How Much Does A Cruise Ship Cost To Build & Operate?

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Cruise ships are pretty impressive – even the smaller ones are stunning, epic works of engineering genius. And they’re hardly empty shells – they’re packed with cabins, restaurants, places to relax and things to do. None of which comes cheap.

Odyssey of the Seas Floating Out

Imagine the cost of your average hotel – now factor in making sure that the hotel can float, has powerful engines (and fuel) to move it between destinations, and the ability to power every room without being constantly plugged into the power network.

It all sounds terribly expensive – but how much does a cruise ship actually cost to build and operate?

Let’s take a look at the costs involved, as I think you’ll be impressed by the scale of it all.

The Cost Of Building A Cruise Ship

The cost of a cruise ship varies depending on its size and complexity, but many break the $1 billion level, especially the latest mega-ships. The average cost of an ocean cruise ship sailing today is $496 million (or £380 million).

This table shows the world’s most expensive cruise ships in order:

Cruise LineShipCost to BuildYear BuiltVolume (GT tons)Guest Capacity
Royal CaribbeanAllure of the Seas$1.43 billion2010225,2805,412
Royal CaribbeanWonder of the Seas$1.35 billion2022228,0805,518
Royal CaribbeanHarmony Of The Seas$1.35 billion2016227,0006,780
Royal CaribbeanSymphony Of The Seas$1.35 billion2018230,0006,870
Royal CaribbeanOasis of the Seas$1.3 billion2009225,2805,412
MSCMSC Europa$1.255 billion2022205,7005,264
MSCMSC World Europa$1.255 billion2022205,7005,264
NCLNorwegian Epic$1.2 billion2010155,9004,228
Royal CaribbeanOvation Of The Seas$1.1 billion2016167,8004,820
MSCMSC Seascape$1 billion2022169,5004,540
MSCMSC Seashore$1 billion2021169,5004,540
Royal CaribbeanQuantum of the Seas$0.95 billion2014158,0004,100
Royal CaribbeanAnthem of the Seas$0.95 billion2015167,0004,180
P&OArvia$0.95 billion2022184,7005,206
P&OIona$0.95 billion2021184,0005,206
CarnivalMardi Gras$0.95 billion2020180,8005,282
CostaCosta Toscana$0.95 billion2021183,9005,322
CarnivalCarnival Celebration$0.95 billion2022183,9005,374
MSCMSC Bellissima$0.95 billion2019171,6005,700
MSCMSC Meraviglia$0.95 billion2017171,6005,700
CostaCosta Smeralda$0.95 billion2019183,9006,520
DisneyDisney Fantasy$0.94 billion2012128,0002,500
Royal CaribbeanSpectrum of the Seas$0.94 billion2019168,6704,246
NCLNorwegian Bliss$0.92 billion2018164,6004,200
NCLNorwegian Encore$0.92 billion2019167,8004,200
NCLNorwegian Escape$0.92 billion2015163,0004,200
NCLNorwegian Joy$0.92 billion2017167,4004,400
CelebrityCelebrity Apex$0.9 billion2021129,5003,260
CelebrityCelebrity Beyond$0.9 billion2022129,5003,276
CelebrityCelebrity Edge$0.9 billion2018129,5003,370
DisneyDisney Dream$0.9 billion2011128,0002,500
Virgin VoyagesScarlet Lady$0.85 billion2020110,0002,800
NCLNorwegian Prima$0.85 billion2022142,5003,215
MSCMSC Virtuosa$0.85 billion2021181,5414,810
MSCMSC Euribia$0.85 billion2023181,5414,828
MSCMSC Grandiosa$0.85 billion2019181,5414,888
NCLNorwegian Breakaway$0.84 billion2013144,0004,000
Royal CaribbeanIndependence of the Seas$0.83 billion2008154,4003,634
CunardQueen Mary 2$0.8 billion2004151,4002,592
Royal CaribbeanFreedom of the Seas$0.8 billion2006154,4003,634
Royal CaribbeanLiberty of the Seas$0.8 billion2007154,4003,634
CarnivalCarnival Horizon$0.8 billion2018133,5004,700
CarnivalCarnival Vista$0.8 billion2016133,5004,716
NCLNorwegian Getaway$0.78 billion2014143,5004,000
CostaCosta Firenze$0.78 billion2021135,2254,232
CarnivalCarnival Panorama$0.78 billion2019133,5004,700
CostaCosta Venezia$0.78 billion2019135,5005,260
P&OBritannia$0.77 billion2015141,0004,370
PrincessMajestic Princess$0.76 billion2017143,0003,560
PrincessRegal Princess$0.76 billion2014141,0003,600
PrincessDiscovery Princess$0.76 billion2022143,7003,668
PrincessEnchanted Princess$0.76 billion2021143,7003,668
PrincessSky Princess$0.76 billion2019142,7004,272
Royal CaribbeanOdyssey of the Seas$0.75 billion2021169,3004,284
MSCMSC Seaside$0.745 billion2017153,5164,134
MSCMSC Seaview$0.745 billion2018153,5164,134
CarnivalCarnival Dream$0.74 billion2009130,0003,646
CarnivalCarnival Breeze$0.74 billion2012130,0003,690
CarnivalCarnival Magic$0.74 billion2011130,0003,690
PrincessRoyal Princess$0.735 billion2013139,0003,600
Data: Cruise Mapper

The most expensive cruise ship

The most expensive cruise ship ever built was Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, which has been reported to cost over $1.4 billion to build. The more recent and larger Harmony and Symphony of the Seas ships cost around $1.3 billion each.

