How Fast do Cruise Ships Go?



Marcello De Lio

I’ve been cruising since I was 11 years old. I love the freedom that cruising provides, meeting new people, and exploring amazing new ships. I love to share my passion for cruising and travel with readers.
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If you’ve ever sailed on one of these huge floating cities, you know the feeling of relaxing on the top deck and looking out over the horizon as your ship travels to its next port.

As you sail through the open seas, you’ve likely wondered, how fast do cruise ships go?

How Fast Do Cruise Ships Go?

Norwegian Cruise Line cruise ship sailing at a fast speed

The average cruising speed of a cruise ship is 19-23 knots (22-26mph).

Keep in mind that this is an average cruising speed. Modern cruise ships rarely reach top speed except to avoid bad weather, during sea trials, or if there’s a medical emergency.

The maximum speed of a cruise ship is around 22-27 knots (25 to 31 miles per hour).

Top Speed vs. Cruising Speed

When judging the speed of a cruise ship, we need to understand the difference between top speed and cruising speed.

Most cruise ships can travel faster than their regular cruising speed. But, unless there is a compelling reason to reach top speed, they’ll rarely travel that fast.

For the most part, a cruise ship will only ever reach its top speed during its sea trial. The sea trials push the ship to its limits to ensure it meets its safety and navigational specification before welcoming passengers.

So even if a cruise ship can travel at a top speed of 30 knots, it will almost never reach it.

Think about your car.

Many vehicles can travel at speeds in excess of 100mph, but how often do you ever travel that fast?

Safety considerations aside, fuel efficiency is a concern for ships.

Just like your car, when a cruise ship travels faster, it consumes more fuel. If you wonder why fuel consumption is an essential concern for large cruise ships, consider that a large ship can burn through 250 tons of fuel every day.

That’s equivalent to over 80,000 gallons of fuel!

Passenger comfort is another reason for cruise ships to travel at slower speeds. The faster the ship’s speed, the bumpier the ride for passengers.

A slower cruising speed results in more of the hull being submerged, making for a smoother ride and happier passengers.

At the end of the day, cruise ships only ever travel as fast as they need to in order to reach the next port. The captain of the ship will optimize the sailing speed to reach the next port on time without burning excess fuel.

If the ship is late or has a long way to travel, the captain will sail at a faster speed to ensure the ship makes it to the next port on time.

But, if the vessel is ahead of schedule or only has a short distance to travel, the captain will sail the ship at a slower speed to minimize fuel consumption.

Fuel consumption is so important that some cruise ship captains receive a bonus for how much fuel they save.

Cruise ships generally travel at an optimized cruising speed that is fast enough to make it to the next port of call on time but slow enough to provide passengers with a safe and comfortable ride.

Aside from the ship’s sea trials, there are a couple of rare circumstances where a vessel may reach top speed; to avoid bad weather or offer assistance to another ship’s distress call.

The Difficulty of Measuring a Ship’s Top Speed

Getting an accurate measurement of the top speed of a cruise ship isn’t as easy as it looks.

That’s because factors such as the direction of the wind, waves, weather, and ocean currents can affect the vessel’s speed. These factors make it tricky to accurately measure a ship’s top speed.

For example, a cruise ship travels faster when sailing in the same direction as the waves.

There’s never a perfect condition to conduct a speed test. Instead, cruise ships use an average speed that considers traveling with and against the waves and in a variety of sailing conditions.

The average speed of a cruise ship provides a more accurate measure than taking the single fastest recorded speed.

Factors That Affect Cruise Ship Speed

Now that you know how fast cruise ships travel and how to measure knots, it’s important to understand the different factors affecting travel speed.

1. The Cruise Itinerary

During a cruise, the ship runs on a very tight schedule. It’s the captain’s job is to ensure that the cruise ship reaches each port at the scheduled time.

If the ship is late, it could result in hefty fines from the cruise port, not to mention the thousands of passengers who are now upset that they’ve missed their shore excursion.

And, if the cruise ship arrives early, it means the vessel used more fuel than necessary while traveling to the port.

A cruise ship captain is responsible for optimizing the ship’s speed to reach the next port at the scheduled arrival time. Arriving too early or too late can result in tens of thousands of dollars in port fees or excess fuel consumption.

2. Fuel

As we previously discussed, faster speeds are less fuel-efficient. If a ship is not in a hurry to reach the next destination, it will travel slower to conserve fuel.

Fuel is one of the largest expenses for a cruise ship. Minimizing fuel costs is so important that some cruise lines offer bonuses to captains for how much fuel they save during a sailing.

3. Distance to Shore

Cruise ships slow down as they approach ports to maneuver for docking properly. If a cruise ship arrives early, the captain may anchor at sea until the scheduled arrival time.

And, if the cruise ship is navigating through a narrow passage, such as Alaska’s Inside Passage, they will travel at a slower speed to safely navigate the waters.

4. Weather & Sea Conditions

Bad weather can ruin any vacation, especially a cruise vacation.

Thunderstorms and rough seas can appear out of nowhere, especially in the tropics. A cruise ship may need to speed up or slow down to avoid severe weather that could impact its guests. Avoiding bad weather is one of the rare times when a cruise ship might hit top speed as it races to avoid an oncoming storm.

