5 Fundamental Differences Between a Ferry and a Cruise Ship


If you are considering a cruise you may be wondering what the difference is between a cruise ship and a ferry. I’ve been on many cruises and have also taken trips on ferries. In this article, we will look at the differences between the two.

Many people wrongly assume that by having taken a trip on a ferry they’ll know what to expect from a cruise ship. This couldn’t be further from the truth in my experience.

What Is The Difference Between a Ferry and a Cruise Ship?

Ferries are small ships designed to transport people and cargo from one destination to the other. Cruise ships are usually much larger than ferries and they usually only transport passengers. Cruise ships are designed with leisure in mind and have many more onboard amenities than ferries.

Ferries usually only make short journeys whereas cruise ships sail for weeks at a time. The purpose, ship design, onboard activities, and onboard experience all vary greatly.

Below are examples of a small ferry, a large ferry, a mid-sized cruise ship, and a large cruise ship.

 Staten Island Ferry (Kennedy Class)Cross Channel Ferry (MS Delft Seaways)
Mid Sized Cruise Ship (Marella Discovery)Large Cruise Ship (Symphony of The Seas)
Weight2100 Gross Tons35,000 Gross Tons70,000 Gross Tons228,000 Gross Tons
Passengers300078018306680
Cars4020000
Crew15707502200

A Cruise Ship and a Ferry Have a Different Purpose

What Is The Purpose of a Ferry?

The primary purpose of a ferry is to transport guests from A to B. Ferrys are primarily a mode of transport and they often carry cargo and some carry cars. Ferries often provide a cheap alternative to other methods of transportation such as flying and as a result are very popular in some places.

Ferry Examples:

One of the most popular ferry routes is the Staten Island Ferry in New York. I have taken the journey on the Staten Island Ferry and although it is very functional and provides great scenery it’s far from a leisure activity. The ferry carries 70,000 people PER DAY between lower Manhatten and Staten Island.

Staten Island Ferry Terminal
Photo: Daniel Schwen

Another very popular ferry route is the star ferry in Hong Kong. I enjoyed this ferry trip more than the Staten Island ferry because we were able to sit outside with fresh air but even still it is very much a no thrills ride.

What Is The Purpose of a Cruise Ship?

The primary purpose of a cruise ship is to be a floating resort for the passengers onboard. Cruise ships are full of cabins, restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, and swimming pools. For many people, I included, the idea of going on a cruise is as much about the ship as it is the destinations visited.

Cruise Ship Examples:

The most popular cruise destination is the Caribbean. Guests from all over the world head to the Caribbean year-round to take a Caribbean cruise. Most Caribbean cruises are upwards of 5 or so nights long and are generally pretty relaxed and fun.

There are many options for Caribbean itineraries including Eastern, Western, and Southern Caribbean cruises. To learn more about how these different itineraries affect the price, check out this post: How Much Does a Caribbean Cruise ACTUALLY Cost? (13 Examples)

Another very popular cruise destination is the Mediterranean. Mediterranean cruises sail year-round and they are particularly popular as Mediterranean cruises are able to visit a number of countries within a week or so. I’ve taken a number of Mediterranean cruises and usually visit around 5 countries in 7 nights. To do a similar trip on land would be incredibly difficult, and expensive!

anthem of the seas royal caribbean

What Is The Difference in Purpose?

Guests board cruise ships to enjoy the amenities of the cruise ship whereas guests board ferries to get from A to B. You can also transport things like cars and cargo on ferries which cruise ships are not designed to do.

Size & Ship Design

Generally speaking, ferries are much smaller than cruise ships and you’ll often find that they have a different design. The design of ferry does vary dramatically, some will be flat and lower to the river/ocean and others will look more similar to ocean cruise ships.

The Staten Island ferries are around 3000 gross tons, the largest cruise ship is almost 10x as big at 228,000 tons. 

Despite the difference in size, you’ll often find a similar amount of passengers onboard. On cruise ships, guests have much more space per person as they need a cabin, places to eat, and relax. On ferries, guests are usually just sat together and don’t need much room.

Ferries also don’t need anywhere near as many crew members onboard as cruise ships do. A typical ratio on a cruise ship is 1 crew member to every 3 passengers. On the state island ferry, you’ll find 3000 guests with only crew members. That’s 1 crew member to every 200 passengers.

