Line. Queen Mary 2 frequently makes trans-atlantic cruises, along with smaller travels from South Hampton and New York.

As a hotel, guests can choose from the Queen Mary, SS Rotterdam, and Queen Elizabeth 2, which are all floating hotels.

Queen Mary 2 Ship
Queen Mary 2 (Photo Credit: Stephan Backensfeld / Shutterstock)

Traditional ocean liners are used in a similar manner that one would use a bus, train, or airplane. The overall experience is dependent on cost to board the ship. For those who paid more to be in a higher class, the experience is like that of a cruise ship.

Passengers experience fine dining, and they can also work out in gyms, relax in a spa, go to a swimming pool, and enjoy space on the top deck. If the passenger paid for tickets that were budget-friendly, the voyage will not include many extras.

Why Aren’t More Ocean Liners Being Built?

The last ocean liner designed was the Queen Mary 2 in 2003. These vessels are no longer created because cruise ships can do similar things. Modern cruises are capable of going long distances and going through poor weather conditions.

Queen Mary 2 Ocean Liner
Photo Credit: Wayleebird / Shutterstock.com

Changes in Cruise Ship Designs

The recent decline in ocean liners may be because cruise ships are now pushing the limits of ship design. Ships that are faster and larger than ever are now being built.

The cruise line industry discovered the opportunity to increase its revenue by charging for repositioning cruises. This forced them to make experiences onboard more pleasant in poor weather.

When you compare ocean liners and cruise lines, you will note that there are stark differences. In years to come, there may not be cause for distinction as the fate of the ocean liner is still unknown. Perhaps instead of being a passenger ship, the focus will be more on transporting cargo.

Read Also: How Big is a Cruise Ship?

While there are few still in service, ocean liners have been around for a long time. Their gradual decline has been due to the emergence of cruise lines that offer a more relaxed atmosphere, with a focus on activities onboard accompanied by port excursions. For a cruise line, it is as much about the experience as the destination.

For an ocean liner, there is comfort, but it sails more with the destination in mind as activities tend to be more scaled back.

Haiyan Ma
Haiyan Ma
I absolutely love cruising with my favorite ports of call being in the Caribbean. As a former crew member for Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival Cruise Line I can continue my passion by sharing my experiences with readers. Find out more about us here.

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