Ocean Liner vs Cruise Ship: What’s the Difference



Victoria Ridley

I love to travel, see new places, and meet new people. I have been lucky enough to travel on multiple continents, as well as several cruise lines. I am passionate about sharing my experience with readers.
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Many people use the terms cruise ship and ocean liner interchangeably. Both types of vessels look very similar at first glance. And most people would struggle to tell the difference.

Although both types of passenger ships carry passengers on voyages around the globe, there are many differences in their design, construction, and purpose.

This article will highlight everything you need to know between ocean liner vs cruise ship. It all comes down to their mission:

An Ocean liner’s primary purpose is to transport people or cargo across large ocean distances, while cruise ships are for leisure and recreational voyages, typically sailing near the coast.

Queen Mary 2 and MSC Cruise Ship Comparison

Purpose of an Ocean Liner vs Cruise Ship

The difference between a cruise ship and an ocean liner is most striking when comparing their purpose.

The purpose of an ocean liner is to carry passengers and cargo from one destination to another, while modern cruise ships are for relaxing and leisurely voyages. Unlike an ocean liner, which serves to transport passengers from point A to point B, cruise ships are often a destination in and of themselves.

As you will see, the difference between the purpose of a cruise ship and an ocean liner heavily influences everything from their design to their construction and even the onboard atmosphere.

Differences in Ship Design

RMS Queen Elizabeth at Cherbourg, France, in 1966
RMS Queen Elizabeth displays the signature style of an ocean liner. The ship has a long, pointed bow, raised bridge and lifeboats, and sits low in the water.

Ocean liners are explicitly built for speed, safety, and durability to complete long-distance sailings in the open ocean. They often complete transatlantic crossings sailing after sailing and must withstand the beating of the open ocean.

Ocean liners sit low in the water and have a long, pointed bow, cutting through waves and sailing at faster speeds.

An ocean liner also features a reinforced hull to withstand the beating of large waves and bad weather. The bridge and lifeboats are also positioned differently than on a cruise ship.

The bridge on an ocean liner is higher up, typically on the topmost deck. This position provides the bridge crew with a good view for navigation, but it also protects the bridge from large waves in bad weather.

Ocean liners are no stranger to rough seas, which is why their lifeboats need protection from the elements – waves, wind, and rain. Ocean liner lifeboats are positioned inboard near the top decks of the vessel.

By comparison, cruise ships often sit high out of the water, with a less aerodynamic hull. Cruise ships are adequately constructed; however, they are designed more like floating hotels than for swift transportation, giving them a box-like appearance.

Cruise ships can cross large bodies of water and frequently do during repositioning cruises. However, they aren’t designed for repeatedly traveling journey after journey.

Since cruise ships function as leisure vessels, they actively avoid rough seas and typically sail closer to the coast. Unlike an ocean liner, cruise ships may change speed or alter course to avoid bad weather. This is partly out of concern for guest safety and enjoyment.

Tip: If you are worried about getting motion sick on a cruise, check out our post to prevent and treat seasickness.

Differences in Construction

Ocean liners have a stronger hull than modern cruise ships. The steel hull constructed for an ocean liner is several inches thicker than cruise ships.

For example, Queen Mary 2 features steel hull plating for extra rigidity during Atlantic crossings.

Ocean liners are purposefully heavy with a thicker hull and greater draft to remain more stable while at sea. The thick hull provides greater rigidity and durability for higher waves in the open ocean.

Modern cruise ships are still primarily made of steel, but their hulls aren’t as thick or strong as that of ocean liners. Since they spend most of their time in calm waters close to shore, their hulls don’t experience the same stress as a modern ocean liner.

Differences in Ship Speed

SS United States in the 1950s
The SS United States in the 1950s. The ship holds the record as the fastest cruise ship or ocean liner ever built.

Ocean liners are typically faster than cruise ships. Remember, the primary purpose of an ocean liner is to transport people and cargo across large ocean distances. In the 1800s and early 1900s, sailing was the most cost-effective and safest form of transportation between Europe and North America.

During the post-war period, shipping companies competed to set the quickest time for crossing the Atlantic ocean.

The SS United States holds the fastest cruise ship ever built with a top sailing speed of 39 knots (45mph). The fastest ocean liner still in service is the famous Queen Mary 2, with a top speed of 30 knots (35mph) – faster than any modern cruise ship.[2]

Cruise ships have an average speed of around 20-22 knots, with the fastest cruise ships generally not exceeding 25 knots (29mph).

Unlike ocean liners, which travel long distances in open water, cruise ships travel short distances from port to port. There’s never any need for cruise ships to sail any faster. Additionally, slower sailing speeds result in a smoother ride for passengers and fuel cost savings for the cruise line.

