Cruise History

Historical: The difference between an ocean liner and cruise ship

As the picture below shows, there is no vessel in the world that captures the public attention in the same way as an ocean liner. These incredible feats of human engineering are the largest moving man-made structures in the world, built to carry passengers in comfort through the worst that mother nature can conjure on the high seas.


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It is because of the ocean liner that the cruise industry remains an evocative subject for many, representing freedom, mystery, adventure, luxury and convenience to different people. But, what are the principle differences between the two?

The cruise ship Anthem of the Seas and the ocean liner SS Normandie reveal the difference in construction and purpose.

The difference between an ocean liner and a cruise ship or cruise liner is debatable. Some argue that the primary difference lies in the way the two vessels are designed, whereas others argue that the distinction depends on the purpose for which the ship is being used.

In other words, if a cruise ship such as the MSC Splendida, which cruises from Dubai on a series of 7-night round-trip voyages each year between November and April, were placed on a regular route between New York and Southampton, then she would be an ocean liner to some, while others would still insist that her design precludes her ever being called an ocean liner.

We tend to support the latter view – during the decline of the Golden Age in ocean travel from the 1960s onwards, many ocean liners were placed into service so that they were operating as cruise ships, but remained ocean liners at heart.


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In other words, an ocean liner can be a cruise ship, but a ship built as a cruise liner, cant be an ocean liner. On a related note, some might argue that our use of the term ‘cruise liner’ is a misnomer, but in fact most cruise ships nowadays are placed on a regular route throughout a given season.

For example, MSC’s Splendida will sail the same 7-night route from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, Khor al Fakkan, Muscat, Khasab and back to Dubai, while Royal Caribbean and Carnival both have several ships making round-trip voyages from the same port to the same destinations in the Eastern and Western Caribbean.

Similarly, Celebrity Cruise lines has several ships sailing the same routes on their Alaskan cruises – so they are technically cruise liners as they have a set timetable to which they stick. Every Monday from November until March, barring mechanical malfunction, Splendida will sail from Dubai.

Difference in construction

The purpose for which a passenger ship is built of course affects its design. A passenger ro-ro ferry for example will have a high superstructure for passenger areas and a large deck, or several decks in the hull for carrying passenger’s cars, with a door either end of driving on and off, hence the nickname ro-ro (roll on, roll off).

A cruise ship is built to carry a large number of passengers cost-effectively to a number of destinations that are usually fairly close to the port of departure. Hence, we find that most cruises include at least one port call per day, with only one or two days at sea (especially on 7-night voyages and shorter).

A cruise ship will run from bad weather, so it is more top heavy, has a shallower draft (for getting into smaller ports and anchorages) and will usually cruise at less than 21-knots so as to consume as little fuel as possible.

The large superstructure seen on today’s cruise ships makes some of them look box-like, but it provides designers with the ability to give almost every cabin onboard a balcony with a sea view (aboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class ships you can have a balcony with an interior view, because they’re so big).

The cabins are therefore placed higher in the ship, with the main public areas (dining room, theatre, public lounges etc) placed low-down in the hull.


Here we see Holland America Line’s classic MS Rotterdam with the lines of a true ocean liner: she has a long foredeck, rounded stern and high freeboard, all of which made her capable of maintaining a regular ocean service even in the roughest of conditions


Costa Cruises’ Costa Deliziosa, on the other hand, is a true cruise ship, with her superstructure carried far forward and much higher, a square stern and much lower freeboard, all of which enhances the amenities and facilities that can be provided onboard and enable almost every ‘outside’ cabin to have a balcony with an ocean view

Aboard ocean liners the opposite is the case. During the Golden Age of ocean travel, passengers on the great liners mingled with one another in the lounges, bars and dining room and the cabin was seen as primarily a space for sleeping.

Although the cabins on most ocean liners were beautifully appointed, they didn’t enjoy the best real estate onboard and were placed in the hull, with only a port hole for a view. Ocean liner’s were also built to be heavier, with a thicker hull and greater draft so that they were more stable at sea.

