What is Difference Between Cruise Ships And Ocean Liners?

Those who have been on a passenger ship for vacation or an excursion at least once in their lifetime are left charmed by the splendorous experience during their voyage.

For those who still haven’t, reading about them in books and magazines never fails to captivate interest, or even beholding them in real life from a harbour or a seaside spot is also appealing to the eye.

Speaking of movies, it goes without saying that the first name which inevitably pops up in our minds is the legendary Titanic (movie released in 1997), an engineering marvel dating back to over a century ago, which unfortunately met its doomed end after colliding with a behemoth iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic.

cruise liner

Even before and after Titanic, a slew of movies has been made with passenger ships plying on the vast oceans as a backdrop. In the literary world, several allusions to passenger vessels date back as early as the history of ships.

Even two centuries before the Titanic sank, The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton, written by Daniel Defoe, of the renowned Robinson Crusoe fame, garnered a significant amount of literary attention.

As we know, out of the broader classification of vessels into multiple types like general-purpose, cargo, defence, container, scientific research, etc., passenger ships are the types of merchant’s vessels that are dedicated to ferrying passengers across seas or oceans – The earliest mode of international transportation in the history of modern mankind. with significant development in the aviation sector over the last several decades, almost in a state of global monopoly.

However, it is worthy to know that even passenger vessels are also further classified as ferries, ocean liners, and cruise ships.

While in common terms, all these types are often interchangeably used by us, and appear the same for many, significant differences exist. What are those? Read on to find out.

A Brief History Of Cruise Ships

Before delving into other major aspects of difference, it is important to have a brief overview of the timeline, without which it is difficult to distinguish the types.

Considered the first forms of transportation to be created by mankind, the first documented existence of ships can be traced back to as early as the 4th century BC. In tandem with the incredible history of their creators, vessels have undergone numerous evolutions from time to time.

Before the modern man in a divided world began utilizing them for other purposes like warfare or other developed forms of trade, early vessels were solely responsible for transporting people and goods, often together. So, it can be well-argued that for a significant amount of time in the early stages, vessels were broadly under one kind, let alone sub-categories.

cruise ship

After the Industrial Revolution, with increased trade, population boom, and the advent of coal-fired steamships superseding earlier forms using huge sails or primitive mechanical means, vessels began to be widely used for other purposes. That was around the same time when ships dedicated to ferrying passengers came into being.

Serving as the major mode of intercontinental travel, passenger ships often interchangeably called merchant vessels, were predominantly instrumental in transporting passengers, postal mail, and also cargo across continental boundaries.

Black Ball Line, in the 1810s, was one of the early liner companies which provided seamless passenger travel services between the two thriving economic hubs, the United States and Britain.

Notably, at the turn of the 19th century, the Clermont, the Elise, and the SS Savannah became the first ships using post-Industrial Revolution technology in the form of steam-powered engines for large-scale operation.

Later on, vessels Royal William and S.S. Sirius created milestones as the first large passenger ships to cross the Atlantic relying on steam-powered propulsion. They were also deemed to be the first-ever ocean liners of their kind.

passenger ship

Over the next several decades, the shipping industry saw further developments in terms of improved propulsive power, speed, hulls constructed of higher breeds of iron and steel, and other technological advancements in innovative designs and technologies.

This led to the passenger shipping business reaching newer heights. Ships became bigger, safer, faster, had improved systems, more reliable builds, and also catered to enhanced passenger comfort and amenities.

Around the same time ocean liners flourished globally, the concept of ferries also came into being, though with much lesser hype. The first ferry was constructed in 1871 in Istanbul and weighed about 150 tons.

The idea gained prominence and became popularized around the world as small-sized, low-powered vessels, capable of transporting passengers and sometimes other utilities like cars round the clock across short distances along designated routes, mainly in a water body like a large lake, rivers, canals, channels, and at most, along a shoreline, harbour region or en route a nearby island of tourist attraction.

In many countries, ferries comprise a significant component of the public transport system. However, they were nowhere even close to being perceived as an alternative to ocean liners, which had been the only reliable workhorse for long-distance intercontinental travel thriving through several decades.

However, during the 20th century, the monopoly of ocean liners faced a challenge for the first time in the form of a similar rival: cruise ships or cruisers.

Unlike ferries or the ocean liners themselves, cruise vessels do not have a clear-cut timeline of origin as towards the middle of the 19th century when the passenger shipping industry with the rapid development of large and fast liners thrived as the only reliable mode of interocean transport, the concept of ferrying holiday-seekers for pleasure or recreational purposes came into limelight.

Italy, the global tourism hotspot, was the epicentre for this development when during the 1830s, they conceived the first cruising services for the elite class to various destinations. For the rest of the century, P&O and other European companies began popularizing cruise services as a new form of tourism business which garnered attention worldwide.

The ocean liner industry suffered a major blow during the First World War when the global economy suffered a great deal of damage and several of the liners in service were converted to hospitals, bunkers, troop carriers, or even destroyed due to enemy assaults.

Though again after the war, the passenger shipping services revived to some extent, the outbreak of the Second World War sired an irreversible ordeal.

After the completion of the war in the mid-20th century, with nations grappling with their losses, the advent of commercial aviation led to the start of the ocean liner trade’s demise, at a pace as rapid as its flourishment a century ago.

With advanced aircraft which could transport passengers safely across the globe in so much less time, passenger transport through ships began to be widely viewed as redundant and cumbersome. However, cruise shipping for pleasure and tourism gained prominence.

In a desperate attempt to uphold their businesses from faltering, and keeping up with the changing times, liner companies started venturing more into acquiring dedicated cruise ships or even modifying existing ocean liners to cater to enhanced passenger comfort and enjoyment, providing short-term solutions to the turbulent state of affairs.

