There is a common and persistent misconception among the public that all large passenger-carrying ships are ocean liners and all ocean liners are cruise ships.
To be sure, there is some overlap, but to misunderstand the difference between the two is to overlook a key reality of the human condition just 50 years ago. It is important to differentiate between ocean liners and modern cruise ships which have much more to see, do and eat on board.
Until the 1950s, the only way for anyone to cross the oceans was by boat. And therein lies the fundamental difference. Ocean liners were used to transport passengers between continents reliably and on time, regardless of the weather.
This is in stark contrast to cruise ships, which take passengers to enjoyable destinations on leisure trips. But comparing the design of ocean liners and cruise ships is difficult. Although they share a common history, they are two separate points on the timeline, with only a small overlap between the two.
Ultimately, they were built in a different era for a different purpose and with different technologies.
It is often said that cruises start and end in the same port. While this is true, most of the time some cruises end in a different port than the original port.
Due to their different functions, ocean liners and cruise ships are generally designed very differently.
A liner must travel reliably between two or more points, whatever the weather and generally whatever the season.
Since most passengers are on board for transportation rather than the joy of being at sea, it also helps that ocean liners are fast. In order to meet these requirements, ocean liners tend to have deeper drafts, longer bows, taller freeboards, and be made of stronger materials.
The dawn of the ocean liner
People have regularly crossed the oceans since the meeting of the Old World and the New World. But the origin of the liner comes much later with the advent of the steam engine. Until then, traveling across the Atlantic would remain arduous, remarkably dangerous, and most relevantly, unreliable.
So, although sailing ships have always carried passengers over bodies of water, they could not do so on a regular service and were therefore not true ocean liners.
In 1840 the RMS Britannia was completed for the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (later called Cunard) and was the first ocean liner in the current sense.
Constructed of wood and powered by steam, the Britannia could more or less carry passengers across the Atlantic in a routine and timely manner. But the newness of steam technology led a wary and wary public to perceive these new ships as unreliable, which meant that steam liners would be fitted with auxiliary sails in their early days to provide additional backup and efficiency.
Despite hesitation, it was not long before the Atlantic was filled with steamships providing regular service between ports on either side of the ocean.
The Cunard ships Umbria and Etruria were the last auxiliary liners to be built.
In an increasingly connected world, these ships have become the only means of crossing. And so the money and the incentives were available to build stronger and faster ships, which led to an explosion of technological development in the industry.
The years between 1840 and 1920 saw the transition from auxiliary vessels to paddle wheel vessels to propeller vessels and the increase in maximum size from 2300 tons to 52000 tons and a decrease in total Atlantic crossing time in westbound from 13 days, 12 o’clock to four days 11 o’clock.
Until now, ocean travel has been reserved for the select few who had the resources and time to spend weeks or months in transit.
Now, travel across the oceans was better and more accessible than ever, connecting the world in new ways.
Traveling by boat had also gone from a grueling risk to a glamorous adventure. This change in perspective is evidenced by the fact that at that time an ocean liner could occasionally pause in its transoceanic services to take paying passengers on pleasure cruises. This temporary change in operations is said to be due to fluctuations in economic pressures, transport capacity and decisions made by shipping companies.
At the same time, there were even a small number of purpose-built cruise ships dating back to 1900 when the Prinzessin Victoria Luise was launched. Even these ships, however, were built like ocean liners in many ways, and the vast majority of passenger traffic was carried by the ocean liners.
End of the ocean liner era
World War II led to the rapid development of aviation technology and soon after the war’s end, jet airliners were able to cross the Atlantic with passengers.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the construction of new liners for crossing the Atlantic had practically stopped.
As shipping lines began to struggle to fill their already existing ships, they increasingly spent taking passengers on cruises as trans and intercontinental travel shifted to airlines.
Dawn from the cruise ship
When cruising began, the ships were old ocean liners, not built for the kind of work they were now engaged in. But the purpose of cruising back then was the destination and the joy of being at sea. Besides, the liner style was what the public was used to.
In 1972, Carnival Cruise Line began with a 12-year-old liner, the Empress of Canada. Similarly, Norwegian Cruise Line took off with the purchase of the SS France, which had been refurbished and renamed Norway.
Their deep drafts limited access to ports with deep bays. They were designed with an emphasis on capability rather than comfort, and they were expensive to build and operate, being designed with strong materials to withstand extreme conditions.
So when shipping lines and cruise lines realized that cruise ships, because they spend most of their time in good weather, didn’t need the technical capabilities of ocean liners, the floodgates were opened to change and development.
Modern cruise ships
Between 1987 and 2018, the maximum size for cruise ships increased from 73,000 gross tons to 228,000 gross tons.
But it is the design of these ships, not the size, that marks their difference from their predecessors.
Today’s cruise ships are famous for their boxy appearance and, more recently, their often uncanny resemblance to hotels. All because the purpose of building them has changed. Namely, cruise lines need ships to provide the most and highest quality amenities to the maximum number of people at the lowest cost.
The newest cruise ships today have short biographies, low freeboard, and towering superstructures that just seem to stop. These design choices create a lot of space for these accommodations.
At the same time, however, it means that today’s purpose-built cruise ships don’t hold up well to the elements. While ocean liners once navigated some of the most extreme weather conditions the ocean has to offer, cruise ships handle weather differently. Cruise ships can avoid bad weather by canceling or changing ports of call or bypassing weather systems.
That’s not to say that modern cruise ships aren’t safe. Modern technologies and the sheer size of cruise ships keep them safe as they perform a very different mission than the ocean liners of yesteryear.
At the end of the line
In short, cruise ships are different from ocean liners, of which only one remains. The RMS Queen Mary 2 still makes Atlantic crossings today and is the only large ship in the world to carry passengers between continents on a regular line. And even Queen Mary 2 spends much of the year sailing.
Read more: What it looks like on the last ocean liner in the world: Cunard’s Queen Mary 2
However, cruise ships sometimes cross oceans and often with passengers. But these repositioning cruises are a necessary inconvenience for cruise lines as ships move between different regions between seasons.