Allure of the Seas Under Construction

In comparison, the cruise ships sailing in 2022 that cost the least amount of money to build are SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream I and SeaDream II. They were built in 1984 and 1985 respectively and cost a mere $35 million each.

An alternative comparison you can make is to look at the most expensive cruise ship per berth. Most cruise ships cost in the region of $100,000 to $350,000 per passenger to build, but there are a few anomalies below and above that range.

The most expensive cruise ship ever built when you look at the cost per berth is the luxury expedition cruise ship Hanseatic Nature, which is operated by Hapag Lloyd for the German market. At $155 million, the ship wasn’t so expensive overall, but as she only has a capacity of 199 passengers that works out at a huge $779,000 per person.

Hanseatic Nature
Hanseatic Nature

Of the cruise ships to have a maximum capacity of at least 1,000 guests, the most expensive are the Oceania Marina and Riviera, which each has a capacity for 1,258 passengers at a cost of $380,000 per person to build.

Running Costs Of Cruise Ships

Of course, building a cruise ship is only the first step. Most of the cost of running a cruise line comes from operating and maintaining the ships. So, let’s look into how much that all costs…

How much does a cruise ship cost to operate?

The cost to operate a cruise ship varies depending on the size of the ship and where it’s sailing. As a guide, Royal Caribbean ships cost an average of $240 million per year to operate.

There are six main areas of expense for cruise ships:

1. Commission and Transportation

This is a broad area that covers everything to do with getting passengers onto a ship. So that’ll be the cost of producing tickets, any commission fees paid to travel agents, and the costs involved in using a port for embarkation and disembarkation.

Port costs are normally calculated based on the capacity and tonnage of a ship – a bigger ship means more passengers will be boarding, which in turn means more space is needed, more security staff must be hired or paid for longer, and even just the cost of power for the terminal goes up too.

2. Onboard Expenses

This area covers the cost of any facilities or features on the ship that cost money to run. So think entertainment, spas, shops and activities. These all need special insurance too, so that’s covered in this section of expenses. 

3. Payroll

A really simple one – the staff on the ship need to be paid. Again, depending on the size of the ship this will vary pretty dramatically. Often the larger ships will have as many crew as some smaller ships will have total passengers.

Suggested read: How Much Do Cruise Ship Workers Get Paid?

4. Food

Unsurprisingly, cruise ships get through a lot of food, and so this expense gets its own category. There are all the upmarket meals that guests eat, including snacks and drinks, while the crew also need to be fed while they’re on board.

Independence of the Seas restaurant
Fish & Ships on Independence of the Seas

5. Fuel

Fuel costs include the cost of buying the fuel, but also the cost of getting the fuel delivered to the ship and any costs involved with storing it. Fuel is expensive, and cruise ships spend huge amounts on it – more on that below.

6. Other Expenses

The final category of expenses covers ‘everything else’, such as general repairs and maintenance, and the cost of insuring the ship as a whole.

How much does it cost to fuel a cruise ship?

The amount of fuel used by a cruise ship depends on its size and cruising speed. The largest ships, like Allure of the Seas, will use around 250 tonnes of fuel per day, which means a cost of around $187,500 per day.

Just like all fuel costs, the price of ship fuel has continued to climb, and ships can now expect to pay between $700 and $750 per tonne depending on the port that they buy it from. Based on using 250 tonnes per day at $750 per tonne, that’s a mammoth sum, working out at over $68 million per year on fuel – for one ship!

Smaller ships will likely use between 100 and 150 tonnes per day. If we take an average of 125 tonnes per day then a small cruise ship would spend just under $95,000 per day or $34 million a year on fuel. Still pretty pricey!

How much does it cost to maintain a cruise ship?

It’s been reported that around 7% of a cruise line’s revenue goes into ship maintenance. That averages out at around $19 million a year per cruise ship, although that figure fluctuates as cruise ships will do larger refurbishments every three to five years.

Ships go through a lot of wear and tear, but cruise lines don’t want guests to know about that. It’s important that everything is properly cleaned, repaired and maintained so that every guest gets the same high-quality experience.

Cruise ships are cleaned very thoroughly
Cruise ships are cleaned very thoroughly

This means there are ongoing costs to keep on top of smaller issues, and then larger refurbishments when features start to get tired and need an update.

These refurbishments often cost huge sums. Here are some examples:

Celebrity Revolution

Celebrity Cruises undertook a massive refurbishment programme towards the end of the 2010s, spending $500 million to modernise the entire fleet of nine ships and bring them in line with Celebrity Edge, at the time their newest ship. Suites and public areas were given an ‘epic makeover’ as part of the investment.