Notably, Queen Elizabeth 2, operating under the Cunard Line, was reassigned from a transatlantic ocean liner to a cruise vessel till her retirement in 2008, after which it was further converted to a floating hotel.

It was just a matter of time when the concept of ocean liners was finally wiped out and superseded by the evolving cruise ships. As of the present day, RMS Queen Mary 2 is the only officially designated ocean liner floating in the global waters.

Difference Between Cruise Ships And Cruise Liners 

Purpose and Speed

As already highlighted above, the major difference lies in their purpose. As cruise ships are dedicated to vacations and tourism, often across relatively shorter distances, they do not adhere to a strict timeline between long-distance ports A and B.

As a result, they do not require high powering like their predecessors and consequently, are designed for less speed, which in turn, is also beneficial to the liner service in terms of fuel economy. Vacationers opting for a cruise are on leisure and are paying for the duration of their stay and enjoy amenities onboard to the fullest.

This is contrary to erstwhile passengers who relied on ocean liners to reach their faraway destinations in strictly desired times or other services like mails which had to be circulated without any delay. Thus, ocean liners were designed for greater speed across long distances.

The SS United launched in 1950, was the fastest ocean liner to have been ever built, with average speeds clocking up to over 35 knots. The record has remained unsurpassed to date, with the currently existing Queen Mary 2 having an average of 30 knots.

Design and Construction

Apart from having lower rates of propulsion, cruise ships also don’t require to ply across very long distances where there is a high probability of encountering heavier sea states or very inclement weather conditions at oceans.

Firstly, cruise services are planned across holiday destinations or short round-trips where it is not feasible to have rough to severe mid-ocean conditions, aggravated by frequent weather variations.

Furthermore, the trips are scheduled only by looking into the current and short-term local weather forecasts and are often cancelled or postponed if the scenario turns unfavourable which can, in turn, worsen the sea state including wave intensities and heights.

So, it can be fair to say that cruisers do not need to be as structurally ‘robust and stronger as their forefathers. Hence, as expected, the thickness and arrangement of the hull plating and associated strengthening are lower for them.

The only ocean liner present, Queen Mary 2 has around 40% greater steel content in its hull as compared to modern, average-sized cruisers!

Other than optimizing the cost of construction, the weight expended on the structure can also be lower giving scope to augment more on passenger loads and their amenities, key elements for deadweight considerations, along with catering to various features for comfort and recreation onboard.

construction of cruise ship

In other words, the profits in terms of the number of passengers along with their satisfaction and attraction are increased without compromising on the net displacement.

On the same lines, it can be noted that modern cruise ship designs often have wider beams, broader shoulders, and more buff forms to accommodate more passengers and related facilities, maximizing their incomes per voyage.

This is a significant departure from the previous designs of ocean liners which had a finer hull form, especially forward of midships, and was often characterized by long and sharply pointed bows to counter high modulus of waves in deep seas and reduce the effects of resistance, thus maintaining its high speed.

Early 20th-century luxury passenger vessels like Bremen, Europa, SS President Coolidge, or SS president Hoover were also incorporated with the innovative bulbous bow, now a common feature in cargo vessels.

So, because of this efficient design and often having holds to store some amount of cargo, earlier liners had a much lesser passenger-carrying capacity than their modern counterparts. As said above, maintaining voyage time irrespective of sea conditions was the highest level of priority for liners.

Moreover, from a stability point of view, since cruise ships are less likely to encounter adverse sea states, the margin for stability design is lower as compared to ocean liners. Ocean liners had a higher draft, which amounted to more stability in rough seas.

On the contrary, cruise ships, already lighter in terms of hull girder weight, have lesser drafts and a higher freeboard, which at the same time, also significantly reduces the chance of unwanted wave sprays and green water on the passenger decks and at the same time makes the vessel reach docks having low draft requirements.

Modern cruise ships often have tall superstructures extending with multiple tiers along their length, providing enhanced spaces for greater passenger accommodation and luxury and also improving on the aesthetics.

However, since passenger comfort is not to be compromised on any grounds and larger superstructures can pose plenty of problems to those on board in terms of heavy rolling or heaving motions during bad weather, designers are working hard on optimizing all the parameters in the best possible way for latest designs.

Stability, which was not very important as far as cruisers are concerned, is gaining more attention to keep pace with increasing customer demands in terms of comfort and after Costa Concordia. Features like bow stabilizers are being incorporated increasingly.

Another important point to note is that modern cruise ships with a large uniform superstructure extending much further of midships on either end have their navigation bridge closer to the bow as compared to ocean liners.

This brings us to another key distinctive feature in ocean liners which had relatively shorter superstructures with its front end much inward from the stem. So, navigation bridges of ocean liners situated on upper decks had a greater liner of sight, advantageous in rough sea conditions and reduced visibility.


Though aircraft are the most preferred mode of travel with an absolute monopoly, the passenger ship is here to stay. Offering state-of-the-art facilities for passengers, modern cruise vessels have attracted an increased number of passengers over time.

From luxurious hotels to casinos, swimming pools to movie theatres, health clubs to large banquet halls, amidst the serenity of the blue seas, modern passenger ships holistically serve as a perfect holiday option for many.

After the two World Wars, the COVID-19 pandemic became another massive jolt to the passenger shipping industry.

With operations suspended indefinitely, thousands stranded on board, and many vessels becoming contagion hotspots, the ordeal was huge. With stringent restrictions lifted globally, the pandemic gradually receding, and tourism witnessing a roundabout, sunnier days are once again ahead for cruise ships.

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About Author

Raunek Kantharia is a marine engineer turned maritime writer and entrepreneur. After a brief stint at the sea, he founded Marine Insight in 2010. Apart from managing Marine Insight, he also writes for a number of maritime magazines and websites.

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