Is a Panama Canal Cruise Right for You (and What Are the Best Deals Right Now)?

by  Donna Heiderstadt | Oct 11, 2018
Norwegian Cruise Line

The Panama Canal is a bucket-list destination for many. But is a 10- to 24-night cruise to experience this early-20th-century engineering marvel right for you?

If you’re looking for great value, an interesting mix of tropical ports, and a chance to learn about Central American cultures and wildlife, it might be. And fortunately, now's the time to snag a great deal—as low as $599 per person for 14 nights—on a Panama Canal cruise for this fall or winter.

Here’s a look at what’s available and what to expect.

When can you cruise the Panama Canal?

You can cruise the Panama Canal mainly from September to April with cruise lines offering a dozen or more itineraries in each of those months. Some cruises are exclusively to the Panama Canal, while others (especially in October/November and March/April) are seasonal repositioning cruises for ships that head from Alaska to the Caribbean or Europe to South America (and vice versa).

What are the best months to cruise?

It depends on what’s more important to you: a great price or great weather. You’ll be cruising close to the equator, so September, October, and November will be humid and can be rainy but offer excellent value. January to March is the best period weather-wise, but cruise fares will be a bit higher.

Which cruise lines offer Panama Canal itineraries?

Most lines transit the canal. Here’s a look at what each of them offer:

  • Azamara does a canal-transit repositioning cruise annually, typically in November or December for 11 to 17 nights.
  • Carnival has 15 Panama Canal cruises between October 2018 and February 2020: three transits (Tampa to Long Beach, Tampa to Los Angeles, and Miami to San Diego) and 12 partial transits (cruising halfway through the canal to Lake Gatun and back) from Tampa, Mobile, Galveston, and New York.
  • Celebrity is offering four 15-night transits: two in September-October 2018 and two in October-November 2019 from Fort Lauderdale to San Diego (and vice versa).
  • Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth will make a 21-night transit from Vancouver to Fort Lauderdale in June-July 2019, and Queen Victoria will depart Fort Lauderdale in January 2020 on a 56-night roundtrip circumnavigation of South America that will include the canal.
  • Disney has three 14-night transits: San Diego to Galveston in October 2018, Port Canaveral to San Diego in February 2019, and San Diego to Galveston in November 2019.
  • Holland America has more than a dozen 10- to 24-night cruises from October to December 2018—and another 25 sailings through May 2019. Many are one-way transits from Fort Lauderdale to San Diego (and vice versa), some are roundtrips from Fort Lauderdale, and others are repositioning cruises.   
  • Norwegian has 27 canal cruises between now and February 2020, including 11-night roundtrips from Miami and 14- and 15-night transits from Los Angeles to Miami (and vice versa).
  • Oceania offers a dozen 16- to 19-night transits (from Miami to Los Angeles or New York to Los Angeles, for example) between October 2018 and July 2020.
  • Princess has 60-plus canal itineraries from October 2018 to May 2020, including 10-night partial-transit roundtrips from Fort Lauderdale and 15-night transits from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale (and vice versa).
  • Royal Caribbean has seven 15- or 16-night transit cruises, mostly from Miami or Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles or San Diego (and vice versa) from November 2018 to December 2019.
  • Seabourn has two transits scheduled in October-November 2019: 19 nights from Los Angeles to Miami and 22 nights from Miami to Santiago, Chile.  
  • Viking Ocean has two 21-night Cuba, Panama, and the Pacific cruises in November-December 2018 from Miami to Los Angeles (and vice versa).

Are there any roundtrip Panama Canal cruises?

Yes, as noted, Carnival sails 8-, 9-, or 10-night partial transits from Tampa, Mobile, and Galveston; Holland America offers 10- and 11-night roundtrips from Fort Lauderdale; Norwegian has 11-night roundtrips from Miami and 14-night roundtrips from Tampa; and Princess has 10-night sailings from Fort Lauderdale.

Which cruise lines offer the best value?

For value, check Norwegian, Holland America, Carnival, and Princess—all of which are offering terrific deals from November 2018 to April 2019.

Norwegian’s 14-night Los Angeles-to-Miami sailing in November starts at $699 (inside cabin) and $1,299 (balcony) per person on the new Norwegian Bliss and $599 per person (inside) on 14-night roundtrip cruises from Tampa on Norwegian Pearl.

Holland America has 14-18-night cruises from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale in October and November for $899 and $999 per person (inside and ocean view).

Carnival’s 8-10-night roundtrip partial-transit sailings from Galveston, Tampa, and Mobile start at $699 to $759 per person (inside) in February and April 2019 and 13-night transits from Tampa to Los Angeles start at $959 per person.

Princess’s 10-night roundtrip partial transits from Fort Lauderdale between October 2018 and March 2019 start at $798 per person (inside) and 15-night Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale (and vice versa) transits from December 2018 to May 2020 start at $1,048.

What ports will you visit?

Ports vary depending on the cruise line, the length of the cruise, and its route. But the most common calls include Aruba, Curacao, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Roatan (Honduras), Cartagena (Colombia), Colon (Panama), Limon or Puerto Caldera (Costa Rica), Corinto or San Juan del Sur (Nicaragua), Puerto Quetzal (Guatemala), and Huatulco, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos (Mexico).

What is the transit of the canal like?

The Panama Canal is a 50-mile series of locks and lakes that takes an average of eight to 10 hours to transit. It’s a highly choreographed production as ships are towed by “mules” (or locomotives) and most cruise lines provide expert commentary on the canal’s history and technology. For instance, you'll learn that the latest mules cost $2.3 million each, and that it takes 52 million gallons of fresh water from Gatun Lake to fill the locks for each transit.

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