Cruise ships don’t travel as fast as you might think! How fast do cruise ships go? The average large cruise ship speed is 18 to 22 knots (20-25 mph/33-41 kph).
Modern cruise ships are enormous, with some of the largest ships topping out at over 230,000 gross tons and carrying almost 7000 passengers. These floating cities often visit several ports during a week-long sailing.
But how fast do cruise ships go in order to bring guests from port to port? In this guide, I’ll answer some of the most common questions about cruise ship speed.
What’s the average speed of a cruise ship?
As I mentioned earlier, the average large cruise ship travels at a speed of around 18 to 22 knots. Compared to other forms of travel, that’s pretty slow!
But cruise ships are built for pleasure, not as the fastest way to get from point A to point B.
What is a knot as a measure of speed?
A knot is a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour.
Why cruise ships measure speed in knots (and how to convert it)
Sailors have measured a ship’s speed in knots since the 16th century. Using a length of rope with knots tied at uniform intervals, mariners would toss the end of the line off the stern of the ship and allow the rope to roll out freely for a specific amount of time.
They would then count the number of knots that had played out to determine the vessel’s speed. In time, one knot was standardized to equal one nautical mile per hour. (One nautical mile equals 1.150779 land miles or 0.539957 km.)
So a ship’s speed of 22 knots means it’s traveling at 22 nautical miles per hour.
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How to convert knots to mph or kph
Whether you’re used to measuring speed in miles per hour or kilometers per hour, hearing a cruise ship’s speed in knots might not immediately click with you.
Here’s how to convert knots to miles per hour or kilometers per hour:
For miles per hour, multiply the knots by 1.150779.
Example: 22 knots x 1.150779 = 25.31 mph
For kilometers per hour, multiply the knots by 0.539957
Example: 22 knots x 0.539957 = 11.88 kph
Why do ships use nautical miles?
Ships use nautical miles because they’re equal to a specific distance around the Earth. One nautical mile is equivalent to one degree of latitude. Since the Earth is spherical, using the nautical mile allows for the curvature of the planet and is a more precise measurement of distance traveled.
Which cruise ship is the fastest?
It’s often said that the fastest cruise ship in the world is Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. She’s technically an ocean liner, not a cruise ship, but her top speed is 30 knots.
What’s the difference between cruise ships and ocean liners? Ocean liners historically were built for transportation, while cruise ships were built for pleasure.
Ocean liners have several key differences that allow them to travel faster than cruise ships:
- An ocean liner’s bow is typically longer and pointed, designed to protect the ship from the high waves on the open ocean
- Ocean liners sit lower in the water than cruise ships
- Liners have a reinforced hull, with its steel several inches thicker than on cruise ships
- Ocean liners are designed for speed, due to the need to stay on schedule even during bad weather
So if we’re only talking about cruise ships, which is the fastest? It’s difficult to say, because cruise ships generally only reach close to their maximum speeds during sea trials, when a ship is tested before its christening and inaugural voyage.
Sea trials aren’t conducted under the same conditions for every ship, so it’s impossible to say which cruise ship could actually go fastest.
What’s the maximum speed of the average cruise ship?
The maximum speed of a cruise ship is around 21 to 25 knots (24-29 mph/39-54 kph). However, it’s rare that a cruise ship will actually reach its max speed during your voyage.
Why don’t cruise ships go faster?
If you were traveling from your hometown to your vacation destination and you learned that your plane or train was chugging along at a much slower pace than it could, you’d probably be upset, right?
It’s just in our nature as humans to want to hurry up and get to the fun stuff. But on a cruise, a huge part of the fun is the voyage itself!
One of the reasons why cruise ships don’t travel at maximum speed is for passenger comfort and enjoyment. A slightly slower speed can make for a smoother ride.
If you’re on a cruise ship that’s sailing in a scenic area—like Antarctica, Alaska, or the Norwegian fjords—your ship will slow down so passengers can enjoy the lovely views.
In some protected areas, like Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, there are strict rules about how fast cruise ships can go, to preserve the area’s wildlife.
Cruise ships also travel at slower speeds for fuel efficiency. Much like how it’s more fuel-efficient to drive a car at a moderate speed on the highway compared to putting the pedal to the metal, cruise ships waste more fuel when they increase speed.
When do cruise ships reach close to maximum speed?
Other than during sea trials, there are a few other times when a cruise ship’s captain will decide to ramp up the speed:
- To move out of the path of an oncoming storm
- If a passenger has a medical emergency and needs to be taken to the nearest port
- To assist another ship that has made a distress call
How fast do modern cruise ships go compared to earlier ships?
Comparing the top speeds of cars, airplanes, and trains from 100 years ago until now, advances in technology have made them much faster. But modern cruise ships don’t travel much faster than their historical counterparts!
RMS Titanic, built in 1911 and perhaps the most famous ocean liner, had a maximum speed of 23 knots and a cruising speed of 21 knots—speeds that are pretty similar to today’s ships.
Another famous ship from cruising’s golden age, Holland America’s SS Rotterdam (now a floating hotel) cruised from 1958 through the early 2000s. Rotterdam‘s top speed was 21.5 knots.
The fastest ocean liner ever, SS United States, broke the transatlantic ship’s speed record on her maiden voyage in July 1952. With an average speed of 35.59 knots, the ship made the crossing in 3 days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes—a record that still holds today.
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How fast do cruise ships go at night?
It’s a common misconception that cruise ships travel more slowly during the day, and then faster at night.
Although your ship will travel more slowly when you’re approaching or leaving a port, which usually happens during the day, it generally doesn’t speed up just because it’s nighttime.
When a cruise ship is sailing at night to reach port in the morning, the captain knows how fast they’ll need to go in the current conditions to arrive on time.
Speeding up to get into port early doesn’t have any benefit—port fees are often charged by the hour. So hurrying to reach the destination would only result in an added expense.
How far can a cruise ship go in a day?
Assuming an average speed of 20 knots (23.0 mph/10.8 kph), in 24 hours a cruise ship could travel 480 nautical miles. That’s equivalent to 552 land miles or 259 kilometers.
How fast do river cruise ships go?
When people ask how fast cruise ships go, they’re usually referring to ocean-going ships. River cruise ships tend to travel much slower than those on the open ocean.
These smaller ships tend to travel at about 6-10 knots (7-11 mph/11-18 kph). River cruise ships travel much slower than ocean-going cruise ships for a variety of reasons including:
- Proximity to other vessels on the river
- Traveling through lock systems
- Cruising upstream (against the current)
- Scenic cruising
Do you have any other questions about how fast cruise ships go? Pop your questions in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you!
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