In a storm, a cruise ship will slow down for comfort and safety, whereas ocean liners used to plow right on through all but the fiercest storms. It is said that during a particularly bad storm in the North Atlantic, a passenger aboard the Queen Elizabeth II (QE2), asked the captain if they might need to call the Coast Guard for help, to which he replied “Madam, if a Coast Guard vessel were in the vicinity, they would be calling QE2 for help!”


Queen Elizabeth II, or QE2 as she was affectionately known, is perhaps the most famous of modern ocean liners although she spent most of her life in service operating as a cruise ship, with regular trans-Atlantic crossings only during the milder summer months

This is not mere sentiment, however, on 11 September 1995, the QE2 encountered a rogue wave, estimated at 90 ft (27m), caused by Hurricane Luis in the North Atlantic Ocean. Although some passengers suffered minor injuries because of the violent impact, the ship suffered no major damage apart from some buckling on her foredeck, where she bore the brunt of the wave’s force.

Cruise ships generally don’t fair as well, when the Louis Majesty, operated by Louis Cruise Lines, was hit by a 33-foot high wave in March 2010, her forward windows were smashed by the impact and two passengers were killed.

Difference in purpose

A cruise ship in the modern cruise industry is usually seen as a destination in and of itself, with the many ports of call during the voyage as an added bonus. Cruise ships place an emphasis on ‘fun’ and the range of activities, dining venues and types of entertainment you can enjoy onboard.

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Indeed, Carnival Cruises, owned by Carnival Corporation, the largest cruise company in the world, coined the phrase ‘fun ships’ – what they sell isn’t so much a cruise, it’s fun, and this makes the line extremely popular with families and younger passengers.

Their main rival, Royal Caribbean, have cornered the market in a similar way with ships that are essentially floating hotel/theme parks, with waterparks, rock climbing walls, advanced games arcades, children’s areas, spa retreats and a multitude of other features available onboard.

Their newest ships, the Quantum-class, will even have a ‘North Star’ glass viewing ball attached to a robotic arm that will swing it out over the side of the ship, providing views that are unprecedented in the industry. Aboard Princess Cruises’ newer ships like the Royal Princess and Regal Princess, guests can enjoy the ‘skywalk’, a glass-bottomed corridor that arcs out over the side of the ship.

Queen Mary, the ocean liner after which the current Queen Mary 2 is named, cemented Cunard Line’s reputation as the leading passenger shipping line in the 20th century and remains an icon of ocean travel to this day

Ocean liners were built to get passengers from point A to point B as fast as possible and as comfortably as possible (in the late 20th century at least, when ‘third class’ wasn’t as basic as it was in the pre-Titanic era).

The atmosphere aboard an ocean liner is therefore more elegant, with historic traditions such as the Captain’s Cocktail party, formal nights, and traditional shipboard games observed to this day aboard Cunard’s three ships, which are the last remaining ‘ocean liners’ in mainstream cruise service.

However, it is only really the Queen Mary 2 that is built to an ocean liner design, her sisters the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria, are cruise ships, built to the same basic Vista-class design as ships in the P&O Cruises, Holland America Line and Costa Cruises fleets. All these lines are owned by Carnival Corporation, which uses a smiliar Spirit-class design for some of its Carnival Cruises ships.


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However, Cunard are the leaders in providing what is called an ‘ocean liner experience’, but in truth most premium and luxury cruise lines offer the same, from small ships like Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club and Silversea, to larger vessels such as those operated by Crystal Cruises, Oceana Cruises and Radiant Seven Seas.

However, Cunard remains king because of their long-standing legacy in the industry and the fact that they are the only passenger shipping line that still operates a regular service across the Atlantic between Southampton in the UK and New York in the US.

Other lines, such as Holland America, P&O and Hapag Lloyd, have a similar ocean liner history and enjoy similar preeminence in the industry (indeed P&O is generally believed to have operated the first ‘cruise’ ship), but Cunard, for many reasons, are generally considered the leaders in the ocean liner experience.

It may be because the original Queen Mary during the 1930s and 40s achieved worldwide fame as a longstanding holder of the Blue Riband for crossing the Atlantic faster than any other passenger ship.

It may also be due to the fact that Cunard’s ships, from the Queen Mary, to the Queen Elizabeth II, to the Queen Mary 2 have all enjoyed such immense popularity and were widely referred to as the greatest ocean liners in the world.

Categories: Cruise History

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