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What's the difference between a cruise ship and an ocean liner?

Cruise ships and ocean liners may look very similar at first glance. In fact, many people would struggle to tell the difference. But under the surface, these two vessels are very different.

It all comes down to their missions. Cruise ships and ocean liners might both be built to carry passengers, but their similarities end there.

Ocean liners

An ocean liner is a passenger ship designed to take people from one point to another. For example, you would travel on an ocean liner to cross from England to the United States. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that ocean liners came before cruise ships, after all cruising for fun is a fairly recent trend.

These ships are built tough, as they may need to withstand all sorts of tumultuous weather conditions while travelling across the open ocean. Design features will include:

  • Hull: Built from a large amount of steel for strength.

  • Bow: Long and tapered to help them cut through waves

  • Draft: Deep for more stability

In fact, while a cruise ship will slow down in a storm, ocean liners are more likely to plow right through!

Unlike a cruise ship, where people happily relax for weeks at sea, ocean liners are built for speed. This means ocean liners will typically carry more fuel than cruise ships. The Queen Mary II is a great example of a modern ocean liner, and has 40% more steel in her structure than cruise ships.

Cruise ship in Norwegian fjords

Cruise ships

Cruise ships take passengers on a round trip, with various stopping points along the journey. For example, a cruise ship setting out from Sydney might stop at Fiji and other islands before arriving back at Sydney a week later.

Originally, many cruise ships had previously been ocean liners. The flight industry had taken off and there was simply less requirement for ocean liners to transport people. For example, the Mardi Gras was Carnival Cruise Lines’ first cruise ship, but in another life, she was the Empress of Canada ocean liner.

Cruise ships generally only set sail in better conditions. After all, they are designed for holidays not purely transport. This has an impact on their design. With less call for strong steel in the hull, these ships are less expensive to build. Instead, their structure typically features more aluminium and glass. The draft is reduced, allowing them to dock in a greater number of ports. Also the bow is shorter and wider, meaning the ship is squarer in shape and can carry even more passengers. And because people want to enjoy a leisurely cruise, there’s less need for speed so less fuel is consumed.

Blurring the lines

More recently, cruise ships are pushing the boundaries of their traditional cruising areas with famously calm seas, and are setting sail into more unpredictable waters. The result is cruise ships taking on some of the design features of ocean liners in order to have the strength, speed and hydrodynamics to handle the conditions. Royal Caribbean’s Radiance-class ships are excellent example of this in action.