The second fastest ship in the world is the Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. The ship was built in 2010 and is powered by two ultra-modern Rolls Royce engines that give it a cruising speed of up to 36 mph. This is a respectable speed, in our opinion, but it’s not the fastest ship in the world. That honor goes to the propeller-driven double-decker Hapag-Lloyd’s Sea Princess, which can reach a top speed of 36.8 mph.

If you’re thinking about taking a cruise, you’ve probably got some questions about the experience. Are there adequate facilities for the passengers? How much time do we spend on the ship? How long is the cruise? These are just a few of the many questions that people ask when they are considering a cruise.

The average weight of modern cruise ships is about 100,000 GRT (gross registered ton). Some of the largest ships weigh more than twice as much!

This of course does not take into account the weight of the thousands of human passengers and all the things they were carrying.

Also consider the physical size of the average cruise ship. The largest ships have as many rooms as mega-resorts like Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. And if you put a large cruise ship upright, it would be as tall (or taller) than the Chrysler Building in New York!

It’s hard to imagine that an object as large and heavy as a cruise ship could move, let alone glide effortlessly through the water. Cruise ships are modern marvels, not only because of their size and comfort, but also because of their (surprisingly high) speed.

Have you ever stood on the bridge and wondered: How fast do cruise ships go? If so, you’ve come to the right place for answers. Read our detailed guide to cruise ship speed.

How fast do cruise ships go?

The average speed of a cruise ship is about 18-22 knots (or 20-25 MPH). Note that this is the average speed and not the maximum speed the vessel can reach. There are also a number of factors that affect speed, but we’ll discuss those later.

First, let’s briefly discuss two important terms when it comes to cruise ship speed.

Maximum speed in relation to cruising speed

Your car can probably reach a top speed of over 100 MPH, but how often do you drive it that fast?

Similarly, most cruise ships are capable of speeds in excess of 18-22 knots. But unless they have a good reason to do so (e.g. to avoid bad weather), they rarely drive at top speed.

On the contrary, cruise ships normally sail at an optimal cruising speed. This speed is fast enough to reach the next port of call in time, but slow enough to ensure a safe and comfortable journey for all passengers.

Photo credits : Marcel Kriegl / Shutterstock

A cruising speed also improves fuel efficiency, just as a certain speed improves the fuel efficiency of your car. You can drive your car at 80 km/h on the motorway, but you will use much less fuel if you drive at 65 km/h.

Why is fuel efficiency so important for cruise ships? A large ship can consume 250 tons of fuel per day. That’s the equivalent of over 80,000 gallons of gasoline – more than you use in a lifetime to fuel your cars!

Therefore, cruise ships strive for an optimal balance between high cruising speed and maximum fuel efficiency.

What is a node?

Before we move on, let’s answer another common question related to boat travel: the knot. Why is the speed of a ship (and an airplane) measured in knots?

To understand this term, we must go back to the days of the ancient sailors. Without the modern GPS instruments and tracking devices we have today, sailors had to find other ways to measure their ship’s speed.

The most commonly used method was the so-called Hollander block. Sailors threw a piece of wood (or other floating object) overboard. Then they counted the time until the object passed the stern.

By the 17th century, the custom had evolved into a rope with knots at regular intervals. Sailors would throw a rope into the water and count the number of knots that passed the stern of the ship in a given time.

Finally, one knot was equated with one nautical mile per hour. A land mile is 5,280 feet and a sea mile is 6,076 feet, a 15% difference.

In other words: One knot corresponds to approximately 1.15 miles per hour. Therefore, 18-22 knots corresponds to about 22-25 MPH.

It may sound like a fun science experiment, but these days no one has to stand on the bow of a ship and throw a knotted rope overboard. Modern cruise ships use GPS to monitor and control speed.

Factors affecting the speed of cruise ships

So far we have discussed the (average) speed of cruise ships and how to measure speed in knots. Now let’s look at four different factors that affect the speed of a cruise ship.

1. Route

During your cruise you can do what you want and when you want – eat, sleep, swim and enjoy the great facilities.

However, the ship operates on a very tight schedule. If you call at five different ports in seven days, the captain must make sure you arrive at each new port on time.

Suppose you take a cruise from Miami with an overnight stay on a private island in the Bahamas. Although your ship can easily do 22 knots, the island is less than 200 miles away. To reach the island in time for the morning, the ship has to sail slower than its normal cruising speed.

You will also notice that the ship moves more slowly as you approach and enter the new port. If you arrive early, the boat can even anchor offshore until it’s time to dock. These are normal precautions to ensure the safety of everyone on board.