5. Hazards

Cruise ships may travel at a slower speed if there is a hazard risk. For example, cruise ships may need to travel at a slower speed in some areas, such as Alaska and Antarctica, to avoid icebergs.

What is a Knot?

The term “knot” is short for “nautical miles per hour,” and is a measure of distance traveled through the water.

A single knot is 6,076 feet, while a mile is 5,280 feet. Compared to a mile on land (known as a statute mile), one knot is approximately 15% larger.

The difference between statute miles and knots is a result of how they were created.

The origin of the land mile dates back to Roman times when one mile was measured at 1,000 paces or 5,000 Roman feet. The current length of a statute mile was set by it was set at 5,280 feet by Queen Elizabeth I in 1593.

The term “mile” originates from the Roman term mille passus which translates to “thousand paces.”

On the other hand, nautical miles were created in 1929 and are based on the degrees of latitude around the earth, where one nautical mile is equal to one minute of latitude.

In simpler terms, a nautical mile is calculated by dividing the circumference of the earth by 360 degrees. Each of the degrees is then divided into 60 minutes, where one minute is the same as a nautical mile. When used in navigation, minutes are commonly referred to as “minutes of arc.”

Although nautical miles are a bit trickier to understand, they are more intuitive than counting 1,000 paces.

According to the NOAA “Using latitude and longitude coordinates is more practical for long-distance travel, where the curvature of the Earth becomes a factor of accurate measurement.”

Why Do Cruise Ships Use Knots Instead of Miles Per Hour?

Vessels that travel long distances, such as ships, planes, and rockets, use latitude and longitude for measuring distances on a map.

Nautical miles are the preferred measure of distance at sea because they allow sailors to quickly access distance on nautical maps which use longitude and latitude.

Fun fact: Air and space travel also use nautical miles to measure distance.

How to Convert Knots to Miles Per Hour?

To convert a speed in knots to miles per hour, simply multiply the knots by 1.1508. The result is the speed in miles per hour. 

What is the Fastest Cruise Ship?

Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2 the world's fastest cruise ship anchoring off the coast of Saint Lucia

As a standard rule of thumb, smaller ships can travel faster because they are smaller and lighter, and therefore don’t need to displace as much water as larger vessels.

Many people consider the fastest cruise ship to be Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, which has a top speed of 30 knots. But, the Queen Mary 2 isn’t actually a cruise ship – it’s an ocean liner.

The ship was originally built to transport passengers across the Atlantic. Its pointed bow, reinforced hull, raised lifeboats, and lower center of gravity are all hallmarks of an ocean liner.

Compared to a cruise ship, an ocean liner is defined as a ship whose primary purpose is transportation, while a cruise ship is built for leisure.

There is no official fastest cruise ship as far as I can find.

And there doesn’t need to be.

Cruise ships are supposed to be leisurely. While I’m sunbathing on deck, enjoying a tropical drink, I’m not concerned about how fast our ship is traveling.

So what does it matter which cruise ship is the fastest?

What’s the Fastest Ocean Liner in History?

SS United States the world's fastest ocean liner

Although the Queen Mary 2 is the fastest ocean liner in operation, it’s not the fastest ever built.

During the post-war years of World War II, ocean liners were competing for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.

In 1952, the SS United States became the world’s fastest ship maintaining an average cruising speed of 35.5 knots and a top speed of 39 knots. A record it still holds today!

Cruise Ship Speed FAQs

What’s the Fastest Cruise Ship Today?

Although technically an ocean liner, the Queen Mary 2 is the fastest cruise ship in service today. Built in 2003, the Queen Mary 2 has an average service speed of 24-26 knots and an impressive top speed of 30 knots.

What Factors Affect Cruise Ship Sailing Speed?

Outside of the initial sea trials, most cruise ships will never travel at their top speed. Factors that affect the traveling speed include the cruise itinerary, fuel, distance to shore, weather, and sea conditions.

Cruise ships primarily operate at a standard cruising speed that balances safety and efficiency while keeping to their cruise itinerary.

How Far Can a Cruise Ship Go in One Day?

A cruise ship traveling at a standard cruising speed can cover approximately 500 nautical miles (575 land miles) in 24 hours. For example, in 24 hours, a cruise ship can travel from Port Canaveral, Florida, to Havana, Cuba. Or Barcelona, Spain, to Livorno (Pisa), Italy.

Of course, this doesn’t account for the weather, fuel consumption, ocean currents, and other hazards. But it gives you a good approximation of what a typical cruise ship can travel in one day.

Are Cruise Ships Eco-Friendly?

Cruise ships require a lot of resources to operate. An average-size cruise ship uses 1.84 gallons of fuel per second or 6640 gallons per hour. As a result, the industry has taken a lot of heat for its environmental impact. But that is changing as cruise lines work to improve the efficiency of their ships and minimize their effects on marine life.

Many modern ships are built with LNG engines with lower emissions than traditional diesel engines. Many use advanced technologies to improve food use, waste management, noise pollution, and wastewater recycling.

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About the author

Marcello De Lio

I’ve been cruising since I was 11 years old. I love the freedom that cruising provides, meeting new people, and exploring amazing new ships. I love to share my passion for cruising and travel with readers.

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