Everything You Need to Know About Cruise Ships

Jul 21, 2022 · 17 mins read ·

Shipping & Vessels
cruise ships in a harbor

A cruise ship is a passenger ship that sails to a number of different destinations with the pleasure of the voyage being entirely the point. Cruise ships are synonymous with being luxury vessels and their amenities, activities, drinking and dining options, and entertainment are all created with the passenger’s experience in mind.

Cruises can last a couple of days or nights, one or two weeks, or even longer. The ship will sail a set schedule to ports that are usually located at exotic or touristically interesting destinations.


The trip is normally a round one, with the cruise ending at its home port - also sometimes called an embarkation port or turn around port.

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But while you might think that’s all there is to know about cruise ships, trust us, there’s a little more to it and that and in this article, which is one in a series of posts about different vessel types, we’ll take a look at everything you need to know about cruises and cruise ships.

a cruise ship at sea

Everything you need to know about cruise ships

Despite a cruise ship having very little in common with cargo and container ships, heavy lift vessels, feeder vessels, commercial fishing boats and chemical tankers, the cruise ship is still part of the merchant navy (or merchant marine) fleet as it is a working vessel.

The cruise ship is not to be confused with an ocean liner which transports passengers from one port to another, and it should definitely not be confused with ferries, which sail shorter routes and transport people and vehicles in a decidedly less glamorous setting!

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Cruises aren’t just confined to exotic locations either, though many people will conjure up an image of turquoise seas when thinking about cruising.

You can book local cruises as well as international ones. There are river cruises - for example along the Yangtze River in China, as well as cruises to less sunnier destinations such as polar cruises to the Arctic.

A brief history of the cruise ship

As tourism grew in popularity and venturing to different countries and even continents became more accessible to the average traveler, the 20th century saw a boom in the cruise ship industry, in particular in the United Kingdom, the USA and Germany.

When we say the ‘average traveler’ however, bear in mind that these were the upper classes, due to the prohibitively expensive costs associated with taking a cruise.

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Of course the ill-fated Titanic is probably the best known of all cruise ships but other iconic vessels of around the same time were the Lusitania, a British ocean liner launched in 1906 by the Cunard Line, only to be torpedoed by a German Submarine in 1915, and the Olympic - a sister ship to the Titanic and one of the jewels in the White Star Line’s crown.

a suitcase with vintage travels stickers on it

With the advent of the First World War, for obvious reasons, the tourist industry ground to a halt and many cruise liners were converted into transport for troops and ammunition.

These days the cruise industry is as popular as ever, and while no means a budget vacation, it is a lot more accessible to the general population and not just the very wealthy.

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Are there different types of cruise ships?

Cruise ships continue to evolve with cruise lines vying to outdo each other for a slice of the very competitive - and lucrative - market. However, facilities and five star service aside, not all cruise ships are the same or even have the same purpose.

Cruise ships vary depending on the length of stay they typically offer, their purpose, and of course the waters they are designed to sail in - for example, river, lake, sea or ocean. Let’s take a closer look.

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Small cruise ships

At the smaller end of the scale, small cruise ships normally range from a large yacht to a mid-sized cruise ship which has capacity for a few hundred passengers. Small scale cruises call at ports which might not be as well known as the destinations on the bigger ships’ itineraries.

They generally offer a more relaxing vacation than the bigger vessels which are like mini-cities on the water.

They also cater to individuals who like the idea of a specialized cruise; for example a cruise with a famous speaker or entertainment act, cruises for specific age groups such as 18-30 year olds or senior citizens, or lecture-based cruises.


Mainstream cruise ships

The most common type of vessel is the mainstream cruise ship. With a capacity for anywhere between 850 to 3,000 passengers, these floating mini-towns come with virtually any attraction that would be found in a shore based resort.

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the cruise ship, the Allure of the Seas, in dock

Of course, there are any number of different restaurants and bars to be found on a cruise ship, as well as nightclubs and casinos.

There is no shortage of shops, gyms, spas, swimming pools and other sporting facilities. But what you might not expect to find on a cruise ship are the cinemas, theaters, museums, art galleries and libraries.

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Mega cruise ships

The mega cruise ship is the mainstream ship’s bigger, brasher cousin. They can accommodate more than 3,000 guests and are run by a veritable army of officers, crew, Chief Stewards, Stewards and Stewardesses, cooks and chefs and even plumbers, carpenters and waste disposal operators.

River cruise ships

With a capacity for just a few hundred passengers, these smaller ships are built to traverse rivers and inland waterways, such as the Rivers Nile, Rhine, Amazon Mississippi, Yangtze and Danube. Even though they’re not ocean-going vessels, these ships can still cater to guests who are looking for a high level of luxury.

Expedition cruise ships

Forget tropical destinations and scenic city views from the river, expedition cruise ships are for those who are looking for a side order of adventure along with their vacation.

Think the Antarctic or Arctic regions, Alaska or Scandinavia to see natural phenomena such as ice flows and the northern lights. Whilst still comfortable, these cruises are more about the sights and experience rather than the luxurious amenities onboard.

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Who owns and operates cruise ships?

Just like other merchant ships, such as oil tankers and bulk carriers like Panamax and Supramax vessels, cruise ships are owned and operated by a company.

These companies are known as ‘cruise lines’ and there are a number of huge players in the market, as well as some smaller niche lines who are more specific to inland waterways and rivers.

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You’ve probably heard of some, if not all, of these bigger names in the cruise world, and some of these come with a good deal of heritage to their name and brand. For example, Cunard Line was founded all the way back in 1840.

  • Carnival
  • P&O Cruises
  • Cunard
  • Royal Caribbean
the deck of a cruise ship at night

What are some other types of merchant ship?

If you’d like to find out more about other types of ships that belong to the merchant category, why not take a look at some of our other blog posts.


For example, have you ever wondered what a car carrier vessel is? Or how about a fireboat?

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About LNG & LPG Tankers

Want to know what dredgers do for a living or how gas carriers work? We have you covered!

Read the previous article in this series: Everything You Need to Know About Crane Vessels

Read the next article in this series: Everything You Need to Know About Supramax Vessels

Eve Church

Eve Church

Eve is Martide's content writer, publishing regular posts on everything from our maritime recruitment and crew planning software to life at sea. Eve has been writing professionally for more than two decades, crafting everything from SEO-focused blog posts and website landing pages to magazine articles and corporate whitepapers.


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