For more information on cruise ship speed, check out our article: How fast do cruise ships go?

Onboard Experience

Ocean Liner vs Cruise Ship atmosphere
The onboard atmosphere and decor of an ocean liner (left) compared with a cruise ship (right). The ocean liner has an elegant and luxurious environment while the cruise ship has a brighter, more party-like atmosphere.

Despite their similarities, the onboard experiences of ocean liners and cruise ships are very different.

Building upon its long history of transcontinental travel, cruising on an ocean liner is an elegant and extravagant experience. Today, Cunard Line is the only operator of an ocean liner and is the leader in providing premium and luxury sailings.

The onboard atmosphere aboard an ocean liner is elegant with historical traditions such as the Captain’s Cocktail Party, formal nights, and traditional shipboard games.

Despite the small number of ocean liners in operation, passengers looking to relive the “golden days of sailing” can find a similar experience on luxury cruise lines, such as; Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club, Silversea, Crystal Cruises, Oceana Cruises, and Radiant Seven Seas.

Cunard Line is also the only cruise operator providing regular service across the Atlantic Ocean, from Southampton in the UK and New York in the US.

In the modern cruise industry, many cruise ships are built with onboard experience in mind from the start. Most cruise ships will feature multiple restaurants, bars, theatres, casinos, pools, cabin choices, and high thrill activities.

For many cruisers, the cruise ship is the destination. I personally choose the cruise ship before I look at the ports of call that we will visit.

As you might expect, the atmosphere aboard a cruise ship is a more party-like, higher energy experience. It’s also more casual than an ocean liner, with optional formal nights or none at all. Today’s cruise ships heavily target the family market so that you will find more families with kids on a cruise ship.

Sailing on a cruise ship is also much cheaper, with fares as low as $30 per night!

Current Ocean Liners in Operation

Queen Mary 2 docked at port in Norway by Fjords
Queen Mary 2 is the last ocean liner still in operation

The only ocean liner still in operation is Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2. As previously stated, the Queen Mary 2 still completes regular transatlantic crossings from Southampton, UK, and New York, USA.

Queen Mary 2 is one of the most beloved vessels in the world. Many people consider the ship to be the greatest ocean liner in the world.

Ocean Liners as Hotels

Although only one ocean liner is still in service, several are currently used as hotels. The Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth 2, and SS Rotterdam are presently utilized as luxurious floating hotels.

Why Aren’t There Any New Ocean Liners?

The last ocean liner to enter service was the Queen Mary 2, which completed construction in 2003.

Cruise operators don’t build ocean liners anymore because of the popularity of modern cruise ships. Modern cruise ships can sail worldwide and have a wide range of amenities and activities you won’t find on an ocean liner.

Another reason for the decline in popularity is the speed and safety of air travel. Although some ocean liners served as cruise ships, their primary purpose has always been transportation. But, with the lower cost of air travel, it doesn’t make much sense to travel by ocean liner.

How is Cruise Ship Design Changing?

In recent years, cruise ships have been pushing the boundaries of innovation. Modern cruise ships are bigger and more innovative than ever before.

Today’s cruise ships are full of great activities, such as; surf simulators, roller coasters, go-kart tracks, aqua theatres, ice rinks, robotic bartenders, and more!

Cruise ships are one of the most sought-after vacation destinations. They appeal to a wide range of demographics, with something for every traveler.

Cruise ships even allow passengers to sail on their repositioning cruises, which may include a transatlantic crossing.

Cruise ship designers are keeping environmental friendliness in mind. Many new cruise ships will be powered with liquified natural gas (LNG) rather than traditional diesel engines. The LNG power allows cruise ships to produce up to 20% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and provide fuel cost savings.

Was the Titanic an Ocean Liner?

The Titanic is perhaps the most famous ship in the world. Today, the famous ship is romanticized for its luxury, size, and fateful voyage.

As you might guess, the Titanic is an ocean liner. The iconic ocean liner remains one of the largest to be built. However, it does not match the size of today’s mega cruise ships. For more information, check out our article that looks at the size of the Titanic compared with modern cruise ships.

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About the author

Victoria Ridley

I love to travel, see new places, and meet new people. I have been lucky enough to travel on multiple continents, as well as several cruise lines. I am passionate about sharing my experience with readers.

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2 thoughts on “Ocean Liner vs Cruise Ship: What’s the Difference”

  1. Thank you so very much for your explanation of the many differences between a cruise ship and an ocean liner. It answered my many questions.
    Do you have any information on crossing the oceans on a freighter(container ship or tanker)
    Thank you.

    • Hi Thomas. I’m so happy to hear you found our article helpful. We don’t have any article’s on that topic, but you’ve given me a great idea for a new post!


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