Ocean Liner vs. Cruise Ship: What’s the Difference

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Queen Mary 2 and MSC Cruise Ship Comparison

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Ocean liners and cruise ships have captured the imagination of travelers for generations. Yet, the differences between them aren’t always clear.

Ocean liners have a storied past. Once the pinnacle of sea travel, ocean liners were the ocean’s giants. Today, the grandeur of cruising has taken over. Modern cruise ships are more like a floating mega-resort than a luxurious getaway. But cruise ships have become the preferred choice for leisure voyages, with over 30 million passengers yearly.

So, let’s dive in and compare the differences between ocean liners and cruise ships.

Ocean Liner vs. Cruise Ship

ComparisonOcean LinerCruise Ship
PurposeTransportation of people and cargo.Leisure ships built for vacationing.
DesignPointed hull with powerful engines built for speed and stability. Ocean liners sit low in the water, with the bridge and lifeboats located near the top decks.Cruise ships have a boxier appearance as they are wide and tall. The top decks are full of pools, waterslides, and other activities.
Speed25-39 knots.20-22 knots.
Onboard ExperienceFunctional comfort and modest luxury, catering to the needs of passengers on lengthy transoceanic journeys.Lively and family-friendly atmosphere akin to floating resorts, with abundant amenities like pool decks, theaters, diverse dining, and wellness facilities.
Destinations and ItinerariesLively, casual, and family friendly atmosphere akin to floating resorts, with abundant amenities like pool decks, theaters, diverse dining, and wellness facilities.Diverse itineraries focus on island-hopping and scenic coastal journeys, allowing passengers to explore various ports and regions.

Purpose

Ocean Liner

Ocean liners were used to transport people and cargo across lengthy ocean distances. Ocean liners were built to serve as a reliable form of transportation, much like a floating train service.

They were built with a steadfast focus on safety and punctuality, with luxurious features and amenities added as an afterthought to entice customers. Ocean liner voyages were generally transoceanic, linking continents and serving vital travel and communication needs.

Cruise Ship

In contrast, a cruise ship is designed for leisure and recreational voyages. Cruise ships spend most of their time in coastal waters rather than braving the open ocean.

They’re a holiday destination in their own right, offering many amenities, activities, and entertainment for passengers who are on board to enjoy the experience rather than to reach a distant shore as quickly as possible.

Ship Design and Construction

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 Liner

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 are constructed with higher-strength materials, a robust hull, and a narrower build, allowing them to withstand rough open ocean conditions. They sit lower in the water and have a long, pointed bow for cutting through waves and sailing faster.

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, so their lifeboats need protection from the elements – waves, wind, and rain. Ocean liner lifeboats are positioned inboard near the top decks of the vessel.

Ocean liners are designed to navigate swiftly through the water — a necessity for maintaining scheduled voyages between specific ports.

Cruise Ship

By comparison, cruise ships 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 so during repositioning cruises. However, they aren’t designed for repeatedly traveling cross-continental sailings.

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

Speed and Performance

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 Liner

Ocean liners are engineered for speed and efficient long-distance travel. These vessels make fewer stops and encounter rougher seas than cruise ships. Their powerful engines and streamlined design optimize an ocean liner’s performance for scheduled transatlantic or transpacific crossings.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, sailing was the most cost-effective and safest form of transportation between Europe and North America. During this time, passenger vessel companies competed to see which vessel could complete the transatlantic sailing quickly. Speed was an utmost requirement, as these vessels served as a means of transportation.

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.

Cruise Ship

Modern cruise ships do not require such high speeds. Cruise ships travel short distances between ports of call. Their goal is not expedited transit but to provide enjoyable, leisurely journeys.

While capable of traveling long distances, a cruise ship’s itinerary allows for slower speeds, which enhance passenger comfort and also result in better fuel economy.

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

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.

Ocean Liner

The onboard experience was functional on an ocean liner, prioritizing passenger comfort during long transoceanic voyages. While luxury amenities were available, they were generally more restrained, given the liners’ transportation-focused role.

Cruise Ship

Cruise ships are floating resorts emphasizing varied and luxurious passenger experiences. Features like expansive pool decks, theaters, multiple dining options, and comprehensive wellness facilities cater to every aspect of enjoyment and leisure.

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 you will find more families with kids on a cruise ship.