On the other hand, imagine you’re crossing a vast ocean on a transatlantic cruise. During the long days at sea, the ship will probably sail at its maximum cruising speed to cover more miles more quickly.

2. Weather and sea conditions

Ideally, every trip should go smoothly. In the real world, however, ships are at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Storms and raging seas can come out of nowhere, especially in tropical areas. Hurricane season can also affect cruise ship speeds and routes. A cruise ship sometimes needs to speed up, slow down or change course to avoid bad weather.

Photo : Copyright Cruise Hive

At the same time, ships sailing to Antarctica or through the Alaska Inside Passage sometimes have to change speed if there are glaciers or icebergs in the area.

Wind speed and wind direction also play an important role in the speed of a cruise ship. In headwinds, the boat must use more fuel and engine power to maintain its speed. If there is a tail wind, the skipper can reduce the engine power in order not to arrive too early at the next port.

All decisions to speed up or slow down are always made with safety and comfort in mind.

3. Unexpected emergencies

Although emergencies are rarer than the other factors we have discussed, they can and do occur at sea.

A passenger on board an aircraft may have a medical emergency and needs to be taken to the nearest hospital. Or maybe another ship nearby is broadcasting a distress signal and your cruise ship is the closest one that can help.

In each of these scenarios, the ship can accelerate or decelerate to respond to these emergencies.

4. Engine type

Cruise ships today use three main types of engines. These include :

  • Derived gas turbine engines
  • Diesel-electric engines
  • Engines for liquefied natural gas (LNG)

Gas turbine and diesel electric engines use superheated combustion air. They also consume large amounts of fuel.

In general, the diesel fuel they use is of a lower grade than that used in on-road diesel vehicles. Lower efficiency means that exhaust gases pollute the environment.

Gas turbine engines, which are derived from aircraft engines, convert heat into mechanical energy, which is then converted into electrical energy by a turbine.

Diesel engines work a little differently and are known for their high torque. Diesel-electric engines spin a shaft that generates electricity instead.

This energy drives the ship’s systems and engines. These propulsion systems rotate propellers instead of long propellers as in an airplane. These screws need a lot of torque to work, not a lot of speed.

Engine room of a cruise ship

Photo credits : Chuck Homler d/b FocusOnWildlife

On the maiden voyage the ship had a cruising speed of 35.5 knots and a top speed of 39 knots. That’s over 40 miles an hour, that’s as fast as a galloping horse!

Although the ship was taken out of service in 1969, there are plans to revive this speed demon and put it back into active service.

Questions and Answers on Cruise Ship Speed

We have almost reached the end of our discussion on cruise ship speed. Let’s end with a short question and answer session to summarize what we learned.

How far can a cruise ship travel in a day?

A cruise ship can cover about 480 nautical miles or 550 nautical miles in 24 hours. Examples of this distance are :

Port Canaveral, Florida – Havana, Cuba
Southampton, England – Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England
Barcelona, Spain – Livorno (Pisa), Italy

This is of course only true under ideal conditions. Depending on weather and other factors, it may take longer for the ship to cover 480 nautical miles.

What is the fastest cruise ship today?

Although no longer the longest or largest cruise ship, the Queen Mary 2 (QM2) is still the fastest cruise ship in service today.

This luxury ship is the jewel of the Cunard Line fleet. It can accommodate 1,250 crew members and up to 2,700 passengers. Built in 2003, she has an average cruising speed of 24-26 knots and an impressive top speed of 30 knots.

Fun fact: It is often joked in the industry that the QM2 can sail backwards faster than most other vessels forward.

What factors influence the speed of a cruise ship?

Apart from initial pre-commissioning tests, most cruise ships will never operate at maximum speed. This is due to :

Weather and sea conditions
Fuel characteristics and performance
Marine emergencies
Safety precautions when anchoring
Distance to shore or other vessels

For these reasons, cruise ships typically operate at standard speeds that balance safety and efficiency.

Are cruise ships environmentally friendly?

As large floating cities, cruise ships require many resources to move and function. What are the major cruise lines doing to make their ships more environmentally friendly? Here are some trends in green tourism on cruise ships

Alternative fuel sources
Reduction or elimination of single-use plastic products
Improved food utilisation and waste management
Advanced technologies for resistance reduction and wastewater treatment

Frequently Asked Questions

How fast do cruise ships go in mph?

Cruise ships typically travel at speeds of about 20 knots.

Which cruise ship is the fastest?

The fastest cruise ship is the Norwegian Pearl.

Do cruise ships travel faster at night?

Cruise ships travel faster during the day than at night.

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