Cruise Ships vs Ocean Liners: 5 Fundamental Differences


‘Ocean liner’ and ‘cruise ship’ are often used interchangeably but they are different things. Although the two share a number of similarities there are also some fundamental differences which affect the onboard experience.

What is The Difference Between a Cruise Ship and an Ocean Liner?

An ocean liner is a ship made to complete a journey from A to B, this could be with or without passengers. A cruise ship is designed with the onboard experience being the primary concern. Ocean liners are usually better equipped to deal with adverse weather conditions and are built slightly differently to cruise ships. 

There are many differences in the design of ocean liners and cruise ships due to this different purpose.

Differences in Ship Design – Shape

Ocean liners tend to sit quite low in the water and have a pointed bow. They are designed this way to be able to deal with bad weather and to minimise the feeling of movement onboard.

Cruise ships often sit high on the water and can often be strange shapes that aren’t aerodynamic at all. Cruise ships aren’t designed to deal with particularly bad weather although modern ships do have powerful stabilisers. Most cruise ships will try to avoid stormy weather and may slow down or change their route to do so, ocean liners are less likely to have to do this.

If you are worrying about getting motion sick when cruising, make sure you check out this post where I share my tips for how I prevent, and treat, seasickness: 13 Cruise Seasickness Tips (From Somebody Who Gets Seasick!)

Queen Mary 2 Ocean Liner
Queen Mary 2 – Ocean Liner

Differences in Ship Design – Materials

Ocean liners generally have a stronger hull than ocean liners. Queen Mary 2 features steel hull plating, ‘extra thick for rigidity during Atlantic crossings’.

QM2’s steel hull is of 94 blocks (580 panels), the weight of some reaches 600+ tons. – Source

Modern cruise ships are still primarily made of steel but they’re usually not as thick or strong as that of ocean liners, they simply don’t need to be.

Differences in Ship Speed

Generally speaking ocean liners are designed to be able to go faster than cruise ships. The faster ocean liner ever built was the SS United States who could sail at 39 knots (40MPH). That is incredibly fast for a ship! (Source)

In recent years cruise ships have been catching up with the speed of ocean liners. Many cruise ships do repositioning cruises which start and end in different ports. To learn more about repositioning cruises, and to find out why I always recommend them to budget cruisers, check out this post: 7 Benefits of Repositioning Cruises (Tried & Tested)

The fastest ocean liner currently in service is the Queen Mary 2 which can travel at 30 knots (35 MPH).

The fastest ocean ships come in at around 25 knots (29MPH). Lots of ships for Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are capable of cruising at this speed.

Differences in Onboard Experience

What is Cruising on an Ocean Liner Like?

Cruising on a modern ocean liner like the Queen Mary 2 is not too dissimilar from modern cruise ships. Cunard are a traditional cruise line which have strictly enforced dress codes and set dining times. The atmosphere onboard is more relaxed than a lot of cruise lines and there is a feeling of elegance.

What is Cruising on a Cruise Ship Like?

Modern cruise ships are built with the onboard experience as being the main factor that affects design.

Most cruise ships will contain:

  • Multiple Bars
  • Multiple Restaurants
  • A Choice of Cabins
  • Swimming Pools
  • Theatres
  • Casinos
  • Spas/Gyms

For cruisers the onboard experience is often as important as the destinations visited. I know for me personally I look at the cruise ship when I book ahead of looking at the destinations that we will be visiting.

Mayflower Park Southampton Cruise Port
Norwegian Breakaway – Cruise Ship

Ocean Liners

Current Ocean Liners

There is currently only one ocean liner which is still in service, the Queen Mary 2, owned by Cunard line. The Queen Mary regularly completes transatlantic cruises and sails back and forward between Southampton and New York.

I haven’t taken a transatlantic cruise yet but when I do, I’d love it to be on the Queen Mary! She’s such a elegant ship and she deals very well with the bad weather which the Atlantic can often provide.

Ocean Liners as Hotels

The Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth 2 and SS Rotterdam are all ocean liners that are currently being used as floating hotels.

I was lucky enough to stay onboard the Queen Mary when I was visiting California. It was quite an experience and I really wish that I had my blogging hat on, sadly it was about 5 years before I’d start this blog (I had my grumpy teenager hat on instead).

Queen Mary Ocean Liner Top Deck

Traditional Ocean Liners

Ocean liners provide transport from one place to another, similar to how we might use a train or bus to get somewhere. Arguably, the most well known traditional ocean liner was the Titanic.

The experience onboard varied a lot dependant on how much guests had paid for the trip.

For guests who had paid more for their tickets and were in a higher class, the onboard experience could be compared to modern cruise ships. Guests would enjoy fine dining in the restaurants and things like gyms, spas, swimming pools and top deck space.  For guests who had paid for the cheapest tickets the journey didn’t include many extras and really was just a way to get from A to B.

Why Aren’t There Any New Ocean Liners?

The last ocean liner to be built was the Queen Mary 2 built in 2003.

Ocean liners aren’t built anymore because modern cruise ships are increasingly able to do the thing that ocean liners used to be built for. Modern cruise ships now have the ability to cruise long distances and cruise through bad weather.

When ocean liners were most popular cruise ships of the day were just sailing around calm waters like the mediterranean, they rarely completed transatlantic voyages and when they did, they didn’t always have passengers onboard.

Carnival Cruise Embarkation

How is Cruise Ship Design Changing?

In recent years cruise ships have been pushing the boundaries of ship design. The ships are bigger, and faster than ever before. Cruise lines saw an opportunity to make more money by charging for their repositioning cruises and as a result they had to work to make the onboard experience in bad weather as pleasant as possible.

Most cruise ships now reposition in the spring and fall/autumn. Generally speaking, the ships usually seek warmer climates in the colder months. The ships will move from places like northern Europe down to the Mediterranean, Canary Islands or across to the Caribbean.

The weather crossing certain areas like the Bay of Biscay can be rough at certain times of year. To learn more about the Bay of Biscay, check out this post: Cruising Through The Bay Of Biscay: What to Expect.

Where To Next?

If you’re considering your first cruise, or would just like to learn a little more about cruising, this post is a brilliant place to start: 67 Cruise Tips From 67 Cruisers. 

The post shares tips from 67 real cruisers and takes you through from embarkation to disembarkation. By reading this guide you’ll be better prepared for your cruise than 99% of other cruisers!67 first time cruise tips from 67 cruisers ultimate cruise tips guide

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Emma Le Teace

Hey! I'm Emma. A cruise blogger, YouTuber and founder of the 'Cruising Isn't Just For Old People' Facebook community and website. You can learn more here: About Me.

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