Destinations and Itineraries

Ocean Liner

Ocean liners operated on fixed routes, like a shuttle between two points. The itineraries were dictated by transportation needs. The historic importance of these vessels was evident in their grand, intercontinental journeys, most notably during periods of mass migration.

The most popular route was the transatlantic crossing between Southampton, England, to New York, USA. It’s a sailing that Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 still sails today.

Cruise Ship

Cruise ships offer a dizzying array of destinations and itineraries, often island-hopping or making scenic coastal voyages. Cruise ships are not bound to rigid routes and can explore different ports and regions. The itineraries enhance passengers’ sense of adventure and exploration.

The World’s Last Ocean Liner: Queen Mary 2

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

The Queen Mary 2 is a majestic relic of the days when ocean liners ruled the seas. As the world’s last ocean liner in active passenger service, QM2 represents a bridge between maritime history and modern-day sea travel.

Queen Mary 2 is the world’s last ocean liner. The vessel launched in 2004, and unlike its contemporaries focusing on casual cruising, it continues the tradition of transatlantic voyages.

Built with robust engineering, the ship has endured countless Atlantic crossings, offering an experience starkly different from that of a casual cruise. Queen Mary 2 is designed to be mightier, with a hull that can withstand the demanding ocean conditions, a nod to the builders’ focus on stability and speed for long voyages.

The Queen Mary 2 is known for its resilience and the luxury it affords its passengers. Travelers can indulge in an old-world charm that fosters a sense of nostalgia for the Golden Age of sea travel. The ship’s atrium even features a grand staircase reminiscent of the Titanic.

While the focus of modern cruise ships is the onboard experience, with amenities ranging from ice rinks to zip lines, the Queen Mary 2 balances comfort with the historic solemnity of ocean travel. Its historical significance can’t be overstated, dating back to when Cunard, its operating line, dominated the industry with a fleet that contributed to global migration and communication.

Few vessels can boast of the enduring allure of the Queen Mary 2.

As other ocean liners transition into floating hotels—like her predecessors, the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth 2, and the SS Rotterdam—she remains afloat, not just in water but also in the hearts of maritime enthusiasts.

The advancement of air travel has significantly changed how people travel the globe. Speed and convenience are often favored over the romance of a sea voyage.

Sailing on the Queen Mary 2 provides a unique experience that harks back to a time when the journey was as important as the destination. It’s a tangible connection to the era when sea passage was an event, highlighting an elegant, unhurried approach to crossing the ocean.

Why Aren’t There Any New Ocean Liners?

The shift in consumer demand has played a pivotal role as today’s passengers are often more intrigued by the variety of experiences available on board a cruise ship than using ships for transportation. The affordability of airline travel has made passenger travel by ship a memory of the past.

Today’s passengers prefer vessels that offer a variety of thrills, experiences, and amenities. The romance of traversing the sea in an elegant, purpose-built ocean liner has taken a backseat to the allure of a vacation that starts the moment one steps aboard a cruise ship.

Queen Mary 2 is a testament to the bygone era of ocean liners, a solitary figure representing a once-thriving industry. With modern advancements reducing the need for specialized ocean-crossing vessels, passengers clearly prefer versatile and luxurious cruise ships. While the Queen Mary 2 continues to uphold the tradition for those seeking the unique experience of an ocean liner, there may never be another ocean liner.

Was the Titanic an Ocean Liner?

The Titanic was indeed an ocean liner. The famous vessel was constructed to ferry passengers and cargo across the Atlantic between Europe and North America. RMS Titanic, where RMS stands for Royal Mail Ship, underscores its role in carrying mail under contract with the British government.

The Titanic offered luxurious amenities to attract wealthy passengers.

Ocean liners like the Titanic had a more pronounced keel, a stronger hull, and a higher power-to-weight ratio. These features distinguished them from the pleasure-focused cruise ships, built not for speed or distance but for providing a leisurely experience at sea.

Legacy and transition play a part in the Titanic story as well. While operating primarily as a means of transport, the Titanic represents the beginning of the modern cruise industry. She was one of the first vessels offering luxurious accommodations for passengers of all cases. And reprinted a shift in sailing where the vessel becomes the destination.

Marcello De Lio
Marcello De Lio

Marcello's been cruising since he was 12 years old. He loves the freedom that cruising provides, meeting new people, and exploring amazing new ships. Marcello created High Seas Cruising to share his passion for cruising and travel with readers and grow a community of passionate voyagers.

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  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!