Onboard Activities

What Is There to do on a Ferry?

On a ferry, your options are very limited. In most cases for a short journey, you will just be sat down. You may be able to look at the view or if you’re in the middle as I was on the Staten Island ferry you may not be able to see a thing.

On some larger ferries, you’ll find basic restaurants and bars. I’ve personally never felt the need to eat on a ferry as I get too seasick but more on that later!

Lots of ferries do provide free WiFi to pass the time but as most journeys are short there doesn’t need to be any entertainment onboard. Taking a ferry is similar to taking a ride on a train but with a few added things on occasion like video arcades or game rooms.

passenger ferry

What Is There to do on a Cruise Ship?

Cruise ships are filled with restaurants, bars, theatres, swimming pools, casinos, lounges, and much much more. Onboard amenities do of course depend on the cruise line and ship but almost all ships will have multiple bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.

On a cruise, you’ll find a daily schedule that is full of activities. On some of the more lively family-focused cruise lines, you’ll find things like ropes courses, surf simulators, and zip lines. It’s often easier to think of a cruise ship as being a floating resort or city at sea. You’ll find everything that you would find in a small city on land like gyms, hairdressers and spas!

msc meraviglia ropes course and waterslides

What Is The Difference in Onboard Activities?

There is a lot more to do on a cruise ship than on a ferry. Entertainment is provided and there are numerous choices for how to spend a day on board. Ferries are more functional than cruise ships and although they may provide some bars and restaurants the experience and quality is usually very limited.

Movement

What Movement do you Feel on a Ferry?

If you are prone to travel sickness you are much more likely to feel seasick on a ferry than on a cruise ship. It’s common for people who don’t even suffer with seasickness to feel unwell on ferries, especially if eating or drinking too much!

I almost always take seasickness pills when taking a trip on a ferry. The exception to this would be where I am able to sit on the top deck and get some fresh air, this usually helps but I still wouldn’t want to do it for a prolonged period of time.

You’ll often feel vibrations and bumps and judders when taking a trip on a ferry. Ferries are simply not designed for pleasure cruises, they are designed with a purpose in mind and passenger comfort tends to come secondary to speed and efficiency.

What Movement do you Feel on a Cruise Ship?

I am an incredibly seasick person. I get seasick on almost everything but interestingly enough I very rarely get seasick on cruise ships. Due to the size, design, and stabilizers of the cruise ship, the movement that you’ll feel onboard is usually very little.

There are of course occasions where a ship may be caught in bad weather where the movement felt increases but even still this is very rare and doesn’t put me off of cruising. To learn more about what it feels like to be on board a cruise ship, including where you’ll feel the motion the most, check out this post:

You May Feel Movement on a Cruise Ship – Here’s When and Why

What’s Included in Your Fare?

The majority of ferry trips only last for a few minutes or a few hours. Cruises usually last for multiple days and can last weeks, even months! This not only impacts the experience but also how much it’ll cost.

Realistically for a cruise, you’re looking at least $100 per night but this includes your accommodation, meals, entertainment, and transport between destinations.

A ferry on the other hand is much cheaper with a trip sometimes costing nothing at all (the Staten Island ferry in New York is free). As a result your fare only includes transportation from place to place. Any food bought onboard is at an extra cost.

manhatten staten island ferry

Large Ferries

There are some ferries that are as large as small cruise ships and look very similar. These are definitely the exception to the rule but I do think it’s interesting to see these ships.

Some ferries which look very similar to cruise ship are those from the Silja line. Onboard Silja ships you’ll find restaurants, bars, shops, and even entertainment. The cruises taken onboard are longer than that that you’d find on your average ferry and as a result, the ship has cabins and is well equipped for longer journeys.

Below is a photo of the central shopping center from Silja Serenade. Photo from Sanna at VeganCruiser!

silja ferry line

To Conclude:

Taking a trip on a ferry is a great way to get from A to B. Ferries are usually basic ships with no added thrills onboard. Cruise ships, on the other hand, are destinations in themselves.

Taking a trip on a ferry is nothing like taking a cruise and if you’ve had a negative ferry experience in the past don’t let this put you off cruising! It really is like comparing apples to oranges.

I’ve been on 32 cruises to date but always try to avoid ferries where I can as they make me feel seasick and I don’t really enjoy the onboard experience.

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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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