Celebrity Equinox
The newly revolutionised Celebrity Equinox

Norwegian Spirit

In one of the largest ever single-ship refurbishments, NCL spent $100 million to upgrade the Norwegian Spirit in 2020, carrying out a number of major enhancements.

I visited Norwegian Spirit just before the makeover and she actually looked fine! A little dated, yes, but still in good condition as you can see from my ship tour.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Regent spent $125 million to upgrade the Seven Seas Navigator, Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner from 2016-to 2017, following the launch of the Seven Seas Explorer. Compared to the $100 million NCL spent on one ship it doesn’t seem like an incredible sum, but these ships were already exceptionally luxurious.

Profit Margins Of Cruise Ships

So, given the huge costs of building and maintaining cruise ships, you may now be interested to know how much profit cruise lines are making. Of course, this is something that’s varied a lot in recent years, especially during the shutdown, but let’s take a look…

Is owning a cruise ship profitable?

Owning a cruise ship is profitable, providing the ships sail with enough passengers – likely around 70% capacity. While there are huge expenses involved, cruise fares are designed to cover these costs while still being affordable to passengers.

Even deals like drinks packages are carefully planned out based on the data that cruise ships record. They’ll look at how many drinks they’re selling on average by passenger, and then offer a package that covers that cost.

Passengers who drink a lot will probably get value for their money but there’ll be a lot of passengers who take out a drinks package but don’t consume their share – extra profit for the cruise line.

A decent chunk of profit comes from casinos, spas, speciality dining and guests booking suites. As a general rule, if you book an inside cabin and decline the drinks, speciality dining, spa services and casino, the cruise line will make a loss on your stay.

How much do cruise ships make compared to hotels?

Royal Caribbean Group made $1.8 billion in profit in 2019. Hilton Worldwide Holdings made $886 million in the same year.

So the Royal Caribbean made twice as much money, which is even more impressive when you consider that Hilton has almost a million rooms in its hotels, whereas Royal Caribbean has around 70,000 staterooms on its ships.

How much does a cruise ship make in a year?

A cruise ship will usually generate around $200 million to $300 million in revenue every year. The amount of profit that a cruise ship makes every year will vary but it’s usually between $20 and $40 million annually.

As I said above, Royal Caribbean Group made around $1.8 billion in profit in 2019, the year before the global pause. When you divide that between all the ships operated by the group at that time (across Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Silversea Cruises and other smaller lines) that averages at $40 million per ship each year.

How long do cruise ships last?

On average, a cruise ship tends to last for around 30 years if properly maintained, and they will usually undergo some refurbishments or a refit during that time to keep them updated.

That can vary though – some ships have a much longer lifespan. The longest-surviving cruise ship still sailing is the Sea Cloud, owned by Sea Cloud Cruises operating as an independent cruise ship for up to 64 passengers. She was first built in 1931 as a private yacht and served during World War II as a weather ship for the US Navy.

Sea Cloud
Sea Cloud
Photo: BaS via Wikimedia Commons

Hebridean Princess is another ship that’s had a long life – she was first launched in 1964 as MV Columba, serving as a car ferry and Royal Mail ship. She now serves as a cruise ship for Hebridean Islands Cruises around the islands of Scotland.

Here are some notable ships that no longer operate, and their lifespan:

Cruise LineShipYear LaunchedYear Ended ServiceYears ActiveNotes
Fred.OlsenBoudicca1973202148Began life as Royal Viking Sky. Various operators including Princess from 1993-97.
NCLNorwegian Star1973202148Originally built for Phoenix Reisen, bought by NCL in 1997.
CunardQueen Elizabeth 21969200839Cunard’s longest-serving ship, now operating as a floating hotel in Dubai
P&O CruisesArcadia1988202133P&O’s second Arcadia also served for Princess, and Cruise and Maritime
Royal CaribbeanSovereign of the Seas1988202032Served as MS Sovereign for Pullmantur Cruises from 2008 to 2020
CarnivalMardi Gras1972200331Carnival’s first ship was sold on in 1993
MSC CruisesMelody1982201331Sailed for MSC from 1997-2013. Started life as the Atlantic.
CarnivalCarnival Fantasy1990202030Served its whole life with Carnival.
Celebrity CruisesHorizon1990202030Sold by Celebrity in 2005, served for Island, Pullmantur and CDF since
Royal CaribbeanMonarch of the Seas1991202029Served as MS Monarch for Pullmantur Cruises from 2013 to 2020
Princess CruisesPrincess Patricia1949197829Princess’ first ship when bought in 1965.
P&O CruisesArcadia1954197925Built as a passenger ship originally, began cruises in the 1960s.

The bottom line

Phew – quite the stat-heavy guide there, but hopefully you can see now just how big the numbers are when dealing with how much cruise ships cost, both when being built and to be maintained, and how much money they make.

Are the numbers what you expected? Or are they bigger, or smaller?

The numbers will only get bigger again, especially now that capacity is getting back to maximum levels and new, feature-packed ships are launching.

Suggested read: The Newest Royal Caribbean Ships

It’s an exciting time to be a cruise passenger with some of the epic ships on the horizon – that will no doubt cost a pretty penny. 

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